3 Things You Need To Know Before Writing A Female Protagonist

creating female protagonists

I’m not a very confrontational person, but there are things I believe and stand for which don’t allow me to yield. Some of these are listed below.

Science-fiction is called visionary for a good reason. It challenges us to recognize and admit the faults in our current mentality and social models, to consider where technological and sociological development might take us in the future, and to tackle delicate issues of morality, politics, and science in a creative way. Because of its bold nature, science-fiction lends itself perfectly to confront the most critical problems that female protagonists—and by extension, women—still face today (not that it needs to be a sort of sacred mission, or anything, it’s just a good opportunity).

 

Sexism and stereotypes

The fiction writing industry is still mostly sexist, whether we’re directly affected by it or not. It reaches down from overt sexism against female writers, to the blatant discrimination of female characters compared to their male counterparts.

Female protagonists still carry the stigma of being more emotional and impulsive than men because they have a vagina, or being hard-knuckled butches because they’re compensating for having a vagina. Well-balanced female protagonists that display rationality, determination and skill are rather rare compared to the huge mass of stereotypical ones.

While male stereotypes are considered a mere nuisance in fiction (such as the manly man, the ladies’ man, the compulsive savior type or the long lost heir claiming his rights), female stereotypes are treated as damaging, and will likely raise hell from the online community. This different treatment of stereotypes themselves based on gender is also part of the sexist undercurrent still pervading modern mentality. You can even make a conscious effort not to be sexist and still feed stereotypes based on gender, so it’s important to pay attention to them—not so much for the sake of not setting people off, as for clearing your work of unethical clutter.

Writing about physical or intellectual inferiority to men, about gender based professions that are below the manly pride, and having your characters make decisions based on a rigid, sexist prioritization (like valuing marital duties over her own interests, sexual attractiveness over intelligence, etc.) can result in serious shitstorms that might even lessen your chances to a prosperous career. Of course there are examples of novels that have made it big despite ostentatiously feeding these stereotypes and setting the struggle against sexism back by a decade (like Twilight and 50 Shades of Gray), but I would still advise to be apprehensive of supporting such damaging values.

There are also stereotypes that appear positive, but are sexist nonetheless. Such as: women are better care givers or diplomats than men, they are more attuned to nature than men, “objectively” better suited to perform certain duties, have more empathy, a better sense of art and beauty, and so on. This kind of stereotypes are influenced by the moral and social environments in which they develop, and not by objective research.

Here’s a quick test to figure out if you’ve unwillingly used sexist stereotypes:

Would your exact plot work just as well with a protagonist of the opposite gender, and would the conclusion have the same power? If yes, you’ve written a strong protagonist, period. But if your theme would be radically different and the protagonist seem ridiculous if you changed their sex—and the reason is not related to physiological differences such as child bearing or gender related illnesses—then you’ve fallen prey to stereotypical thinking. (And yes, of course there are differences between men and women in certain aspects, but neither party is worse off because of them.)

 

Gender self-perception mistakes

This is particularly directed at male authors writing female protagonists in first person POV.

Women have little knowledge of how men see themselves in the privacy of their minds, and vice versa. But when it comes to writing fiction, there are a few mistakes of perspective that appear far more often when men write female characters than the other way around. And since we’re talking about female protagonists, I’m only going to mention these.

Here are the three most common mistakes:

  • Female protagonists written by male authors have a tendency to see and describe their own bodies in an provocative way. Classic science-fiction is particularly famous for two-dimensional incarnations of male sexual fantasies, but other genres are also affected. Every self-conscious person finds flaws in the way they look. A woman would never examine her body head-to-toe when she’s feeling confident, only if she suspects illness or is trying to conceal perceived flaws. Female protagonists who see and describe themselves in first person POV in an overly flattering, visual way, are simply unrealistic.
  • Most men don’t have an accurate knowledge of how certain female body functions actually feel like, such as menstruation, the different types of orgasms, pregnancy and childbirth. It’s very easy for them to make mistakes when they try to describe them and their effects. So just be mindful of gender-related experiences that you have never had yourself, before having your protagonist experience them.
  • Men rarely understand the love-hate relationship that female friends have with each other. This type of friends (so aptly called “frienemies”) will constantly envy each other and compete in even the smallest things (not just when they want to “get” the same man). Yet they will instantly unite when an outside force challenges either one of them. It’s a paradoxical relationship, but if you’re having trouble understanding it, just remember that guys have their own weird friendships. They can play painful pranks on each other and insult each other to the brink of harassment, but will still step in on each other’s behalf in the face of danger. My word of caution: if you’re a man writing a female protagonist, try to refrain from having her instantly befriend and/or never think evil of another woman. It’s naive and highly unlikely.

[For a clarification of the effects of good vs. poor use of stereotypes, check out How To Use Stereotypes In Writing Fiction]

 

Differences are just differences

“Equality” is one of the most misused values of modern humanity. Women and men are not inherently equal—there are objective, realistic differences due to gender which account for many of the excuses to devalue one gender or the other. These differences are genetic, physiological, psychological and sociological, but they are just that, differences, they are not gradients of worth.

For example, strength is only one physical ability. Men are stronger than women because their bodies build more muscle mass than women when the same effort is made. But just because women can’t easily lift the same weights, doesn’t make them weaker. They have physical abilities to compensate for this difference which are less developed in men, such as flexibility and hand-to-eye coordination. There are plenty of other examples where men and women differ, but the gap is not detrimental to either one since they compensate with abilities and skills in other areas that are just as important to survival and a fulfilling life.

In fiction, such differences can be used to create amazing protagonists and terrific conflicts, without ever implying that they devalue one gender over the other. Pay attention to how you use and justify them, and make sure the counterpart character has their own “differences” to work in their favor.

