(Why I Have Problems With) Writing Women Well

Submitted by C B Wright on

A much earlier, less complete version of this essay can be found on my Google+ account, from about a year back. What’s funny is that the essay back then had pretty much the same opening—DC Comics manages to remain relevant. Poor bastards.

DC Comics has become something of a punching bag—deservedly so, in my opinion—because people have noticed that the way women are, on the whole, being portrayed in the DC Universe is… um… less than flattering to women in the real world. It’s as if the guys running DC hit their mid-life crisis at exactly the same time, and instead of buying a sports car and trying to pretend they’re 201 they figured it would be easier to make the entire outlook of the DC Universe resemble that of a 13 year old boy going through a particularly rough patch of puberty.

So Starfire went from a friendly, cheerful alien who doesn’t understand the cultural taboos of humans when it comes to things like nudity and love, to a cynical, bored alien who will have sex at the drop of a hat for no other reason than to kill time—this certainly carries a certain appeal to the 13 year old “God damn it my voice cracked again2 crowd because at that particular moment in your life the changes and feelings you’re struggling to gain control over aren’t conducive to thinking about permanent relationships. Also, cynical boredom is edgy and cool, like Batman, only in a thong.

Wonder Woman is still Wonder Woman, because she’s probably too iconic to mess with too much at this point, but now we have to wonder exactly how she managed to be the woman she is since we just learned the island she’s from has a habit of procreating by seducing sailors and then murdering them afterwards, praying mantis style, and finally sending all the boy children off to work in the mines.3 How she managed to become the hero and role model she is today while remaining completely oblivious to one of the most dysfunctional family dynamics I’ve seen in comics in a while is a mystery to me.

Gotham City seems to be the last bastion of hope for strong, self-assured, competent women in the DC Universe, since there’s Batwoman, and Batgirl—though I’m really not sure where I fall on that one, since Oracle was a kick-ass character who was pretty mature, and why she decided to become Batgirl after getting her mobility back doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, unless she aged backwards or they just retconned the entire Oracle storyline out of existence, which may actually be the case.4

My point is, a lot of the things I’ve heard about DC recent decisions on how to portray women in their comics goes beyond “bad” and encroaches on “downright creepy, no I don’t want to see the inside of your van, and if you even look at my daughter I’ll break every finger in your right hand.”

But this isn’t about them. It would be easy to make this about them, because right now they are such an easy, easy target,5 but it would also be far too self-serving. Because the fact is, I have the same problem DC does. Not on the same scale, certainly, and it doesn’t take exactly the same form—I’m not turning them in to over-the-top sexpots, it seems I trend toward making them flat, lifeless, cardboard cutouts. Why? Well I’ll tell you… in a long, roundabout fashion…

Immediately after writing the first draft of Pay Me, Bug! I knew there was a problem with the first few chapters, but I didn’t know what it was. I knew there was a problem because when I read it, the rhythm was “off”—the story felt tentative and stumbling, and then by chapter nine or so it found its step and became a proper dance. The problem is, I didn’t know what the problem was. I looked at it from a distance and I couldn’t tell. I looked at it up close and I couldn’t tell. I looked at each individual part and I couldn’t tell. In other words, I couldn’t find anything specific that wrecked the chapters.

So I tried re-writing the beginning, and for a while I was happier because the rhythm was, legitimately, different… but that’s because it was a bad rewrite. So I went back to the original, decided if I didn’t know what to fix, I was just going to have to move on, and started submitting it to publishers.

The end of that process, six years later, was I decided to self-publish. But that’s a separate story.

I tried working on other things, but I kept getting pulled back to the mystery of the beginning of Pay Me, Bug! My instincts told me something was off—very, very off—but I couldn’t tell what it was. I was flummoxed. I was flummoxed for six years, and it was interfering with my ability to write anything else, because the point of writing continuously is to improve, and how can you improve when you feel you’re doing something very wrong but you don’t know what it is?

