CAN MALE WRITERS SUCCESSFULLY WRITE FEMALE CHARACTERS? by Rod Rees

It’s perhaps appropriate that I’m writing a piece on the subject of how well (or badly) male writers create/describe/cope with/handle female characters when the paperback version of The Demi-Monde: Summer is about to be launched.

As a writer I’m drawn to having females as my lead protagonists. The old adage is write what you know and living in a house with two hi-achieving, confident and very ambitious teenage girls and having an intelligent and thoughtful wife (who happens to be beautiful to boot!) gave me, I thought, something of an insight into the female mindset. But there was more to it than that. Female characters are, in my humble opinion, better vehicles for a writer to explore all aspects of the human psyche free of the limitations and pre-conceptions imposed by the curse of stereotype-itis that afflicts male characters. A male lead is beset by doubts and indecision and the appellation ‘weak’ heads his way: a female lead is beset by doubts and indecision and she is seen as ‘sensitive’. A male character panics in the face of adversity and he’s one step away from being labelled ‘a coward’; a female character does the same thing and she thought of as a pragmatist. A male character charges unthinkingly into a perilous situation and he’s ‘high on testosterone’; a female character . . . well, I doubt if she would, females being the smarter half of the h.sapiens double act.

But having females as lead characters requires an ability to write female characters.

My own ability was tested in The Demi-Monde: Summer, the third in the Demi-Monde series. Some of you will know that that the eponymous Demi-Monde is a virtual world divided into five Sectors, each of which has its own racial, political and religious identity. The politics and religions of each Sector are pastiches of those found here in the Real World, then stretched to breaking in my attempt to have a little fun at their expense: reduction ad adsurdum and all that. Most of the action in The Demi-Monde: Summer takes place in the Coven, the ultra-feminist and rabidly misandric Sector of the Demi-Monde. The religion of the Coven is HerEticalism which is aimed at bringing the women of the Demi-Monde to the Nirvana of MostBien, the final triumph of women, the nine steps this entails being:

  • Separatism: the establishment of the Coven as a separate and independent Femme (DM-speak for ‘female’) Sector.
  • The provision of a Sanctuary for Femmes fleeing the pernicious persecution of nonFemmes.
  • The outlawing of marriage.
  • A Return to Demureness and the rejection by Femmes of the need for Sexual Objectification.
  • The Banning of Pawnography (the Demi-Mondian form of pornography), which stimulates nonFemmes’ (mens’) crazed and unnatural sexual lusts.
  • The Ending of Heterosexual Sex and the universal adoption by Femmes of MoreBienism (DM-speak for lesbianism).
  • The Neutering of MALEvolence (the predilection of men to use violence to settle differences/arguments) and the establishment of a NoN (aka eunuch) mentality within nonFemmes.
  • Male decontamination and the Culling of Men.
  • Procreation by Parthenogenesis.

HerEticalism is Feminism in extremis. And to enable me to write with confidence on the beliefs current in the more outré Feminist circles I read widely and absorbed all the classics of feminist writings. What I discovered is that like all quasi-religions, Feminism has its zealots: so much so that I found it damned difficult to make HerEticalism more extreme than the world envisaged by the out-there radical-feminists. The upshot of all this reading and pondering was that I thought I was pretty clued up on feminism.

Maybe I was wrong.

I belong to a writers’ group which recently perused the opening 10,000 words of a novella I’ve written called ‘Invent-10n’. It’s a near-future story that features a rather feisty twenty-year-old singer with a penchant for jive talk called Jenni-Fur. I thought I’d rendered her as a tough, take-no-prisoners sort of rebel but it seemed that some of her dialogue offended the two female members of the group.

Using the argot of 2030s Britain, Jenni-Fur described herself as ‘a lush thrush with a tight tush’, which was thought to be both unrealistic and borderline ‘pornographic’.

This brought to mind other criticisms. One woman commented on the scene where Odette (a character I introduced in The Demi-Monde: Spring) was admiring her breasts in a mirror by opining that ‘Women don’t do that!’ I was tempted to reply, ‘Oh, yes they do!’ but the injunction from my publishers is never to get into an argument with your critics so I stayed schtum. Similarly, one critic said it was ‘disappointing’ that my principal character in the DM series – a young and feisty African-American called Ella – should have used her sexual wiles to get herself out of a tight corner. There are others I could cite, but you get the picture.

