Writing Female Characters, Take Two

A female character of the Original variety; the design is mine, the art is the splendiferous BunChata’s. This demon drinks because I am an idiot.

Some time ago, I wrote this well-intentioned but, in retrospect, faulty post about female characters called A Manly Male Man’s Primer For Writing Female Characters, By a Man.

I won’t lie to you all: while it had its good parts, I believe it’s one of my worst articles from recent years. I like to think by my current standards that just means “good but with serious flaws”, but that’s really for you readers to decide, isn’t it? Its title has aged hilariously badly, too, as I now identify as gender non-binary.

EDIT, March 17, 2020: Oh, goodness, and if that aged badly, then this one aged faster than a man with poor choice in Grails. I’d planned on waiting longer to go public with my transition, but after committing to telling my parents about it after dinner last night, I decided I was tired of waiting. So, yes, I’m a trans woman. You’re all good ones, so I’m sure we shouldn’t have any problems there. Otherwise, all this post’s content should work just as well now as it did previously, so read on, friends!

Let me address the single worst line from that kindly-meant mishap. I’m paraphrasing, but:

“It didn’t matter if I understood women. I understood Gratai,” I wrote, in regards to my first book’s protagonist.

Right.

Let’s straighten this out for any who remain confused: women are people of female gender. You can absolutely, incontrovertibly, one hundred percent understand them if you just choose to listen and pay attention to them, as evidenced by the fact that there are women who do not understand women because they have chosen not to engage with other women’s experiences.

Women are not goddamn Cthulu. They do not emit ionizing radiation, nor are they comprised of non-Euclidean geometry. Even though I meant well at the time, my phrasing made it sound like women are so foreign, so unknowable, that for a (then-supposedly) male writer to claim understanding of them would be pure arrogance.

Sorry, ladies, but it turns out you’re all fucking Outer Gods and I can’t comprehend you.

Clarification: I am using “fucking” in its adjective form for emphasis. However, if any of you are fucking Outer Gods in the verbal sense, then congratulations, I am very jealous, and if it’s not too much trouble, could you ask them whether they do species changes on request? I would like to escape the dysphoric confines of my pathetic meat-prison.

Let’s, er, return to the topic at hand. Stupid sexy tentacles… AHEM!

So, whether you’re convinced that women are eldritch deities (that is, in a non-flattering way) and require reconditioning, or you’re just curious to see my thoughts, let’s get to it.

First: there may be edge cases, but I can think of none I would consider worth the risk, so: do not make your female character’s femininity their initial hook. Even the archetypal femme-fatale is defined first by the fact that she’s manipulative and sly, then by her sex appeal. To head to the opposite end of the spectrum, Ellen Ripley is defined by being a warrant officer aboard the Nostromo–that’s how the main article describing her on Wikipedia introduces her. Perfection.

I’m serious, it’s perfect, because if you read that line without knowing what the Alien franchise is and you’re not a drooling anti-cognizant yowler, your first question is: “Hey, wait a second, what’s the Nostromo?” to which I answer, “It’s an interstellar cargo-tug hauling an immense mining rig which resembles Gothic architecture,” and if you’re not sold on this movie by the end of that, I’m afraid there’s no possible reality in which we will ever be friends.

Ripley is often held up as an example of an empowered female character for excellent reason. She’s a woman, and that’s fine. It’s not the focus of her character. You follow, yes? Ripley is able to be a female character without the films forcing her to carry the standard for all women. She just gets to be a warrant officer–to pursue the life she chose.

That’s it, article’s done, you now know how to write female characters.

This time I’m only half joking. If you understand that principle well enough, you really don’t need me. But, of course, articles like this exist because many struggle with it. Look, if you want to write a female character but you’re not certain how to deal with women’s issues, let me stop you: why do you think you need to? Is there a point of worldbuilding you can’t get away from? Does this story exist to deal with them, or was it written to support a woman in your life?

If you don’t have a motivation like the above, there’s no reason you can’t write female characters without ever once examining the fact that they’re women. In fact, this is great! See above about Ripley being defined by her status as a warrant officer crewing a tug pulling a freaking space cathedral. The fact that Ripley could’ve been any gender and this would still work isn’t a bad thing.

Half of writing female characters is getting away from the idea that you need to justify including women by writing those justifications into their characters–a self-defeating effort since it casts the presence of a female character as a topic for debate. You never do this when you include a man, right? The idea that women are an exception requiring special reasons for being included is exactly what we want to destroy. The question isn’t “why?” it’s “why not?”

But, maybe you’re an ambitious type willing to risk bigger mistakes in order to tackle bigger ideas. Maybe you have no sense of self preservation and you love to bite off more than you can chew. This latter was the case for me in writing out Canno and the warstock for The Necromancer and the Revenant. 