 

There is a lot of creative freedom in writing. Especially in science-fiction, where societies are created which are different than our own, writers have the liberty to write characters any way they please. I believe anything goes if it’s used smartly in the service of good storytelling. It’s part of our freedom, and I wouldn’t sacrifice that for political correctness in a million years. I don’t mind reading stereotypical and even sexist characters, as long as their mentality has evolved in an understandable way in the context of the story. But when there is no story-logic to a protagonist’s gender bias, it’s fairly sure to assume the author is the carrier of those beliefs, and it makes me wonder how many susceptible readers it will affect.

I’m not a “raging feminist” (whatever that is), and attribute more value to other aspects of a person than their perception of gender roles. But the fact remains that there is still a prevalence toward misogyny in today’s fiction, and I most certainly don’t want to contribute to it. I’d love to see more writers be mindful of the potentially sexist implications when they write female protagonists.

And I hope to read many more formidable female protagonists that are first and foremost STRONG PEOPLE before anything else.

What is your opinion about sexist stereotypes and gender bias in fiction? What bothers you the most—and what are you committed to do better?

Comments

  1. I was once asked, which is better, being a man or a woman? (as if I would know). I replied with a question of my own, which is better, an apple or a banana? The answer, of course, is neither. The very act of asking the question is asinine as it fails to appreciate the big picture.

  2. Mike Keyton says:

    Hi Vero,

    Not too sure about and what are you committed to do better? Puts me in mind of a teacher’s report – catapulted me back into short trousers : ) But, as usual interesting article and made me think of Peter Cheyney (30 – 40 potboilers in 15 years) I’ve written a book analysing his oevre (never can spell that word) which is still seeking a publisher. I thought the chapter on ‘Women’ might interest you, so I’ve sent it via email

    • Vero says:

      Ha ha ha, it does read like a homework assignment, doesn’t it? Write an essay about sexism, boy. By Monday! LOL

      Thanks for the chapter. I must say that snarling and hissing at the screen in a full office is not particularly indicative of sanity. :D

  3. This is a huge help to me. I’m planning a series which I intend to start writing when I’ve finished drafting the final book of my current trilogy, and I want to have a female protagonist. I’m used to writing men as my main characters, so I’m looking forward to the challenge, but I’m also nervous about getting the portrayal right.

    Gender double-standards in fiction are a big bugbear of mine. I find it hard to finish a book or sit through a movie where the author’s voice is clearly showing their opinion that one form of behaviour is acceptable and another is not, but where the situation would be reversed if the genders were swapped. Like you, I want to read about characters where the core themes and morality of a story would be just the same regardless of whether I’m reading about a man or a woman.

    In particular, I hate the way women have to remain virginal and pure while men are allowed to bed anything that passes them by. Also how the moral question of infidelity almost always has a different answer based on gender – Men who cheat are usually in the wrong and suffer for it somehow, while women who cheat are most often justified in their decision and either forgiven without question or even rewarded for it in the course of the story. And don’t even get me started on the differences in treatment of sexual assault and rape between the genders. That makes me sick.

    I’ve recently become a dad. My wife gave birth to twin girls before Christmas. I want them to grow up with role models who aren’t forced into certain roles and expectations because of their gender. If a prince saves a damsel in distress, I don’t want the assumption to be that all women need their prince to save them. I want them to see princesses saving themselves. Warriors leading armies. Starship captains exploring the unknown. Cops enforcing the law. Without these heroic roles being denied them because they’re girls.

    • Vero says:

      Thank you very much for the comment, Paul. I’m glad you found my post useful, and that you’re going about writing a female protagonist with such consideration. It’s really important that we at least try not to add to the problem, because we ultimately influence social values through fiction, our deeds and our personal beliefs. :)

  4. Darren Goldsmith (@DarrenGoldsmith) says:

    Great article! I have to disagree with this though:

    ‘While male stereotypes are a mere nuisance in fiction…’

    Mere nuisance? I think they can be equally as damaging. The types of ‘man’ you list are likely to reinforce not only a blinkered view of the male protagonist (men are much more complex than this) but also – as counterpoint – a reinforcement of the female stereotype. That there is no hell-raising from the online community when these male stereotypes are used doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem. I certainly don’t want my nephews or nieces to grow up reading this stuff, thinking it is normal.

    Then this:

    ‘But when it comes to writing fiction, there are a few mistakes of perspective that appear far more often when men write female characters than the other way around.’

    Is this true? I’m sure it occurs equally on both sides. As you point out, with hell only being raised in defence of poorly written/damaging female protagonists, the mistakes made with male protags are not as likely to be noted?

    And finally:

    ‘They can play painful pranks on each other and insult each other to the brink of harassment, but will still step in on each other’s behalf in the face of danger.’

    Alert, alert! Very boring male stereotype! :)

    • Vero says:

      Oh-oh, you’re absolutely right about the first quote. I meant that male stereotypes are considered a mere nuisance, and are swept under the rug more easily. I’ve edited the text accordingly, I hadn’t realized you could read it that way! *face-palm*

      #2 My personal experience as a reader, as well as based on statistics and research, blogs and reviews throughout the web, is that stereotypical sexist thinking when male authors write female characters is indeed more prevalent than the other way around. If only because men have been publishing books for far longer than women, and in the past, the inferiority of women was considered fact. Not to mention there were (and are) several religious and cultural factors that have “justified” men in thinking women are lower lifeforms. Even the fact that there are more stories about men doing great deeds than women, throughout Western literature over the ages, is an indication.

      #3 Ha ha, yes, that’s a stereotype. But so are “frienemies” (~Sex & The City lingo).

      Thank you very much for your comment! I’m glad the topic sparked your interest. :)

  5. Jelena says:

    Female protagonists written by male authors have a tendency to see and describe their own bodies in an provocative way.

    That reminded me of some books I’ve read long ago, when I was still in high school. Written by a male, of course. It was a Russian author and he had a whole series of ‘male-awesomeness propaganda-type’ books (that’s my name for fantasy works). This is the guy I’m talking about http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yuri_Nikitin_(author), so if you’ve read anything of his, you’d understand.