I kept re-writing the beginning of the book. Some of the versions I showed to friends, others I didn’t. People kept telling me it was “fine,” and it could be that, in the overall scheme of the universe, compared to many book openings, it was a perfectly acceptable opening as far as it went, but I don’t actually believe that. There were many, many pieces of it I liked, but there was something off that wrecked the entire thing… and I didn’t know what it was. It was poisoning me. It caused me to question everything I did. Every new story I started, I had to wrestle with the uncertainty of this mysterious flaw that I couldn’t identify, and therefore couldn’t try to fix.

Finally, when I decided to self-publish Pay Me, Bug!, first as a serial on my site and then as an eBook, I decided I would rewrite the beginning one last time… and that time, that last time, I found it. I found the problem, I fixed the problem—not perfectly, but well enough—and the terrible uncertainty went away.

The problem? Amys.

For those of you who haven’t read my book,6 Amys is a) the protagonist’s best friend, b) the protagonist’s navigator, c) the protagonist’s former lover, d) one of the most dangerous people in pretty much any room in the galaxy, and e) a woman. Pay Me, Bug! is, among other things, a gleeful celebration of Space Opera tropes, and Amys’ stock archetype was the “beautiful but deadly” character (I don’t think that particular listing is on TV Tropes, but think Aeryn Sun from Farscape or Zoe from Firefly.) The problem with the beginning of the story was that Amys didn’t grow beyond that. She was, essentially, just a hot chick with a gun.

There are so many archetypes and tropes that I threw into the story7 that I didn’t really think too much of it. My plan, of course, was that each trope would be fleshed out so that it actually fit into the universe, and I’m happy with most of what I did, but Amys was not handled well. I’d thought a lot about her story, and how she fit in, and what her role was, and there was no problem with any of that work, but the implementation fell flat.

Amys is supposed to be Grif’s right-hand man. His best friend, the Sundance to his Butch Cassidy, the Chewbacca to his Han Solo,8 someone who he holds in such high regard that he considers her his closest friend even after they have a relationship that ends, um, badly. But there’s no indication of any of that in the older manuscripts. She rolls her eyes when he’s being an idiot and laughs at his jokes. THAT’S IT. It’s embarrassing.

When I figured that out, I started looking for ways to show that Amys was competent. I made her the one person in the very beginning of the story who realized Grif was playing an angle with Mavis9, I had her take charge the way an executive officer should when she detected reluctance among the crew, and I had her push another character around a bit. Then I worked very hard on a scene between Amys and Grif—just the two of them talking—to make it as clear as possible that their friendship was legitimate and equal. Then I went through the book and looked for places to keep doing that.

The fix isn’t perfect. Far from it—there are so many ways I could have done it better, and made Amys a better character. And there was another female character who I did even more of a disservice to10… but that’s why God invented sequels, right? To fix all the problems in the first book!

But why did I make the mistake in the first place? When the personalities and interplay between characters is such an important part of the book, why did I make them so wooden? Well I didn’t do it intentionally, but I did it because I used a different process writing them than I did with my male characters, and the different process was ultimately poisonous. And I’m going to describe that process to you now:

When I needed to add a character to the story, I’d usually start off with “I need someone to do ‘x’.” “x” could be anything – be an antagonist, a bartender, a psychotically insane telepath. Once I came up with a role, I decided a) what characteristics absolutely had to be present in order for the scene to work, and then I decided b) what extra characteristics were compatible with the scene, and would also make the character more interesting. I didn’t focus on that as much for bit characters, but for the ones who had more than a few lines, that was my process. Interesting side note: whenever I used this process—and I mean each and every time—the characters would be male.

Every female character in the book came about because I decided “I need a female character.” And then my process became horribly convoluted.

“I need some female characters. OK, can I add them in? What tropes can I use for them? What do I need to do to the story in this scene to make her work? OK, what do I need to do in this scene to make her work? Also, I need to make sure the character isn’t a gross caricature, how can I best do that?”