All mothers are women. That’s, um, by definition. That said, there are women who can’t give birth, and men who can, and if you have trouble accepting those ideas then I need you to leave my blog this instant. Alright, so the rest of you are still with me? Wonderful, let’s continue.

The above acknowledged, the vast majority of those humans who become pregnant and carry children to term are cisgender women. There was no reason for this not to be the case on Canno in the timeframe I’m writing, and there’s the further wrinkle that if I decided to delve into things like trans masc pregnancy, I would end up providing trans representation via their participation in a brutal feudal culture which often reduces babies to permission slips allowing their parents to go to war.

I decided to err on the side of caution and not grapple with that starting from Book 1–this next bit is already troublesome enough. So, part of the hurdle negotiated by warstock women in this setting is that they consider themselves warriors first and foremost, but there won’t be any more warriors sooner or later if they’re always dying before they have children.

That’s not much of an impediment if you’re on the inseminating side of the equation, but it imposes pretty heavy logistical concerns–I’m sorry, this wasn’t supposed to be a joke about baby bumps–if you’re the one growing the damn spawn. Most cultures let warstock women figure this out on their own because, when a woman is six feet tall, trained for war and built like a powerlifter, it’s much harder to tell her when she will or won’t have children.

Which is a good thing, if we weren’t clear on that.

Why did I have to go into this at all, though? The truth is, I didn’t. I could’ve left the point unexamined. Perhaps I should have. It would be fair for any of you to argue that this whole idea reeks of malebrain (a condition, again, which one can suffer from without being male). I chose to run the risk because I believed it was worth it to examine the way that tying gender identity to the acquisition and application of power can foster toxic mindsets.

Key word, can foster toxic mindsets. It does not have to. If you have unhealthy emotions concerning power, those same emotions will naturally pollute anything you tie that power to. If you do not, then power only allows you to express your healthy emotions with greater emphasis. Returning to tying power to your gender identity and the corruption this can cause–it likely sounds familiar to many of you. On Earth, we call this toxic masculinity; in the Ton-Ga Bogs of Canno, it’s created toxic feminism.

In the same way that the less well-meaning Earth feminists can sometimes play into patriarchal propaganda by weaponizing certain elements of women’s experiences–I’m sorry, what’s that term? Rhymes with surf?–in order to shore up their own power, the Matriarchs of the northern Ton have made pregnancy and childbirth the underpinnings of warstock status, a birther mentality all the more insidious because it’s perpetuated solely by and towards other women.

See again, wishing to be careful about trans rep: at least for the northern Ton, there are heavy T.E.R.F. overtones. All this gender stuff is frightfully complicated, isn’t it?

So, that was my thematic goal. In character terms, I left this mostly to subtext and focused on developing Gratai’s character as a warrior and a necromancer. Again, never make your female character’s femininity her initial character hook; there wasn’t a reason to focus on this lore element for most of Book 1, so I didn’t. Gratai’s status as a woman is inherently tied to her status as the next Matriarch of her house, there’s no way around that.

And it’s true, motherhood eventually became a primary theme of the books–specifically, adoptive motherhood, under the idea that family is a spiritual, not a genetic, matter. Thus, even when superficially obeying her culture’s indoctrination, Gratai still puts her own mark on it. Ultimately, she’s able to get away with this because she becomes too powerful for anyone to deny her.

Execution matters as much as concept for all of this. In place of “her status as a woman” in the above paragraph, I originally wrote, “her womanhood.” I looked at it a second time and immediately revised it because that’s a perilous double meaning.

I suppose what I’m trying to get at here is that I believe I wrote Gratai’s gender into the story where appropriate and ignored it where it wasn’t. That’s the point. There’s nothing wrong with a female character being a mother, just as there’s nothing wrong with a male character being a father. The problem emerges when we force female characters into roles defined solely or primarily by their womanhood. And yes, I fully intend that double meaning this time.

The points in the story where Gratai chooses to express her femininity are, well, choices. I also didn’t want to overcorrect and code her gender as shameful by focusing entirely on her skills with spear and spell. A good character is a shifting Venn Diagram where different parts grow and move, overlapping more in some times and places than in others. If Gratai is talking about adopting another character and comes across as womanly, well, god, I sure hope she would–that’s literally becoming a mother!

If, on the other hand, I decided to play up her sexiness during the fight… the fight sssss… I do believe I’m about to vomit on my keyboard. Excuse me for a moment.

Anyway, yes, if I wrote about how sexy Gratai is when she’s supposed to be expressing the warrior side of her character, that would be pretty horrid, wouldn’t it? She’s murdering people. Those are human beings she just carved to pieces. That’s not sexy–and the fact that Canno’s warstock codes it as desirable is intended to unsettle you–it’s just plain violent. Violence is gender-neutral: in itself, a spear-thrust to the heart does the same thing to any human. Choosing whether to deliver that spear-thrust, that can be influenced by gender.

