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 We’ve Read Before. Many, Many Times.
There Can Indeed Not Only Be One
There are some shows that are generally considered to have strong, unique female characters: Battlestar Galactica’s Starbuck and Athena. Xena, the Warrior Princess. Buffy Summers. Commander Ivanova. Katniss Everdeen. The X-Men Comicverse’s Mystique or Rogue. Friends’ Phoebe. And here are some characters, who – although, in some cases, very well liked as well – are not usually what comes to mind when you look for female characters who feel real: Julia Roberts’ character in Ocean’s Eleven. Natalie Portman in Star Wars. Any Bond girl. The Marvel Movieverse’s Black Widow. The X-Men Comicverse’s Jean Grey in the first couple of issues, when it was just her and some dudes, who were even calling themselves X-Men.
Where’s the difference? It can’t be the quality. The Bond movies alone have a large variety of quality, yet no Bond girl has ever been remembered for her personality. Gene Roddenberry delivered a high quality Kirk, so why should his Uhura be any less high quality? No, I’ll tell you the difference: The difference is that the women who don’t stand out as particularly real are the ones who are the only woman either in the entire story, or in the group that the story is about. Y’know. The thing where there are three white dudes, a black dude, and a woman. Occasionally, like in the Ocean’s movies we don’t even let the woman enter the group of main characters but in others, like Stargate Atlantis’ Teyla, we sorta let her hang around as long as she doesn’t get in the way of the narrative in too many episodes. Very often, these female characters end up in the crossfire of criticism, which then is used in arguments on why female characters are just blander and more boring than their penis-waving counterparts.
The one thing that’s true in all of that, and that you have to understand, is that the less women there are in your story, the harder it becomes to write a female character that feels feasible and real and unique, like somebody who could live and breathe without immediately collapsing, house-of-cards style.
When You Have One Female Character
It’s quite simple: If you have one female character – like say, one female detective in your team of crime fighters or on your spaceship crew or whatever – her most distinctive feature will be her gender. We create and parse characters always in contrast to each other, which is how we end up with types – the funny one, the chatty one, the grumpy deadly one. It doesn’t matter what other characteristics you might give your only woman. Her femaleness will still be the most distinctive feature. However, femaleness is not a personality trait, so you just wasted your premium opportunity for characterization on a lot of hot air.1 Plus, by showing a single woman walking around interacting only with men, talking only to men, you automatically show us how she handles being the only woman among a bunch of guys. (which is a very particular situation to be in that will tell you a lot about a female person in real life) So that part of her characterization will also lead back to her femaleness. So what you’ll have is a female character femaling around in a completely artificial setting that can’t be replicated in the real world (where 52% of the population are female, so you just can’t go very long without meeting another. I’m writing this paragraph as there are four women in my direct line of sight.) Whether you want it or not, you will not be characterizing a person, but The Women of the story.
I’ve talked of Fight Club before, a movie that people like to reference when they speak of how it can make sense not to pass the Bechdel Test2; ironically, the book the movie is based on does pass the test, featuring two women who talk to each other about, well, plastic surgery. Fight Club is a story about a generation of men struggling with how they were raised by women, having no male role models, losing touch with their masculinity. Having 95% of the depicted world be male leads the premise ad absurdum pretty thoroughly. I guess one could argue that’s part of the point but I’ve never seen anybody do so.
It’s almost understandable that a lot of writers will default to making their only woman incredibly beautiful, because imagine your typical Hollywood writer attempting to write an ugly woman surrounded only by men. That would end well for absolutely nobody. Plus, your characterization will suck anyway – might as well make up for it with looks. I guess.
