Part I: Introduction: On what this is and who it is and isn’t for.
Part II: Pretty Things To Look At: Visual descriptions and their fallacies; subjects, objects and breasts; exclusivity and accidental pornography.
Part III: Pretty Things To Use: A casting call gone wrong; age of consent and why it matters; on how Daenerys Targayen said yes.
Part IV: Pretty Things To Use, continued: On sexy rigor mortis; entertainment vs. insult; on how beauty standards make it harder to write well.
Part V: Pretty Things We’ve Read Before: On building mixed ensembles; on why everybody hated Tauriel; what The X-Men teach about gender defaults.
Part VI: That’s… Not How That Works: On why you should fact-check your erotica; on how your bible studies teacher was wrong about orgasms.
Part VII: Do It Right: All the positive examples and bonus advice on how to do it right for all who made it this far.
Pretty Things To Use , cont.’d
Dead Girls Are Easy
So what’s yet another way of minimizing a woman’s agency? That’s right. If she’s dead, she has no agency whatsoever. She is then just a body and a bunch of memories. (memories created and controlled by the subject) So this is how we get to the surprisingly common practice of giving sexy descriptions of dead female bodies, since obviously dead bodies literally are objects, so there’s a gross kind of logic involved. If you focus your depictions of dead girls or women on their bodies, you also imply that the greatest loss about their death is that now men everywhere will be deprived of looking at their breasts, and fucking their bodies:
He stood in front of a painting of the Virgin Mary with her mother. Italian painters were superior to the English or any others, this artist had given Saint Anne the face of Silvia. She was a proud beauty, with flawless olive skin and noble features, but the painter had seen the sexual passion smoldering in those aloof brown eyes.(Ken Follett: World Without End. USA 2007)
It was hard to comprehend that Silvia no longer existed. He thought of her slim body, and remembered how he had marveled, again and again, at her perfect breasts. That body, with which he had been so completely intimate, now lay in the ground somewhere. When he imagined that, tears came to his eyes at last and he sobbed with grief.
[He] then drew away the silk bedspread, revealing Gloria’s naked body. Even frozen as she was in death, her muscles stiff with rigor mortis, she was beautiful. The contours of her curves flowed gracefully from head to long throat to perfectly shaped breasts, her flat stomach, the mound of her sex between smooth thighs, the long legs ending in perfectly shaped feet, the pomegranate-crimson nail polish on the toenails.(Rudolfo Anaya: Zia Summer. USA 2015)
Both men admired the beauty of the lines for a moment, both felt the waste.
Her face was bruised up and covered with traces of blood. She was dead and, therefore, her skin was pale. She had just been taken out from the muddy bottom of a river. Indeed, it was just her corpse that lay there.(Jordi Sierra i Fabra: Morbo. Source of translation. Spain 2018)
But she had been extraordinarily beautiful and had a wonderful body.
A luscious body.
They stared at her for several seconds.
Longer than appropriate.
Daniel estimated her to be between twenty-three and twenty-five years old. She had perfect, natural, round breasts, crowned with dark, rosette-shaped, visible nipples. It seemed implausible that her incredible waist could contain a stomach. She had long, well-toned legs, small feet and gorgeous hands, with red polish applied on the nails. Her black hair, which was already dry, was scattered underneath her like an aura. Her lips were big and plump.
Her legs were spread. Her pubis was shaved except for a small central area. Her labia were very exposed, and looked like a big wrinkly raisin or a small wilted flower.
That was the word.
Even in death, the woman was morbidly attractive.
That morning we’d eaten breakfast together, said goodbye to each other at the front door, me going off to high school, she to junior high. And the next time I saw her she’d stopped breathing. Her large eyes were closed forever, her mouth slightly open as if she were about to say something. Her developing breasts would never grow.(Huraki Murakami: Killing Commendatore. Japan 2018)
Contrary to her custom and contrary to the general custom, she hadn’t bolted the door, which made her father think (but only briefly and almost without thinking it, as he finally managed to swallow) that perhaps his daughter, while she was crying, had been expecting, wanting someone to open the door and to stop her doing what she’d done, not by force, but by their mere presence, by looking at her naked, living body or by placing a hand on her shoulder. But no one else (apart from her this time, and because she was no longer a little girl) went to the bathroom during lunch. The breast that hadn’t taken the full impact of the blast was clearly visible, maternal and white and still firm, and everyone instinctively looked at that breast, more than anything in order to avoid looking at the other, which no longer existed or was now nothing but blood. It had been many years since her father had seen that breast, not since its transformation, not since it began to be maternal, and for that reason, he felt not only frightened but troubled too. The other girl, her sister, who had seen the changes wrought by adolescence and possibly later too, was the first to touch her, with a towel […].(Javier Marías: A Heart So White, UK 2002)
(Everything about this is badly done. But also it makes you seriously consider that the author might be a psychopath.)
