1. Dr.Meow

    Dr.Meow Contributor Contributor

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    Need help from women, or those who are knowledgeable, about female characters

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Dr.Meow, Apr 28, 2017.

    I'm wanting to know how to make sure my female characters are non-stereotypical as possible, or if that's even a huge problem with diversified characters (are some stereotypes acceptable?). I try to write all my characters, male and female, as simply human beings, nothing more or less. That being said, I still have doubts about my ability here to portray women as such, mainly because I am a man. This should not hinder me, except that I doubt myself, on many things, not just this either, but that's another story. Anyway, I would truly appreciate some pointers if anyone would be so kind. Anything helps. Just need some tips on making sure women are portrayed properly and don't seem to be cliche or serving some agenda. I just want people in my story.

    Okay, for some background information, and a little bit about some characters that I have developed for those who care to give their opinion on them. They may be too stereotypical (or not, maybe, since I'm not really sure). This isn't as important as my main question, and it's slightly long I guess so I'm putting it in spoilers for those who don't care to read it.

    The book I'm writing is fantasy, and there's two kingdoms in the known world with very opposite social and political structures. The primary kingdom where most of the protagonists are from is ruled by a queen, and the capital city and surrounding towns are slightly more progressive than the rest of the country. Men and women are equals. Further out it gets somewhat less so, not drastically, but some of the people are a bit more resistant to having women in positions of power.

    In either country, men and women are both allowed in the military, and the armies are made up of both genders. There's also diversity in both genders, and it's not like everyone is in the military, haha. In the "good" nation (not there is one, really), but the one this story is focused around has a female character who is the captain of the guard for one of the major cities. This city though is one that's also less accepting to females in power, so she changed her name slightly to have a more masculine ending. Anyway, her half brother didn't realise it was her in charge since they haven't spoken in a long time, and he discovers this when meeting her. He teases her over the decision a bit, but she explains it raises less eyebrows on paper that way, less chance of someone having a big to-do about it.

    Also, there's two more characters who are cousins of the Knight Commander, and are knights themselves. They generally fight alongside him. I've described them as having a soft complexion and ebony skin that's darker than their cousin's, and that they're fashion aficionados, which was hard to tell under their chainmail at their introduction.

    I have some more female characters to introduce, but this is all I have atm.
     
  2. izzybot

    izzybot (unspecified) Contributor

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    Honestly, dude, if you're coming at it with a genuine desire to write real fleshed-out characters who aren't cardboard cut-outs with "woman" written on them, I think you're gonna be fine.

    The problem with stereotypes comes up when all a character is is that stereotype. If you're going to make your characters fully-realized people - y'know, just write well, in general - that's not going to be a problem. Your female knights can be into fashion. They're also knights. I'm sure they have other interests. Like people do. It'd be a problem if all of your female characters were into fashion, but I'm guessing that's not the case.

    Just write real characters. They're automatically the antithesis of stereotypes.
     
  3. Dr.Meow

    Dr.Meow Contributor Contributor

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    This is what I thought, but had to be sure. Yes, I'm making them all fully-realized people as you say. Individual desires, life goals, interests, etc. I guess I'm just overly concerned...not the first time I've over-thought something. It's a habit of mine...
     
  4. ChaseTheSun

    ChaseTheSun Senior Member

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    The fact that you want to genuinely represent women as humans means you're well on your way to doing just that. Just by being aware of the danger of mischaracterising, you are probably better set up than some other writers who try to write about the opposite sex.

    As a woman, I write stories with both men and women. How do I write genuine, nuanced, complicated and authentic men? I think about all the men in my life who I know or have known in a range of different relationship capacities. This includes my bio-father, my step-dad, my father-in-law and my grandad, just to name four incredibly diverse and complex men who inform the way I might choose to develop a father-figure in my novel. If I'm writing about a husband or male partner, I think about my own husband, - again, all those fathers I just mentioned - my brother, who is married, husbands of girlfriends and so on. In each of these real life individuals, I have access to great swathes of human psychology, physiology, spiritual complexity and socio-political viewpoints, for example.