Insofar as Gratai’s character works, it works because I didn’t say to myself, “I want to write a female,” it worked because I decided, “You know, it would be neat if this legendary necromancer was a lady,” and then later said, “why is the legendary necromancer not my protagonist, what the fuck is wrong with me?”

If anything, my biggest concern about depicting women in The Necromancer and the Revenant is actually midway through the first chapter. I don’t know if linking that post here is tacky or honest, so I’ll err on the side of highlighting information for you fine readers. In the opening scene, Divari and her fellow Tresar, all men of the Royal Guard, spend considerable time staring at two particular corpses out of thousands on the battlefield because these two corpses happen to be women.

This is meant to be sexist because Tresar culture is highly sexist. To explain why it was important to me to highlight this, these women are clearly warriors of high rank; both have heavy armor from their respective cultures, with the Teman knight wearing full plate and the Tonnish warrior having a spearhead forged from rare, extraordinarily-expensive sapphire-steel. Each killed the other in the same attack. They’re women, but their story has nothing to do with that until the Tresar decide that it has to.

If it’s not clear from the detail I put into it, I thought a great deal about why I included this moment and how I framed it. I came to the conclusion it was a Catch-22: I wanted to make it clear that Canno is a world where women fighting, killing, and dying in equal number and equal standing to men is the norm, not the exception. Yet, the fact that I chose to focus on this moment creates a tacit acknowledgment that for my readers, that isn’t the norm.

I hope that, when reading it, most readers will understand that the Tresar fixate on this moment because their culture has stagnated in relation to wider Canno, and that the true novelty here is their regressive mindset, not the fallen warriors. Do I truly achieve that goal, or should I have avoided drawing any attention to this moment? That will shift depending on who’s reading it; for my part, I decided that I wanted to annihilate any chance for even the slightest argument that Canno’s women aren’t equal in status to its men.

As long as they’re warstock, that is. If they’re peacestock, it’s another story entirely; all very Nietzschian as far as “powerful people respect and work with other powerful people”, and outside this article’s scope.

This article in itself might be seen as a Catch-22, with the very idea that it needs to exist thus interpreted as a manifestation of my own lingering misconceptions. I would respect that opinion, but if you’re among those holding it, then please trust me: anywhere from one to four of the scripts I read in any given batch (I receive eight per batch, most times) are written by men who clearly, badly need the advice here. I only work in one specialized subset of the larger writing industry. This is a necessary article; actually, I’m worried it may be evergreen.

Maybe in years to come I’ll consider that battlefield duo a mistake, but as far as Gratai, Divari, and the other women of The Necromancer and the Revenant, I’m confident in my choices. If asked to summarize any of them, I could list multiple traits and describe their character arcs in detail without ever once needing to allude to their femininity, yet I could also cite a good number of occasions where it enhances the other aspects of their characters.

Hell, going back to my original example, Ripley is the most badass of badasses in the end of Aliens, a third act about one mother slaughtering the offspring of another, then killing that mother, to protect her adoptive daughter. That’s the whole finale. It’s literally Mom versus Mom, and it’s also cinematic perfection.

Not a single sane person would call it sexist because it’s just a high point for Ripley all around. She puts everything she’s learned and all her grit to the ultimate challenge in order to save Newt and salvage the mission. The motherhood subtext enhances these points rather than overshadowing them, and that right there? That’s the goal I’ve been struggling to get across this entire time.

Women are not a gestalt organism. You do not write “women”, and trying to write all women at once is where at least half the problems emerge.

You write one character at a time who is a woman and make decisions on a case-by-case basis about how that interacts with the rest of her character’s other traits, or whether it should interact with them. The Necromancer and the Revenant is half about revenge, half about found family–in Gratai’s heart, what do you think necromancy itself is about? Well, yes, mostly about fascination with its arcane mechanics, but there’s definite familial subtext. I line-edit my own work for a reason, hm?

Often, the fact that Gratai is a woman has nothing to do with her actions. Sometimes, it conflicts with other areas of her character. Sometimes, it reinforces them. Often, it’s both, because people are complicated and the same trait can produce seemingly contradictory thoughts and actions based on even deeper factors. Learning to balance these traits and hint at the underlying drives is the utmost substance of character writing. You don’t master it in one year, or ten, or a hundred; you just make the missteps small enough that the character’s own idiosyncrasies explain them.

That’s my advice for you, I suppose: as long as you care, and you accept that you’ll make mistakes, and you work to fix them, you’ll make out just fine. Again, women are not Outer Gods. Writing is hard and you’re going to slip, but as long as you don’t convince yourself that your slips in writing women are somehow less fixable than any of the others, you’ll find your way.

There is no disconnect save that you create in your own mind.

One thought on “Writing Female Characters, Take Two

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