You have a tongue in your mouth at all times.
Go on, think about it. Feel its sluggy weight in your mouth. What do you do with your tongue when it’s idle? Ah-ha. See? Now you can’t unfeel that. Now, for the rest of the morning, you will be acutely aware that your mouth is home to a goofy pink parasite that fits imperfectly within the chambers of your cheeks, within the half-moons of your pearly whites. Some of you will be unable to stop thinking about it.
And that, for me, is the tricky part about being a man writing a woman. One day, you write women like it’s no big thing. You don’t think twice about it. But then, once someone points out some factor about female characters or how this female character is too weak or too strong or too feminine or too masculine, and suddenly you’re like, “Oh, shit. I really have to think about this.” And it’s the tongue-in-the-mouth thing all over again. Suddenly you’re so hyper-aware of how to write a female character that it’s super-easy to become self-conscious about it. “Is this scene making her weak? Is this scene making her too strong? Should she talk about her vagina? Do women do that? Do I even know any women? What do they look like? I can’t remember. I can’t remember.” And then you keen and howl and lay down for a nap.
Here, drink some tea. Inhale the fumes off this scented candle.
Do a little yoga or something.
Let’s talk this through. I don’t know that I have any real answers, and I damn sure don’t know that I won’t offend anybody with stuff I’m going to say (and if I do, uhh, apologies ahead of time?).
You want my thoughts? Here goes.
Stop Worrying So Much And Look Around You
My technique for writing women is the same as my technique for writing men: I look at all the people in my life, and I try to capture pieces of those individuals — usually different individuals, with different swatches coming together to make a new quilt, a composite character who is not the sum total of one person I know, but rather, the sum total of many people and their various characteristics.
If you know any women at all, you have a place to start. Those are real people. Watch them. Talk to them. Inhabit their characters: what makes them tick? Use that on the page. Yes, sometimes you’ll run into issues of “reality” versus “authenticity,” but for me that’s more of a bug in terms of plot, and less so in terms of character (i.e. just because this crazy event happened to you doesn’t mean it’s authentic to use on the page).
This is one of those situations where Write What You Know comes nicely into play.
And you might say, “But I don’t know any Fighter Pilots, or Valkyries, or Actresses, and those are the female characters I’m writing.” Yes, but you know your mother, your sister, your wife, all those women you’ve worked with and went to school with. They have character traits. They have ways they speak, they have ways they move, ways they behave, and you have no reason not to find the right combination to apply to the fighter pilot, to the actress, to the Valkyrie. For instance, my wife sometimes embraces an almost ethereal assertiveness (we call her the mongoose, for she is willing to take down many a cobra), and so I could take that and put it toward the Valkyrie.
You know women. So, if you’re freaked out about writing them, look to the very real, very existent women in your life. Writers are magpies and raccoons: we borrow, we mimic.
Oh, and “look around you” should not necessarily extend to pop culture. Don’t go grabbing Buffy or Princess Leia and saying, “These are my models.” I wouldn’t recommend that in the same way I wouldn’t say to grab John McClane or Luke Skywalker. You can do better. Find your own way.
It’s Okay If They’re Flawed — As Long As Their Flaw Isn’t Being Female
You will occasionally run into a criticism that a female character who is flawed is a problem for the reader.
Here’s the thing: to paraphrase Joseph Campbell, we love characters for their imperfections. Flaws are a necessary part of a character’s make-up: characters who are without flaw are Mary-Sues.
But a necessary part of a character’s component build is also a character’s strengths. In fact, very recently I’ve been thinking of every character’s struggle as a page-to-page, minute-to-minute Manichaean struggle of light versus dark, an internal battle of flaw against strength whose outcome is uncertain until the end (heroic fantasy will likely have the strengths win, while noir accepts that flaws will persevere).
So, female characters must be flawed.
So too with male characters.
The trick is to not tie those flaws to the character’s gender. “Oh, she’s weak because she’s female. She’s subservient to men because she’s female.”
