Not Just Crossplay: Female Characters

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.

Crossplay Across the Genres

Crossplay Across the Genres

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!

15 Responses to “Not Just Crossplay: Female Characters”

  1. Sally Says:

    Your mention of the female garage mechanic reminded me of the women-owned & operated garage where I took my car back in the 70’s in Washington DC. Neither of the owners/mechanics were what I think of as particularly butch. They did classes for women which included wearing latex gloves to keep the grease from getting ground into your hands.

    However, for walk-on characters it seems you need to be careful to not make them too distracting. They’re part of the world-building, as well as helping move the plot along. If I was writing about the 1970s women’s community in DC, my friends the auto mechanics wouldn’t need any explanation. If my novel was set in the 1950s in, say, Kansas, the tattooed diesel dyke (i.e. course corrected) mechanic might be a better choice if I’m determined that she be female. She could perhaps offer thoughtful philosophical comments on town events to round her out, or decorate the garage walls with, I don’t know, modern art prints?

    • janelindskold Says:

      I agree that making walk-ons too distracting might be a mistake.

      On the other hand, that can really add dimension to a story.

      • Jane Lindskold Says:

        Going back… The cultural matrix in which a story is set is one reason why simply rolling the dice to indicate gender doesn’t work. Very few societies are truly gender equal for every profession, every situation.

  2. Paul Dellinger Says:

    Jack Benny was male, but he was 39 forever!

  3. Nicholas Wells Says:

    Interesting stuff, though if I’m honest, I don’t think about it much. When a mechanic popped his head out to get the story moving again, he was a male. When an officer was giving a report, she was female. I didn’t give it any thought beyond that. The characters are who they are. Maybe the world determines that, I’m not sure.

    I will say this; this idea of forcing more women into leading roles for the sake of more women in leading roles just repels me. In my mind, you’re holding the story down with such focus. Tell the story, and let the genders sort themselves out. So far, I’ve found my works to be pretty well mixed all on their own. I just worry about the story. The rest will be what it will be.

    • Louis Robinson Says:

      Might be an interesting exercise to flip all the gender indicators and see what that does to the story. “Why” is probably an even more critical question if it doesn’t make a difference than if it does.

      • Nicholas Wells Says:

        Not a bad idea, and something I may do some time.

      • Sally Says:

        Ursula Le Guin does something of this sort in “Winter’s King,” at least the version in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters. Of course her characters are mostly androgynes, referred to as “he” in Left Hand of Darkness, and as “she” in the short story, while she still uses masculine titles. How much dissonance this sets up depends on the reader, I think. I had very little problem rereading it just now, but I’m quite familiar with the story.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Nicholas — Having met you, and knowing you’re relatively youthful, I’m not surprised you find including female characters easy and natural. I’m sure that in your stories the genders will “sort themselves out”!

      Louis — “if it doesn’ tmake a difference” is precisely the point I want to look at next week. Thanks for anticipating it!

    • Heteromeles Says:

      I’d flip that just a bit. If a story is set in the modern day or some analog thereof, I’ve got no problem with a diversity of genders and blurring of gender roles. If someone’s trying to be moderately accurate in, say, the 1950s, this gets more awkward. Of course this is obvious, and nowadays, it can serve to highlight the unquestioned bigotry of other times and places.

      One thing that’s a bit less obvious is the role technology (especially medicine and public health) play in making such roles possible. 200 years ago, for example, a pregnancy after 40 was very dangerous for the mother and the fetus, and many died. This put immense pressure on having children earlier and less sex later (and what did this do to sexual mores?). Childbirth was dangerous then too, but not as dangerous as during the 17th century, when the rates of maternal and childhood mortality in Europe were so high, according to some historians, that women had to average four children just to have a decent chance of one reaching adulthood, and many women died trying to reach that goal. Such circumstances don’t condemn women to being baby-making machines subjugated by the men in their lives, but they do make it harder for women who want to take more masculine roles to justify it to their communities.

      Now I’m not saying that women should be in subordinate roles in all medieval or low-tech fantasy worlds. Rather, I’m suggesting that if you’re going to give women roles that look appropriate to us moderns, it helps if the world supports them being able to make such choices. If a woman is going to put off starting a family until her late 30s because she needs to slay a few dragons and lift a few sieges first, make sure she’s got access to decent Ob/gyn care from somebody when she does decide to start a family. And if you want her to be sexually active during her dragonslaying days, it doesn’t hurt to make contraception available.

      • Louis Robinson Says:

        I won’t say you’re incorrect – AFAIK, you aren’t – but for those following along at home, it might help to point out that there are a lot of subtleties underlying the above. And that how they’re treated in historical writing is awfully dependent [take careful note of Heteromeles comment “according to some historians”] on the writer’s focus and the condition of his/her axe blade.

        For example, the maternal/infant mortality numbers look very much as if they are for major urban centres such as London, Paris, Amsterdam, Venice and maybe Rome. I’m not sure they’d even be valid for Madrid, Vienna or the big North German cities. And what they miss is that the chances of a man living long enough to _father_ those 4 children were also pretty grim. It was very, very late in the 19th century before urban populations became self-sustaining again. [Again? Yup, Again! Many cities did grow organically in Classical Antiquity. Something else for the would-be fantasist to bear in mind]

      • Heteromeles Says:

        If you want to sharpen your ax, the book is Geoffrey Parker’s Global Crisis, a door-stop I highly recommend reading. It looks like I cited the 4 children figure somewhat wrong (one in four kids reaching adulthood is correct, but it was a combo of infant and childhood mortality). This was the height of the Little Ice Age, during a time that some historians (not just Parker) call “The General Crisis.” In Europe it was the century or so between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. We’re talking about the 30 Years’ War, the English Civil War, the Ming/Qing dynastic succession, the Mughal civil war, the collapse of the Kongo Kingdom and so on around the globe. Due to frequent crop failures and frequent wars, mortality was pretty high for everyone, men and women included.

        As for later mortality, as you point out, it depends on when and where you’re talking about. The point I hope did get made is that gender equality does depend, somewhat, on medicine and technology, as well as cultural mores. Many writers know this already, but it is a point that needs to get made.

  4. Barbara Joan Says:

    A very interesting and thought provoking article and comments,I would point out that in a lot Historical Fiction, many men are depicted and were considered old at ages that today would be as you mentioned be considered prime of life today. Of course, that is true of depictions of women in certain areas as well.

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