This is exactly the opposite of how I created my male characters. In my first example, I was working off what the story needed, and made sure the characters fit. In my second example, I decided there needed to be a character and then had to rework the story to put the character in. And you know what? 9 times out of ten, it took a lot of working, so I made the character as flat as I possibly could to minimize the amount of work I had to do.

Which is why Amys was so damned lifeless in the first part of the book: when it came to writing female characters, I added five or six extra layers of steps to my process—steps I didn’t even need to do, because my original process would have worked just as well—and because of that extra work I wrote as little of her as I felt I could get away with. And, in my opinion, it made the story a lot less fun. It certainly made her a lot less fun.

But why did I do that? You ask. Well the answer isn’t particularly flattering to anyone, least of all me, but the truth is that when I write women I tend to think of this thing that is different from all the rest of my characters—including, apparently, two-and-a-half-meter tall hyperintelligent bugs that can only speak through a series of clicks, clacks, and a grinding series of plates set behind their mandibles. Simone de Beauvoir described this behavior as treating women as “The Other,” a thing entirely separate from the world of men, creatures treated as if they were completely unlike men in every way—and much as I might like to say “I’m not that guy” (and I fervently hope that in the real world I am not that guy) it certainly seems to apply with my fiction. While writing Pay Me, Bug!, I had some kind of reflexive notion that writing women was different from writing anything else in the book. I tend to describe myself as a “Literary Calvinist,” in that I decide what the book needs the characters to do and then I figure out how the characters would do it, how it would be believable, and how it would be interesting. But for some reason I was treating the female characters as an entirely separate piece of work, apart from the book. So much extra work… and the result was something not as good.

“Well,” I imagine you saying11, “at least you discovered the problem, right? Now it’s all fixed.”

Well, no. Ever had someone point out an annoying habit of yours, only to discover that now that you were aware of it, you found yourself doing it all the time? I find myself having this little dialog:

“OK, Chris, you have a tendency to overly-formalize your writing process when you write women which makes the characters boring. So don’t do that.”

… which actually sets me down the road of doing the very thing I told myself not to do. Yep, vicious cycle.

Unfortunately it’s not really a situation where knowing the reason for the problem solves the problem. Knowing the reason for the problem gives me a place to start solving the problem, but it also requires forcing myself to look at what I’m doing sideways and do different things. “Fortunately,” the thing I’m working on now is giving me the perfect opportunity to fail spectacularly, since it starts with a guy meeting a girl briefly at a party and then running around with an idealized image of her in his head for (so far) 20 chapters. When that character returns in the story I am going to have to work really hard to keep her from becoming a stand-up prop. I expect my readers will call me on it if I do.

Anyway, that’s my problem, and that’s all I have to say about it for now. Maybe in a year I’ll find myself writing something like this again, trying to determine if I’ve made any progress.

  • 1. This is what is known as “the sensible approach.”
  • 2. Hey, I’m not mocking. Puberty sucks. Well, I am mocking a little, but I’m mocking based on personal experience, and my personal experience was that Puberty was miserable and nearly crippling.
  • 3. Not kidding. Work in the mines. No, I’m serious.
  • 4. I haven’t been following it closely, so I can’t say. I just hear things, you know?
  • 5. Seriously. They’re tied to a post, completely immobile, except for one free arm they’re using to guide your aim because you’re standing right in front of them, and also they’re giving you advice on how to improve your aim.
  • 6. For shame! No, seriously, it’s cool. Jerks.
  • 7. Gleefully! And without shame!
  • 8. Only with better grooming habits.
  • 9. Er… spoilers.
  • 10. Velis, if you’re curious. I think I did OK with Baron Tyrelos and N’grash (though in N’grash’s case I’m not sure female aliens count).
  • 11. Notice how I made you the one saying the stupid thing? Yeah, sorry about that.

Comments

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Wow, man, you're

Wow, man, you're screwed.