    At the end of the day, whether people want to admit it or not, men and women are intrinsically different. At a physiological level, deep-wired into the brain, we are different creatures. And so it does the writer well to bear that in mind and try to not write all the characters the same way. It's a pet peeve of mine when (usually female romantic comedy) authors write about men but all the men think, speak and feel just like women. Some men share very similar qualities with some women. But we need to be honest about the differences between us, as well. That's what makes the diversity of society worth celebrating, after all.

    Instead of thinking of your characters as characters in a book, think of them as real people. Is it possible for a real person to be a stereotype? Sure, some individuals may fit a certain mold, but everybody has a story and everybody is someone different behind closed doors, whether or not they seem stereotypical to the public eye.

    The men in my novel and short stories are, to me, real people. And so I write them as such. They tell me who they are and I simply record that within the setting of the story.

    If you don't get caught up thinking "Oh god I'm a male and I'm presuming to write a female. How daring. How foolish. How risky," and just think, "I'm a writer exploring the lives of real people," then I think you'll do just fine.

    Don't try to overdramatise the females' emotions. Don't rely on the stereotypes of the males rolling their eyes at the 'female hysteria'. Don't overdramatise the men's 'lack of emotions'. Don't try to 'get it right' for either sex. Just write real people.

    Best wishes :)
     
  5. Dr.Meow

    Dr.Meow Contributor Contributor

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    Thank you, that helps a lot actually. Main reason I started this thread is because I was a bit stumped in a current scene and haven't been able to progress because I've been doubting myself so much with this. Sometimes my mind just needs to be reassured I suppose...
     
  6. ChaseTheSun

    ChaseTheSun Senior Member

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    I'm happy to take a look at the scene if you think it's something an outside eye might be able to help with.

    Otherwise, I'll leave you with this: just trust your writer's instinct. It's there for a reason. Don't let doubt and fear shout louder than your imagination; they are cheeky buggers who think they know everything but in fact doubt and fear are the most ignorant of all the psychological processes. So give them the boot and turn to nurturing your creativity, self-trust, human awareness and writing instinct. You'll do fine.
     
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  7. Dr.Meow

    Dr.Meow Contributor Contributor

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    Might take you up on that sometime if I'm really unsure, but for now I think I'm okay. Putting the doubt aside.
     
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  8. ChaseTheSun

    ChaseTheSun Senior Member

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    No worries at all. Feel free to private message me if you ever feel inclined. Happy to offer a female perspective. :) Good luck!
     
  9. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    Re: "I've described them as having a soft complexion and ebony skin that's darker than their cousin's, and that they're fashion aficionados, which was hard to tell under their chainmail at their introduction."

    So far, this is the main issue that I see. I suspect (I may be wrong) that if they were male you wouldn't talk about the softness of their complexions; there's a male gaze vibe about it. The fashion thing and the speculating about what's under the outer layer of their clothes is less clear--it would depend on the context, but if they're in chain mail, the context seems potentially problematic. In the same context, would you discuss a man's fashion sense and what's under his chain mail?
     
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  10. jannert

    jannert Retired Mod Supporter Contributor

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    Yes, that is the issue I caught as well. While you may want to give the reader some idea of what the character looks like, as you would any character, avoid a tendency to focus on physical characteristics. Let them evolve within the story until you are truly comfortable with them as people. And, if possible, filter the descriptions of BOTH female and male characters through the eyes of somebody else in the story. If you, the omniscient narrator, start describing female characters in a 'male' kind of way, your orientation will show. In that description quoted by @ChickenFreak , you definitely sound like a male writer—looking at a female in a gender-based way. It's not easy to overcome this, but it can be done.

    One fantasy writer who does this well, in my opinion anyway, is Joe Abercrombie. His female characters are few and far between (due to the nature of his stories) but the ones he does create are very believeable as people. He does describe them, but always from firmly within the POV of one of his characters. I think that's the key to getting it right.
     
  11. Phil Mitchell

    Phil Mitchell Banned Contributor

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    In what ratio? If both genders are represented in high numbers, than you're already starting from a different premise to women in reality, who tend to not want to physically fight men. So you might as well take conceptions about women in the real world off the table and do whatever works for the story you're trying to tell.