Can Misogyny Entertain?
Sometimes when male writers engage in these depictions of kids or dead bodies as attractive, they do so in full awareness that they are “walking the line,” hoping to evoke a particular tantalized reaction. It’s similar to what Thomas Harris did when he made the audiences fall in love with Hannibal Lecter, a cannibal serial killer, what Chuck Palahniuk went for when he celebrated violence in Fight Club. As for an example in film, it’s very much what Tarantino went for in Woody Harrelson’s rape scene in Natural Born Killers.1 When the male detectives can’t help but stare at the hot dead body, it pings as shockingly realistic, or something in that general mood.2
Some time ago, Richard Laymon – an author apparently known for that rhetoric, too, though I only know the one book by him – wrote a novel called Island. Here be spoilers: In Island, we read the diary of a young man, stranded on an island alongside seven other people, who are picked off by a killer one by one. That young man is intensely misogynistic. He spends a lot of time ruminating about the sexual availability of the women present, as well as the relative merits of their breasts (of course), coming across as a sleezy over-privileged teenager. We ultimately learn that the crazy killer, the only inhabitant of the island, keeps his female victims in cages outside his house. By the last chapter, the crazy killer and the guys of the group are dead, while the female members of the group are all caged in. Gratefully they let the protagonist feed them and take care of them as he tells them that he just can’t find the damn key, but he’s sure it’s just a matter of time. Taking the place of the crazy killer while coming across as a nice guy fulfills all of his fantasies at once.
I was quite uncomfortable reading this novel, but I kept at it because as I said, I like myself a crazy serial killer, and I was fairly sure the misogyny was meant to be a trait of the protagonist, rather than the writer’s attitude polluting the narrative, so I wanted to know what’s up with that. In the end, a part of me was pleased by the well-executed, sneaky plot twist: The protagonist’s drooling breast fixation had been foreshadowing the ending all along. However. There are three possible problematic reactions that readers can have to the main character and the novel:
- You can be not sensitized to the issue and not notice anything off about the main character at all – but in that case the twist won’t work for you, so this book clearly can’t have been written for that group of people.
- You very much do notice the misogyny and dislike it. But the book can’t have been written for that group of people, either, since those readers are very likely to throw the book to the ground and stomp on it before kicking it in the gutter.
- The misogyny has an entertainment value for you, and the twist where the misogynist loser with the acne gets power over caged women is amusing to you. Or maybe a part of you cheers him on. So that’s who the book must have been written for: People who find misogyny amusing.3
Why am I telling you about this book? Because it illustrates the problem you will face often if you add misogynistic material to your work with the intent to tantalize.
- Part the first: You will lose an amount of readers who are so put-off that they would rather not read on, maybe even never read anything by you again. They would definitely never ever agree to have sex with you if ever they meet you in a club – think about that, I find that it puts things in perspective very well.
- And part the second: You will attract a certain amount of readers who think misogyny is swell. You may or may not want such people to follow your work. So consider that, choose accordingly, and if you do decide to take that risk, remember: An amount of people will be hurt by what you did. I guess apologizing and reflecting will not be appropriate in that scenario. You forfeit the right to whine about the complaints, and about the Twitter users calling bullshit, nevertheless.
No Is Not A Way Of Saying “Try Again Later”
For the kind of guys who I assume will be reading this, it probably goes without saying that any person’s no means no and, uh, raping people is bad. Still for completion’s sake, let’s take a moment to look at how it’s a very small step from what we’ve discussed previously to the idea that female agency is a fragile thing that will topple over very quickly once a guy pushes a bit. Or of course, that it’s sexy and empowering for a guy to take that agency away by force. We get that a lot, sadly, alongside a notion that it’s natural for men to have a desire to rape women, or the other way around, for women to secretly desire to be raped.
As he watched her, he felt sure that her lips must taste of blood and salt and that there must be a delicious weakness in her legs. His impulse wasn’t to aid her to get free, but to throw her down in the soft, warm mud and to keep her there.(Nathanael West: Miss Lonelyhearts. USA 1933)
He expressed some of his desire by a grunt. If he only had the courage to throw himself on her. Nothing less violent than rape would do. The sensation he felt was like that he got when holding an egg in his hand. Not that she was fragile or even seemed fragile. It wasn’t that. It was her completeness, her egglike self-sufficiency, that made him want to crush her.
(That goddamn egglike self-sufficiency. Gets us in trouble every time.
Anyway. To be fair, it should be pointed out that the novel was published in the thirties, and that the protagonist is of the kind that gets “corrupted” by the system he lives in, though at least in parts a sympathetic figure, according to a Google search. Nevertheless, pretty sure that in Western society, promoting rape is universally considered unacceptable behavior throughout all of the 20th century.)
