Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Male Writers and Female Characters

I’ve decided to continue investigating this Characters thread for a while, and save scenes for later.

Selecting my favorite characters starting me to thinking, WHY are these my favorite characters? And then a sleepless night spent wandering the Net (I can’t eat sugar anymore) set me to thinking about the wildly different ways different readers can react to the same character. And then the responses to my question, Why haven’t male writers created more memorable female characters? started me to thinking about taking a longer look at THAT question.

I’m going to tackle the last question first, Why haven’t male writers created more memorable female characters?

I suspect part of the answer may be because women have traditionally played a supporting role in our society, and so male writers often think of women that way. Think about the old hardboiled mysteries, for instance, in which female characters were there either to mother the hero, or to tempt him. It’s hard to create a memorable character out of a female whose active role is so limited. As long as women were seen as either goddesses or whores, i.e., as one-dimensional stereotypes, you couldn’t expect writers to create a character well rounded enough to become anyone’s favorite.

Then there’s the point Charles made. The characters we meet in adventure stories when we are young often live on in our imaginations as favorites, and most of those writers were males. Yes, there were some female adventure writers, but they usually wrote about males, with a few exceptions (as Chap pointed out). I think about J.K. Rowling. I have read that she made a conscious decision to make her make main character male and to use male-sounding initials for her name because she wanted to appeal to boys as well as girls. The sad fact is that girls will read about an adventuring male, but boys are far less likely to read about an adventuring female. Is it because females are more in touch with their male side than males are in touch with their female side?

Then I think about the reactions certain readers have had to some of my female characters, and I wonder how well many female readers would react to a really strong, powerful female character. Is it possible that the 8-year-old girl who enjoyed reading about an adventurous female heroine could grow into a 50-year-old woman whose choices in life have made it difficult for her to identify with or even like a particularly strong heroine? Yes, “kick-butt” heroines have become more popular in the last 10 years, but isn’t it mainly with younger Gen Y readers? And isn’t there a difference between a heroine with the ability to physically kick butt and one with a truly independent mindset?

Then I note that Charles had Kelly from Charlie’s Angels on his list of favorite TV/Movie characters, and I can’t even remember which one of the three women WAS Kelly—to me their characters seemed essentially interchangeable. Which brings up the point, How big a part does sex appeal play in our choice of “favorite” characters of the opposite sex? Someone at a recent booksigning/talk I gave asked, “What fictional character would you most like to have sex with?” My answer was, “Francis Crawford of Lymond.” And, of course, he’s #1 on my list of “favorite characters”!


Anonymous said...

Your comment about women having traditionally played supporting roles in society and fiction is a very important clue, I think. It may also involve men feeling more comfortable writing about male characters than female. One thing I notice about my lists is that all the characters are larger than life, and the best remembered ones have exotic sounding names. (Kelly was the black haired Angel by the way, played by Jacqueline Smith, and I've always been attracted to long dark hair.)

Beque said...

Lymond is first on my fictional sex list too.

I used to read a lot of science fiction, and was struck by how few male authors could create what I (as a female reader) considered a truly realistic female character with an authentically feminine voice; David Brin could do it, but I hardly ran across anyone else who could. Even authors like Heinlein who were somewhat renowned for their strong female characters tended to fall into goddess/whore stereotypes, I thought.

Hi! I'm a librarian in Lafayette, and a friend just recommended your St. Cyr mysteries; I liked the first one a lot, and the second is on its way to me....

cs harris said...

Hello, Beque! I suspect a bit of Lymond lurks in Sebastian. I have several writer friends who love Lymond, and I can certainly see him in their heroes.

Anonymous said...

I may be a traitor to my sex but I don't really go for stories with a female lead - movies or books. Partly because they're so often down-trodden. If there were a way to remove Lifetime from my cable box, I'd do it in a heartbeat.

But also because there are so many cliches that they just don't feel real. They're headstrong. They're beautiful. So beautiful in fact that they don't know how beautiful they are. They're always smarter than the men in the story but they're not taken seriously. I have to stop - I'm annoying myself.

Scarlett O'Hara was my last real heroine. She's more fleshed out in the book but Vivian Leigh was still kickass.