1. MrWisp
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    MrWisp Member

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    A Question of Sexism

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by MrWisp, Feb 26, 2014.

    Hi everyone. I hope this question itself doesn't come off as sexist, but honestly, as readers, are people more likely to be turned off by an abrasive female protagonist than an abrasive male?

    I'm a few chapters into a novel that stars a kind of character I've never written before. After suffering through a number of traumatic experiences, my main character and narrator, Regan, attempts to take her own life. Through what could be called divine intervention, the attempt fails, and she finds through repeated attempts that the universe just won't allow her to go. This all happens via flashback before the main storyline truly unfolds, but throughout the book, she smokes like a chimney, drinks like a fish, and pulls no punches when dealing with others. There's humor in it, and she'll soften (a bit) eventually, but I wonder if a character like this is off-putting. Consider Breaking Bad and the hatred that so many viewers had for Walt's wife Skylar for being a "nag" or a "bitch." Yet these same people glorified Walter, who was a drug dealer and a murderer.

    Political correctness aside, would this bother anyone? Or, another question: can anyone think of similar lead characters who have successfully broken the mold of the stereotypical "bitchy female"?
     
  2. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Well, clearly the answer not passed through the filter of political correctness is most probably yes, the average Joe/Jane Schmo reader would be less apt to snuggle up to an abrasive female character than an abrasive male one. We may not like or consider to be ideal the sociological paradigms that enshroud maleness and femaleness in modern society, but we cannot just pretend it's not there. I think your question is better stated as how do I get my readers to relate to an abrasive female character so that they feel compelled to read to the end.
     
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  3. Lae
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    Lae Contributing Member Contributor

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    i dont think abrasive characters come across as bitchy, not to me anyway. Also looking at BBad, walter is the main character skylar plays a big role eventually but shes still secondary to walt and some of the others (DA guy and that little annoying guy), so it might be that they are more interested in walt and less so in her.

    Anyway, no im not turned off by the female variant, it generally doesnt matter to me. In a way i might be refreshing, damsel characters have been done for donkeys.
     
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  4. MrWisp
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    MrWisp Member

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    Good point, Wreybies. That's one of the reasons why I'm trying to inject sympathy and humor into her character as well, so that she's not just an out-and-out jerk. I'm also trying to reserve her more scathing reactions/remarks for interactions with characters who truly deserve it. (It's essentially a murder mystery, so when she's making the guy who we know is the killer squirm, hopefully it will be entertaining rather than aggravating.) :)
     
  5. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    I'm always reaching for film examples because they are easy and visual, so I will again. ;) Look at Ripley and also Vazquez in the ALIEN franchise. In the first film, Ripley is not cast as the one in charge at the beginning of the story-line. She's not the captain, she's not head of science, she's just a crew member. She doesn't take shit from anyone and you buy into her from the start because she's sharp, she's witty. She's got great comebacks that speak of intelligence. When she refuses to let the infected crew-member come aboard, her actions speak to you of integrity. She's not wishy-washy or the kind of person to give in to panic. And then of course she turns into a bad-ass alien killing women at then end. You buy her bitchiness and her upittyness in the film because all of it has reason, has purpose. There's never a time when you are made to feel that she's just a broken girl interrupted. You are given every reason to side with her. In the second film, Vazquez is even more of a bitch. She takes huge pleasure in out-manning the men. She's a wise-ass, she's got jokes, she's irreverent and inappropriate, and at the same time she's serious as all fuck. You are shown a side of her that immediately lets you know that when the clock starts and she's in it, you most definitely want her on your side of the game, not the other side.

    Now, whether all of this should have to happen to make an abrasive female character approachable or not is a sociological question, the answer for which doesn't alter the current situation. You have to deal with the reality of the baggage that the reader brings to the story when they begin to read what you have written.
     
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  6. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    There have been several female drug cartel leaders in real life. In the show The Wire, there are a few female characters who are involved in street gangs and the drug business. In literature, you have to look no further than Macbeth; Lady Macbeth persuades her husband to kill Duncan. So while we usually see males in that abrasive role, it's entirely possible for females to take on that role without seeming bitchy.
     
  7. MrWisp
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    MrWisp Member

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    Lady Macbeth is probably one of my favorite characters (or now, practically an archetype) in all of literature. I think the difference between her and my character, though, is that beneath the bitterness, mine is essentially a decent person. That's my challenge, I suppose: to give hints of that decency early on so that the reader has hope for where the character is headed.
     
  8. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    So then it's like a female Walter White (without the baldness :p) in the first season or two of Breaking Bad.
     
  9. MrWisp
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    MrWisp Member

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    Maybe. I'd go with a female version of Dr. House. She's already broken when we meet her. If anything, she's got to "break good," if that makes sense. :)
     
  10. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    This is just my opinion, but for me, the line between "accepting" and "not accepting" an abrasive female comes from motivation. If the character is just being petty or throwing their weight around because they can, I'm not going to want her to win, MC or not. She's a bitch. If she's got 'legitimate' reasons for her behavior (see Ripley above), then I can get behind her, no problem. But this is one of my main problems with "gutsy" female characters on TV - too often they're just throwing their weight around, being nasty or snide when they don't have to be, but the writers call that "being strong". Malarkey.

    Actually, the above suits male or female characters as far as I'm concerned.
     
  11. MrWisp
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    MrWisp Member

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    shadowwalker, that was a fear of mine as well, and one that I should have mentioned in my original post. I'm trying to be cognizant of the fact that I'm a male writer who could easily be accused of equating nastiness with strength. That's why I'm using first person narration, which I rarely ever do. I'm hoping that it makes the character seem more well-rounded. Now, for instance, instead of just hearing her make a rude comment to someone, the reader can see through her thought process that perhaps she knew she had gone too far with that comment.

