There has been quite a bit of commentary about the state of the female character in entertainment as of late. In evolutionary terms, many female characters, especially strong female characters, feel about as developed as the male action hero of the 80’s.
One dimensional. Emotionally shallow. Simplistically motivated. Dialogue challenged.
No self respecting writer wants any of their characters to be flat, wallpaper background that is easily dismissed. So, why does this happen?
The first notion many cite is ignorance. Obviously, a male writer would struggle to write a female character because he’s never experienced life as a woman. Or so the argument goes.
I think that argument is lame and perhaps a little sexist in itself. It’s doubtful that Jeff Lindsay wrote about his serial killing main character from all that real life experience he had killing others. And please tell me how Anne Rice reflected on all her experience as a centuries old male vampire to form characters like Lestat.
No, “ignorance” is not exactly the word for it. For some, the word is “lazy”. For many others, it is probably “misguided”.
When a writer starts the outline of a character with “I want them to be a strong female character“, the results are probably going to be sub-par. It’s just like starting an outline of the antagonist with “I want them to be a smart bad guy“. That’s not a character, it’s a vague aspect of a character. It’s the tl;dr version of a character.
It’s flat as flat can be.
As writers, we try to make our characters as multifaceted as possible. We forge our characters out of their past experiences and the conflict we put them through in the story. We try to make them jump off the page.
Which is why I try not to start any story with the genders already in mind. Or, if I started, I take a moment to plug and play.
Take your story, your newly budding idea of awesomeness, and plug in a different gender for the characters. Sometimes this takes the story in an unseen direction. Sometimes it shows the shortcomings of the characters you already have in mind.
For example, let’s plug and play with the story of Robin Hood:
Her name is Robin and she just got back to her homeland from a brutal foreign war to find that her family was murdered and her land taken. The perpetrator of this crime? The sister to the king, Princess Johanna, who is abusing the power she has gained in her brother’s absence and is planning a coupe while he is away. Robin has an ally and possible love interest in Lord Marion, who is trying to stave off Johanna’s political ambitions through his influence among the noble families but often finds her one step ahead of him in their deadly game.
Desperate to make a difference for the suffering public, Robin gathers a number of men and women who join her to fight the tyranny as outlaws.
There. We’ve taken a story that has been around the block many times and found some new aspects to it. More importantly, deciding to change the genders shows how certain characters stand out much stronger and how others fall flat.
Big example, Lady Marion. I almost forgot about her. Her character is mostly around to let Robin Hood ‘get the girl’ in the end. But as Lord Marion, it made me think of ways he would be actively doing something. Now, if I were to plug Lady Marion back in, I would definitely make hers a more active role now that I’ve realized some of her character’s deficits.
You might notice that I didn’t make Robin’s accomplices the band of merry women. I think switching to an all female cast would have just as many issues as an all male cast. Speaking of, Lady Marion is the only female character? How uncool is that? How can you expect to create a rounded, living story with half of the human race barely represented? Granted, some stories would call for that (like a single sex boarding school scenario) but most benefit from having a bouquet of characters of both sexes.
The final thing I’d like to point out from that little exercise is that you’re not just limited to experimenting with the protagonists. Bad guys can be bad girls. Too often we make a bad guy evil just for evil’s sake and make people listen to him because he’s intimidating.
Women can be intimidating too, don’t doubt that the Queen of Hearts was certainly intimidating. But, no character should be one dimensional. If you plug in a different gender for a character in your story and decide that they would take completely different actions, you better analyze why. The answer can’t just be gender. People are complex and the gender of a character is a very large facet of who they are, but it is not all they are.
The sex of your characters impacts your story immensely. Take the time to choose the sex that makes for better characters and a better story. Change it up. Experiment. Don’t be lazy.
Yes, I am a male writer. No, I have never to my knowledge been a woman, but I do know a few. I think the people I respect and admire the most in my life happen to be women. They are strong, they are humble, and boy you better believe they can be fierce. They include my ever patient wife, without whom I would be lost. My mother, who insisted that a determined mind can accomplish anything. My sister, who’s quiet inner strength I will always envy. My friend, who has often been a grounding wire back to reality. I may not always understand, but I’m always trying to learn.