    After one particular book (‘Tower-2′) I stopped reading his works, because his female AND male characters were disgustingly horrible. There is not enough words HOW horrible.

    Men rarely understand the love-hate relationship that female friends have with each other.

    Sometimes life is good and some women don’t have female friends, be it because of the situation they are in, or because the can’t stand having female friends. I’m the latter type. I don’t have any close girl-friends (online connections are not included.) I don’t have love-hate relationships with women. But I have a lot of male friends, and I find their company more interesting and relaxing to be in. There’s an old debate if females can be simply friends with males. Yes, they can. And no, there will never be sexual tension between them, unless a woman decides to ‘stir the pot’. But that’s not why she has guy-buddies in the first place! I’m married to my best friend and I have male friends defo not for the sake of having a DNA pool around me. People actually have fun and meaningful conversations, and pursue interests together, as well as drink beer and do stupid shit. Yes, women do that. No, they can’t do the same stupid shit with other women: it always feels bitter.

    But hey, I’m an INTJ, the supposedly 0.5% of the population. It’s lonely in here! :D

    There are such women with tech/science background (mostly.) So hearing words like sexy lady engineer is blasphemous to my ear. For fuck’s sake, have you ever saw/lived with a busy engineer (analyst, teacher, warrior, spaceship pilot, scientist, writer, illustrator, anyone else who stares at the screen, numbers and letters, and graphics, and yes, GAMES)? Bedhead, underwear, food in places unimaginable (and still edible!), sitting at the computer all night, forgetting to shower for a couple of days if the lady doesn’t go out frequently and works at home. On a daily basis the sexiest organ she possibly has is her brain! Mirror is the last thing she’ll be staring into. :D

    ‘But what about sex?’ Someone from the audience might scream.
    Pretty fine, if you ask me. I love sex.
    Some ridiculous stereotypical rituals are skipped, of course. I brushed my teeth and had a shower this morning, I’m ready to go. :D

    Speaking of gender stereotypes, unless the author is exposed to those frequently, he/she will avoid putting them into fiction without thinking. The fiction is about situation and people dealing with it, and with themselves. Stereotypes are shortcuts for lazy/unobservant writers.

    • Vero says:

      Jelena, we’re exactly alike when it comes to female friends! :D

      I treasure my online female friends more than any I’m forced to have in real life, mostly because there’s no one in my environment with the same interests as me AND the same sex. I’ve also always been friends with boys (men) rather than girls (women), because of the lack of that annoying competitive undercurrent.

      Female friend: “Oh, you look… interesting today!” (snarls at my choice of wardrobe consisting of a skull t-shirt and leather boots)
      Male friend: “Hey, w’ssup?” (checks my shoes to see if I’m up for a longer walk to some game store he spotted)

      • Jelena says:

        It’s not only competitive undercurrent with women. Most (ok, all in my circle) refuse to participate in activities that might ruin their clothes (knowing where we were going beforehand) or deviate from their comfort zone and away from civilization (comfy WC, not that time of month.)

        Meh.

        • Vero says:

          Yes, exactly! I still find peeing in the forest to be a very liberating thing, much like mother nature intended.
          Having to practically wrap your feet in band aids so you can wear the “perfect” high-heels to a meeting where no one gives a shit about your shoes except that female colleague which you can’t stand anyway, is just totally beyond my understanding.

  6. Brian Wells says:

    Great article!

    I’m pleased to report that my debut SF novel, which has a female protagonist, passes your test with flying colors. Oh, sure, at one point she’s late to a Save-The-World meeting because there was a big shoe sale at Coburn’s, but the same thing would have happened with a male protagonist had a football game had been on, right? Besides, the go-go boots she “settled on” looked stunning, even though obtaining them meant annihilation of all of Eurasia.

    Okay, all kidding aside, I didn’t pick a female protagonist lightly. I even have the cliche scene in which she’s standing in front of a mirror, but instead of describing her “heaving whatever(s)”, she’s instead wondering if she has what it takes rise to the world’s expectations of her, without any physical description at all.

    Why did I pick a female protagonist? In my story, she waits until it is almost too late to start thinking with her heart instead of her head. But at least she starts out thinking with her head.

    • Vero says:

      That’s fantastic, Brian! Your protagonist sounds like a real person, not just like an interesting catch. Love that!

      Thanks for the comment! :)

  7. Mauro Corso says:

    Thank you very much for this very enlightening post. I will keep it in mind for future reference and even use a few hints in my creative writing classes. What bothers me the most about woman misrepresentation in fiction are female characters often used as “rewards” for male character… And we are constantly getting a lot of this too!

    • Vero says:

      Thanks, Mauro! I’m very glad you liked it and can use it for your own work in some way. It’s great that you’re taking this aspect into consideration when creating fiction.

      Also, yes, women are often considered prizes for successful men. From ancient fairy tales (the best knight gets the princess) to modern culture where women are used as “bling” in music videos. Sure, we can’t change this mentality over night, but every person that doesn’t support it and doesn’t convey it to his children / audience / friends, is effectively helping our attitude as a society become healthier. :)

  8. (double disclaimer: I’m a male and French, either of which may be an excuse for anything that comes out wrong below)

    “Female protagonists written by male authors have a tendency to see and describe their own bodies in an provocative way” — that had me thinking, because it could seem to apply spot on to a female character of mine who plays on how male characters may consider her and how she can use this in her own interest — you could say she’s ‘gender-savvy’ like one can be genre-savvy.

    So she may indeed examine herself physically, not out of insecurity, but not out of narcissism or sensuality either; more like an seasoned observer of the human mind who makes sure she’s using the right means for the end she pursues — from “asking with a smile may help me getting more information” up to “if exaggerating the swinging of my hips while walking toward the bad guy is enough to distract him and let me get within groin-kicking distance, then too bad for him and so be it” (hey, I said she’s gender-savvy, not gender-abiding).