Angry at being made to submit, he tried to spin her round. Now that he was aroused he suddenly wanted to dominate her – fuck her, bully her – but she pinned him back down, straddling him forcefully.(M.J. Arlidge: Eeny Meeny. UK 2014)
Was she loving him or just taking her pleasure from him? Mark suddenly realized that this mattered to him.
(Mark is pretty demanding for somebody who just parsed bullying as a sexy activity.)
I already talked about how most men in Western cultures are aware that rape is a no-no. However, there is still a way for the fictional guy to “get” a fictional woman without force – without becoming a rapist – and that is to simply depict a woman who wants the man to begin with, even though she might not admit to her desire. So when she says no, really she says “Try again later.”
Max returned with a little of the only thing he had, some kind of dark rum, in small mason jars with single ice cubes. He handed hers to her.(Thomas Christopher Greene: The Perfect Liar. USA 2019)
“What is it?”
He told her. Before she could take so much as a sip, he said, “Take off your clothes.”
She laughed. “Excuse me?”
“I want you to model for me.”
“What makes you think I would do that?”
Everything about you, he wanted to say.
Some women want to be watched, to be gazed upon, and to have men drink them up with their eyes. She was one of them; Max saw it in her face. Her job now was to protest a bit before she relented.
“You have modeled before.”
“Yes, but in college. That was forever ago.”
“Well, then you know what to do.”
“Yes, I should leave.” She didn’t move from her spot.
“But you don’t want to.”
(We’re back to the situation where you might think, “But clearly she wants to be convinced,” and thousands of women would answer you, “No woman ever would act this way in this situation.” Empirical evidence tells the sensitive audience that a disconcerting amount of male authors believe to be the norm what is in actuality the rare exception. It’s simply a progression of events so unlikely that you would need considerable skill to make it believable, and still most women would be pissed.
That said, it is always and under every circumstance a terrible idea to make a swiping statement about what women want. You set yourself up for criticism if you do that, no matter what generalized thing women are supposed to be or say this Tuesday.Once Max gets the lady naked, the first thing described about her body is… wait… it’ll coming to me…4)
Florentino Ariza was left with the nagging suspicion that this was not her last word. He believed that when a woman says no, she is waiting to be urged before making her final decision, but with her he could not risk making the same mistake twice. He withdrew without protest, and even with a certain grace, which was not easy for him. From that night on, any cloud there might have been between them was dissipated without bitterness, and Florentino Ariza understood at last that it is possible to be a woman’s friend and not go to bed with her.(Gabriel García Márquez: Love in the Time of Cholera. Columbia 1985)
(This man wants kudos for not forcing himself on a woman, and realizing that some of them don’t need to be fucked to have a reason for existing. Go him. He must be a real nice guy. Second thing that shan’t go without comment: Once this woman learns what Florentino thinks about women saying no, I’m afraid his time of friendship with her will be over. And lastly: I hope this isn’t the work the man got his Nobel Prize for. I really do.)
Convenient Female Desires
Or we skip the entire yes-no-yes business and go right to a characterization of a woman who conveniently already wants and loves all the right things that will lead to her submission. Mind that just because a text is written from a female point of view doesn’t mean she becomes less of an object. She still only exists towards the male character she was created to attach to, much like a moon caught in the orbit of a planet, only existing because it is in the orbit of the planet, because if it weren’t, it wouldn’t have become a moon.5 Here we have the rare pleasure of a male author uneducated in genders attempting a first person narration from a woman’s point of view:
I blushed on command (standard southern belle trick) and tossed my hair. “Thanks for the welcome.” I kept running my finger along the rim of the glass, waiting for him to make the move that I wanted him to make. He kept his eyes on me – I could feel them – and I could only imagine the thoughts that were running through his head. Naughty thoughts. Thoughts like – well, I’m a lady. I’d rather not say.(JBeachum: Necromantic – source)
I’m not a prude, mind you. I don’t mind the wilder side of life. But tonight, I had other plans.
(It’s not physiologically possible to blush on command. That’s why they don’t do it in the movies.
I’ll let you analyze the rest for yourselves. It’s not an easy one to reason out so if you get stuck, feel free to bring it up in the comments.)
And yes, this includes female characters who secretly want to be raped / taken / possessed. It goes without saying that that, too, will offend your female audience, as well as scare the living crap out of everybody who’s ever met you in real life. You choice if you think that’s worth it.
