Please, please, someone show me a man who can write a good female protagonist. A character who has depth and comes at least close to being realistic. I’ve read a few books by men in my literary past who wrote women well (Atonement, Never Let Me Go). But those were unicorns.
Women seem to be able to write male characters. (Dear male readers, please tell me if I’m wrong.) But every time I read a book from a woman’s POV, I can tell immediately, without even knowing the name and gender of the author, whether the writer is male or female.
Current example: The Eyre Affair by Japser Fforde
I picked up this book because a little piece of paper told me to. It was one of those handwritten recommendation cards taped cattywampus to a shelf at the bookstore. The card writer promised a humorous, satirical, scifi, literary mystery.
After reading approximately three-quarters of the book, it has made good on that promise. What the card didn’t say was, Beware: To like this book, you’ll need to overlook the unrealistic female protagonist.
Luckily, the book is so funny and quirky I can gloss over that, in trying to make the female protagonist “strong,” the writer basically made her a male character with boobs. (Sorry to be so crass, but it’s kind of true.)
She has zero complexity and when she’s not calmly taking down bad guys with her giant guns (not a euphemism) like the second coming of John McClane, she’s bemoaning how she’s in her late thirties and may never find a life partner. Seriously?
It seems to male authors, female leads fit into one of the following categories
- Emotionless/snarky badasses with mostly male characteristics
- Sexy ingenues
- Emotional wrecks/broken women in need of male assistance
- The feisty one-note heroine
(Please feel free to add your own stereotypes to the list. I’m sure I haven’t captured them all.)
The better male authors, who attempt a female perspective, will at least combine some of these to develop depth. Unfortunately for them, simply combining tropes doesn’t actually result in authentic characters.
My goal isn’t to bash male writers. To be fair, they’re working on top of a pretty crappy historical foundation. This Disney meme sums it up well.
Or this ACTUAL BOOK…First of all, that this was ever an acceptable book (and children’s book nonetheless!!) is terrifying. Second, if I can cook a hot dog (and I’m generally banned from the kitchen in my house) so can this dumb kid on the left here. Sorry, I digress, feeling a little ranty after finding this on the internet.
If men are going to continue to write from a female perspective, it would behoove them to do a little research. Talk to some women. And, at the very least, find out the pet peeves we have about when men write a female character.
Ways Male Writers Fail When Writing Female Characters
While I’m sure many people have opinions on this topic. These are the three pet peeves of mine when it comes to men writing women.
Self-description: When male writers try to write a woman giving a physical description of her own body, they generally write it from a male perspective. They focus on attributes men (or at least straight men) would focus on when looking at a woman and it comes across as highly sexualized. Which in case it’s not clear, is weird! I’m guessing most male writers don’t look at themselves in the mirror shirtless and say with a wink, “That’s right. I’m a hot sex symbol. Look at my six-pack abs.” So why do they treat female characters this way?
Trust me when I tell you, except for the rare super-confident woman completely immune societies obsession with the female frame, women not stand in front of the mirror and think, “I have great boobs.” It might be what she thinks after she’s decided her hips are too wide and her arms are flabby to make herself feel better. But it is not her first thought.
Love: Although many women writers focus on love and relationships too, when male writers try to write about women falling in love they usually fail. With male writers, love feels like a transaction. A matter-of-fact thing that happens. This isn’t to say all female writers do this well either. It’s a tricky subject fraught with issues. But men trying to write a female protagonist falling in love need to really understand women to even attempt this, particularly if it’s a main part of the story. (And don’t get me started on portrayals of sex…)
Tone: This is difficult to explain. But sometimes my irritation with a female character written by a man comes down simply to tone. In reading a recent middle-grade novel written by a man with a female main character, I got about thirty pages into the book before I realized the character was a girl. Honestly, I couldn’t really tell what gender she was, which would have been fine in certain books. Based on the plot, she was clearly supposed to be a girl. The book itself was well written, but it was missing those subtleties in tone and dialogue that provide a rich, authentic female character.
Why is TV Better at Writing Authentic Female Characters?
Female TV characters created by men seem to have more success than in literature. Buffy the Vampire Slayer managed to be a kick-ass superhero while oozing with vulnerability and humanity. (See also Veronica Mars created by Rob Thomas.)
The difference may lie in collaboration. For example, Joss Whedon did not develop the iconic Buffy character alone. Sure, he takes credit for the idea of the snarky teen vampire-killing chosen one. But as Buffy grew and changed over the years, the character benefited from female producers and writers (like the great Marti Noxon) influencing the character development arc and making her more authentic.
Perhaps this is what male writers could do to improve their female character development: engage with more women reviewers or collaborate with female writers. Just a thought.
OK, ladies, gentlemen, who has thoughts on this? Am I totally wrong here? I’m ready for the backlash! 🙂