    So, considering the second degree with which this character looks at herself … does that also count as unrealistic?

    • Vero says:

      I understand the type of gender-savvy you mean, Albert, and it is generally not sexist.

      Sexual attraction is and always will be a means to control and dominate, in hetero- as well as homosexual relationships. As long as your character doesn’t define her self-worth by how attractive she is to men, and place greater value on their reaction to her sex appeal than on her own personality, then you’re pretty much safe. When someone’s out to conquer a person they desire, or plan to employ sexual attraction as a means to a purpose, they’re just evaluating weapons, not being sexist, regardless if they’re man or woman. :)

  9. Nastia says:

    Well, I don’t know about “frenemies.” Maybe in the states…. When I was in college in Russia, I had fights with my girlfriends, but we never did the backstabbing thing. Maybe like any dysfunctional relationships, those ‘friendships’ are just a co-dependency thing. Or maybe it’s just me, in denial.

    I think you’re spot on with the advice to imagine the story with a different protagonist and see if it really works out that way. I did a quick test, and I think I passed :). I have a pretty grumpy female protagonist with a decent left hook, but I like to entertain a fantasy that she’s not compensating for being a woman.

    • Vero says:

      You’re lucky to have not experienced that weird kind of girl-friendship. ;)

      Talking about grumpy protagonists—mine is a real pain in the ass to almost everyone else in the story, and even when she tries to help, she does more damage than good. She’s not skilled with her fists, though.

      I wouldn’t worry about ass-kicking women compensating for anything. We fight in many ways. ;)

  10. Elisa Nuckle says:

    I think it’s definitely a good thing to create balanced characters that aren’t stereotypical, especially in a negative way like that (unless that’s intended). As usual, love your posts. :)

  11. J.W. Alden says:

    Oh, man. Er, woman! I mean woman! ;)

    You’ve hit on something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, Vero. Really, you have no idea. It’s like you’re in my head. This line, in particular, hits me right in the do-wells:

    You can even make a conscious effort not to be sexist and still feed stereotypes based on gender.

    This is actually one of the bigger fears that I’ve been wrestling with over the past year or so as I examine my own writing. Over the years, I’ve become almost hyper-aware of the issue of sexism and its place in literature, video games, the SFF community, and all of the other things that I love. This is a good thing, of course, or at least it’s better than being wholly ignorant of it, but it’s brought a negative side effect into my work. Essentially, because I’m so aware of sexism, and because I’m not entirely secure in my own ability to write female characters well, I’ve noticed that my own work has a much larger population of male characters. In fact, the other day I made the realization that I’ve never written a female POV, and that’s not because I don’t like female characters. It stems entirely from that insecurity and fear of not being able to write them well.

    The good news is that I’m a crazy person, and as soon as I realize I’m afraid of something, I become attracted to it. I have an unedited story left over from NaNo that I’ll be rewriting soon, and I’ll most likely be changing the POV character to a woman. The unfortunate part is that the character has pseudo-vampiric tendencies and abilities, which has “succubus stereotype” written all over it, which OH look, INSECURITY AGAIN ramble, ramble, ramble. Anyway, I’m going to attempt to write more female characters, and I’m going to make an honest effort not to suck at it. My novel—when I get around to it sometime this year—will likely feature a female POV, as well.

    One thing I can promise as a writer of science fiction and fantasy, and that I wish everyone else would, as well: I do solemnly swear never to dress my female warriors in chainmail thongs, breastplates with protruding boob holsters, or armor that leaves the navel/cleavage exposed to arrow fire. May Joan of Arc’s ghost haunt me forevermore for sundering this oath. Amen.

    • Vero says:

      Hyper-awareness of an issue tends to constantly bring it up front in your thinking, so much so that it starts to influence your creativity. It makes sense that “it’s brought a negative side effect into [your] work”, it can totally drive you crazy if it filters everything you come up with story-wise.

      I’ve had a similar problem as I wrote my first draft. I became so obsessed with making my aliens not seem human, that I’ve written their scenes in a completely different style than the rest of the book — and much less understandable to the reader. My desire to make them really alien aliens resulted in awkward writing and horrible voice. And I’ve only realized what sucked about those scenes recently (i.e. currently rewrite).

      I can imagine how paying too much attention that a female character doesn’t think, talk and act in a sexist way at all, can totally ruin the flow of her voice and the coherence of her personality. But luckily there’s a cure for everything. :)

      The best way to beat stereotypes and gain some confidence in dealing with them, is to turn them on their head. This applies to all kinds of stereotypes, even succubi and aliens.

      Step 1 — Write down the ugliest, most offensive stereotypes about your protagonist that you can come up with.

      Step 2 — Pick one that would totally ruin the story and earn you ass-kicking from here to Sunday.

      Step 3 — Brainstorm ways you can switch that stereotype around, and knock the socks off of someone who takes it at face-value. What could the character do that would shock that sexist bastard into silence? Now, how can you fine-tune this new aspect of your character to be more believable and realistic?

      Step 4 — WRITE THE SHIT OUT OF IT.

  12. Philo says:

    According to your point #3, it’s impossible to write a “strong protagonist” that has a friend.

    I was mentally preparing to challenge your assertion that men and women should be interchangeable, but then you did it yourself. The issue is that because we live in a society that has an innate sexism, then the genders do in fact have different perspectives and behaviors. A strong woman who achieves success is going to be called a “ball busting bitch” by many of her detractors. To *not* show this in a fictional work could almost be jarring.

    And honestly, point #3 is pure sexism. Why would you think that men don’t have “frenemies”? Or that women don’t have female friends that they bond with as closely “as men do”?

    • Vero says:

      Thanks for the comment, Philo.

