There’s a lot of “Write Strong Women” posts that I see go by, particularly on Twitter. There’s also a ton of “Why men will never be able to write strong women” posts too, kind of representing the other end of that philosophical spectrum.
Having read a number of these posts, I’ve found them to be mostly shallow, and more importantly, not very insightful for any writer who is struggling with writing about women. Notice I didn’t say ‘men’ writing about women, I mean writers writing about women. I’ve met plenty of female writers who have a very hard time writing female characters.
The difference between what I’ve read, and what I’m providing here, is that I’ve broken down some of the things that I think about as I write my characters, women in particular. Over the past 25 years of writing short-stories that I shared with friends and occasional strangers, and more recently with my first two books of my The Yellow Hoods series, I’ve been complemented on my female characters.
While I’ve never had a sister, most of my closest friends ever since high school have been women. Most of my readers, as it turns out, are women. I write women characters that I want my daughter to learn from and that will, hopefully, stand the test of time.
1. Only men don’t know how to write women
As I mentioned, I’ve met women who struggled with writing female characters. You can struggle writing a gender for a number of reasons, and it has little to do with the gender that you are. All because you know what you think, doesn’t mean you know how the rest of your gender, with all its variants, thinks.
2. Equality means the same
Men and women being equal does not mean everything about them should be interchangeable. Generally men can be bulkier and stronger, but women can be faster, it’s a fact of life.
I find it important to think about the total number of “points” are the same, but how you collect those points are different.
3. Guys and Macho versus Women
Having been “one of the girls” more times than I can remember, I start to laugh whenever I hear a bunch of guys think that men are “dirtier” in their talk or more graphic or more whatever. I believe the most I was ever able to handle on the “women talking about sex/pain/anything considered adult content” I think would probably be rated at a 6 out of 10. Guys, that’s about a 14 out of 10 on our scale. I have a gay friend who said that he couldn’t take it beyond 7.
The difference? Males tend to have certain boundaries around which their identities are defined, for themselves and for others. That boundary tends to be a lot further out than the women I’ve been close to.
4. That I’m any type of professional in this space
Understand that why I’m writing here is to help provoke thought. In some cases, I’m simplifying some things, in other cases I’m trying to draw a distinction to again, provoke thought. I’m not a social scientist, nor is this 100% concretely, written in stone, the way I think about things every time I go to the keyboard.
I believe there are three axises that you need to think about when writing any character to properly understand the gender differences, and LGBTQ variants.
Genetic traits (XX vs XY) – These are attributes such as facial hair, breasts, size, strength, speed, endurance, etc. This is about the effects of hormones on the thinking and behaviour, as well as body. These are things are associated with the character based on their chromosomes and not on how they behave.
Now having had some gay friends in my life, and one trans-gender friend, this is where it’s important to recognize that this is not binary. I intentionally put that XX vs XY because that’s how people think about it, but it’s more nuanced than that. I have a couple of gay friends of mine who are ‘brawn guys’, while another friend of mine has a thin and has almost a heart shaped face (typical female trait).
Feminine vs Masculine – These are underlying characteristics, almost hard-wired into the person elements of their personality but it isn’t related to their genetics. Are they a protector? What type? Do they stay with the family to protect the family (which I think of as feminine) or do they try to secure the family and hunt the danger (which I think of as masculine). Are they a mentor or a nurturer?
An example based on my observations of my friends over the years, is how they deal with conflict. Two men can hate each other, have a fight, and when one submits, the other will usually stop. They can even become the closest of allies after that. When two women who hate each other fight, there is no concept of submission. There is possibly a stop to the violence, but there is “never” a trust that builds between them.
Masculine behaviour seems to have that submission concept which comes along with adjusting the view of “my tribe”, whereas feminine behaviour seems to have more a family rather than tribe view, and if you ever threatened my family, you will always be a potential threat. However, feminine trust is a lot harder to break than masculine trust, from what I’ve experienced.
