Tuesday, January 10, 2006

On Writing the Female Protagonist

In the course of my writing "career" (such as it is), I've run across quite a few male writers who've told me that they have a lot of trouble writing female protagonists, and it was something they had to actively work on. I always found this fascinating because though my short stories are often female POV (though not always), my novels always have mixed POVs, men and women, and I never gave it a second thought.

One of my most exciting character POVs in book 2 of the fantasy saga is the POV of a rational misogynist, a guy who really does believe women are infantile and inferior; and the trick has been to make him interesting if not sympathetic and have him carry a POV instead of just being a spear-carrier. I'm having lots of fun with it. And I don't find it terribly tricky. I know really great guys who are closet misogynists and can rationalize those feelings from here until Sunday. So it's not like I don't have examples to draw from.

So what's up with the male writer fear of writing up female protagonists? Or is it only strong female protagonists that are scary?

I dunno. I set down my free copy of Hickman's "Mystic Warriors" when the protagonist's wife "purred" at him on page four (this was the fourth time she'd done something stupid like that in as many pages). I don't know how many male writers' SO's "purr" at them, but my guess is: not many. So I don't know where this guy's ideas about all that came from. Maybe he thought it made for a more exciting opening scene.

Maybe this has to do with the old, "We're all used to reading books about men," thing. You know, the old saying that boys and girls will read books about boys, but only girls will read books about girls, because reading books about girls is "Girly." Being a woman, I have no trouble writing about women, and reading a lot of books with male protagonists, having male friends, and generally moving in male-dominated circles fills in the other half, so I have no trouble writing about men. I listen to and talk to men all the time.

But I just don't buy that men don't hang out with women. I mean, don't men have female friends besides their SOs? Don't they read books with female protagonists?

Then what's so difficult about getting into the female POV without it all coming out like Heinlein's robotic-sounding Friday or any of his other cardboard female characters? I mean, women are just people. What's so tough about writing about people?

I don't think you have to have an intimate knowledge of cramps, tampons, and hair products in order to write good female characters.

9 comments so far. What are your thoughts?

Lori said...

Actually, a lot of men don't have (many/any) female friends, and they don't read books with female protagonists.


Posted by Lori

Shaun CG said...

Girl cooties, I guess.

The protagonists of the novel I'm working on are a woman about ten years older than I am and a 17/18 year old boy. It's not particularly hard. Although no doubt editing will reveal instances of people talking out-of-character, it's not a tortuous process! 

Posted by Shaun CG

Jennifer said...

Well, I may talk to a bunch of guys, but I can't claim to understand how they think. So likewise, I figure there are at least some guys out there who can't figure out how girls think. And if you're not sure how someone else operates from within and how their logic is going to go, it can kind of make sense.

Then again, I'm going to have to write part of my next novel from a guy's POV and I am scared shitless about it... 

Posted by Jennifer

Kameron Hurley said...

But if we're going to go by the "write what you know" rule, then I'd only be able to write about 25 year old middle class white women.

And how dull that would be!


Posted by Kameron Hurley

midwesterntransport said...

I agree. Is the gender divide so cavernous that male writers can't cross it? What makes those specific writers who "have difficulty writing women" so sure that every woman thinks alike?

Maybe that's the problem: assuming that the term woman is a monolith and not a vague social description. 

Posted by midwesterntransport

Jackfish Crow said...

There might be a another factors at work.

One is that the men who have no trouble writing from a female PoV aren't going to pipe up about how little trouble they're having. After all, if it's not a problem for them, why would the mention it? That might make it seem like more writers have trouble with a female PoV than is actually the case.

There are also probably a lot of writers who hear so much about the characters being difficult to write, they assume from the get-go that there is some special and different trick for handling female characters that's different from any other character. So they focus too much on the female aspect, until that becomes the only distinguishing feature of the character, and you're left with another one of those faceless plot-devices.

Dunno if that's making sense, wholly. 

Posted by Anonymous

Anonymous said...

Nothing much pertinent to say; just a "Yay!" at finally finding someone willing to admit that Heinlein writes crap "female" "characters." My ability to read Heinlein with a straight face (if at all) stopped about the time I read one of the books about whatserface, mother of the super-race, with her sex drive and irresistible pheromones. Ai. 

Posted by Katharine

Kameron Hurley said...

Oh yea, I just thought it was generally accepted that Heinlein's female character's were cardboard crap.


Posted by Kameron Hurley

Elyce Rae Helford said...

I have several thoughts on this issue, in random order:

(1) When men DO write persuasive female characters (e.g. Sister Carrie, Lady Chatterly's Lover, etc.) they get accolates, parties, and a key to the kingdom.

(2) I remember reading an article that talked about the depiction of female characters gazing into mirrors, admiring themselves (Freudian theory about narcissism validated). I've never once seen a woman do this, nor of a good woman writer writing this. Every woman I know who looks long into a mirror is either seeing her flaws, trying to fix her flaws, trying to rationalize away her flaws, or having a flickering moment of thinking perhaps maybe she might look ok.

(3) Keeping woman-as-other valid takes work. Pretending you don't "understand" women remains a stock in trade of the mediocre writer and human being.

Thanks for keeping us thinking. 

Posted by Elyce