Late night thoughts on the impossible standards we put on female characters

It’s 3:30 AM.  Since this semester started and I have only night classes, my being awake at this hour is not unusual.  I’ve been working on Nostalgia Chick episodes that won’t come out for months. Not a bad thing; being “Nostalgia Chick” is my job, and will be my primary focus once I move back to New York.  But that’s not what I’m supposed to be doing; I’m supposed to be writing.

I’m taking this feature screenwriting class.  Writing anything is like having a root canal with only rootbeer as a local anesthetic, but I wasn’t always like this.  I’ve been outlining, trying to write, trying to figure out where I’m going with it, forming a dent in the shape of my head in the desk.  I had no idea how difficult this would be.  It’s not as though I can’t write, and write fast for that matter. At one point I was banging out Christian romance novels for spare change!  Writing Catholic Robot, albeit that screenplay was a grand total of six pages, was a breeze.  I’ve written a ton in my life!  But ultimately, what’s so difficult about this one?  Even if I can’t work up any passion for it, I should at least be able to phone it in, right?

Then I realized it; the main character is female.  Besides the aforementioned (totally phoned in) Christian romance novels, I’d never really written a female main character before.

That got me thinking about how we put pressure on ourselves when writing female characters as opposed to male characters, especially main characters.  In this case, it’s particularly difficult because I, like a fool, decided to write a period piece that takes place in early 19th century India, under the Bengal presidency. Beyond that it’s a story about gender roles.  Put in the rest of the rest of the restrictions I’ve placed on myself in the interest of not being cliche  (no love interest! no cross-dressing!) I have written myself into a corner by being afraid to write anything.

Readers, women especially, judge the hell out of female characters.  I may be no fan of the the Twilight um… saga is not the appropriate word for this thing… the Twilight fantasies of a repressed housewife that somehow got published, but it makes me kinda ill to see how much hate the main character gets when similar male mains probably won’t.  Take the main character for Dan Brown’s books.  Langdon, I think.  If possible, he has even less personality than Bella, but receives nowhere near as much vitriol.  It may be that those are targeted towards an older audience.  But then you look at The Hunger Games, which is much better thought out and better written, there are people, mostly female, still cry out “Mary Sue!”  We just can’t win.

I’ve heard plenty of men, some even approaching me, expressing nervousness about writing female characters.  This shouldn’t be an issue. You’re not writing about Hindus in 19th century Bengal, you’re just writing about women. You know, half the planet. The elusive “other half” should not be so elusive and mysterious, and yet it is.  For two reasons, in my humble opinion:

One:  the female point of view is wildly underrepresented in fiction aimed at general audiences (I’d wager at least 95% of main characters for general audience films are male- case in point, all Pixar films).  This means we grow up in a culture where almost the only female points of view we see are from… Disney. Eesh.

Two: the pressure you get from everyone else.  It seems like for most folks the attitude is, “why bother?” when it’s such a pain to write a main female character, not to mention in this world we live in of Hollywood tentpoles, no one is going to see Transformers if the main character happened to be female. Cause nobody goes to those movies for the robots.

But I digress; this isn’t about Hollywood, this is about my inability to put one word to the page confidently.

There are plenty of people like me who bitch and moan about the underrepresentation of women and minorities in fiction, but when it comes time to put my money where my mouth is, I find myself unable.  I’ll have to eventually, of course, or I will fail the course.  But I feel that this is another symptom of hypersensitivity; characters can’t just live and breathe naturally, if they’re female, no, they must be female first and character second, meaning that they have to serve their purpose in the greater culture rather than their purpose in the story.  They must be a STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER that is realistic and fair and does not represent the patriarchy or something.

Even after forcing out almost a thousand words in half an hour I still don’t know what to write.  See? I can write fast. But only when I’m openly being a hypocrite.

Thanks a lot, touchy liberal fiction-culture.  Now I’m too hyper-sensitized to even write my own gender.

  • Creature SH

    I honestly can’t blame you for being intimidated by the prospect which you are facing. I think that your point one really weighs heavily on this. The shortage of female protagonists (and antagonists, for that matter) makes each character of the xx persuasion count ten times their weight in words.

    However, I figure that a character who might not be the perfect embodiment of female self-worth and virtue is still better than cheaping out and adding just another guy to the cultural layer cake. The more title-women there are, the more freedom writers will have with them in the long run.

    In other words: Someone’s gotta do it. And I’d rather have it be someone who isn’t horrible at this. So, why not you?

  • SamBamKablaam

    It’s a weird issue (one I’ve had myself no-less) because it IS completely hypocritical. We don’t want the female to be this -thing-, we want her to be a believable person, but to do that we end up using the examples we hate to dictate how far on the opposite spectrum to push her, so she’s still a result of it. It takes us farther from equality because now we feel the need to put her on a pedestal just because she’s a woman.

    It’s something I’ve noticed with gay characters too. I’m a lesbian, and I’ve always found it really annoying how scared people are of using gay characters because people will jump all over your ass if they see any trace of streotype, gay joke, or negative behavior that could reflect badly on “the community.” The hell? How is that equal treatment? Grow some balls and realize that people are just people and one gay person doesn’t represent every homosexual that ever there was.