    "That being said, I still have doubts about my ability here to portray women as such, mainly because I am a man."



    Lack of confidence in a character's portrayal is very very noticable on the page. I'm more likely to waver on believing something (even if that something is unrealistic) if you don't truly buy what you're selling.
     
    Last edited: Apr 28, 2017
  12. BayView

    BayView Huh. Interesting. Contributor

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    I'd add a suggestion that you examine not only your main characters but also the background characters in order to ensure that you're presenting women in a way that makes sense.

    Like, it sounds as if your society is still a bit sexist (woman changes her name in order to be more authoritative) but unless you're going to make her into a stand-out who's risen far above all other women, there will be lots of other female soldiers and officers for her to interact with. (Sounds like you're on the right track with this as you have the two other knights, but just a reminder to make sure these three soldiers aren't the only female soldiers around, unless you want them to be and point out that they're exceptional.)

    This ties in with something I think @jannert and I have disagreed with before, Joe Abercrombie. I would say that, based on his settings, there's absolutely no reason he couldn't have more female characters. I'd also say that since he created his settings (he's writing Fantasy, after all) that any limitations that were included were based on his ideas.
     
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  13. KaTrian

    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Contributor

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    Understanding why men and women are not equal in specific areas of life in our world would help you to write the systems in your fantasy kingdoms more convincingly while key to writing non-stereotypical characters is two-fold: first know what kinds of stereotypes exist and why, and then defy them in one way or another (meaning, you don't have to always do a 180 role reversal, little changes matter).

    In many countries in the West, women are allowed to serve in all kinds of positions in the military, but we are not conscripted nor drafted (Israel is the exception). This ties in with what @BayView said above about representing women in a way that makes sense. Since we have the freedom to choose unlike men, not that many of us choose a military career, especially if it's a physically demanding or dangerous position. Sometimes we simply can't physically make the cut, or very very few of us do compared to men (sure, some argue the demands are sexist). In your fantasy world, are men obliged to serve? Because either the will or the obligation to serve has to be there in order to reach equality in numbers. This is something you can show in your Captain character. A military woman, especially if she's of the kind that physically leads infantry or cavalry into battle, might still be the only woman among her peers despite the freedom to join. How did she end up choosing that career? Does it require sacrifices from her? Will she still be seen as a bit of an oddball, as some high-ranking women officers sometimes are even in the most equal of real world societies and how will this affect her? What in her personality makes her a good leader (or a bad leader - I mean, sure, writing a bad female officer can be risky but no doubt they exist)? And even if you're writing this gender equal utopia, will traditional attitudes suddenly go poof? Men don't feel more protective over women and children than of men anymore? Because if they do... there'd still be sexism, even if of the benevolent kind.

    I also wonder what warfare is like in your world. Since you probably write humans, I assume women are the physically weaker sex. So will they be going toe-to-toe with men in the battlefield, wielding battle axes and pikes? Or are most women assigned to other roles, such as the cavalry or as archers? Details such as these can affect characterization as well.

    Also, remember that women did not always finish last in the equality Olympics. For instance, how equal is it that historically men are sent to war while women can stay at home and either work or look after the family? So even your inequal "bad" nation can be similarly nuanced as the real world. But I suppose this is OT as your questions concerns the female characters, not world-building...

    Personally, as a reader, I'm no longer that interested in the sex of the characters or "representation". Give me characters that come across psychologically plausible and who are fun to journey with, and I'll be happy. I'd rather writers wrote what they are comfortable with and inspired to write instead of churn out something they think they should write and then the end result is uninspired, stereotypical or unrealistic. This is not to say "never try stepping out of your comfort zone", obviously.
     
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  14. KaTrian

    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Contributor

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    I believe in the end what a character pays attention to is tied to the character as a whole, not their sex. Sure, the male gaze / female gaze concept is worth looking at*, yet I'm confident most writers understand what we pay attention to depends on the situation and the observer's personality, sexual orientation, mood etc. I do notice if a woman's skin looks particularly clear/soft/smooth. Then I wonder what day cream they use.