Actually, at least you discovered the problem, right? Now it’s all fixed.

Um...Go ahead and write your story using ALL males (and if you need a char for sex, then just make him gay), and, when you're finished, go back and change some random chars to female. It may or may not work, but it can't hurt. Too much. Not really. Not compared to, say, a feminist printing your manuscript in large type on 28# paper and burning it. On your porch.

Heh.

Actually the manuscript-burning thing might be good publicity.

--
Writer, former musician, occasional cartoonist, and noted authority on his own opinions.

wordo

"She rolls his eyes when he’s being an idiot and laughs at his jokes."

his -> her ? (Kinda hard for her to roll his eyes, but as she's kinda dangerous, she probably could make it happen...)

----------------------
. -- Scott

Ahem. Yes.

... you have a point there. Fixed. Thanks!

--
Writer, former musician, occasional cartoonist, and noted authority on his own opinions.

Ask somebody?

Somewhere along the line I acquired a notion (I'm not speaking from personal experience here.) that male authors who create believable female characters base those characters on people they know. Actual females, that is.

The weak point in this plan is that geeky guys, who do computer stuff and maybe write a little sci-fi on the side, may not know many actual women. On the other hand it's hard to fault this methodology for garnering authentic responses. The worst that could happen is that your prospective interviewee says, "Go away. Leave me alone."

Would that bit of dialog fit the requirements of your story?

I know plenty of women.

That's not the problem. The problem is deciding that women are a "special case of character" and therefore I add 5 or 6 more layers to the writing process than I do with men. It's extra work, and because I want to avoid extra work, I ultimately do less for the characters, and they wind up flatter, shallower, and generally more like "stock" characters or caricatures.

The solution is to stop adding 5 or 6 more layers. That's really the only acceptable solution for me, and that's what I'm working toward. Whether it gets worse before it gets better remains to be seen.

--
Writer, former musician, occasional cartoonist, and noted authority on his own opinions.

you're not their shrink

Maybe this line of thought helps.

You are confident enough about the men thing to write about men. Nobody is going to get into a fight with you over non-existing alien psyche, you're considered head shrink. And then there is this existing alien spieces that will complain when characters based on them do not act like them.

:D Martin

Correction(s)

In the paragraph beginning with "But why did I do that? You ask", the following sections seems to have missing or mangled words:

"... a thing entirely separate from the world of men, creates treated as if they completely unlike men in every way"

You have something to found

Perhaps it should understood be important that words placed in order should be sorted.

Thanks man. I'll fix. :)

--
Writer, former musician, occasional cartoonist, and noted authority on his own opinions.

Take it to the extreme

Try writing a story that has only female characters. You can't make them all cardboard cutouts or else you have no story.

That's not a bad idea at all.

A short story featuring an all-female cast would pretty much force the issue, and possibly break through a few walls.

I just need to think of a good one.

--
Writer, former musician, occasional cartoonist, and noted authority on his own opinions.

Freude says: You are secretly jealous of your parent's relations

No, not really to ^.
I daresay that its just down to lack of familiarity with the internal workings of a female.
You know there are different objectives at work, or different approaches to the same objectives. Fortunately in your book, the right hand (wo)man knows Grif so well that you can write these objectives and approaches down to one and the same thing. But then dialogue is the next beast to tackle.

(Why I Have Problems With) Writing Women Well

I understand your pain!

It's something that a lot of writers have problems with. Even Tolkien did, IMO (Eowyn, while a nice character, had some creepy issues going on due to the culture at the time of his writing, what with her sudden transformation from god-killing badass to doting housewife).

So you're in good company, I'd say.

I think an earlier poster had a good suggestion... design them without thinking of the gender, and then add the female part afterwards. You don't have to bother writing about "normal" characters, you are writing about the exceptional ones, after all. Normalcy is societal anyway, and if you're writing sci-fi or fantasy, you don't have to have the same norms.