    It really hit me in the face a few semesters ago. My college put on a play that was a pretty simple comedy and basically included and mocked every stereotype it could grab: stupid helpless women, evil manipulative women, scared pathetic male who can’t handle women, over-dramatic actors, old angry men who stash alcohol in their desks, and, -gasp- some gay characters. There were two lesbians in a relationship (who actually seemed to be the only two people not suffering a personality disorder and I saw as the moral compass, or maybe common sense compass, of it all), but what REALLY pissed people off was a stereotypical flamboyant, sassy gay male. OH GOD HOW DARE YOU? People in my Theatre class found it completely offensive.

    Really? We can mock every other stereotype but -not- gays because we’re special in some way? It wasn’t being cruel or homophobic, it was just like every other light-hearted joke in the damn play. This special protectiveness just further solidifies that there is a “difference.” And you know what, flamboyant gay men do exist. Chill out. It’s not some evil made-up thing to make gay people look bad. If you’re mad at that they you should be mad at EVERYTHING you saw on that stage.

    But coming back to gender, I think you just have to accept that people will flip out over some aspect of what you write and just do what you want, just like any art you put out there. Don’t let that crap affect what you do. It’s their problem if they don’t like it.

  • A

    Hi, you’re right, we women are “damned if we do and damned if we don’t.” I wrote a long comment, but decaided I wasn’t comfortable with it in a public space.

    I read your Twitter and saw you complained about being in a chick “ghetto” with the Nostalgia Chick, but I think that’s sort of the point. I could very well be wrong, but I thought having a Nostalgia Chick was to have someone cover the girly-y stuff that the Nostalgia Critic did not cover so it would be represented.

    • Initially, sort of. The real reason was because they wanted more female traffic on the site (i.e. more money). The review content became kiiiinda incidental.

      Ironically I got a much higher female viewership after I stopped focusing primarily on girly stuff.

      • A

        I guessed that was the reason behind adding the chick (though I watched the Nostalgia Critic long before that) I didn’t know that about your viewership though.

        Still it might not be (just) because it was girly stuff. Some of the things I thought were more obscure or simply less horrible movies and thus not as much funny material to be had from them.

      • emeriin

        Its funny you should say that. I always kind of assumed that women would still go for Doug and men watch you (both for funny and other reasons), but that shows how much I know. 😉 This was like 2008 and all.

      • “Ironically I got a much higher female viewership after I stopped focusing primarily on girly stuff.”

        That makes sense. I don’t know how many women feel the same way, but when I see media targeted at a stereotypically male audience (Spike TV, G4, etc.) I just tune it out.

  • Storms

    If you ever want a course on how to do female character, watch Avatar the last Airbender. THE CARTOON NOT THE MOVIE! Start with season two for the good female characters.

    Season one there was The Chick Katara as the one girl of the trio of main characters, but starting with season two they added a new female character to the main group. They were going to originally make her a huge rough and tumble dude, but instead they keep all the same dude characteristics and gave them to this tiny 12 year old girl named Toph, and she is AWESOME.

    Then they replaced the villains of season 1 (all males) with another girl character that was going to be a boy. The favoured, more talented, younger and crazy brother of the exiled Prince character became a more favoured, more talented, younger and crazy Princess Azula. Then said Princess had two competent yet more girly in completely different ways hench women named Mai and Tai Lee.

    With all these female characters they could explore all parts of them without having to pander. Katara, Toph and Azula are all proteges and basically better then the Main character at their particular fields. Katara’s over emotionally investments and over reactions could be explored as actual character flaws rather then positive part of being the Chick and caring about everyone and everything because Toph was there to balance her out.

    At the end of it all, several girls were single and not paired up for their happily ever after, some were. Some had romantic subplots and some didn’t care about it. They were not just love interests, they HAD love interests. One broke up with her boyfriend because he was treating both her and other people badly and wouldn’t take him back until he explained himself properly, rather then coddling him through it.

    So at least two characters (Toph Azula) were CHARACTERS first, incidentally females second. About 2 others (Mai, Tai Lee) were characters with female character traits and the two (Katara and Suki) Female First characters lost that as time went on and became Characters Who are Female the more we saw of them and the more female characters there were to go around.

    And this is an all ages, General Audience Action Adventure show. Yes the main character, Main Antagonists were still boys, but the girls stole the spotlight again and again in the last two seasons.

    Now the same people how did Avatar the Last Airbender are doing a new Action Adventure Cartoon staring a female as the new Avatar. Not just female, a visibly Inuit (Not that M. Night could tell though) female character.

    • Problem is that kinda proves my point; none of those characters are the mains.

      • Grev

        Well, they are making a sequel miniseries with a female lead, so it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out.

      • Sunshine

        It may have worked in their favour: without being the centre of the show, they’re more free to develop in interesting ways.

  • Kaelan D.M.

    I totally understand what you mean. When you’re a woman writing female characters especially I think there’s pressure because women are expected to know what a “strong female character” is AND represent their sex. That is to say, if you’re a female writer, you’re female first and writer second, so you’re basically under the same restrictions your characters are.

    I just finished writing a novel with a female protagonist and narrator, and I felt pretty nervous writing the one or two parts in the story where she falls into really bad luck and gets upset about it. This is pretty common in films, books, any sort of narrative – and when male characters do it, it’s completely normal. But female characters, if they get depressed or mopey for even a little bit, are considered “weak”, especially when they have a close male friend or relation that they confide in/rely on (which my character does). It’s not like she’s dependent on them in any way – but if the audience is that sensitive to it, they’ll never stop complaining about it.

