Over the last several weeks, the issue of female main characters – especially the lack thereof in all but YA Science Fiction and Fantasy (and even complaints about how female characters are handled in much YA SF/F) – has come up in several different contexts, including fiction, comic books, and movies.
Needless to say, I rather disagree that they’re missing, since I’ve written a lot of novels with female main characters, younger, older, and in between. But that’s not what I want to talk about.
I’ve become frustrated by the underlying implication in these discussions that including female main characters is easy. Even when writing in an imaginary world setting, putting a female character on center stage isn’t simple. When writing a story set within the “real world,” the issues become more complex.
Writing female main characters involves more than what cosplayers call “crossplay.” It involves a lot more than just transforming Aragorn into “Aragorna.” Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look, starting with minor characters and working our way to center stage.
Sometimes, when I’m running a game, my players will do something that requires me to quickly invent a character – a shopkeeper or innkeeper, for example. Since the world in which I’ve set the game is largely gender equal, I toss a six-sided die. “Odd,” the character is male; “even,” she’s female.
(No, I’m not saying guys are “odd.” It’s just a convenience!)
Next, I’ll toss a couple more dice to get an age range. After that, I take into account various social conventions, add in how people tend to react to certain characters, and I’m good to go.
You can do something similar when writing. However, for this to work, you must keep the realities of your world in mind. Is the society truly gender equal or do certain jobs fall more commonly to one gender or another? For example, in a story set in the twenty-first century U.S., a female garage mechanic would be a matter for comment. A male selling cosmetics would also raise an eyebrow or two.
Often, subconsciously, the writer tries to “course correct” to gender norms. The female garage mechanic become hearty and butch, with a bunch of tattoos. The male cosmetic seller becomes stereotypically swishy. I’d much prefer that the female garage mechanic have learned the trade because her older brothers were really into cars and she learned a lot from them. Or maybe she’s a widow who always helped her husband. The male cosmetics seller might be an actor with a side interest in special effects makeup or someone who put himself through college doing Mary Kay parties with his girlfriend.
And these are just “walk on” parts… See how complicated it can get?
Now let’s move to secondary characters… The best friend, the secretary, the boss… Or, in a more Fantasy setting, the patron, the healer, the bodyguard… Or in Science Fiction, the ship pilot, the scientist, the commander, the doctor…
The toss-the-dice technique works to a limited extent here. But when a character is going to be more than a walk-on, the question of gender will become an issue. Best friends are usually same gender… When they are not, the issue of romantic interest immediately comes up. Let me grab two quick examples from my recent reading…
Kit and Nita from Diane Duane’s “So You Want to Be a Wizard” and sequels are around twelve when the series starts. Nita, who is the point-of-view character, thinks of Kit (who is a year younger) as a buddy. However, her parents wonder (after all, Kit and Nita are in junior high and everyone knows that hormones kick in about then) if they’re “experimenting” a bit. Nita’s little sister openly teases Nita about “liking” Kit… And, while the reader is in Nita’s head and knows she doesn’t have any romantic feelings about Kit, still, the question “But will that last into the future?” is present in a way it wouldn’t be if the pairing was Nita and Maria, or Kit and Bob.
In Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs, Shara Thivani, the main point-of-view character, is accompanied from the start by Sigurd. She introduces him as her “secretary,” but big, hulking brute that he is, he clearly does more than push paper. Is he also her boyfriend? Apparently not, but when, in the last portion of the novel, cataclysmic events lead to the two being separated, their mutual level of concern for each other is high enough that this reader, at least, found herself wondering if each cared more for the other than they were admitting.
Again, this wouldn’t have even crossed my mind if I were reading about Spenser and Hawk (Robert Parker’s PI and his frequent sidekick). Gender makes a difference.
Now let’s expand this question into the sort of world you’re working in. Is it one where the relationship “default” is heterosexual? Is it one where, as in ancient Greece, same sex relationships between men were an accepted part of the landscape? Or how about one where who you can court depends on your birth order?
How about one modeled on the Navajo, where clan affiliation mattered more than actual blood relationship? Tony Hillerman did an excellent job of including this in one of his “Jim Chee” novels, where Jim is falling for a young woman of Navajo heritage but raised in the “Anglo” world and apparently unaware of her clan. Before he can actually propose, Jim has to find out if Janet is as “off-limits” to him as she would be if she were his sister…
Gender plays into the picture in ways that have nothing to do with relationships. One of my favorites is how perception of age and aging shifts according to gender. These days, a man is considered in his prime in his fifties or even sixties. By contrast, a woman is considered distinctly middle-aged, if not verging on elderly!
Think about all the ways this colors character portrayal. It’s considered “impolite” to ask a woman’s age. Why? Because that’s asking her to admit she’s over the hill. A man, by contrast, unless he is particularly insecure for some reason – out of a job or otherwise severely underperforming – would not feel the need to say he’s “39.” And, in fact, he would seem a bit stupid and shallow if he does.
Another great example is that if a man is in a relationship with a much younger woman, this is considered a sign of his virility and desirability. By contrast, a woman in her fifties who dates a man in his twenties is tagged a “cougar,” and is considered a bit “off” or, at the very least, busy fooling herself that the man could actually be interested in her.
So, except when writing a very minor character – one who might not even be the equivalent of a “walk-on” role – merely flipping the pronouns isn’t enough.
Next time, I’ll get into some of the complexities that arise when writing a Conanna or an Aragorna!