The same goes for strengths, not coincidentally — “Oh, she’s hot because she’s a chick. Oh, she kicks ass because she’s a chick.”
Such two-dimensionality does the character and its author (ahem, you), no favors. If all your female characters are secondary? If all your female characters are ass-kicking big-bosom ninjas? You’re probably doing this. You’ve fallen into a trap: you’re either needlessly exalting the female character or, worse, you’re needlessly denigrating her. Stop that. Or I’ll punch you in the trachea.
We’re All Different (Except When We’re All The Same)
Yesterday, in “There Is No Sex,” Josh Loomis posited that all characters are just characters and we should write them as humans, not as men or women.
Outside of Josh making my panties itch with the egregious use of “There Is” in the title (it’s a pet peeve, dontcha know), I think he’s hitting on something true, but isn’t quite there, yet.
I don’t think an ignorance of gender is automatically a good thing, just as I don’t think ignorance of race or nationality is immediately a good thing, either.
Women and men are not the same. They are not respectively from Mars and Venus, no, but in my feeling, we all possess differences that are notable (but not written in stone). A woman is not a man, and I think it’s a disservice to women to try to make them be men (and I feel like that lurks at the heart of, “We’re all the same!”). Just as someone from Cape Town is different from someone from Shanghai, just as the Moon People are different from the Secret Hyboreans, just as I am different from you, it is important to note that we do feature qualities unique to culture, location, race, and gender.
We shouldn’t reduce characters to a turbid, cloudy broth.
The trick is recognizing that these differences are not complete. They are not massive gulfs separating us. My wife is different than I am, and occasionally these differences are, on balance, a presence of certain feminine qualities. But these differences are not so significant that she is unrecognizable, and in fact we also share a great many traits. Further, it’s important to realize that any differences are not a binary, good/bad, +/- thing, either. These are not flaws. These are merely traits. Some of them are cultural. Some of them might be biological.
Further, those differences do not comprise a character. They may be present, but they do not define who a character — man or woman — actually is. What defines us are the human experiences, the common threads, the shared desires and fears that guide us (or hold us back). You’d be a fool to ignore the surface shifts, but similarly you’d be a fool to miss those common bonds.
Look at it this way: it’s like any story. Every story on the surface is different from every other story. That’s what makes them feel unique — different characters, different plot twists, different settings. But you would, upon looking deeper into the hearts of these stories, find common ground. You’d find themes — human, universal themes — linking them together. And so, each story is different, but it is the same.
You want to embrace the differences between characters and types of character, but also embrace that at the core, we all have similar fears, wants, needs. We all exist together in a shared human place.
(Some people might balk at this section, which is cool. Let me clarify early on: my novel out for submission is all about a girl named Miriam, a character who suffers a lot of common and very human fears — fears about death and loss, uncertainties about fate versus free will. But contained within is also a thread about motherhood, both in her experiences with her own mother and her inability to herself become a mother — and that is not something I really could’ve examined with a male character. Or, to look at it another way: you really couldn’t write my father as a woman. You could take traits of his and apply them to a female character, but any attempt to directly translate him into being a female character would simply look like a male character with breasts stapled to his chest.)
So, To Review
Women do not exist only in relation to men.
They do not exist only to be hot, to kick ass, to be weak, to be love interests, to be second banana, to be beta wolf, to be sex objects, to be a female point-of-view.
Women do not feature their femaleness as a flaw, nor as a strength. It is sometimes a trait, nothing more.
Real women are all around you. Embrace that.
Women are at times different than men, but this doesn’t take them outside the realm of human experience — this does not remove them from common themes and shared experiences.
You have a tongue in your mouth.
Am I dicking this up? Am I making anybody angry with this post? I hope not, but if it is, hey, let’s talk it out.
Anything I’m missing?
Comments, questions, prayer requests, death threats, proposals of marriage?