    At the end of it, I think it’s better to just shut all of those voices out. I’ve read a lot of fiction in which the author spends the entire novel basically trying to say, “LOOK! I HAVE SUCH STRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS!! LOOK AT HER! WOW, ISN’T SHE STRONG?” and for the life of me I can’t stand those books. On the other hand, if you look at it from the perspective of creating a realistic female character, then your character will probably come out better – in fact, arguably, realistic female characters ARE strong female characters, in the end.

    All that said, I’m sure you’ll come out with something good. I think I’d trust you, the woman behind one of the strongest female personalities on internet-based TV, to accomplish the task of writing a good female character above most people. 🙂

    • “female first writer second” too true. Especially this idea that “women write for women. men write for EVERYONE! :D” Part of the reason I tend to shy away from nostalgic media targeted at women.

      And I hate this idea that female characters showing weakness are, well, weak. That’s part of who we are. It’s bred into us; we’re raised to have thin skins, to hate ourselves. Perhaps that’s why the “strong female character” rings so false; we just can’t relate to her, because she doesn’t have the same everyday struggles that we do.

  • I completely agree with you. My first book has a female main, and while I (hopefully) managed to almost de-gender (totally a word) her for the most part, there were a lot of times while writing – particularly in highly emotional scenes – where I got to thinking “will people judge her actions here because of her character, or because she has boobies?”.

    My second book WIP has a male lead, and I do find it much easier to write, even though the context is similar, because it’s a man I’m not finding much reason to hesitate.

    But the thing is, there’s no escaping the extra attention and scrutiny that female protagonists (and antagonists) get, whether or not the writer acknowledges it.

    For example, If a male character is written as being a take-no-shit, foul-mouthed badass, readers of both genders will admire him as such, a badass. If a female character is written in the same way, she’s a bitch, and we all hate her.

    I personally think that it’s only really important as the writer to understand yourself that the character is your protagonist first, before what may or may not be dangling between their legs.

    And I think one of the best examples I’ve heard of in this was mentioned in one of your reviews (sorry, I forget which), in that Alien’s Ripley was a character first and a woman second.

    Thinking more recently, another good example I think is Ellen Page’s character in Inception: she is an architect, and the fact she’s a woman is completely inconsequential to her purpose in the story.

    You can only hope that what you portray through the character will be a reflection of her goals and drives and motives, instead of being female.

  • ctw

    I don’t know how helpful novels are when you’re trying to write for the screen, but Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman stuff is really, really good.

    All the main/interesting characters are female (all two of them) but don’t particularly run around letting that define them. Also, there were multiple points during the book when I started cheering the characters along out loud, which is a) a little embarrassing even when alone and 2) a good sign that the book rules.

    Maybe read it even if it’s not useful ’cause it’s such a good time.

    On a related note, fuck Joss Whedon and his faux feminism in the ear.

  • Just do what I do with characters, disregard the sex altogether (I also ignore sexual preference, race, and religion). Unless there is a scene where you need to describe the difficulty of writing in snow, there is no reason to give a character the attribute of sex. Okay, let’s say your assignment is to write specifically for a female character, ignore it; when you are all done just name her “Becky” or “Glenda” or “Unnati” or some such bullshit.

    The character has its motivation and conflict. Whatever attributes and characteristics are required to overcome the conflict with the motivation are all that matters. The character can be Jeffry or…eh, Jeffrita(?), it doesn’t matter. Just write the character as “Protagonist” and if it is good then in the end it won’t matter if they have to pull apart or point and spray to write in snow.

    If the characters sex itself is an antagonist then simply treat it like something else for the sake of writing. Treat it like a “social disease” to overcome. That sounds shitty saying that simply being a woman is comparable to a “social disease” but that is really what it is when sex is used as a point of conflict.

    You are a man, you’ll never make it in the theater business. You are a woman you’ll never make it in the political arena based in a caste cultural, social and political system. You have vaginal abifalitus, you’ll never make it in the lesbian circus freak porn industry. It’s all just conflict based on an unchangeable trait that must be either overcome or disregarded. It is not the genetic trait that will make for a good characters, “Oh no, I’m a woman whatever shall I do?”; it is the method in which the character handles the conflict caused by the trait, “Yeah I’m a women but that doesn’t make you not an idiot.”

    It’s also hard for men to write about women because we are afraid of getting railed against for misrepresentation of women. It can wreck a dudes motivation for writing female roles when he is being called sexist because he did, or did not, write a woman drinking a beer at the bar instead of a glass of white wine.

  • I used to write women all the time, when I was in middle school and high school. Mostly, I liked women who kicked ass, so I just wrote that. Heck, my first major female main character was a Merlin-esque figure with a mysterious past. I just wrote women who were as tough as the guys in my action-based stories.

    Then I got older, and now I have the exact same issues. I don’t write gay people in my stories because I’m worried it won’t work. I finally got over writing minority characters, and I’ve begun just doing character templates and assigning gender at random (for fun and profit!), and that seems to work. I’m working gay characters in the same way.

    Once you realize you have an issue worrying about “appropriate portrayal,” one can usually move on and write what one needs to.