      I’m not sure where you read exclusion in my statement about same sex friendships. Nowhere have I said that “frienemies” are the ONLY type of friendship between women, just as prank-playing isn’t the only way male friends interact. All I said was that men “rarely” understand how frienemies work, and vice versa, and that writers should be mindful of portraying same-sex relationships between characters of the opposite gender as they are.

  13. Drewsy says:

    So, in reading this, I had the sudden and overwhelming urge to write the most two dimensional piece ever. This is despite myself actively exploring gender through fiction. Here is why:

    You are wrong.

    Whilst numerous harmful gender stereotypes do propagate through fictive works, the idea that the best solution to this is to create bland, mono-dimensional and genderless characters is ludicrous at best. “Would your exact plot work just as well with a protagonist of the opposite gender, and would the conclusion have the same power?” – no. Almost no text, no work of great fiction, would. Some of the most powerful and moving stories are those of women overcoming inherent sexism and gender inequality, but if gender swapped with a man, would make no sense whatsoever. Same goes for the other way around – Billy Elliot, if gender bent, makes no goddamned sense at all, and doesn’t challenge the gender norm.

    Great writing shouldn’t hide from difficult issues, and to respond to this, shouldn’t remove all ideas of gender from it, because so many of life’s powerful stories are about gender, and other difficult

    • Drewsy says:

      And really, “Frenemies”?

    • Vero says:

      Thanks for the comment, Drewsy.

      You know, you’re actually supporting my point, not contradicting it. :) The type of books you mentioned do not support sexist stereotype, but challenge them. That’s exactly what I meant with this post.

      As to the interchangeability, I believe it goes without saying that it’s only possible in books where the theme is another than sexism and gender roles. I wouldn’t want you to replace a black man with a white man in a book ABOUT racism, now, would I?

  14. Terry Wilson says:

    > Men rarely understand the love-hate relationship that female friends have with each other.

    I’m sorry, but how is this not it’s own bit of gender stereotyping? It’s almost like you are complaining that people write characters having the *wrong* gender stereotypes. Characters are individuals; some will behave in “stereotypical” ways that the reader may despise. If the character is still well-rounded in addition to having several “stereotypical” qualities, I see no problem.

    • Vero says:

      That’s right, Terry, if the character’s stereotypical thinking is intended to be there and is part of their personality, then so it must be. As long as the author does it consciously. I’m not arguing against characters holding stereotypes, but against authors holding them and allowing them to seep into their work undetected.

      Seems that I have not chosen the luckiest formulation in that paragraph. *shakes head*

      Thank you very much for your comment!

  15. Renee says:

    I find it really strange that with everything you’ve written about in this post, everyone’s choosing to be upset about “frenemies.” Seriously? This is an excellent article, Veronica and I agree with much of what you say, INCLUDING the way women are instinctively wary of other women, no matter how close they are to said women. It’s not a stereotype. Yes, the term is a stereotype I suppose, but this behavior is a very real thing. As a woman with lots of female friends, and a few frenemies, I’m not being sexist in saying so, and I’m not offended that you pointed it out. Seriously, if we stopped looking for reasons to take offense, we might figure out the shit that’s really worth getting our panties in a knot over.

    • Vero says:

      I never meant that ALL women are frienemies, and ALL men are bros. Just that I wish writers would pay attention when they portray same-sex frienships if they don’t have first-hand experience of them.

  16. Autumn says:

    Writing a protagonist (or antagonist, for that matter) of a different gender than your own can be problematic either way. While I agree with your assessment of female protags being cliche in SF, the opposite is often true in other genres that are more commonly written by women. There is not much in characterization that irritates me more than a male character that acts/thinks like a woman with outdoor plumbing, or one that is a complete caveman. Both are damaging and unrealistic, and both spring form a societal tendency toward devaluing the differences between men and women. You’re correct, of course, that neither sex is inherently better, but to deny that we have differences and nuances of behaviour is silly. It might be useful for a writer who is unsure of what they’ve written to have someone they trust of the opposite sex vet what they’ve written, and be honest in their assessment. It can be an eye-opener!

    • Vero says:

      Great suggestion, Autumn. You’re right. Nothing works as well as a second pair of eyes in spotting subtle mistakes, especially if those eyes belong to someone with a different perspective than us, or a different gender. I’d even say with as many differences from us as possible. :D

      Thank you very much for stopping by to comment! It’s nice meeting you.

  17. Joanne says:

    This is a great article, thank you for writing it!

    I especially wish male authors would note this point: “Female protagonists written by male authors have a tendency to see and describe their own bodies in an provocative way.” So true! Also to be presented in primarily a provocative way – like the fiction character equivalent of a blow-up doll.

    I used to read every new edition of a series of books by a British author, but when he had his cop protagonist hook up with an unbelievably sexy “wench”, (who got more unrealistically wenchy with each book), I had to set aside the series. In addition to being wildly intelligent (which too many authors just chuck in to avoid criticisms of being sexist), she was buxom, beautiful, glossy-haired, always understanding and sweet-natured, she cooked like a chef, and was continuously sexually available. Basically, a cook in the kitchen, a lady in the parlour and a whore in the bedroom – the epitome of the old-fashioned male fantasy.

    I mean, she just never said no, was never too tired, or had a headache or some other need of her own that she would prioritize before said cop’s carnal cravings. He would look at her and she would drop her pants, even after a hard day at the morgue cutting up the corpses of kids. I found it unbelievable.

    I actually wrote to the author to tell him that I thought the character was a combination Stepford Wife (except that this “paragon” felt no need for commitment) and a sexist wet-dream, and that I didn’t think she was appealing or realistic to female readers. I got no response – LOL! – but at least I spoke up.

    In my own books (middle grade and YA), I consciously and deliberately try to undermine sexist stereotypes. I make a point of putting women into traditionally male roles of authority, so, for example, in “Jemima Jones and the Revolving Door of Doom”, the police officer is female, as is the chief fire-fighter in “Jemima Jones and the Great Bear Adventure”.