    It's a fine line! But I'm finding the challenge interesting.
     
  12. Fitzroy Zeph
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    Fitzroy Zeph Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm not sure exactly where the line is between being properly feminine, whatever the hell that is, and appropriately assertive, and I'm sure we all see it differently, but a schmuck is schmuck regardless of gender. Strictly from a stand point of genre research, I admit to reading a Janet Evanovich novel or two. Her Stephanie Plum does a nice job of crossing back and forth between roles.
     
  13. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    i think it depends mostly on whether the reader is male or female...
     
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  14. MrWisp
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    MrWisp Member

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    Very true. She's not hyper-masculinized by any means, but she's also not a prissy damsel who needs a love interest to help solve her problems. I've handed the first few chapters out to some friends, so I'm interested to see where the guys and gals fall. I wouldn't be surprised to see the female readers take to her more.
     
  15. Bryan Romer
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    Bryan Romer Contributing Member Contributor

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    Calamity Jane in TV's "Deadwood" was foul mouthed, a drunkard, a killer, and filthy to boot, but she came off as a sympathetic character.

    "Bitchyness" is how a person consistently treats others more than just how the person behaves in general. Women seen as bitchy normally abuse authority or take advantage of their relationships without concern for others, or even to deliberately hurt without suffering any consequences.

    Simply being hard is not bitchy. She may not be likable, but that's not the same thing. Bitchy is meanness of spirit.
     
  16. T.Trian
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    T.Trian Overly Pompous Bastard Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I'd have to second what others have already said about how to make the character sympathetic.

    What I've noticed is that whether you're writing a "bitchy" female MC or just an otherwise strong female MC, you have a bigger challenge ahead of you than if you wrote a male equivalent. I'm not sure if this applies to all genres, but it seems to when it comes to action-heavy stories / characters (purely subjective observation).
    In my and KaTrian's current WIP, there are two MCs who are both in the armed forces, the guy is bigger, stronger, and much more experienced, i.e. more "super." The female is younger, slightly shorter / weaker, and a noob, but still pretty capable physically. So she's an action heroine, but less "super" than the male MC.
    The funny thing is, she's been called a Mary Sue a couple of times while not a single person has accused the male MC of being too super, too perfect. What gives? She's not anywhere near super-human, she does make mistakes, she gets hurt etc, but it looks like the simple fact that she's a strong female is enough to earn her the Mary Sue stamp in the eyes of some readers.

    I don't think you can really avoid this double standard at this point because you can't really control your readers. The way I see it, writing a tough female MC is like... picture a woman who's trying to pave the way into a male-dominated area, like mixed martial arts or being a metal guitarist, for example. In both instances, to impress people, the woman would often have to work harder and be better than her male counterparts to be taken seriously.
    The key words there are "taken seriously" since of course she'd be more easily noticed (e.g. a local girl metal/punk band were offered their first gig by a random club owner even before they had rehearsed once; that never happens to guy bands, but people don't take the girl band seriously as musicians), being among the few females in a male-heavy profession, but often the women aren't taken as seriously as the less noticeable men even if they're technically just as good or even better, so essentially she truly has to blow away the competition to silence the critics (or even some of them), it's not enough to simply be average.

    So write the best damn character you can muster up, do your homework, edit, edit, edit, talk to people, especially women, get different perspectives on the character, the situations she faces, her reactions etc. etc. etc. and you might just end up with a solid, tough, but likeable character.

    PS. Wrey, liked simply for referring to Aliens. :D (well, there might have been good points in there as well...)
     
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  17. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    Oh, you're going to have to elaborate on that! Males will see it one way, females another? ;)
     
  18. Bryan Romer
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    Bryan Romer Contributing Member Contributor

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    The average suburban/city girl/woman is physically lighter and less muscular than the men. Yes, there are exceptions and there are many feeble men, but simply going out in the street and looking around, that is the impression most people get.

    Second, the average woman is less likely to engage in rough, physically challenging and dangerous activities on a day to day basis e.g. working in construction, carrying/moving heavy loads, military and so forth. Again, yes, women can and actually some do these things. Averages.

    But what I am getting to, is that the gap in your reader's mind between Average Jane and your female MC in terms of physical performance is greater than that between averagely fit male and your male MC. I'm talking about mental impressions here. So even her (female MC) relatively reduced capabilities appear to demand a greater leap of faith for the reader. Hence the Mary Sue accusations.

    People are used to seeing images of the indestructible (male) Marine, and in fact we are encouraged to think of him that way. No military promotional video or action film is going to say "the poor Marine felt like his back was about to break, his elbows and knees hurt from when he did that drop and roll, and he is about to shit himself in fear because that last bullet barely missed him." The public are supposed to be happy to send these men out to die or be maimed and crippled, not worry about their feelings or well being. That's what soldiers and redshirts are for, after all. Is this sexist? Yes it is.
     
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  19. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    no merde, miss marple! :rolleyes:
     
  20. Remus Penn
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    Remus Penn Member

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    To be honest? It's going to depend on the reader. I would have no problem being attached to an abrasive female character, and I think it's ridiculous if other people can't, either.
     
    Last edited: Mar 2, 2014
  21. AsherianCommand
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    AsherianCommand Active Member

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    Strong female characters? Yeah I am in for that. Plus check extra credits if you want to make a strong female character!

    Female Characters are so awesome if made right!
     
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