    • somehow I used to be able to do that. It’s the whole “but then professional people might see this/fuck with it” monster that destroys me.

      • Can’t argue with that. “Keep the demographic happy”!

        But, but, my Art!

  • So give up on winning. Just write what you think she’s like, and decide that if anyone has a problem then fuck’em.

    You can always edit it, or ask for someone else to edit it, from a “how will this be judged” perspective afterwards.

  • It’s a trouble. I always dedicate myself to making sure my characters are realistic and consistent to themselves, and try not to worry about the rest of it. I mean, I DO worry, but I try not to.

  • wednesday

    I… I only go to the Transformers movies for the robots. Near as I can tell, while the general audience is going for the human story, the fandom wants more robots.

    (One of the reasons I’m keen on the new CGI show running on the Hub, the one Kurtzman and Orci defected to? The female robot. She’s a little on the too-maternal side, but otherwise she’s awesome.)

    • That’s my point! Is the movie going to make less if you star Mary instead of Shia? People want more fuckin robots anyway!

  • emeriin

    I frigging hate Bella for being a complete author avatar with no agency of her own, but when I take my Twilight-Loathing goggles off, I’ve got to admit you’re right. If she was male, she’d be loved by fangirls for being so adorable and submissive. I know you don’t watch anime but it’s the “moe” issue; guys hate wide-eyed innocent boys who don’t “ACT LIKE MEN” (just look at Shinji) but love girls like that, while women hate anime girls because they’re anti-feminist, but squee over the boys.

    And my not-so-helpful advice; fuck the “Real Women Never Wear Dresses” crowd, fuck the “Girls Need Role Models” crap, just write a character. I’ll admit I’m not knowledgeable with the era you’re writing in, but I think you can do it. 🙂

    • Actually, I hate wide-eyed submissive girls… but that’s neither here nor there.

  • When I started writing scripts I too had difficulty writing female characters. What I found worked best was to try and write the first draft (and maybe sometimes the second) using names that didn’t appropriate gender and then switch it up after I had the characters down. Of course I always had an idea which characters were going to be female and which weren’t but focusing on the character without the added pressure on gender perception and expectation helped.

    Just my thoughts.

  • I agree 100%. As a hopeful (female) writer and novelist, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to re-sketch a female character so she doesn’t end up categorized on

    My friend and I are both pursuing our degrees under feminist and gender criticism, and we’ve found some ways to subvert things in short fiction based on pronoun usage. However, when you’re writing for theater or film, you’re constricted by more than just the language itself.

    I wish we could bring more attention to this issue and hopefully squash it, so that new forms of literature and media can come through.

  • Mia

    *strokes imaginary beard* Hmmm, sounds like you could actually benefit from participating in casual play-by-post roleplaying.

    It’s like collaborative novel writing and acting in text form put together. You create a character, with a nice biography and planned characteristics and then you play as them, write from their point of view, while other people playing with you have their own characters. This all happens on a forum, journal or possibly via email.

    Best case scenario, this could help you both develop and edit the character. You could even try out your character in a way. You could get a nice feel of them and it would definitely make you more relaxed about it.

    • I’d just like to jump in and second the play-by-post suggestion. It was a hugely positive experience for me and I really think that being exposed to so many different characters and writing styles can help on a ton of levels, not just your own understanding of gender in writing.

      It also gives you more flexibility as far as feeling ‘committed’ or trapped with one character or scenario, since you’re not in complete control of the events going on around you. Your character will be forced to confront scenarios you would never have put them in, and it will help you make them more dynamic and realistic.

  • Donald Chappell

    What’s a GA film?

    • Targeted at general audiences, not a cult subculture.

  • chris

    As neither a writer, any sort of creative nor female, please indulge my outsider’s view.

    Men struggle to write women because they are (in my experience at least) much more mentally and emotionally complex. I’n the hoary old jokes that we all know (punchline Arsenal lost at the football, but hey I got laid; show up naked, bring beer etc etc ) there is a grain of truth.

    A female work colleague once told me (and this has been verified by other women I work with) that women are far more competitive and judgemental about each other than men, for example when getting ready to go out they dress up not for their man, but to show off to other women. Us blokes normally just pull onn what’s comfortable at the last minute. True.

    This is why men are easier to write about – we ARE simpler. The stereotypes are not demeaning (much) and are generally true. Classic example – Charlie Sheen’s character in 2 & 1/2 men, exaggerated, sure but comfortably recognisable: wants beer, sex and an easy life in no particular order.

    perhaps (and I’m guessing here) women react to female characters and therefore writers the same way they do to women they are in competition with.

    But, there are good well written female characters if you lose the tunnel vision a bit.

    Lisbeth in the millenium trilogy for starters. her bisexuality, her abuse, even her punk/goth appearence do not define her. Nor does her gender. She is a strong, intelligent if at times flawed human being – normal in fact.

    Going geek for a second look at the female characters in Dr Who spinoff ‘Torchwood’. While the TV series is not my cup of tea, the female leads are not the eyecandy, big-titted scream-machines that Sci-Fi ususally churns out. They are clever, but make mistakes, loving but occasionally treat their lovers badly, get rescued and rescue others. Again they are balanced, flawed and normal. Their gender rarely if ever is lit-up neon style – they are a character who happens to be female rather than a female character.

