gathering fodder

My recent SF Novelists posts, and a related series of posts by Kate Elliott and Ken Scholes over on Babel Clash, have turned up several male writers saying they’re nervous about writing female characters because they’re worried they’ll get it wrong. And I point at the second my posts I just linked as proof that I don’t think it’s so hard — but I’ve realized that’s a bit disingenuous. There are ways writers (male and female alike) screw it up. They just aren’t the ones people seem to be worrying about when they say “but I don’t know how to write women!”

So I’d like some help gathering fodder for more posts on the topic, this time looking at the common pitfalls. (And how to avoid them, but really, 90% of that is noticing the pit before you fall into it.) I’m thinking of things like Women in Refrigerators and the Madonna-Whore complex. What other things can you add to the list?

0 Responses to “gathering fodder”

  1. shanna_s

    The main thing that drives me nuts right now in popular culture, since it’s so prevalent, is the woman as antagonist merely for wanting a man to be a grown-up. It’s sort of a Peter Pan and Wendy dynamic, where they should be peers, but she’s put in the “mother” role and has to be the grownup, while he refuses to grow up.

    The result is usually a woman who is depicted in a negative light for being mature and responsible and expecting a man to be mature and responsible. She has totally forgotten how to be fun or to let her guard down, and she comes across as brittle and bitchy. This is often the ex of the male hero.

    A lot of writers seem to be incapable of writing a woman who is mature and responsible, who cares about her job and wants to succeed and who would like a man her age to act like a grownup without making her a total bitch. It is possible to be successful and dedicated, to hold down a job and pay your bills on time, and still have fun and have a sense of humor.

  2. lanerobins

    The thing I see, fairly often, is the sliding competence scale. The woman comes in all uber-competent and independent and is lauded for it, but once the man hits the page/screen, she defers to his orders on every occasion, starts making mistakes, or desperately needs his advice. I’m not saying she can’t learn things from him (or from anyone else for that matter), it’s the fact that she suddenly becomes less than she was. Heroines (and heroes) are supposed to grow stronger by vying with or working with each other, not lessen themselves.

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot of late, ever since I read two separate fantasies where, at the climactic battle, the woman had nothing to contribute, and made me wonder why she was even there. She’d been lessened so much by that point that the victory wasn’t even hers.

  3. squirrel_monkey

    Woman who is motivated entirely by having been raped in the past.

  4. calanthe_b

    Here via friendsfriends, had to contribute…

    A big one for me is female characters who are entirely isolated from other female characters – who only interact with, talk to, care about, male characters. In real life, women talk to each other, and have relationships between themselves that have nothing to do with men…

    Or female characters who only ever have antagonistic relationships with other women.

    Another big one for me is the complete absence of older, and elderly, women.

    • ithiliana

      Re: Here via friendsfriends, had to contribute…

      Ditto, ditto, ditto, many times ditto, WORD, and IAWTC!

    • kateelliott

      Re: Here via friendsfriends, had to contribute…

      Yes, this, totally. All of it.

    • coraa

      Re: Here via friendsfriends, had to contribute…

      Yes, all of this.

      I was going to touch on the ‘female characters who only ever have antagonistic relationships with other women’ — specifically, I think a lot of authors internalize a ‘women are catty’ thing, and then make cattiness/backstabbing/gossip/bitchiness the defining feature of every female-female interaction. (This makes me wince particularly if the author is capable of writing strong male-male friendships; the implied message is that women are just not capable of being friends with one another, which, ouch.)

      It goes double if they can get along fine on their own, but as soon as a man appears, they all fall over themselves to backstab each other in order to look good to him. I’ve seen that far too often.

      • calanthe_b

        Re: Here via friendsfriends, had to contribute…

        It goes double if they can get along fine on their own, but as soon as a man appears, they all fall over themselves to backstab each other in order to look good to him. I’ve seen that far too often.

        Yes. I’m actually fine with female characters who have antagonistic relationships for interesting reasons – irreconcileable philosophical differences, family history, politics, you name it – so long as they also have positive relationships with other female characters too. But how often does one see that? Female characters have antagonistic relationships with other female characters primarily because of men. Which is another way of putting men at the centre of everything, which…does not reflect reality, frankly.

  5. akashiver

    From CW:

    “Leading with the boobs” – when a female character is introduced by the author telling us how hot she is, followed (maybe) with something about how much money she earns and then (if at all) something about her personality. The main purpose is, of course, to establish that the male lead has a hot love interest. And did we mention HOT? (Unless this is meant to reveal the pov character to be a sexist jerk, this is not a good idea.)

    Note: some people get confused and assume that any reference to a character being female/putting on makeup/paying attention to dress counts as leading with the boobs, and thus write a “female” character who is completely sexless. This does not need to happen (and probably shouldn’t.)

    By all means write a “hot” character, but put something behind the cleavage! It takes a lot of work to look “hot.” What makeup does this woman wear? What clothes has she chosen to put on for this occasion? Does she follow fashion closely & have a subscription to Vogue, or does she get her clothes from a thrift store? These details reveal character, and reveal also that the author has thought about what’s going on inside this woman’s head.

    In general, I think the rules are the same whenever you write a character who-is-something-you-are-not. Do research. Ask people-who-are-this-thing how to make this character more believable. Women make up 50% of the population: it’s not hard to find one to ask “what kind of chainmail would YOU wear?”

    • mrissa

      Re: From CW:

      Also, most hot people do not think about being hot very much of the time. I would know, as I am totally hot, and also very unprepossessing.

      • pentane

        Re: From CW:

        Interestingly, that’s true.

