Over the past year or so, I’ve been going through some old stories that I wrote during middle and high school.
Often I did not write stories with girls. In the beginning, it was because they were icky. I wrote stories about guy friends hanging out and getting into hijinks or I copied what I saw in video games or on TV. On the rare occasion that I did write a story with a girl, they were a plot device, a trickster trying to lead my heroes down the wrong path.
Later on, I strayed away from females characters because of a fear of mine. I’m a man. What if I can’t write girls right? Is there some quality to them that might be beyond my grasp?
To further elaborate on this, I’d like to bring up J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. She’s a female writer writing from the perspective of a male character. For the first several books, Harry felt like a guy I could know. But in Harry Potter and the Halfblood Prince, there was this moment when Harry’s character first became infatuated with Ron’s sister, Ginny.
“It was as though something large and scaly erupted into life in Harry’s stomach, clawing at his insides….”
The entire description ripped me out of Harry Potter’s vibrant world. I saw the author’s words on page and felt a little revolted at this description of the teenage male’s sexual urges. I cringed every time I came across any descriptions of Harry’s urges. It wasn’t authentic to the experience.
I didn’t want female readers to have that kind of disconnect with anything that I wrote.
To help me get over my fear, I paid attention to the portrayal of women in movies and television shows. I also paid attention to what characters women said felt real to them. One name that popped up a lot as I did some of my preliminary research was Joss Whedon. he is praised for his female characters, however I deliberately made an effort to not watch anything by him. I focused more on what the average writer was putting on the screen for us all to see.
In two back-to-back sports movies that I watched (Miracle/Warrior), the wife of the coach/athlete filled the same role. She was there to support her husband when he failed and she was there to stand as an obstacle to his goals. She was there to remind the audience that the main character had a family to go back to. The wives in these movies were background noise. They weren’t fully realized people. The men were the main attraction.
So after viewing those movies, I thought about television shows or movies where a woman wasn’t in the background and was my favorite character. This was an entertaining and somewhat difficult exercise.
In my first draft of the list, my favorite female characters were all villains.
Katy Bates in Misery and
Estelle Louise Fletcher in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I’m a sucker for great villains.
Next I made a list with women who weren’t so evil. I came up with Lindsey from Freaks and Geeks, Jessica Chastain in The Help, Naomie Harris in 28 Days Later. These were characters that I could sympathize with. As I did these exercises, I came to the realization that I had been a complete idiot in the way I went about writing the other gender. I treated them as if women had this alien quality that put them out of my reach. I overthought this process, much like I do everything else.
The female lens is obviously not the same as the male one. Women have different expectations in life than men. Those expectations have an impact on the molding of their personality.
A few months ago, I had drafted out a story about a romance between a king and a queen for a screenwriting class. I knew I could write the king so I focused entirely on the queen and what went through her head. I spent twice as much time building her life experiences and her reactions to them. This was a detriment to the other characters.
I handed twenty pages of script in to my professor. This was the intro for a feature length that I’m still working on now. I used the queen for five or six pages. My professor e-mailed me back and urged me to use the queen more because she was by far my strongest character. He was a male professor so his opinion didn’t put me at ease. I needed more assurance that this character would not lead to a disconnect with female characters.
So I came up with an elaborate plot. I had a friend who’s a self-proclaimed feminist. She read lots of books so she knew her way around a story. So I asked her for help with my character. I told her I had no idea where I was going with my queen character. This was a lie. I had already come up with her personality. I gave her the scenario and asked her how she thought a female character in the middle ages would act when given the same scenario. And as it turns out, she described a character nearly identical to my own. I hope that I’m on the right track.
I think to write the authentic female voice, you have to abolish the idea of a strong female character.The term is taken too literally. I’ve seen so much media with kick ass one-dimensional female characters. Their hook is that these girls can get down and dirty just like any guy. You want your female character to come off as human and vulnerable as your male characters, not infinitely perfect in everyway.
Too many writers see their female characters as serving a purpose toward the story rather than allowing those female characters to organically influence the events. This is why we see so many bland subplot romances. The writer knows they want the hero to have a girl and get her in the end. The woman is not given much room to grow. She ends up as a contrast to the main character’s personality in order to maximize conflict and make the relationship seem impossible. After the pair hit it off, they have a misunderstanding over something trivial and then she forgives him. The woman is there to be earned. An issue that I see too often is that the girl is made into the goal rather than the actual relationship.
I don’t hold the opinion that all female characters should be positive role models. During the time that I spent reading feminist blogs on female representation, I’d see a lot of complaints on negative portrayal of women. There are some horrible women out there. You can’t focus solely on the negative, but you can’t ignore that either. Some of my favorite characters are the scum of the earth and that’s why I love them.
Everything I’ve said could be completely wrong. I’m still working out the kinks in my writing theories. I hope to make what was my biggest weakness as a writer (other than starting and not finishing things), into my greatest strength.