People (writers, causual readers, reviewers, writing teachers, bloggers, etc.) have a lot of opinions about female characters. Here are just a few ways I've seen such people finish the following sentence: "Female characters should be...
- ...good role models."
- ...more prevalent."
- ...less feminine."
- ...agents of change."
And on and on and on. We have very definite opinions--sometimes contradictory--about what we expect from female characters.
I call poppycock on the lot of it.
Here's how that sentence goes in my mind: "Female characters should be...
Real. That's it.
I'd also like to rewrite the sentence altogether, because that's kind of what we writers do. We tweak. Here's the new, improved (in my opinion) sentence:
"Characters should be real."
What's the deal with everyone's obsession with nit-picking characters with vaginas? When you pick up a book with a male protagonist, do you have definite preconceptions about what that character needs to do or how he needs to be for your reading experience to be a positive one? Do you say, "Well, here I am on Page One of this random book about a random guy, and before I even read one word, let me tell you this: this main character better be physically and mentally strong, gorgeous, smart, funny, sensitive, good at everything he tries, nice to animals, sure in his opinions about everything, a leader, a fighter, likeable, and morally upstanding... or else the entire book is trash"?
I'd wager you don't. (And if you do, you probably don't walk away from very many books with a high opinion of the work.)
But for some reason, there's a lot of talk and some very high standards when it comes to female characters. And when female characters don't fit nicely into our preconceived notions of what female characters should be, we get kind of pissy about it.
"I didn't like this book, because the main character wasn't likeable."
Interesting. How many of you can say you like/liked the following characters:
- Hannibal Lecter
- Holden Caulfield
- Patrick Bateman
- Frank Underwood
- Paul Spector
None of these guys are particularly warm and fuzzy. We have three serial killers (Bateman, American Psycho; Lecter, Silence of the Lambs; and Spector, The Fall), an entitled young adult (Caulfield, Catcher in the Rye), and a dirty politician (Underwood, House of Cards) on that short list. Yet, the stories in which they feature as the main characters are no less compelling as a result of their despicability. On the contrary, the stories are more fascinating because these men are so flawed.
Female characters don't get that same benefit of the doubt. If they're unlikeable, that's often one of the main criticisms of an entire work. "Relatable" seems to be a broader, more encompassing trait, but it's just a fancier way, in most cases, for a person to say "likeable." "I couldn't relate to her at all." Therefore, the entire book/show/movie stank.
I'm not the first person to point this out. I won't be the last person to point this out. But I still felt it was worth pointing out.
One of my favorite quotes about writing female characters comes from George R.R. Martin (the author of the Game of Thrones series, in case you just crawled out from under a rock). When asked how he writes such compelling female characters, he responded:
"You know, I've always considered women to be people."
Exactly, George. Exactly!
As someone who's written books from both the male and female points of view, I can tell you, I feel a lot less pressure to make my male protagonists "likeable" than I do my female protagonists. Nurse Nate in Let's Be Frank is allowed to be Nurse Nate, warts and all. As a matter of fact, the more warts, the funnier. Peyton Northam in the Secret Keeper series, on the other hand... Her inner monolgues have garnered plenty of critisicm and have resulted in more than a couple "I couldn't relate to her" reviews. One person even called her a "horrible human being," probably for thinking something the majority of us have thought a thousand times. When I write female protagonists, I definitely find myself pausing a lot more often and asking myself, "Is this a socially acceptable thing for her to do/think/say?" Now, is that bowing to a societal pressure I should be resisting, not indulging? No. Just because I feel more pressure to make female protagonists more anything doesn't mean I actually do it. But the thought process is definitely different.
My biggest pet peeve is the call for "stronger" female characters. What the heck does that even mean? Like, she can lift a car off someone, in a pinch? Or she knows exactly what she wants and how to get it? Or she's kick-ass with a pair of nunchucks? If, by "stronger," we mean in a well-rounded, well-fleshed-out, strongly-written sense, then okay. But I think there's a place for "weak" personalities under that same description. Because life is full of all types of people, not just strong people. In addition, real people are strong in some ways but not all ways.
As long as an author writes a character so well that his or her weaknesses and strengths and flaws could just as well belong to the reader--that's how REAL those traits become--then I think the author has succeeded. He or she has written a REAL character.
So can we please stop having the discussion about what makes a "good" female character? Even further, can we please stop discussing our preconceptions for any characters--male, female, transgender, young, old, wealthy, poor, healthy, sickly, educated, ignorant, etc.--and simply allow writers to tell us how their characters are?
This post is part of Julie Valerie's Hump Day Blog Hop. Click here to keep hopping along and discover some other great voices on the blogosphere!