This post is probably going to be snarky and full of feminist rage. Hold on to your hats, ’cause I’ve been reading Edgar Rice Burroughs and that’s what fueled the blog post about Realistic Female Characters.
I hear this term everywhere. Guys ask it in writing forums. Women complain about it every time a new movie or series comes out. It drives me up a goddamn wall: why is the “realistic female character” such a challenge? Why is it such a standard to live up to? Is the gender dichotomy so ingrained in our systems that men and women are truly from different planets?
(And for that matter, why did someone who created an amazing, in-depth, thought-out world not bother to give a little thought to gender roles?)
Okay, yes, Burroughs was a product of his time. And I love the John Carter series, because I’m a sucker for adventure stories and good worldbuilding. But Edgar, this one’s for you.
- Pass the Bechdel Test.
For those still unfamiliar with this test, it’s a simple series of questions that determines the realism of your Strong Female Characters.
- Are there at least two women characters in the film?
- Who talk to each other?
- About something other than a man?
Lots of wonderful, well-crafted, vivacious worlds do not pass the Bechdel Test. Lord of the Rings is a particularly well-written offender, as is the original Star Wars trilogy. Also much (although not all!) of Shakespeare’s work. You do not need to pass the Bechdel Test for your work to be an excellent read.
That said, this is the easiest way to write Realistic Female Characters you can possibly manage to put in a novel and the fact that the questions have to be asked in the first place is so sad it’s downright funny. Want to have realistic women in your book? There are probably more than one of them, since we make up roughly 50% of the population. Since there are just so many women in the world, I bet they talk to each other sometimes. And they probably have their own shit going on in their lives.
I mean… duh.
- Give her (them!) a subplot.
Not every main character in the world has to be female. But if every one of your characters has something else going on besides the token girl, whose subplot is falling hopelessly in love with your main character, you’re doing something wrong.
Yes, for some people romance is all-inclusive and consuming. Yes, your main female character may have an all-consuming passionate desire for your male character. Shit happens. It’s your world. In that case, though, I have some advice for your main character:
A romance that takes over your whole life is unhealthy. It makes for great drama, sure (see: every sitcom ever invented) but it’s lazy. It never ends in happy-ever-afters. Unless you’re gonna really have fun with that trope, avoid it at all costs lest your female readers throw your book violently at your face.
Plus, it’s lazy writing. If you’re going to bother having unique secondary characters, make them interesting! They need a purpose. Don’t just put in a token girl for the hell of it.
- Put some effort into your romantic subplots, if you have them.
This one is SPECIFICALLY directed at Edgar Rice Burroughs, although I’m well aware his works have long since passed into the public domain. Dude, limit your romantic interactions! Holy shit, John Carter is apparently sporting some sort of super-pheromone, because every single woman on Mars falls in love with him.
What. Edgar. Why.
Yes, romance is fun to read, but only if the chemistry is organic. Only if the characters actually like each other.
I admit I have a hard time with this one, personally. As my girlfriend can tell you, I’m awful at romantic dialogue when I’m actually in the relationship (I call her “nerd” far more than I call her “sweetheart” or “honey”), so writing natural romantic dialogue is a challenge to me. I get it.
Just give your characters at least a couple chapters (or a few hours, Edgar) to get to know each other before they try to jump each others’ bones, okay?
- When all else fails, ask a girl.
Women come at the world from a different perspective than men. Guys may not understand why telling someone to smile is a degrading, annoying thing: any chick in the world can tell you exactly how infantilizing it is, and we’ve all had someone say it. Same goes for unsolicited compliments. Or unsolicited chivalry. Or any other form of microaggressive behaviour.
Unless you’ve been on the receiving end, you probably don’t understand the problem to its fullest extent. So sit down with someone you know and ask questions. Let her talk. I guarantee you she’ll be more than willing to help you understand.
- Go back and switch the genders of this article. It still applies.
Or replace “girl” with “person of color”. Or “lgbt person”. Or even “child”.
This article was fueled by the freaking oversight that is A Princess of Mars, but it really applies to anything you write that falls outside the realm of your experience. Twilight is just as awful as A Princess of Mars, and for all the same reasons (although Twilight doesn’t have any of APoM’s good bits, like war and worldbuilding).
There’s a reason I don’t have many people of color in my stories– I’m not a person of color. That’s something I’m working on changing, but it’s hard not to fall into the Token Black Friend trope. Same thing happens with kids in adult literature– usually only present to be in distress or show the main character what he’s fighting for. And the gay people never get a realistic romantic story arc.
Gender isn’t a person’s defining characteristic, even if it’s a big part of who they are. Same goes for sexuality. Skin color. Ethnicity. Whatever.
Write people. Not tropes, not characters, not daydreams.