    Dont feel the need to pander to a stereotype or be diametrically opposed to it for its own sake. It’s a distraction from the plot (unless that is the plot, obviously). For any charater whether a man written by a woman vice versa or whatever, if they are perfect, they are boring. Men have flaws, women have flaws and they are what make us interesting.

    Dont try too hard.

  • Ryan Lucchesi

    I feel like the end of your thoughts hits things right on the head. People are too concerned with writing females rather then characters.

    I feel like this is generally where people get bogged down. They get too wrapped up in the fact that a character is “black, white, female, male, gay, straight” rather then what influences bring the character to life naturally.

    A friend of mine and I were just having this discussion about a short film we are developing. With preconceived prejudices (which we all have to one extent or another, for better or worse) it makes it difficult to write something without those biased elements involved in them somehow. The problem becomes that we are so self-conscience of these biases that we end up writing not from the heart but from this weird objective outside place. I feel like objectivity is necessary during the rewriting process but not so much the writing process.

    Once we have the story then we can determine if a character is too this or too that, or not really representative of his/her gender, race, sexual-orientation, social class, etc. etc. The problem is we don’t want to show anyone our own biases on paper.

    A natural character allows for the influences of the story to be made on them in such a way that ostensibly one ought to be able to (with a little rework) completely change the gender, race, sexual orientation of the character and have things still work. Obviously there are exceptions to this rule, one of them being a period piece where other social influences of the time need to be taken into consideration as well.

    That’s just my opinion on it.

    Good luck and God speed.

  • Here’s my question: Are you writing a female character that happens to be an engaging lead personality, or are you writing an engaging lead that happens to be female?

    The ‘secret’ is that the things that happen to a character based on external characteristics like gender or race do not intrinsically define their personality. When someone reflects the damage of oppression, for example, it’s generally because they’ve generated a sense of insecurity during their development while the fact that it’s socially “safe” to mistreat them based on their gender (or race, or even age or body type to really expand it) gives them a reinforcement characteristic to support and sustain the quality of insecurity.

    Just one example… So perhaps the issue may be that you’re trying to approach a character from how outside forces would define her, instead of creating a compelling character that incidentally has to deal with these concerns the outside world would force on her.

    Here’s another question: Is your central conflict social oppression that encompasses the character and how that conflict is resolved, or how the character faces social oppression by virtue of who they are and how that character overcomes their specific iteration of the larger order of oppression?

    Or maybe the gender issues aren’t even supposed to be central… If so, don’t make them. Putting aside politics and sensitivities and the like, just because the outside world puts a label on someone, they have to embrace that label to actually become it. Just write interesting characters ignoring arbitrary characteristics instead of trying to define anything by them (unless you are trying to make less-dimensional characters like that to represent archetypal behaviors and facilitate conflict, of course) then throw them into a setting and let the characters organically interact. You can throw in signposts that you want to guide the characters to, but in the end strong characters have to be full-bodied.

  • Brett

    the Twilight fantasies of a repressed housewife that got published as much as the next guy, but it makes me kinda ill to see how much hate the main character gets when similar male mains may not. Take the main character for Dan Brown’s books. Langdon, I think. If possible, he has even less personality than Bella, but nowhere near as much vitriol.

    In the case of Langdon, I think it’s because Dan Brown’s novels are thrillers (and not surprisingly, plot-centric). We don’t care about Langdon’s character because he’s just a device to keep the plot going.

    • The same is true for Bella; Twilight just happens to be a romance targeted at women; cue: VITRIOL.

      • Brett

        The same is true for Bella; Twilight just happens to be a romance targeted at women; cue: VITRIOL.

        I think Langdon leaves even less of an impression on readers than Bella, which makes him harder to hate (and like) than her. That, in spite of Bella being a more-or-less “insert yourself here” type of character.

  • Sandy Schaefer

    Y’know, this reminds me – as much as a lot of people (myself including) often start rolling their eyes when the name James Cameron pops up, the man has devised some rather strong female characters that are engaging and likable because… well, they’re well-written characters first, not “strong women.”

    Like you pointed out, Bella from Twilight is a weak, passive character, but it’s not as though there aren’t similarly poorly conceived male leads out there. Granted, she’s especially weak and just dull in comparison to other female literary characters like Katniss from The Hunger Games or Coraline from… er, Coraline, but mostly Bella’s a lame character because, well, she’s poorly written.

    Most of the best female characters in current pop culture (like Mattie Ross, Ree Dolly, Lisbeth Salander, etc.) work well, not because they’re “strong feminist models,” but because they’re engaging lead characters first. They act and are treated like real people, and their actions have real consequences.

    Anyway… just some random thoughts. Keep up the fight, you’ll get where you need to eventually.

  • You certainly have a good point regarding female characters in literature. Because there are so few female mains – and because they tend to hew to certain creaky stereotypes – every heroine in modern fiction has become a representative of her gender. The lazy way around this is to flip all the cliches, but that never really works, does it? A stereotype inverted is still a stereotype. The tough-as-nails, take-no-guff action woman is no more original or respectful than the damsel in distress. I think that’s more of a problem with bad characterization in general than stereotypes, though. After all, it’s also true of gay characters, who are quite rare in fiction even today. When it comes to gay characters, most writers only think in terms of the mincing queen or the flawless everyman and exemplar of his preference, so they just don’t bother.