    I create teen girl protagonists who are intelligent, feisty and resourceful. In my YA book, “Turtle Walk”, and its sequel “Rock Steady” (due out this month), my trio of teen girls use a combination of brains and action to save the day when the environment is threatened. Most importantly, they rescue themselves or each other, they do NOT wait passively to be rescued by big, strong boys.

    Part of my motivation in beginning to write these books was to provide stories for my daughter where the chief protagonists were female and where they were someone I would like her to identify with, rather than mere sidekicks, victims in need of rescue, pretty adornments, or romantic interests to male protagonists.

    The novels we read are not only a reflection of our society, they also feed into its creation. As writers, let’s be more thoughtful about this.

    Lastly, I think much of this article and the points expressed in the comments relate to racist stereotypes – something we also need to challenge in our writing!

    • Vero says:

      Thank you very much for your thoughtful comment, Joanne! :)

      Your care about making female protagonists be full-rounded people first and foremost, and even strong role models for kids and teens, is very admirable. Standing up for that is important. Seems like you’re well on your way to making the presence of women in fiction (both as writers, and as characters) a positive and reinforcing one. How awesome is that!

  18. I know I’m really late to the party here, but I just stumbled upon this and I have to say, this is an excellent article. Three of my six books to date feature a female protagonist and while my first attempt, Love & Bullets, went a bit too far in the “she’s so awesome and can do anything” direction, I think my second and third outings, The Myth Hunter and Dragon Kings of the Orient, have managed to do a much better job at portraying their female protagonist (the books are in a series) and the female supporting characters that crop up in both.

    • Vero says:

      Sounds great, Percival. Thanks for sharing that!

      You know, overdoing female characters to compensate for an assumed disadvantage also stems from the subconscious (should I call it subliminal?) sexism our culture and particularly the media bombards us with. It’s important to catch it and counteract it, so we don’t contribute to its continuing presence. I think you did a great job there even by noticing, and making sure your subsequent female characters were natural women.

      Good luck with your writing! :)

  19. Flabbergasted says:

    So I reckon your views are that of overboard feminism, and males and females are identical? I do believe the first amendment allows you to live your life in error and publicly put forth your arguments.

    I usually do not read fiction written by women. I avoid it like the plague, and I thank the powers that be for the Internet, and being able to research authors so I can skirt (pun intended) around “fake” male authors.

    Let me explain why: if I seek a profound character study, Chekhov succeeds quite well, thank you. If I want fluff, oh, wait, I never actually want fluff.

    What I do not need from sci-fi is deep character motivation, or a reflection of Hollywood recipes where I must know a number of facts about the character within the opening 20 minutes or initial chapter, and I really don’t need to know all that much about the character’s family, his love of cats, or his hatred of canaries, or chairdogs, unless this is germane to the story in some way or the previously mentioned potential actors are protagonists or antagonists.

    I need a story. A good one. I need an interesting premise that the author will explore at length, hopefully with intelligence, wisdom, and savvy. A little contrasting irony is not extraneous in most cases.

    Larry Niven wrote cardboard characters. I forgive him. His science was enough. Asimov did reach farther than Niven, and some of his work strikes us as ingenious to this day. Herbert (Frank)) was wont to portray strong women, and a note in passing, not all women are strong.

    The reason why there is STILL a predominantly male readership to sci-fi (although the female readership is growing) should be obvious: sci-fi is NOT about characters. Psychological thrillers might be. And the French are so much better than anybody else at that particular game.

    “How do you write women so well?”,
    “I think of a man and I take away reason and accountability”

    Now there is an entire school of propagandist tv, movie or fiction which would like to turn women into men, and vice-versa. And if you want to make your male protagonist a flaming metrosexual, you can. And as stated earlier, I still will not read it! And the main reason is you have an agenda we are not interested in, while guys simply seek to tell a story and tell it as best they can. We don’t give a **** about the depth of character development.

    The fantasy genre is better adapted to your aims, but because a segment of your potential readership may view the deeply seated conflicts and psychodrama experienced by the character aas being of interest ONLY if it serves the story, it will also likely be a skip.

    Cheers,

  20. Flabbergasted says:

    Oops… An omission….

    About your 3rd point, most guys who have had women in their lives are well aware of the vagaries of female competitiveness. But you miss a seldom broached topic, which is the profound self-doubt and even self-hatred (at least occasionally) that some women seem to hold so dear to their hearts.

    This is where instead of shouting “Medic!”, we might scream “Shrink!”

    • Vero says:

      Wow, that was an interesting monologue…

      Thank you for your unmistakably American heterosexual male point of view, so intricately molded by the US media, which has no relevance to my views on science-fiction and writing strong protagonists whatsoever, regardless of their gender. I hope you’ll get the chance to understand life from a broader perspective than your current one, and maybe you’ll discover that science-fiction is not male-dominated because of objective reasons but because of decades of sexism and misogynistic assholery, and that American cultural values are not only not universal, but some of the most hypocritical ones around.

      Cheers

  21. Flabbergasted says:

    All teasing aside (and I do differentiate between trolling and teasing)…

    This is where you are clearly mistaken, imho: you fail to address the fact that science-fiction is about science, whereas a broadened definition of the genre includes everything but the kitchen sink, and maybe the kitchen sink as well if given half a chance.

    A commentary and analysis of the mores predominant within a society with a fictional backdrop may be of interest, but then, the genre definition shifts from science-fiction to political or sociopolitical fiction, with a futuristic or alien décor. Likely SPECULATIVE fiction instead of sci-fi.

    Was Dune science-fiction? Mostly fantasy. Was Foundation (let’s still call it trilogy, given the drop in quality after the 3rd book) science-fiction? Yes. Asimov’s psychohistory is sci-fi. And what of Neuromancer? Absolutely. Heinlein’s books? Questionable. Mostly practical philosophy focusing on ideas prevalent in the 60’s.