What I found most unsettling about these criticisms was their nugatory nature. My characters were being criticised not for doing what strong, independent women should be doing, but for doing what a section of the readership believes they shouldn’t be doing. Rather than look at the broader attributes/attitudes of a character, it is the minutiae that was being picked over. Sure, they might admit that Ella is a confident girl, facing the world on her terms, but this is forgotten when she just occasionally plays the coquette. Sure they might agree that Odette is a strong-willed (and strong-armed) individual but her concern about her appearance mitigates against this.  I am drawn to the Biblical parable about motes and beams and could take this religious analogy further: feminist criticism has many of the features of the theological debates in mediaeval times where being pilloried for heresy turned on the most trivial of deviations from the accepted canon. How many angels can dance on the point of a pin, and all that.

Worse, I had the troubling suspicion that there was an attempt being made to confine female characters in much the same way as male characters have been. To a section of the female reading public it seems that to be ‘realistic’ a female lead must be:

Strong and resolute;

Independently minded;

Not to see herself as an object of male sexual interest;

Never to use her sexual charisma as a means of achieving an objective; and,

Not written by a man (okay, I made this one up).

For a writer – be they male or female – this delineation of what is PC regarding the depiction of a female character has quite profound implications. For example when you put female characters in settings (especially historical ones) which are antithetical to women it becomes difficult to shape a character which is sympathetic to that setting without violating these feminist norms. I had a lead in a Victorian melodrama who was (I believed) an accurate example of that era’s female middle-class – home-centric, absurdly moral, unschooled and subservient to her husband as head of the house – and I was lambasted for making her too passive. That this ‘passivity’ was to be shed as the story unfolded wasn’t an acceptable excuse: she had to display all aspects of a modern emancipated woman from the get-go. My observations that she was at one with the attitudes current in a London circa 1870 (where a quarter of all women were reputed to be prostitutes and the number of women opposed to universal suffrage outnumbered those in favour) were discounted as irrelevant.

But I have a suspicion that these proscriptions affect female writers as much as they affect male ones. It seems to be a fixture at the SF conventions I’ve attended to have a panel discussion debating why there are so few women writing in the adult SF and fantasy genres. Could it be that the success of female writers in YA fantasy fiction is in part attributable to their young female characters being better able to adhere to this template of the ideal female? Once female writers venture into the more visceral world of adult fiction they find this stereotype doesn’t work and hence struggle. Just a thought.

Okay, so I determined to see how the real experts did it, and canvassed Facebook for examples of female characters successfully portrayed by male writers. That will be the subject of ‘Can Male Writer Successfully Write Female Characters 2’ but here’s a clue: Ana Steele wasn’t on the list as an example for male writers to ape in developing a female character.

*DISCLAIMER: opinions and views shared on our blog are solely the views of the author and are not representative of Jo Fletcher Books.

See Jo’s response here.

23 Comments:

  1. Could it be that the success of female writers in YA fantasy fiction is in part attributable to their young female characters being better able to adhere to this template of the ideal female? Once female writers venture into the more visceral world of adult fiction they find this stereotype doesn’t work and hence struggle. Just a thought.

    Who are you even talking about here?  Are you under the impression that YA writers are looking to break into the adult genre world? Rather than the other way around?

    Not to see herself as an object of male sexual interest;

    Seeing oneself as an object is not generally considered to be a mature point of view.  Perhaps the issue is not that YA writers’ characters are more “ideal” but that (certain) SFF readers see women as less mature?
    More to the point, that’s not a terribly interesting viewpoint to read about.  It would rather be like reading about the point of view of someone who always needs outside validation.  Unless the purpose is to explore that dynamic, it gets old fast.  And I’ve already had a lifetime of reading men writing about women seeing themselves as men see them.  That got old a loooooong time ago.
    Also, for the record, my breasts are never untethered.  And – unless I get a mastectomy – they never will be.  They will always be tethered TO ME.  That’s generally how body parts work.  Bras, etc are to hold them UP not keep them from floating away into space.
     