    Part of the problem is the way people view these traits. A lot of hack writers treat gender like it’s something they need to write around, as though it were the end-all be-all of the character. Really, though, gender is a trait that should not have any intrinsic impact on a character’s personality. That’s not to say that you should ignore it, particularly in light of the story you’re writing. Rather, the impact of gender (or race, or sexuality) is external rather than internal. It’s easy to forget that the setting impacts the characters as much as the characters impact the setting. In a wholly fictitious setting, this may not matter so much, but in a story set in a real world place in a real world era, it’s vital. That’s the problem you have to confront.

    Here’s my advice: When designing a character, start with a generic person who lacks gender. Decide how you want this person to behave, what background this person will possess. Once you’ve done this, step back and ask yourself: “How would being female in India in the 19th Century affect this character?” Obviously, this would have an impact on her upbringing and her standing in society. It would change how she would react in different situations without changing her actual character. Put her in a different time or place, and she’ll behave differently.

    Most of all, for a story such as this, you need to stop thinking in terms of stereotypes. I’m not so well-versed in Indian history or culture, but I can state that in general, traditional societies tend to have people who behave according to certain archetypes. The very concept of “stereotypes” is largely a product of an open society where people are free to behave as they please. When you have that degree of personal liberty, you tend to behave in a manner that is unique to you. In a more restrictive society, people naturally assume certain roles, complete with patterns of behavior. To co-opt a phrase, those stereotypes are a feature, not a bug. Yes, there are going to be people who only see the stereotype and nothing else, but there are always going to be people who don’t get it. Never let them dictate the boundaries of your writing, or you’ll always come up short.

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  • Someone very good looking

    Read some Andre Norton. Strong women galore. After reading a lot of her work over the years I came to the conclusion that a strong female character is not built that way. She is strong because like any woman the character just gets on with it. She cries, she laughs she bleeds but at the end of the day she has the dishes done, the world saved and the suitors shown the back door because ladys always have something to do even if that means doing nothing at all.
    Equally worth viewing is Piers Anthony’s work. How NOT to write a female character, apart from the sorceress in the Xanth series. She was the only strong female character going on and yet ridiculed immensely by the author.
    The main character from Long kiss goodnight is an interesting but ever changing female character. She goes through a spectrum but always there is the current of both her beginning and ending form within both. Really they shouldn’t mix but mix they do and really that is what brings life to the character. No one can be apart of a single world of thought, women included.

    • HKatch

      Another author to pick up would be Jennifer Fallon. Every one of her book series includes all types of women. I would suggest the Second Suns Trilogy to start.

  • LightRider

    Have you seen Contact recently? I think it has a great female lead that isn’t in a mindless romance.

  • leeatard

    Wow, that bit about Transformers got me thinking…what if they dropped Shia’s character completely and had Megan Fox’s character be the focus? She had that mechanic background (that Shia’s character lacked…even though the same character in the animated series had this trait) that could have easily been fleshed out into a stronger supporting role. It almost writes itself.

    Also: Have you read the comic Runaways? It doesn’t really feature a main character and has a strong female cast that never struck me as pandering or trying to reach a quota.

    • Ugh, yes, and yes. Goddamn that just makes me mad because it makes fucking sense. I love how they made the “lesser” character more equipped to be the main character even though it would have made more fucking sense and we wouldn’t have needed to deal with that goddamn love story or those fucking retarded ebay glassses.

      Excuse my product placement dropping that’s the vodka talking. But seriously. Fuck Shia’s character much and all he stands for.

      • Creature SH

        It amazes me that, after four years, there are still more unexplored reasons to hate the first of those wretched movies.

  • Simon B

    This may be completely unhelpful, but I once wrote, or at least created a female character, several female characters, that were character First, and female second.

    Mostly, I’ve always put 2 fingers up to making female characters as women first and characters second, because that’s bull. And anyone who cries “Mary Sue!” or other such hot air is Trollin’, and who gives a crap about trolls?

    Not me.

    And neither should you, or anyone. Yours is the Drill that will pierce the heavens! 🙂

  • You might want to try reading some Margaret Atwood for inspiration.

    I can’t quite put my finger on it but she’s really, really adept at writing with female main characters. She manages to keep them realistic and flawed yet still likable. She also avoids the typical cliche of “strong and independent” that some writers use to over compensate. Honestly, I think Margaret Atwood is really good at writing characters of both genders.

    Her story Surfacing has the best female protagonist in my opinion.

    Also, you might want to check out The Year of the Flood. It’s a companion to her earlier novel Oryx and Crake. Oryx and Crake is written from a male perspective while the companion is written from the female perspective. I mention Oryx and Crake because in order to fully enjoy The Year of the Flood you might want to read that one first.

  • Coffee Rocket

    I guess, the positive side is, we are kind of making progress in this area. Not really in movies, but a bit in books. Granted we still have to deal with Bella Swan, and J.K. Rowling did have to keep her actual name relatively private to pander to the male demographic. But if you look at something like The Lovely Bones, which had a female protagonist and narrator, that became a hit overnight. I don’t know. It’s not much, and Hollywood certainly isn’t there – case in point, how PJ’s movie version of The Lovely Bones was immediately branded as a shallow Twilightesque chick flick for its trouble – but…eh. It’s something.