    *as an example:
    "How come she's so skinny but has such big boobs!" (KaTrian of her co-worker, circa 2 weeks ago)
    "Nice boobs and body" (some random guy)
    So yeah, also women pay attention.
     
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  15. Stormburn

    Stormburn Contributor Contributor

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    Because of the former Soviet Union's status as 'the enemy', there is a degree of unawareness in the West about the contribution made by Soviet women in WW2. Women flew all roles in combat and even had completely female units. There were a group of women night bomber pilot called the 'Night Witches' by the Germans. I still remember reading a letter a female fighter pilot wrote home to her family. Her boyfriend had been shot down and killed and she wrote home I will not survive the next mission. She didn't. A Soviet sniper when on tour in the U.S and was shocked how often the topic of an interview was about her make-up.
    It's a shame that Hollywood is so bent on stereotypes that they can't tells stories about real people who lived amazing lives. Anyway, there is rich resources of inspiration material right there.
    Godspeed!
     
  16. jannert

    jannert Retired Mod Supporter Contributor

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    Oh, I agree that he could have included more women (although at least three of his books contain a female protagonist.) What I thought—and still think—was that the females he did create were as realistic as the males. I don't think he created stereotypes. There is a difference between believing a story could be more gender balanced, and believing that the characters who do exist in the story are unrealistic gender-based stereotypes. Abercrombie's portrayal of female characters has never annoyed me in any way, so from my perspective, he's succeeded.

    I believe the OP was asking about how to create believable female characters. It's slightly different from the question of how many of them he should include in his story. Or whether the setting is a sexist society or not.
     
    Last edited: Apr 28, 2017
  17. BayView

    BayView Huh. Interesting. Contributor

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    Yeah, I'm not saying his female characters are problematic, necessarily. I just don't accept that his lack of female characters is because of the nature of his stories... like, as if it would be impossible to write similar stories with a more gender-balanced cast. Not saying it's his job to do so, but also not giving him a pass just because he wrote a setting where women don't tend to be in active roles.
     
  18. jannert

    jannert Retired Mod Supporter Contributor

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    That's where the perspective of the POV character comes in. If a POV character sees another character in a gender-based way, that's fine. However, if the writer does this from a neutral perspective, it will be noticed. I think the OP was looking to CREATE realistic women. How others in the story see those women will be up to lots of other factors.
     
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  19. Iain Sparrow

    Iain Sparrow Banned Contributor

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    I finally got around to listening to, 'The Blade Itself' audiobook last year, and to be honest, none of his characters ever jumped off the page for me. Perhaps it was the irritating POV switches that seemed to serve no meaningful purpose, or the slow patches in the story, but save the first chapter, which is one of the best action scenes I've come across, the book just left me flat. It was derivative mush.
     
  20. Dr.Meow

    Dr.Meow Contributor Contributor

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    Thanks for all the feedback. I'm taking in everyone's comments on this as always.

    To add a bit more context to the characters, this was a description from the POV of the Knight Commander. He knows them better than most people, and it was his thoughts we were hearing in this description. That being said, maybe I do need to backtrack and "show" the reader rather than tell them how these characters are. I was also using this segment to describe that these characters weren't white, since I really needed to let the reader know that before going too much further. I was describing more of their skin tone than anything, and since these characters are well known in the royal court as being trend setters, there's a bit more depth to them than just being warriors.

    Actually, women are now in the conscript and draft for the US military at least. One of the last things Obama did before handing the presidency to the neo-nazi regime we have now, but I digress. As far as my worldbuild is concerned, equality has been changing the most in the capitol and spreading out from there. It's not an instant change, and I was wanting to show a some parallels to modern culture. Here in the US especially, we have a lot more equality and less racism in cities, but as soon as you enter the rural areas it starts disappearing. I've experienced a bit of a culture shock myself having gone from living in a city, to where I currently live now... Part of my book is about addressing social issues. Not just ones we currently have now, but all sorts of them. It's a bit of a social commentary. Racism is also addressed, but not from skin color, it's from races other than human ones, and most of that is dealt with in the other country. I'm slowly trying to show the social and political controversies in both of these countries, and it'll start drawing comparisons to our modern societies.