    When you finish writing your book or novela, review the story, and ask yourself if it can be transposed directly into the 19th century with little or no impact on the story arc or premises. Replace the plasma gun with a six-shooter, and the like. If you find the answer is mostly affirmative, you wrote fiction, and it may be a fine piece of writing, but is it science-fiction?

    Your comments on characterization may come closer to making the protagonist genderless than we might appreciate.

    As to what I said regarding female authors, you might be unhappy to know that many women who DO appreciate sci-fi concur with the “prefer male authors” approach. I did have fun with alluding to never, but there are exceptions: L’Engle and Cherryh come to mind. Again, the words “many women” point to anecdotal evidence, since this was derived from many conversation with widely different women over a few decades.

    Now for a brief return on some of your ideas, no, men have no idea what childbirth might be like, but by now, neither do most women (epidural anyone?), although they can testify at length about the joys of contractions. Modern women have been granted a reprieve from some or most of childbirth pain, making these women thankfully oblivious to the full-experience. Still certainly better in tune than men might be.

    As to menses, or the proverbial time of the month, why would this be an issue within a sci-fi context? Unless the society we are theorizing about has failed to produce birth-control, or a situation befalls the female protagonist to make such unavailable. No, I have not nor will I ever experience menstruation. But I can tell you this, for some women, it is of absolutely no consequence, save for a little flow requiring containment, while for others, it involves crippling pain due to cramps. And many women will skip placebos and take birth-control pills 365 days a year, although “many” may still only represent a tiny percentage. Does consideration of PMS fall under misogyny? From crankiness to full-blown hurricane, men know not the feeling, but certainly the expression of it!

    As to understanding life from a broader perspective, I may challenge you in that respect, since I speak 4 languages, have been immersed in the cultures attached to said languages, am not American, am not even a native English speaker, and have worked in well over 20 countries (and visited over 30).

    First, “American cultural values” is an oxymoron. Firstly because American culture is Western culture of the first-world, so it may not be so American after all, and secondly, because an “a” is missing: you might have written American Acultural values and have been much closer to the mark. Thirdly, there are NO universal values. And finally, please do not confuse “cultural values” with “political agenda of world economic dominance”. Just in case.

    I am reminded of a Dutch woman who observed that her husband visited the brothel every Wednesday after work. She would unfailingly ask him if it had been good. This state of affairs in no way bothered her, and their relationship seemed the better for it, which may imply a long list of assumptions on our part. Now a long debate might arise as to whether or not such a thing as a brothel should exist, but then, under Dutch law, the women there are self-employed, and not subject to the whims of others. So in a single paragraph, we challenge the American model of morality, and perhaps yours as well. But let us examine it through an objective lens: the wife was free, the man was free, and whoever he saw at the brothel was also free. Anyone who wants to impose their own moral code or restrictions on these people would essentially impinge on the actors’ freedom and try to impose THEIR code on others.

    You state “A woman would NEVER examine her body head-to-toe when she’s feeling confident, only if she suspects illness or is trying to conceal perceived flaws.” NEVER holds considerable danger whenever we consider a sci-fi context, but we will agree to refrain from the endlessly conjectural that comes with the genre to stick to mundane matters. Perhaps you remain far removed from narcissism, but I can assure you that SOME confident women WILL in fact spend much time admiring themselves in front of a mirror, in sheer delight at their eye-pleasing esthetics, although the criteria may be cultural and their success would be less assured elsewhere. Narcissism. Hard to circumvent, I’m afraid. Whatever the dominant criteria for esthetic beauty might be, and granted that some of those arise from image and conditioning, so having golden eyes at the end of the purple stalks may be more desirable than having purple eyes at the end of golden stalks, a narcissistic personality only occurs when that individual HAS the goods, or through strong delusions, believes him or herself to have the goods. Conclusion: no goods, no narcissism. Other point: some men are not immune to this trait. Fact: those suffering from this psychological distortion are likelier to practice it in private. “Mirror, mirror, on the wall…”

    The cosmetics industry is a roughly $250 BILLION business worldwide, and this number excludes “personal care” products. The last category does get a share of my male money, but the cosmetics side is quite frankly a female business.

    While visiting a brown-skinned country last month, the people portrayed in publicity struck me as predominantly “paler skinned”. Since marketing agencies do their homework, and would avoid an image deemed unpleasant to the masses, we can draw a quick conclusion: the people in that country might have preferred to be paler. This is an observation that is far removed from racism, but the implication might lead us to think that the local populace really would like to be different than what they are.

    At any rate, delving on differences apparently triggers calls of racism, misogyny, sexism and other such epithets. You decry Western values, but so far, the western world remains one of the rare places where we have declared openly “women are equal to men”. Equal in value. Whether or not they can perform adequately every task we might imagine is a completely different item. Equal job, equal pay. Equivalent job? Tricky topic. Glass-ceiling? Women make different life choices than men.

    Personally, I have no use for “pretty painted sex objects”. It is worthy to take note that such women made a conscious or unconscious choice to be just that! I also do not especially appreciate women who might have a testosterone level akin to mine, and find them to have as much charm as a truck driver, at which point I must apologize to truck-drivers for sticking THEM with a stereotype.

    But here is food for thought: stereotypes do not spontaneously appear. They reflect A reality, but not all realities. A “label” may represent a segment of any given population. Otherwise, it would never have appeared in the first place.

    An earlier comment expressed issue with “sexy lady engineer”. Here is a truth in terms of sex-appeal and female esthetics: I may have seen women who could not beautify themselves due to time constraints, but they corrected this at the first opportunity. Women can be very intelligent, or not! Depends on the woman, and the same applies to men. But I have never seen or met a woman who had “the goods” without being simultaneously being self-aware of the fact. It is not her “whole power”, but it is certainly part of said power. If she got the brains and the looks, she got blessed. Most women who DO stand out in some way will get the one or the other, but rarely both. And if she has brains, she will definitely make the most of ALL assets.