  • Derekly

    You remind me of my aunt. She’s an artist working at a university, but she would draw pictures when she was younger, trying to copy things and drawing still life just right. Her father would look at her pictures when she was done, and tell her the stuff she missed. Anyway, years later she went to study art in college, and still tried to do to make sure she did things exactly right. Her teacher told that her real problem wasn’t that she couldn’t do things just right. It was that she needed to chill out.

    It’s the same for you. Just chill and do it. No you won’t make the strong female character that everyone wants. Hell, don’t even try to do that. Whether or not your character wears a dress or not will make or break whether the character is strong for some people. She wears pants all the time, someone says there’s something wrong with her since a strong woman would not get hung up on wearing a dress, but if she wears a dress, now someone says she’s giving into the patriachy and isn’t strong. Kinda reminds me of the whole virgin or whore dichotomy.

    You’ll probably make a character that doesn’t even please you as much as you want. I’m sure in the videos you’ve made you can tell us errors that bugged you, stuff you wanted to do but couldn’t, etc.

    And there is only one way to get good at writing female main characters. And that’s by writing them over and over again. It’s the same way people get good at drawing, making music, and how you’ve gotten better with your Nostalgia Chick videos. Start out not so good, and then with repitition get better.

  • Less Ashamed

    So here’s the catch 22: if a female is shown as not strong or independent, she’ll be too subtle, or repressed, or phoned in, or a token character, insipid, exploited, or infuriating. Any weak moment will read as ‘not strong’ and any character who seems stronger will outshine her. At very least, this will be how it’s read to a more feminist mind who gives a shit about this kind of thing. (btw, I include myself, a male, in that ‘gives-a-shit’ category)

    If she’s portrayed as strong, she might come off as fake, brutish, unfeeling, written in, too aggressive, too unrealistic, or well, just unfeminine. Worse still, this will be criticized by both the feminist mind and the non-feminist mind alike.

    A good writing exercise might be to attempt to shoot out a few paragraphs or a short story where gender role’s importance is minimized or, for lack of a better word, neutralized without being SO cliche.

    Perhaps a modern day ranma 1/2 story, or a drama about a cross dresser…

    Perhaps a story about a brother and sister with androgynous names who adventure together. One is curious and the other quiet, and then halfway through the story, reverse which gender you thought was which… better yet, never reveal the genders and see if you can flesh out the characters and still keep people guessing.

    Another alternative might be to think of an outside-of-the-box circumstance. A character which comes to mind is Firefly’s River Tam. She’s a confident, super-human, powerful, ultra-able genius kid in a tortured, crazy, essentially mentally-handicapped body. Strength and weakness as one makes her portrayal as a woman nearly a moot point.

    In any case, good luck.

  • ZekyZek

    I have to say this, your inability to write female character is not because you are a woman and prejudice is alive and well in this world. It’s just your inability to write a female charcter. Don’t blame your gender for your lack of talent.

  • JustanOpinion

    You shouldn’t worry about how stupid or stereotypically female your main character may seem. I think you’ve paralyzed yourself, by setting up limitations on how flawed your main character can be. Flawed characters are interesting to read and write, perfect characters are boring.

  • Thanks for articulating this – I think it’s something a lot of writers [not just women, but creators in general] struggle with but have a hard time pinning down in their rational brains because it seems SO DUMB. In my secret heart, I’ve always believed this is the thing that makes amateur slash fiction such a female-dominated subculture. Dudes are safe, because they don’t get the lady-microscope turned onto them.

    As far as actually writing the shit goes, sometimes I go Alien-style and write scripts for characters with unspecified genders. It’s hard, but even if it doesn’t work for you it’s a good exercise [the shorter the script, the easier this is to do]. Alternatively, you can try writing the same character with the opposite sex every time you sit down to work on the story. Go back and look at the work you did when you were thinking of the character as male, then as female. See what changes.

    But on the bright side: Privilege Denying Dude has good news for us!

  • intrigued

    you wrote christian romance novels? do tell… 🙂

  • Lisa

    Reading this makes me think of the Mass Effect series, and the fact that you can play your character as either a male or female. The dialog is the same (with minimal differences) for both genders, and in the end, I felt like I had gotten to know and love my Commander Shepard- that she was a strong role model who was also a woman.

    I think it’s hard to write a *person* in general and make it believable. I’m overly sensitive to criticism- my characters would be doing their taxes and be utterly nondescript in order to beat a Mary-Sue label. But who would want to read about that? We want to read about amazing women who can do things we can’t or wouldn’t do.

    The word Mary Sue is thrown around way too much anyway, and it can be applied to any character in fiction if you try hard enough. I don’t think that either Bella or Katniss fit the definition. I haven’t read Twilight, just seen the incredible movies with Rifftrax, but her amazing powers seem to be that she’s useless. Katniss who is much more fleshed out shows a complete person who is psychotically damaged, selfish, brave, etc You could replace her with a male character and no one would call her a Mary Sue.

    I don’t really have writing advice except to try to keep the experience authentic for the reader “yes, I would respond that way as well, I can relate to that, etc.” works for a male or female character.

  • Macavity

    I’m guessing you have better things to do, but my advice is simple. Read FableHaven (the whole series) by Brandon Mull.