    As far as one sex being weaker than the other, I will say that I understand it's typically understood that men are considered naturally stronger than women, yes. However, I have met a lot of different people from all walks of life, and I've met guys that were extremely frail, as well as women that were practically bodybuilders. People are still people, and it's not impossible for women to go into warfare and stand toe to toe with men. There's also different races, and the human race is also a bit more hardy than we have in modern times. Living in medieval settings even lends to people being a bit stronger all around. To the point that skill becomes almost more of a deciding factor than strength necessarily. I'm not oblivious to the controversy here, but I also think that the difference is a bit more exaggerated in modern settings were hard, physical labor is not a way of life, but instead its a choice. It does make some difference. The Amish are a good look into this actually, but that's a whole conversation in itself.

    Not arguing against your points, ust presenting my case is all. :)
     
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  21. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    I did intend to go back and note, "Of course you may actually BE seeing them through a male gaze." That said, I do still get the vibe from the focus of the description that the Knight Commander ha a bit of a crush on one or both of them. I don't have that much awareness of the complexions of colleagues or friends.
     
  22. KaTrian

    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Contributor

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    It is true Soviet women fought in WW2, and they carried their weight, even outdid men. The Night Witches were freaking badasses!

    Their capabilities aside, in WW2, women still comprised only 3 % of the military personnel and initially when they volunteered, they were turned away. In essence, women were accepted only after the USSR ran out of men to kill (I'm being hyperbolic, but basically that was it) and even then, they were often barred from the frontlines. There was also a lot of propaganda exaggerating the role of women in the military, but in reality, it was difficult for women to advance in their military career and usually they served in auxiliary roles, or you guessed it, as medics and nurses.

    Again, this doesn't mean they were not capable of getting the job done, but that the USSR was male-dominated, and women were not emancipated -- some people think that was the case. Maybe the OP could bring some of these dynamics to his story, although it's certainly not necessary to use gender as a source of conflict, it might even be refreshing if it's done convincingly.
     
  23. KaTrian

    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Contributor

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    I'm not so sure that's the case.

    April 26, 2017:

    Whether or not physical differences become an issue depends on the type of warfare in your story, as I said. There are fitness requirements in certain areas that all the applicants must meet and sometimes women won't pass muster, or alternatively they are expected to do less. The group would be physically more homogenous than in some other areas of life. If you have a bunch of McDonald's workers vs. sailors serving on a destroyer, I'd wager the latter group would be more uniformly fit and physically capable while the McDonald's workers could have frail men, bodybuilder women, obese men, disabled women, and so on.

    It's true farm work strengthens you. On the other hand, in some areas food may have been scarce, diseases were abound, and especially in case of women, pregnancy can be a serious show stopper.

    But it sounds like you've given this a lot of thought. That's great! If you ever need help with horsey or fightey stuff and a female POV to boot, I'd be happy to help!
     
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  24. Simpson17866

    Simpson17866 Contributor Contributor

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    @Dr.Meow Basically: people aren't stereotypes, only patterns are stereotypes.

    If you distinguish your female characters from each other as vividly as you do for your male characters, then you won't run into the trouble of accidentally making a narrative that says "All women are X"

     
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  25. Phil Mitchell

    Phil Mitchell Banned Contributor

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    Difficult to speak to this without knowing the role of magic, but I'm not talking about special characters and I'm assuming the species in question is human, as I consider applying the word "woman" to be a misnomer with a non human.

    Anyway the strength of women in war in a non magical setting generally doesn't lie in being a soldier. It's in keeping the factories going when the men have gone marching off, keeping the fields growing to keep the supplies coming, and keep the children from dying of neglect. These roles are just as important as glory on the field, but they are undervalued. It's more efficient this way because many women still alive means big birth rates, and the strength and aggression of men/testosterone isn't wasted hauling corn or something.
     

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