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.
Do It Right
So, once again with feeling: Are you feeling that this post covered pretty much every female character ever? Then yes, good, you are getting the point. Also you’re getting a small insight into how being an educated or smart or sensitive woman often means you have to suppress the urge to scream very loudly.1 After all the negativity, let’s look at some examples that I find wholly inoffensive, as far as sexism is concerned, so that we will end this on a positive note. They are nothing special, and they are not taken from works known to be associated with the feminist movement. I plugged them off my Kindle randomly. They just happen to… not be offensive. They don’t do anything wrong.
The Welcome Wagon lady, sixty if she was a day but working at youth and vivacity (ginger hair, red lips, a sunshine-yellow dress), twinkled her eyes and teeth at Joanna and said, “You’re really going to like it here! It’s a nice town with nice people! You couldn’t have made a better choice!”
Her brown leather shoulderbag was enormous, old and scuffed; from it she dealt Joanna packets of powdered breakfast drink and soup mix, a toy-size box of non-polluting detergent, a booklet of discount slips good at twenty-two local shops, two cakes of soap, a folder of deodorant pads— ‘Enough, enough,’ Joanna said, standing in the doorway with both hands full. ‘Hold. Halt. Thank you.’(Ira Levin: The Stepford Wives. USA 1972)
All I could do was to mumble, “I’ll do my best,” and then the porch light went on and a small woman and a little girl were tumbling down the drive. Dr. Cowan’s hand was firm on my shoulder for a minute, then he turned me loose to be smothered.
It only lasted a minute, and then the woman said tremulously, “Come in the house where I can get a good look at you. Oh, Barry, you’re so thin—all right, all right, I won’t fuss.” But she held on to my hand all the way up the steps and into the house. She was small, brunette, with a serious face and no make-up, and her hair was in a long braid down her back. She looked awfully young to be my mother, I thought. [The girl] was wide-eyed and solemn, with dark fuzzy hair feathering up from her forehead and big dark eyes. She grabbed me and I thought of a kitten trying to climb up my shirt front, but she didn’t cry. She just stood there hanging on to me and shaking all over, and saying over and over again, “You aren’t dead, you aren’t dead!”(Marion Zimmer Bradley: The Brass Dragon. USA 1978)
Two of the three chairs fill with Madge’s father, Mayor Undersee, who’s a tall, balding man, and Effie Trinket, District 12’s escort, fresh from the Capitol with her scary white grin, pinkish hair, and spring green suit.
[…] Bright and bubbly as ever, Effie Trinket trots to the podium and gives her signature, “Happy Hunger Games! And may the odds be ever in your favor!” Her pink hair must be a wig because her curls have shifted slightly off-center since her encounter with Haymitch. She goes on a bit about what an honor it is to be here, although everyone knows she’s just aching to get bumped up to a better district where they have proper victors, not drunks who molest you in front of the entire nation.(Suzanne Collins: The Hunger Games. USA 2008)
The gate creaked ominously when I pushed it open, and I was hit by the dry scent of hay and a sharp note of saddle oil. The boxes were all empty, except for the last one. It contained a horse snorting frantically, marching around in circles. A woman was leaning on the chest-high wooden door, chin propped on her hands, looking in.
One of the stable hands. I’d seen her around, although we hadn’t been introduced. And yeah—she was hot, all right? There was no way not to notice her—Hepburn in Robin and Marian through and through, slender features and all, except for even shorter dark hair and, oh, the tattoos. She wore a short black shirt with worn jeans; her arms were covered in dragons and skulls all the way down to the back of her hands. No hope to ever again be hired for a desk job. But boy, that ass. Nobody has a right to have an ass like that. She was Audrey Hepburn, if she’d starred in James Dean movies. Rebel Without A Cause, butch style.
She looked up when I came in, though turned toward the horse again when I stepped up to her for a glance of my own. She never took her elbows off the gate.
(This is one of mine, actually: “Paula Gets A Pony Ranch”, a short story published in the anthology “The Language of Love.” (at publisher | at Amazon) I’m using this one specifically because one of my readers called this character a lesbian wish fulfillment fantasy, so she’s probably close to what some men had in mind before they chose a problematic description. The woman is the romantic interest and as such, of course, her sexiness is relevant to the first person narrator and the story. Mind: There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having a character feel attracted to a woman, and having them talk or think about it. The traps mainly are in the composition of your ensemble, in the role you cast the female characters in and in the descriptions you use when writing her.