  • Myke”Colby”J

    I agree that most of the Disney main characters are mainly female, but its because that most males dont have the idea on what it is like to be through the struggles of a female. But thats not always true, some females are just as strong, hell even stronger than males. Take for example the Tyler Perry movies. Tyler himself aims all of his main characters as strong empowering women who overcome adversity. And speaking of main female characters, I have watched the whole series of Inuyasha and Ive noticed, mostly around the 1 season, that the main character is female and has the same cliché of presenting strong empowering women. But, let me get off that tangent and say that the upcoming Disney film, “Mars needs Moms” main character is a male, but I think it is trying too use the mother as the stagnant character and the son of the mother who is kidnapped by aliens is the strong character who probably is the lead role.

  • interesting

    Blah blah blah blah blah! Blah blah blah blah blah, blah blah blah.

    Blah blah blah blah blah blah!!

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  • cathal

    I generally avoid mary-sueism by just making my characters as horrible as possible. If I find a character isn’t working i change some visible-but-meaningless thing about them, like their gender, age or sexuality. This opens up a box of pre-conceived stereotypes that are automatically subverted by what you’ve already got. Bonus points is that it gives a whole box of pre-conceived stereotypes to use while writing the character that way, after which you can easily change them back.

    I find it harder to write men actually, I guess i see less of a mystery about them. Writing women feels like exploring a new world, writing men feels… a bit like I’m MarySueing I guess. I’m less familiar with what guys do when they aren’t me, my brother was quiet and my sisters were really loud. I find women annoying but fascinating, i find men annoying and boring.

  • I wonder

    I’m caught between wanting an increase in strong, well-rounded female characters in literature (or psuedo-literature, however you’d think to classify Twilight) period, and debating whether I more should be interested in seeing well-writtenones, by someone who actually has perspective and a good bit of insight. Heck, as a black female, I’m tired of wondering when anyone other than Toni Morrison or Zane is going to try writing us without doing so in a stereotypical freak-in-the-sheets, “oh-no-you-di’in’t girlfriend” character I’m so used to (and tired of) seeing everywhere.

    I can only hope.

  • L

    The first book by Ayn Rand– wait, don’t go yet!– that I ever read was her “Art of Fiction,” and from that I’d formed the opinion that she was a marvelously lucid writer. I disagreed with some of her points, such as that a writer must set up every detail of the world, particularly character traits, as a representative of impeccable moral position, that the heroism of the main character must never be undermined by flawed personal character traits or else the moral position s/he represents will also be undermined (oh noes!) Also that art is primarily moralistic, not… uh, aesthetic. Huhwhaa? Anyway, I think that conviction explained the Mary Sues and Villain Stus I read later in “Atlas Shrugged” (and why I believe her moral philosophy is faulty, because it’s based on this same willful ignorance.)

    But she did also write that if, while writing your character, you keep all the character traits in mind: every line of dialogue, ever action, cross-checked with a laundry list of character traits… you will never be able to do it. You’ll be paralyzed with calculating when you should be creating. And in that, I think she was spot-on.

    Readers and critics can pick away at Rand’s books’ anti-feminist undercurrents: Dagny Taggart despite being the main character seems to be the only female engineer in their group of geniuses, the other genius women being mostly artists or mothers, and as Rand insisted that there is no such thing as luck and every word or facet of her novels are purposeful… that’s by no means an unfortunate implication or coincidence that keeping to the gender roles in her books goes for the most part uncriticized.

    I’d attribute it, though Rand herself would never, to Rand being a child of the times. So are you. Once you’ve got your novel out, you’ll get feedback, and some will be disappointed feminists, and maybe you’ll choose to inculcate that valid and insightful critique, or maybe you’ll see that they’re just trolling or whining and stand by your artistic choice. You would have actually created something, though, which trumps the ease of nitpicking someone else’s work any day. Why be so afraid of criticism?

    That said, I’m pretty sure that sensitivity in a writer is a good thing. Are you also sure that it’s liberalism to blame for your limits? I would have thought it more the vehicle of change to recognize and break down the cliches. If anyone’s vilifying your personal choices instead of recognizing the institutionalized and systemic misogyny at the root of what really troubles them, then they probably don’t really get liberalism do they?

  • It’s hard, but I love the idea Neil Gaiman has when writing women. He writes them without the preconceived notion that they are women and instead writes them like a normal person. Tarantino also does this, which is why most of his women tend to be strong, badass and ultimately memorable for not taking any shit.

    It’s a difficult thing to get out of (which is why I haven’t cracked a screenplay for quite some time) but if you put your mind to it and just say ‘fuck gender’ then a woman will be born much easier from the pen (or the finger to a keyboard).

  • DensityDuck

    I’d think that the way to deal with it is to write the story you want to read, and write the characters you want to write. Let your work find it’s own audience.

    The earlier mention of “Atlas Shrugged” is instructive, because AS is pretty much the platonic ideal of a novel written as an ideological lesson. And if you wan to write an ideological lesson, that’s okay, but you can’t be fretting about whether your characters seem ‘real’ because that’s no longer an option.

  • Ben

    You said it yourself in your review of Titanic (although perhaps the Nostalgia Chick’s opinion isn’t yours): Write her as a person first, a woman second. Don’t be afraid to use people you know as models for characters either. Or if that fails, think of what someone raised like her would think and do. As a dude and a writer, I’m working on getting my characters (especially females) more real too, so we’re in the same boat. You may find it easier to just write the draft and then go back and change things (if you have time).

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