There’s More Than One Female Body Type (And That Will Improve Your Writing)
Remember the movie Inception? Great movie. Great costumes. Staring, among others, Ellen Page, who makes every movie better automatically. I’m mentioning her in conjunction with the costumes for a reason, because I distinctly remember reading a film review that complained very loudly that the character she played – Ariadne – was not “allowed” to be dressed sexy, much as if women as such had been insulted by the depiction of one without high heels and a plummeting neckline. Indeed, Ariadne had just been dressed normally, and typically for the French college student she was supposed to be.6 The review still points at a persistent misconception that says depicting a female character as beautiful is flattering and cordial, much as if a well-written female deserved the gentlemanly gesture of being shown in the best light possible, physically. Or something.
The other side of that same coin is depictions of “bad” women as ugly, of course – as overweight, for example, with some fat shaming mixed into it for good measures. Either way is misogynistic – characterizing a woman as fuckable or unfuckable. Neither make for good or relevant character traits.
I’m not even going to get into the ridiculousness of our beauty standards. There are things I could say about how a romantic interest character’s visual should mirror what the point of view character likes in a woman / man, and how those likes should be individual and varied and not a repetition of what society says they should be. But I’m not going to go into that either, because that kind of advanced shit would deserve a post of its own.
What I am going to say is that the more you dare deviate from the (beauty) standard, the stronger your characterizations will become, because you will be forced to actually think about how the looks of your characters influence their personality. Look at the Ghostbusters pic. Look at the following pic. Ask yourself: If you were assigned these pictures for your characters, who’d you have an easier time giving a strong, differentiated personality?
Look at the following examples of characters who are clearly influenced by the way they look. They’re all adapted from popular male characters. I anonymized and femalized them for the purpose of the exercise.
- Anna used to be the picture of self-confidence. Her statue and grace turned heads wherever she went and she didn’t even notice it, too focused on the job at hand. When she escaped the prison after ten years of solitary confinement, it seemed she had aged twenty years – so thin her collarbones were showing sharply under her dress, her knobby legs covered in scars. The self-confidence returned though – in her competence and her sharp mind, as if it just never occurred to her that there could ever be doubt about either of them.
- Okay, so Jenny is a loser, she knows that, thank you very much. She drinks too much and spends too much time playing guitar in garage bands full of dudes who’re slowly getting annoyed with her because she’s loud and demanding and not even pretty. She doesn’t do makeup, unless the kind where you light the eyeliner on fire upfront so to make it darker. She’s fat. She’s short. She has a roommate, childhood friend, who doesn’t care about that and even thinks she’s funny, but who doesn’t so much like that she hasn’t paid rent for three months. So when she takes a call for her roommate, by a fancy primary school looking for a substitute teacher, she thinks fuck it, and takes it herself, because how hard can that be?
- Neena is long and gangly and always feels as if she has too many limbs; even when she sits down she looks awkward, as if at age 25 she still hasn’t figured out where to put them all. She’s skinny, but not in the attractive way, and she’s taken for a guy by that as often as for the bird’s nest on her head that she’s given up on taming. And it’s cool. She’s at MIT, studying computer science, and she’s at home there – in front of a screen, her mind racing a mile a minute. She built and programmed an arcade console, last year. That is until she is wrongfully accused of cheating, kicked out of college two months short of her bachelor’s and forced to move in with her successful sister. She takes a job at phone repair job. She mopes for a couple of months. And she hasn’t the first clue how to handle the situation when an incredibly graceful supermodel type of lesbian steps up to her counter, handing over her phone number alongside her phone and expecting her to call.7
Piece of practical advice: You won’t find a lot of advice on how to diversify your fictional female ensembles, just as you won’t find a lot of advice such as this post, helping you get better at writing individual female characters. But there is a ton of really good resources out there addressing how to draw realistic female characters. Visual descriptions are not much different from drawing, when it comes down to it. You will find excellent tips there.
Stop thinking “woman”. Start thinking “person”. Which is a succinct summary of this entire post, anyway.
By the way: If your characters all look vaguely the same, you won’t be able to differentiate them very well. So you’ll get in trouble when you start using more than one female character per ensemble. Guess what the next part is about!
Read the footnotes by pointing your cursor at their markers. Or read them here:
- Since you’re all writers, I assume that you will think of the novels when I say “Hannibal Lecter” and “Fight Club” rather than of the movie versions.
- And let me be clear here. I love Fight Club. I devoured the Hannibal trilogy long before he had his own TV show. I aspired to write like that once. This is not me condemning the genre, or style.
- There will also be readers who’ll get it and take it the way it was meant, but they are not a problem, and therefore none of our concern.
- It is indeed “her heavy breasts”.
- Yeah so I’m not a physicist.
- Figures that I don’t remember if the reviewer was male or female. Either one would be unsurprising.
- For those of you who can’t contain their curiosity, in order, these are inspired by Sirius Black from Harry Potter, Dewey Finn in the movie School of Rock, and Chuck Bartowski on the show Chuck.