Tauriel in the Hobbit movie trilogy is another example of how an ensemble with one woman will create issues. Gamora in The Guardians Of The Galaxy comes to mind, too. Both women have an amount of fans. Both also have a substantial amount of critics. Tauriel and Gamora arguably both have an amount of substance when compared to certain other female characters; they have backstories and jobs. Still, a degree of their presence in the picture is taken up by being The Woman. That’s wasted space. Unless you want to delete women from your writing entirely – which would create a lot of bizarre effects of its own – the only solution is in adding more female characters. It might sound weird, saying, say in The Hobbit, that changing the gender of three dwarves and two elves and one wizard would have improved on Tauriel’s characterization. That having a female raccoon and tree in GotG would have made Gamora work better. And it’s not quite that easy. But if the writers/producers had ever aimed for a great female character, that would have had to be the first step.
When You Have Two Female Characters
So only introducing one woman is out, if you’re aiming for a realistic characterization. What about two women? That’s better already, but it’s still not ideal. Think back to the first season of Criminal Minds, which was comprised of a team of FBI profilers including one woman (Elle Greenaway), a female hacker who was never in the same room with anybody and barely had any lines, and a female PR person, who also was never in the actual investigation scenes which made up the majority of every episode. The Criminal Minds crew wizened up to their characterizations problem pretty quickly. They promoted the PR person to profiler so the team soon featured two actionable female characters. Once the hacker turned into a fan favorite, there were more and more opportunities to show the three of them interacting with each other and their characterizations grew into something that I would consider sufficiently interesting and feasible.
So why is two women still not enough? Because instead of having only one female character, you now have only one female-female dynamic you can show. (previously, of course, you had none) You will still waste a lot of time characterizing this dynamic – how the women are with each other. But now that you’ve made the effort of introducing two women, you also might end up spreading them out in the ensemble, so they usually aren’t introduced as a pair – say, they’re not usually sisters, or female partners in crime, or childhood friends or co-workers. That would likely direct attention to the absence of women in the rest of the story, and it would feel weird. And since this setup still asks us to characterize the women by their dynamic with the other men as well as with each other, it’s just an economic choice to have them be bitches at each other, fighting over the attention of the men, or over alpha woman status, or something similar. I can assure you that not once in my life have I encountered a situation where two women did that. I’ve not even met a single woman who was jealous of another’s looks, honestly. Of her skill at a pool table or her awesome RPG character, yeah, but not looks. We also don’t talk to each other about men all the time, although to be fair, if they really made up 98% of the population, we might.
The Default Gender Is Male
As we can observe very well in Hollywood movies, writers tend to default to the male gender. If there is no particular reason to make somebody female, the character will be male – be it a main character or a mailman with two lines. This is so common that we often don’t notice that the resulting scenes might end up feeling considerably less real and recognizable and familiar than they might have otherwise.
One of my favorite examples of this can be found in the first X-Men movie. At the beginning of the story we meet a young girl called Marie, who is deeply traumatized when she attempts to kiss her boyfriend for the first time just to put him in a coma with her newly awakened super power. Marie runs away, meets a variety of dangerous adults, and ends up at the safe haven that is Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. In a little collage we see her bonding with two boys her age. Becoming part of a group of her peers is so important to her that she runs away again once she is tricked into believing that one of the boys wants her gone. There’s nothing wrong with this story, but I ask you: Wouldn’t it be considerably more common for this teenage girl, recently ejected from her community and traumatized by boy, to bond with other girls? Wouldn’t that get across her quick attachment to the new place much more organically? She could have befriended Kitty Pride and Jubilee. She didn’t. She befriended Pyro and Iceman. There’s very little reason for writers to go for that.
Name Five Female Stereotypes That Have Nothing To Do With Sex
I’m not going to say a terrible lot about stereotypes here beyond saying – don’t. But I’m gonna say a little bit because as you know about me by now that I can’t shut up once I grab a text and put on my sexy geek glasses.3 I know a lot of people end up stereotyping groups they don’t belong to unconsciously, because they don’t notice a thing can be read a certain way or otherwise because they weren’t aware that it’s a stereotype. There’s only so much you can do but try to keep your eyes open and learn these types, and kindly keep in mind the problem with the cultural differences, and hey, it happens. Man up about it, apologize, learn, and so on.