        Less interestingly (or more as you prefer), it seems to shape the personality in ways you don’t recognize until it’s “too late”.

  6. nojojojo

    This might be a good place to start.

  7. mrissa

    One thing that really bugs me is My Wife Is Everywoman Syndrome. You get this in male writers who only know one adult woman really well as a peer, and they love her and think the world of her, but they end up putting her specific traits in every single positive female character they write.

    Also there is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Problem–I think it’s called that. It’s not my term. But it’s sort of the flip side of the Peter Pan/Wendy dynamic describes: the girl is this crazy artistic free spirit wet dream, and the guy’s total lack of interesting traits becomes a positive thing because he can anchor her and shelter her and keep her connected to the real world at the same time as he adores her Totally Wacky habits of dancing to random music at random intervals and admiring ladybugs and asking socially awkward questions.

    I have a particularly personal problem with the above, because I have two ex-boyfriends who tried to make me into Manic Pixie Dream Girl in real life. Two. Me. Practicality and firmly grounded logistics are among my sharpest traits, but I do creative work and have boobs and long hair, so they were completely unable to perceive it, they had so internalized that storyline.

  8. kateelliott

    The one guy made such an interesting comment about how he was ok with women set in the modern day but once he added fantasy trappings he found it difficult to write female characters. I asked a few questions, and I hope he comes back to answer them, because I think there are some unexamined assumptions in there about the past, and women, that are getting in his way. That’s my guess, anyway.

  9. midnight_sidhe

    Some male authors seem to write female characters to embody their own pet fantasies about women rather than try to create an actual woman. But I suspect that the men who do this aren’t the same ones who worry about whether they’re writing realistic female characters.

  10. stormsdotter

    I’d like to see more lesbians in Fantasy. Which is why I’m writing (slowly) a novel about a lesbian swordswoman. 🙂

  11. londonkds

    Here via .

    Not that common now but very annoying when it happens: woman who is competent, physically or socially powerful and independent until she finally hooks up with the hero, when she becomes domestic, submissive and loses all her motivations and interests outside the home. Makes it look as if her initial coolness was just to make the hero seem powerful by “taming” her.

    Now that in many parts of genre lesbianism is used for overtly titillating tendencies, you do not get to claim to be politically groundbreaking and progressive for depicting f/f unless you also have an m/m couple depicted with equal or greater sexual explicitness.

  12. takumashii

    Sometimes it seems as if the author (or narrator) has only three buckets for women to fall into: “Hot,” “Ugly or weird or old but I’d sleep with her,” and “Too ugly/weird/old to sleep with.” The woman may have other traits, but it always evaluated primarily in terms of sex appeal.

  13. seajules

    If there is explicit or semi-explicit sex, the women the hero sleeps with all have extremely sensitive erogenous zones precisely where he’d like them to be. Or, if the protagonist is the woman and she sleeps with anyone, she still has extremely sensitive erogenous zones precisely where the media tells us men would like them to be. Sex is only ever painful if it’s with “the wrong partner,” and even then the physical pain is only mild, the main focus is the emotional pain.

    I specifically mention this one because I’ve seen a lot of excellent essays and articles on what writers get wrong when writing women, but this particular point is never addressed that I’ve found, and I think it’s one of the most damaging tropes to enter our fiction. Women aren’t interchangeable even in our physical responses, and some of us have medical issues related to sex that are not going to go away just because we’ve found “the right partner.”

  14. pameladean

    I was hoping to be able to dredge some examples from the murk of my brain, but thought I’d put this up anyway. I think I have mostly seen this in mystery novels. You have a perfectly fine female character, with competencies and interesting personality traits and a history and everything, but she has no agency. She’s just kind of there. She doesn’t even do what’s mentioned above, make mistakes and get in the way, she just stands around, displaying all this characterization in a weird static form while the men do everything. It’s as if the author left the life-force out or something.


  15. stakebait

    My 2 cents for what they’re worth

    A lot of the most avoidable errors for me comes down to a POV problem — women looking at themselves as someone outside would look at them. “She looked in the mirror at her size 36B breasts…” unless she just hit puberty or just had a boob job, why would she think like this? This is really just a specialized case of why “he looked out to sea and remembered he controlled a large navy” is not convincing unless he previously had amnesia.

    A pair of more subtle problems is making nothing about being female (she’s just like a guy except she “happens” to be female/making everything about being female, to the point where writing a member of the group woman swamps writing an individual. The key to this, IMO, is not so much striking a happy medium (because plenty of people aren’t at all middle of the road) as making sure you are looking through the combination of the lens of her personal history with the lens of her society. Places where they conflict are going to be interesting sources of story and character development. Places where they match are going to be things she and people around her likely take for granted.

    One common trope I see is for women to fight, when they fight, primarily for personal relationships while men fight for abstract causes. While there may be some truth to this, especially in a story set in 1950-1980 America, it gets old.

    Another common problem is to show only women who are love/lust interests or potential love/lust interests, or rescue-bait, while men show up in a full range of roles — including unattractive ones where that’s not particularly the point. Think British TV versus American.

    If you’ve got sex, barring magic, you’ve got pregnancy and STDs. Cannot be ignored. Doubly so for women, especially in historicals where the double standard is alive and well. OTOH, history is full of people who broke the rules and some even got away with it — just don’t handwave the risks and consequences.

    Try to avoid stacking the deck. It’s fine to have a main character who adores mischevious minxes and hates ballbusting bitches — or vice versa — but try to make sure he’s not always right — that the larger plot doesn’t always reward his favorites and punish his pet peeves.

    A female beta reader or four is always good. Doesn’t mean you have to do what they say, but if they all agree something rings false, at least think about it.

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