A man’s job is to bring home the bacon, is dependent on the era in which that social role of “what it means to be a man” is defined. It could as easily be, for a different era, a man’s role is to sire a child and die for the glory of the king, or to ensure all the streets are clean so that no disease may spread. In the era that the story is taking place, is a woman whose husband dies effectively a man, meaning that she is allowed to take a wife? Is she referred to as sir from that point forward?
It’s really important to think about not just what the ‘standard’ social gender roles are in the era of your story, but how does your character align to them. Are they a comfortable fit? Are they an awkward fit? Do they feel that another role would be a better fit than the one they are in? Do they accept that conflict?
A woman who thought she was smart, to dumbed herself down in high school so she could get ‘better’ attention from boys, and then gets married early and has kids, may feel that she accepted a social role that doesn’t align at all with who she thinks she really is. I’ve known several women like this, who aligned with an early social role (high school) which ended up taking them into another one that they wished they’d never found themselves in. Some of them had the will to change things, others felt burdened by the misalignment between who they felt they were, and who they were being.
Men, in the modern era, get incredibly little emotional training of any sort. How do you deal with emotions? You suck it up buttercup or you use it to fuel rage? This is a bit of a simplified view, but it does relate to that point I raised earlier regarding the boundary points of male identities. In a case like mine, where I was the “shoulder to cry on” for seemingly most pretty girls in my high school at one point or another, got plenty of training. Hold that thought.
Women, on the other hand, “usually” end up with a Ph.D by comparison to most men, by the time they have finished high-school, it seems. However, this isn’t always the case, and I can think of one woman in my sphere of friends who definitely has little emotional understanding and management training. It makes her having friendships with other women a challenge because she feels “why are they so sensitive about stupid stuff?” This contrasts with my situation, where I usually have difficult with most guys because it’s as if they are blind to part of the visible spectrum.
Emotional training and expectations of the level of emotional training and understanding, can significantly affect your character and how they interact with the world.
When my wife was pregnant with our daughter, I was excited and terrified. She was going to be our first kid, and on top of that, I was going to have the little girl that I’d somehow always figured I was going to have.
Being a child of my era, I’d learned that mom and dad were both important, and somehow along the way, the idea of there being much of a difference between the two roles was highly eroded. My gut said that there was a difference, but I didn’t have any social cues to tell me that that was still true. Then I read a book that really clarified my thinking.
I still recommend this book to any father who is having a daughter: Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters by Doctor Meg Meeker. Dr. Meeker brings a couple of decades of first hand experience as a paediatrician to the advice she gives.
What a father is for a daughter is not the same representative figure he is for a son. But, and this is really important, the mother is not either for the son. Said another way, father/daughter has no male equivalent, but nor does mother/son have a female equivalent. After reading the book, I started talking with some of my friends and came to realize there was a lot of truth to this, a lot.
For a male writer, this is probably the biggest surprise (and for my female writer friends, this has been somewhere between a ‘oh, that makes sense’ and a ‘duh, how did you not know this.’
I’ve spoken with male writers who understood how a male character’s loss of their mother developed into a lack of having a nurturing side for the adult male character, and mistakenly assumed the same thing would happen for a female character who lost her father did the same thing. Understanding that the father usually represents the justice of the world and how things should be, really changes that.
In The Yellow Hoods, I have three young female characters (Tee, Elly and Mounira) and four mid-aged (Gretel, Christina, Jennifer and Richelle) and two older (Anna and the yet to be presented ‘DeBoeuf’).
For each one of them I have spent time thinking about the points I raised above, and how their age affects it. I look at them through a different lens than I do my male characters, even if they are lesbian (which surprises some), because the world reacts to them based on how they looked from an early age.
We take a lot of these types of things into consideration when we create characters anyway, but if you’re trying to write a gender, or an orientation that isn’t one you intuitively understand, hopefully the points I raised above gives you something to think about as you go down the road of making them stronger.
[Note: This has become one of the presentations that I give at conventions and schools, now called Writing Outside of Your Comfort Zone. If you’re interested in having me present, contact me.]