So I’ve talked a lot about how female characters tend to be built as objects that exist towards specific male characters or men in general, without any agency or purpose independent from that. So it’s not a great surprise that a lot of female stereotypes fulfill this demand as well. The most common types of female characters we meet in stories are romantic interests / girlfriends / femme fatales (to have sex with), mothers (to create men), whores, or women in typically feminine professions such as nurses. They then get characterized as whores, femme fatales etc. which is like characterizing them as female all over again, except more specific.
Types can be fun, even if they are gender-specific. The Dwarf is a type often encountered in fantasy novels, and usually male, thanks to how Tolkien forgot the existence of the entire female gender when he made up the stories.4 The Barbarian tends to be male.5 Witches tend to be female, although lemme tell you, I grew up in a town with a history of medieval witch hunting and there are plenty penis-carriers in the local records.
So, types can be fun, I enjoy them a lot personally, and you don’t have to cast them in the unexpected gender as long as you don’t act like the other one doesn’t exist. Unless that’s the point you’re trying to make. However, if you aim to avoid offending a sensitive audience, put some thought into whether or not you are putting your women in roles that characterize them in terms of their dynamic with men.
It’s also highly out of fashion to enforce gender stereotypes by, say, making the warriors manly men, and the young women “virginal” and such. I mean, that’s misogynistic, yes. But also it’s boring. And it’ll only get more boring in the upcoming decades.
I want to specifically address two kinds of female characters who might pose a particular challenge, or otherwise lead to confusion.
The Girl Who Giggled
What you’ve read so far might be giving you a dismayed feeling that there’s an awful lot of movies or celebrities or other beloved public content that is likely to offend a relevant amount of women. In that case, good, yes, because there is. Hollywood, as a regular offender, barely offers any acceptable, unproblematic depictions of women. You can count them on one hand: Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, Ripley and Call (Winona Rider’s character) in Alien, the latest Ghostbusters, protagonist Kat in 10 Things I Hate About You come to mind; it’s not a coincidence that those also often are movies subject to very emotionalized, angry rejection by parts of the male audience.
There still are habits and activities that really are found in one gender more often than in the other. There are more girls than boys who learn ballet. There are more boys than girls who play rugby. Shopping for clothes is still a hobby of women more often than men, who are more likely to consider it a chore. As of yet, more men work in IT and more women stay at home and and more men have big careers. Obviously, it’s reasonable and it makes sense to represent those stats in your writing when the story calls for it. The result will often create a certain feeling of familiarity or authenticity, as I’ve talked about in the above example of Rogue in the X-Men Movieverse. But when a story features only one character of a kind, this character is in danger of becoming representative of the whole group. So yes, there are women who giggle and blush, women who fit the gender stereotype. But there are also women who will stare you down while mentally shoveling your grave. And the giggly ones can be mean and unbearable, while the shoveling ones can be big cuddlers. The problem is not in introducing a woman who giggles and blushes, but in doing so without any otherwise-inclined female characters to offset the effect, in a world where the only woman in the ensemble never acts like a drill sergeant, but very often she giggles.
Rachel Greene on Friends loves shoes, would never leave the house without wearing extensive makeup, and starts out on the show as a professional rich daughter who doesn’t get how a credit card works. Friends can do that because she’s one of three women in a cast of six; when she runs into Central Perk in a wedding dress in her first scene, she encounters dry-humored Monica and socially blind Phoebe, thus not coming across as a stereotype. Although the writers clearly played with the girly girl stereotype when they created Rachel, no doubt about it.6 You guys practice the basics before you do that; this shit is advanced.
