Writing Female Characters: Damned If You Do

13 Jun

I have not been writing much, clearly.  I think the reason is that I’ve become a little bit fed up with feminism these days.  It happens from time to time, but this time, it’s been a bit harder to shake.  Am I still a feminist?  Absolutely.  But sometimes, I get a little weary with the in-fighting and the nit-picking.  Even the most well-intentioned parts of the internet have the tendency to devolve into… well, this.

But during my absence from online feminism, I’ve been watching HBO’s series Game of Thrones with a friend of mine, and I’m sure he won’t mind me saying that we had a bit of a spirited discussion regarding female characters in the show.  My complaint was that most of the female characters only exist in relation to their husbands – while the men sit around talking politics, the women sit around talking about their men.  My friend brought up the character Arya – a classic tomboy – to counter my argument, which then got me thinking about the way a character like Arya’s might be deconstructed from a feminist perspective.

It seems that, when writing female characters, you’re often damned if you try anything at all.  At first glance, Arya truly bucks the social norms established in the show.  She wears trousers, she fights, she’s good with a bow and arrow, she’s loud and willful, and she kicks ass.  However, I can predict that many critics would argue that she’s not feminist at all.  There is a school of thought that says that female characters who conform to the gender expectations of men rather than women only serve to reinforce a culture in which “girl things” suck, and “boy things” rule.  Conversely, female characters who conform to female gender norms don’t tend to wow anyone, either.

So how on earth do you please the feminists, ye writers of fiction who want to give the ladies a fair shake?  If the girls do girl things, they’re pissed.  If the girls don’t do girl things, they’re pissed.  What’s a writer to do?  Luckily, I’ve put together a list of handy-dandy tips that I’m sure no one will reference ever.  Aren’t we all fortunate?

1.  You can’t please everyone, so stop trying.

The thing about criticism is that I think the vast majority of people don’t understand what its purpose is, and that includes the people who receive it as well as those who dole it out.  When we subject television shows or books or movies to feminist criticism, what we’re really doing is analyzing it from a feminist perspective.  Some seem to think that if a piece of media doesn’t meet their feminist standards that there’s something wrong with it.  That’s not true – it just doesn’t meet their feminist standards.  Perhaps if feminism wasn’t such a passionate world view for so many people, we wouldn’t get so confused.  I’ve done a lot of criticism from a Freudian or psychoanalytic perspective, and I’d guess that you’d be hard-pressed to argue that if something doesn’t conform to Freud’s psychosexual stages of development, it’s just shit.

This is not to say that one shouldn’t try to write good female characters.  My point is that getting bogged down in what’s going to pass the “feminist test” (as if there was one!) is just likely to drive you up the wall.

2.  Play the gender bender game.

I am a fan of writing exercises.  Anyone who has ever taken a creative writing course has probably been challenged to write a scene, and then rewrite it from someone else’s perspective.  Often, changing perspective allows writers to gain insight into their characters, and often, they’ll find that they’ve been focusing on the wrong character.  Similarly, I’d challenge you to write a scene, and then change one or more of your male characters to female characters.  How does it affect the story?  Maybe you’ll notice that some of your “action characters” – which are typically male – can work just as well if they’re women.  A huge problem in media is that male characters are the ones who typically drive the action of a story.  I might be idealistic, but I’m of the opinion that most of the time, writers don’t do this intentionally.  We, like anyone else, are affected by societal norms, and sometimes we write males as “action characters” simply because it feels right.  Playing the gender game and switching gender up while you’re in your workshopping stage might lead you somewhere unexpected.

3.  Subject your work to the Bechdel test.

Let’s make this clear – the Bechdel test is highly unscientific.  It doesn’t tell us anything substantial about a work, but it can be useful to use as a critical tool to diagnose the strength of female characters.  The Bechdel test originally appeared in a comic by Alison Bechdel, in which a character asserts that she only sees movies that meet the following criteria: 1.) there must be two female characters, 2.) who talk to each other, 3.) for longer than a minute, 4.) about anything other than a man.  Clearly, this is not a scientific test, but it is pretty funny to consider how many films don’t meet this criteria.  Passing the Bechdel test does not mean that a movie gets an automatic feminist stamp of approval, but it’s pretty telling, especially when we consider how many movies there are in which two men have a minute-long conversation about something other than a woman.

I’d advise writers to subject their work to a modified version of the Bechdel test.  Again, if your work has good reason not to pass, your work has good reason not to pass – and even if it does pass, two female characters having a long drool-fest about shoes is not likely to win you any favor with feminists.  The underlying idea, however, is that a good female character is not a token (therefore, there’s probably more than one woman), and she does not exist solely in relation to male characters (hence, she would have conversations about something other than the male characters).

4.  Read awesome female characters.

Reading is good advice for any writer.  The more you read, the better you write.  It stands to reason that the more awesome female characters you read about, the more awesome your female characters are going to be.  Off the top of my head, Lyra from the His Dark Materials series is complex, drives the action of the story, and isn’t easily stereotyped (in fact, the villain in those books, Mrs. Coulter, is a pretty interesting female character, too).  Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates both write fantastic female characters.  If you’re into alternative fiction, Tom Robbins writes mostly female protagonists.  And of course, I’m open to any and all suggestions in the comments section.

Overall, ye writers of fiction, write female characters not because you want to avoid the wrath of internet feminists, but write them because they are interesting.  Write them because women’s stories are different from men’s stories, and nothing is better in fiction than telling new stories.  Write them because half of your potential audience are women.  Write them even if it feels like you’re damned if you do.

One Response to “Writing Female Characters: Damned If You Do”


  1. Best Art Blog » Writing Female Characters: Damned If You Do « Dumping Grounds - June 15, 2011

    […] here: Writing Female Characters: Damned If You Do « Dumping Grounds Categories: Books, Uncategorized Tags: books, feminist, feminist-criticism, gender, media-doesn, […]

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