As an additional little writing hack: If you make your male POV character go crazy about a woman’s great legs, you avoid the majority of traps automatically, and your character will come across as sophisticated for not staring at more obvious things)
“Natalie, this is Felicity Gaspari,” he introduced her. “One of the young up-and-coming of my staff. […] All of our climate work will be handled by her starting in the new year. […]”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Natalie said, forcing her eyes to stay on Gaspari rather than allowing her gaze to flitter around the room again.
“Likewise, Professor Meave.” Gaspari stood straight and stiff, reminiscent of a military officer, although she had a soft face, and on a better day, Natalie would have called it kind. It definitely looked eager now that the woman smiled, dark eyes shining. “Let me say up front that it’s an honor to meet you and work with you. You won’t remember me, but I attended some of your guest lectures at UMass as an undergrad. […]”
Natalie attempted a smile. She wouldn’t quite have said that Gaspari ranged on the butch side of the spectrum. She rather seemed like one of those people who didn’t understand the value of appearances if you worked in a male field. No makeup, no work done on her nails. Neat with her short black curls that reached just long enough over her ears to make her look moderately interesting. Definitely a lesbian, though, Natalie decided without paying it much mind, looking at Gaspari’s hand that was still lingering on hers […].
(This is from “The Strangest Time To Change Your Ways,” another one of my own stories which I plan on putting up on this website for free download some day soon, if I don’t get distracted by another monster blog post. Of course all of my story downloads here feature female characters, since that’s kind of my thing, so you could also read the others, and make me very happy.
But no, all my descriptions of romantic interest characters do not feature an assessment on whether a woman is butch. That’s just a coincidence. It’s a queer thing, don’t do that, you probably wouldn’t get away with it in your genre. ;-))
So what is the difference between those examples and the offensive descriptions in the previous parts? If you compare them, you might notice that the trick to not being offensive is not in writing particular things into a scene as much as it is in leaving particular things out of it. After reading this post, you’ll hopefully have learned a fairly meaty list of things you shouldn’t do. Ideally, you’ll have started developing a sensitivity that will stop you when you get near a trap.
It’s normal to be stumped now, and to sit in front of your next white page frantically discarding ideas or phrases you can’t use anymore. That’s part of most improvement processes for writers. But here’s the big damn secret: Writing female characters is easy, because it works exactly the same way as writing men. Just as when you write men, you have to figure out what role your character plays in the story, what function they fulfill in your narrative, and how they drive forward the plot. You then have to settle on a personality that fits those requirements. And then you add some details about their visual that fit or even underline the personality; though those act like spice, providing flavor but no protein, just like in case of your male characters.
Regarding your practical approach in the future, there are a number of mind tricks you could use to get there.
- You could outline your entire story with an exclusively male ensemble, then sit down and force yourself to change the gender of half your fully fleshed characters.
- To go a step further, you could even write the scenes first and change the gender after the fact.
- You could do the usual writing exercises, punch out a handful of female characters each day until it feels no different from writing the men.
- You could make it a challenge to make the next five stories you write focus on women, or to make them have at least, say, three important female characters.
- Or for every story with a male hero you encounter, you could sit back and put some serious thought into how the story would change if he were a woman. Do this for interesting male side characters, as well.
- Pay conscious attention to any depiction of men and women that you encounter and check them for possible offensiveness.
- Before you start trusting your own judgement, you can use as an orientation on what might and what might not be sexist the gender of the author. Of course, plenty female authors get it wrong and plenty male ones get it right – thus, only use for orientation.
Consider tackling queer characters and characters of color next, if you don’t belong to those groups.. It’ll enrich your writing further.
Lastly, there are two (and a half) statements often made by male writers (and readers) that I really feel I need to address:
“I can’t read that; I can’t identify with a female protagonist.”
Then learn. You know who can’t learn to identify with other human beings? Psychopaths.
“I’m just not any good at writing female characters, but eh.”
What would you answer a cab driver who tells you with an apologetic shrug that they just aren’t any good at driving on the autobahn? Probably that they should either get a different job or rectify that problem very quickly. There’s no excuse for a professional author to state publicly they can’t write more than half the population and not immediately follow that up with, “But I’m working on it.” I can write this whole long thing without getting angry a single time, but that statement? Is just a disgrace.
Get a different job, or learn. While you do, if you offend somebody by accident, remember it’s not the end of the world. Apologize, figure out what you did wrong, move on. Write better books.
“Nah, that’s way too hard, I’m not gonna bother.”
Well, okay. If you want your writing to suck on, that’s your call. Nobody ever said writing well wasn’t hard.
Aaaand that’s a wrap! Did you learn something? I learned a lot just writing it. If you have any comments, questions or interest in changing from reading to an actual conversation, leave a comment.
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