Bridget Jones in the books and movies of the same name also is a satirical character who presents a particular shade of the girly girl type. She was created by an aware female author specifically for a female audience to laugh at themselves, though, so she features a lot of characteristics that women find are typical for many women – insecurities in romance, not being taken for full at work, feeling like you’re too heavy although objectively you’re not, not knowing whether to wear the sensible panties or the lingerie. She works as a character for many reasons. One is that she does and says a lot of things that women do and say often enough, but that usually aren’t featured in stories. She gets drunk as a skunk after rejection from a guy and sings songs in her bathtub loudly and badly while shaving her legs. But at the same time, she still leads an extremely individual life that is in no way representative of any group of people. She works at a publishing house but switches careers to become a TV journalist, ending up interviewing royals. Her mother leaves her father late in life to elope with a man who has really shiny teeth, becoming his assistant on a shopping channel. So that’s a nice example of how you can work with a balance of typical vs. highly individual and specific.
Either way, I would still advice against writing parodies of women as such because there’s no way that that won’t end in tears. You shouldn’t make fun of groups other than your own, anyway. Still, there is nothing wrong with having women engage in so-called gendered behavior. Just keep questioning yourself. Take care not to end up writing “a woman” where there should have been an individual, strong person. Don’t cramp too many typical things into one character, and you should be fine. Ask yourself whether you’ve created a setting and ensemble that creates good conditions for developing strong female characters7, and whether your story profits more from a typical or atypical character. Remember that no matter how stereotypical any real woman may appear to you on first sight, her personality will still be differentiated, specific, and unique. If you can’t see that, it’s your shortcoming, not hers.
That Hot Lady In Red
The so-called Lady in Red appears in writing surprisingly often, considering it’s always pretty much the same character / tool of the narrative all over again – in case you even can speak of a character here. Remember Matrix, first movie. Remember Neo walking through the simulation of a busy sidewalk. Remember him getting distracted by that one hot woman in the red dress – just to see her transform into a Mr. Smith with his gun to our hero’s head a second later. In Matrix, the event is an object lesson in distraction and camouflage meant for Neo. And as Mouse, the proud creator of the woman in red tells us, it always works. He also offers to arrange for some alone time with her. She’s the quintessence of this type of female characters, but there are others. Battlestar Galactica (2003) comes to mind. The cylon model 6 references this type in a number of ways.
The thing you need to stay aware of when it comes to this character is that she is not meant to be a person in her own right, but rather a representation of all hot women everywhere, or the personification of sexy. She often wears red because red is associated with the femme fatale in Western culture, but she could also wear any other sexy dress, or – for that matter – nothing. She doesn’t need a characterization.8 You could argue that her existence itself is insulting to women but then again, straight women got the Coca Cola Light guy. I mean, decide for yourselves. Much more importantly, make sure you’re not accidentally treating a regular female character as if she were a Lady in Red. You would be putting a painting in the space meant for a character. Picture the Avengers but instead of Black Widow there’s just a live-sized cardboard figure of her with bigger boobs. That’s what you’ll have done. That would be even worse than what we have now.
Well. You’ve almost made it. Next part is about something somewhat less critical and very straightforward, though it also has the potential of causing you the most embarrassment. It’s about getting your facts right.
Read the footnotes by pointing your cursor at their markers. Or read them here:
- And, ah, breasts.
- Bechdel Test: A movie has at least two named female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man.
- See what I did there?
- My peer reviewer informed me that this is a gross simplification and not correct strictly speaking, so please take as hyperbole.
- And is probably offensive in terms of Western elitism, but I’m a bit too Western to be able to say for certain.
- And here’s culture for you again: I would imagine that modern audiences are more likely to find Rachel offensive than audiences of the 90’s.
- Strong female characters in the sense of well-written female characters, not in the sense of punching President Trump in the face. No matter how tempting that would be.
- Don’t make the mistake of considering all women wearing red to reference this trope, either. The femme fatale often wears red (as the “virgin” wears white and the sexually unavailable villain woman wears black) because Western culture associates that color with arousal and passion. I doubt I have to tell you my opinion on those types at this juncture.