    In closing, and not as a personal attack, “American cultural values are not only not universal, but some of the most hypocritical ones around”… May I humbly remind you of the proscription against double-negatives? This being said, “most hypocritical ones around” is a highly subjective statement, and not an argument.

    Tell me that the better portions of such cultural values are ideals that have yet to be truly attained in everyday life, and that might be an argument. Tell me that people have rejected some of the notions conveyed by what appears to be a political agenda, and I might concur. Perhaps people have good reasons to resist certain of the values progressively imposed on them through media and downright propaganda. Maybe most people would be more comfortable with gays not becoming so prevalent in television and movies and remaining at their representative percentage of population? Maybe people are not so convinced of the wonderful benefits of multiculturalism, and this may have much to do with certain cultures and religions having an agenda they are trying to push onto others?

    Maybe men are not misogynists after all, although I will agree with you that a small percentage might be. Maybe, just maybe, you might be the misogynist because you dislike or disagree with what a lot of your sisters pursue in terms of life, agenda or otherwise? Because the question must be asked in view of what appear to be arrested conclusions.

    Maybe some of the stereotypes or sexual fantasies portrayed in “male dominated sci-fi” are realities, or realities of the past? Maybe there was a time when the readership was predominantly if not wholly male? Maybe some of the female readership LIKED those fantasies? And quite frankly, I can’t recall very many works where sexual fantasies were explored at length. Maybe I just have better judgment in my choice of literature?

  22. Flabbergasted says:

    On a different matter, you may be aware that a 15 year-old girl just invented a flashlight that runs on body heat. Kudos for excellent research, ingenious design and intelligence applied to the pursuit of novel ways to get things done! It is an accomplishment.

    What this also means is that males (in this case represented by myself, but the recognition has also come from many others) DO laud and praise women (in this case a girl) and their successes. Nobody will ever try to diminish this girl’s achievement, and who knows, she may be the one to eventually resolve the puzzle of nuclear fusion. Or not! We can only hope that this is the beginning of a path of inventiveness and what may become a brilliant career.

    However, going back to generalizations (and keeping in mind their inherent dangers), since we touched upon the alleged limitations imposed by men on women, here is one question women find dismaying: out of the many works of science-fiction tendered by women to publishers over the years, was the writing rejected because the author was a woman, or simply because the story, premise or other characteristics, were not very good?

    And we might also add, did these authors pursue relentlessly? Or did they have the wisdom to seek professional support (an agent)? Rowling’s Potter was not immediately picked up. It took a publisher’s insight to put the initial book (or a chapter) in the hands of a child, since his daughter was part of the target audience. And THAT worked!

    Whether or not you like Erikson’s Malazan, the initial book did not find a publisher for over half a decade. So these delays do not solely occur to ladies, it seems! Lowry’s Under the Volcano went through several rewrites before finding a home.

    Getting published is a tough game EVEN when the work is stupendous. And if said work is stale, unoriginal, uninteresting or otherwise lackluster, authors both male and female will find no takers.

    But the guys will not moan that their novel remained unpublished because they were guys.

    • Vero says:

      You are apparently blissfully ignorant of just how much sexism and raging misogyny is really existent in the fiction writing industry, especially science-fiction, but to quote the disrespectful way you started your self-serving diatribe, “I do believe the first amendment allows you to live your life in error and publicly put forth your arguments.”

      Do some educated reading on what’s actually happening, though I doubt you’re interested in overcoming your discriminating perspective. However, you can start here, if doing a Google search is too much of an effort.

      Also, you have ALREADY exceeded what I consider adequate in matter of comment length and tone, especially since you’re not interested in a conversation, only parading your presumed superior opinion and being condescending. I’m past the point of asking your for decency and succinct comments, so if you really must, feel free to express yourself at your leisure in your own space, and link back to it, but don’t mistake my comment section for your playground again. Thank you and good bye.

  23. An Aspie says:

    “There are also stereotypes that appear positive, but are sexist nonetheless. Such as: women are better care givers or diplomats than men, they are more attuned to nature than men, “objectively” better suited to perform certain duties, have more empathy, a better sense of art and beauty, and so on. This kind of stereotypes are influenced by the moral and social environments in which they develop, and not by objective research.”

    Either there is some truth to this one, or it’s self-reinforcing. I once went to a week-long summer camp. There were about a dozen subjects each person could choose from. I chose Engineering, and was the only girl in the class. Photography was about 75% females. The next year, I did a java programming camp. Once again, I was the only female. The point of this is, computers, machines, and code are as far from “nature” as is really possible.

    So… That means this stereotype is either true or self-reinforcing. It’s anyone’s guess as to which.

    Please don’t call me sexist.

    • Same Aspie says:

      Wait, I failed to notice the”influenced by moral and social environments” bit.

    • Vero says:

      Hi, and thanks for leaving a comment. Don’t worry, I’m not going to call you sexist for it. :)

      There is a grain of truth in every stereotype, just as there is a bit of reality in the one you mentioned. But this stereotype also carries a lot of self-reinforcement in it, since we don’t really know whether the grand majority of men would make equally good caregivers. We simply don’t have the data to compare the two. During the ages, it was always women who were “pushed” into caregiver’s jobs, mostly by — you guessed it — sexist, entitled men. Women weren’t allowed to have a man’s job, and men weren’t tolerated to choose a woman’s job. There were as little female leaders and politicians, as there were male nurses and “housewives”. Things are different today, though, and probably, in another couple centuries, we’ll have the possibility to factually assess whether men can be as good at care giving as women. :)

      I’m pretty sure being a good care giver has something to do with the natural instinct of a woman to take care of her baby, but I’m equally sure that it also requires one to be kind and empathic toward one’s fellow humans, and that’s definitely a trait that knows no gender. Men can be incredibly kind, sympathetic, and devotional too. :)

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