  2. This is satire, right?

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  5. Paul (@princejvstin)

     It seems to be a fixture at the SF conventions I’ve attended to have a panel discussion debating why there are so few women writing in the adult SF and fantasy genres. Could it be that the success of female writers in YA fantasy fiction is in part attributable to their young female characters being better able to adhere to this template of the ideal female? Once female writers venture into the more visceral world of adult fiction they find this stereotype doesn’t work and hence struggle. Just a thought.
    Wait, so you are arguing that women can’t write adult fiction well? Or fail to do so because of Feminist ideals? Or that they write YA better than adult fiction because their heroines can model these character traits more accurately?
     
     

  6. Athena Andreadis

    1. It is characteristic of people with sexism embedded in their mindset that they use the term “female” as a noun.
    2. Women can and have written literally tons of adult fiction across all genres.  The fact that Mr. Rees seems not to be aware of it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist but rather points to the same cognitive dissonance that led to all-male anthologies/award lists in the UK.
    3. Feminism is not a quasi-religion and its basic tenet is the opposite of nugatory.  The rest of Mr. Rees’ complaints all arise from patriarchal strictures that harm men as well as women — but women far more so than men.

  7. This is so typical: a man do esn’t know how to relate to women, and then blames them for his lack of understanding. Why not consider writing about human beings first, let the gender issues sort themselves out. I’d have suggested thinking about how womanhood had been modeled to you, what have you learned from simple observation and empathy about what the female reality is like; from an outsider perspective, since being a man, all you, or me, or any male wirter for that matter can hope to be is an empathetic outsider. You have to want to understand. I thought what we want to do as writers is just write stuff that feels true, is true. But reading some of Demi-Monde….dude. The only impression that comes out to me is an attitude towards woman that’s locked in some kind of adolescent state. You have have achieved much in your life, and congratulations to you on that, but Rod, there’s a part of you that’s stunted. Maybe you want to take a closer look at that.

  8. Wow, now I realise where I’ve been going wrong all these years – after 14 or so SFF novels in which I’ve tried to depict women as complex, interesting protagonists. I should have just focused on their relationship with their breasts instead.
    For the record, if your breasts were ‘untethered’ they would technically be detached from your torso and bobbling about at ceiling height like balloons. I do hope someone’s alerted Thog’s Masterclass (Dept of Improbable Anatomy) to this. In fact, don’t worry about it: I’ll drop Dave Langford a line now.

  9. I get why people tend to focus on what women shouldn’t be doing.  It’s hard because there are so many cultural expectations, particular revolving around how we look.  It’s in commercials, it’s on TV shows, it’s in movies.  We’re bombarded with it.  The objections — at least with the sexuality side — are likely because that’s how we’re generally ONLY viewed in many books.  I doubt if there are many books where the male main character is viewed in the same way, in any.  The result is that it can turn women into what we look like and not who we are.

  10. How can any thinking author write a post like this one and be serious? Surely this *has* to be satire.

  11. Antonia T. Tiger

    OK, so Rod Rees manages to start well, pointing out a few stereotuped expectations.  But, while he knows where he started from, I get the feeling he is holding his map upside down, and some uncrupulous miscreant has exchanged his compass for his wristwatch, and he hasn’t realised.

  12. Hahaha seriously? This reads like a parody of bad writing. 

  13. Most of the action in The Demi-Monde: Summer takes place in the Coven, the ultra-feminist and rabidly misandric Sector of the Demi-Monde.

    Oh good god.

  14. Freda Warrington

    “the ultra-feminist and rabidly misandric Sector of the Demi-Monde. The religion of the Coven is HerEticalism which is aimed at bringing the women of the Demi-Monde to the Nirvana of MostBien, the final triumph of women,”Sounds fantastic. I take it he knows Storm Constantine did this about 25 years ago???

  15. I appreciate that you’re trying to put yourself into the minds of your characters. However – and correct me if I’m wrong – when you put yourself into the mind of your reader, I’m guessing that it’s never a reader who has breasts. The word “patronise” has a gender-specific entymology for a good reason.

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