Real Women As Main Characters

As I mentioned last week, in “Not Just Crossplay,” lately I keep coming across discussions complaining that there aren’t enough female main characters in adult SF/F – and this sweeping complaint often includes comics and movies.  Frankly, I don’t agree that this situation even exists.  I’ve written more than my share and so have a lot of other writers, male and female alike.   So we’re not going to beat this dead horse.

SF/F With Female Main Characters

SF/F With Female Main Characters

What bothers me is the underlying implication that the way to right this implied misbalance is as easy as swapping pronouns and a few descriptive elements, that female characters and male characters can and should be interchangeable.

I don’t agree.

Last week, I took a look at how even with minor “walk-on” characters, gender isn’t interchangeable, that in many cases the social matrix dictates that some jobs are more likely to be done by “guys” and others by “gals.”

This week, I want to take a look at some of the complexities involved in creating female main characters.

Gals aren’t guys.   Even if writers want to create an egalitarian society where males and females are indeed equals on all levels, this takes considering differences on all levels and dealing with them.  If writers are working in a context that is not egalitarian – for example, any historical society up to and including the present day – then these differences need to be part of the female character.

Before I start, let me lay down some ground rules.  When I talk about “women” and “men,” I’m talking about the groups in general.  Obviously, there are individual men and women – even entire groups of men and women – that will violate some or all of these elements.  Okay?

Let’s start with the most basic, which is also the most complex.

Women are not men who wear their hair long and have interesting chest bumps.  Women are physically different.  That’s why they’re women, not men.

Women are not as strong as men, especially in the upper body, but also overall.  Women tend to have higher pain tolerance than men.  There is some evidence women may have quicker reflexes than men.

And here’s the biggie.  Women can get pregnant.  From sexual maturity on, aspects of how the female body is set up to carry a baby will dictate the woman’s life.  Many of these will also influence her social role in a wide variety of ways.

The difference in strength is among the easiest to deal with.  You can simply take the easy way and say that Conanna is stronger than most women.  If you do this, though, please give her a realistic build!  She’s not going to be slim, lithe, with a pinched waist, and big breasts.  She’s going to look more like a standard peasant woman: stocky, with thick arms, legs, and torso.

She’s not going to have six-pack abs.  (As Batgirl did in a recent depiction I came across on-line.)  Women do not form six-packs without extreme diets, steroids, and body sculpting – none of which fall into the “easy” category of “Well, she’s just strong for a woman.”

(Aside: Men don’t always get six-packs either.  My husband, Jim, is very strong, as one would expect an archeologist who has done field work for over forty years to be.  However, even when he was a young man and lifted weights, he never got that “sculpted” look.)

Keladry, the main character in Tamora Pierce’s “Protector of the Small” series, is the only girl in a training class for potential knights.  She does very well in many of her classes, but using a lance is frustrating for her because she doesn’t have the upper body strength that comes naturally to her male classmates.  When she learns that someone has tampered with her lance to make it even heavier, does she whine?  No!  She requests permission to continue to use the heavier lance in training because she knows she needs to compensate, so that in the field, when she needs to use a lance effectively against larger opponents (like ogres and dragons), she won’t be hampered.

Want your slender beauty who can pick up a car?  Fine.  Come up with a reason for her being that way.  After all, we’re writing SF/F here.  Here are a couple examples.

David Weber’s Honor Harrington and her ancestress, Stephanie, about whom I’ve written in Fire Season and Treecat Wars, are both very strong compared to the average woman in the Star Kingdom of Manticore.  Yet no one would guess it from their appearance.  Why?  Both come from a genetically modified heritage that give them greater strength.  Weber goes to great trouble to explain how and why this works, and to point out that there are problems associated with the benefits.  Add to this that Sphinx, their homeworld, has a gravity roughly 1.3 Earth standard and their environment provides additional training in using all that strength.

Adara the Huntress, one of the main characters in my novels Artemis Awakening and Artemis Invaded, is also strong without being bulky.  Again, the reason is genetic engineering.  Although apparently human, the people of Artemis are all, to a greater or lesser extent, the result of genetic engineering.

By contrast, Firekeeper, in my “wolf books” (Through Wolf’s Eyes and others) is fairly strong because of her childhood among wolves.  However, she’s not superhumanly strong.  She’s just in good training.  If she doesn’t continue to live a life that includes the equivalent of a heavy daily work-out, she’ll lose her edge.

But strength is really peripheral to the question.  I only bring it up because so many “strong, female main characters” also seem to be physically fit warrior women.

Let’s look at that squishy subject: Women are designed to be baby makers.

And, before I go any further, let me clarify.  I am not one of those writers who think that every trip to the toilet (or outhouse or head or whatever) needs to be mentioned for the sake of “realism.”  But if you write with a female point-of-view character, whether in first or third person, you absolutely can’t skirt around all the biological elements that go into being a woman.  You should consider these differences and incorporate where they would impact your story.

Let’s start with the menstrual cycle.

Every twenty-eight days or so, there’s pain. This is probably one of the reasons women have higher pain thresholds than men; long term experience in learning to function while having cramps is great training.  There are also mood swings, and a considerable amount of unpredictable mess.  And this doesn’t last just a day.  The average menstrual cycle is about five days of active bleeding out of the twenty-eight.

Before a woman has her period, she’s likely to be irritable, bloated, and uncomfortable.  During and after, she’s likely to be tired and anemic.  Oh!  And when a group of women live in close proximity, cycles synchronize, so the members of your band of women warriors are likely to be all having their periods at the same time.

Many factors – such as poor nutrition, physical and extreme emotional stress, and/or a high level of physical training –  can interrupt regular cycles.   So, it’s possible that your women warriors might have interrupted, light, or erratic periods, but that isn’t necessarily good or a sign of health and well-being.

What other things come into women being designed to be baby makers?

Women have breasts.  Even small breasts are vulnerable points, not only as soft tissue but because they are very sensitive.  The huge breasts popular in illustration are an encumbrance.  Even if properly supported, large breasts can contribute to back pain, poor posture, and a host of other problems.

Women can get pregnant.  Now that “the Pill” has been available for decades, I think writers tend to forget that accidental pregnancies did happen.  A lot.  So many things can throw off even a careful calculation of when a woman is fertile.  And without modern, easy pregnancy tests, a woman might not even be sure she was pregnant for several months, because (as mentioned above) lots of things can throw a woman’s cycle off.

If you want your heroine to be sexually active and not constantly watching the calendar, then deal with this.  In a Fantasy setting, you can use magical birth control.  In a high-tech setting, medicine should provide various options.  Whatever you pick, make a passing mention that your female protagonist has taken precautions and what those precautions are.   Do they also eliminate the menstrual cycle?  Are they available to every woman?  All of this will shape your culture in myriad ways.

Don’t have magical or high-tech birth control – perhaps because you’re writing in an alternate historical setting?  Then Conanna better either keep her knees together or be willing to take time off from sword swinging when she gets pregnant.

The complexities of being female don’t end with the conclusion of the childbearing years, but since few people actually write about menopausal and post-menopausal women except as minor characters, I’ll skip that for now.

To this point, I’ve stayed tightly focused on the physical aspects that make women different from men.  However, before I close, I want to at least touch on the social consequences of putting female characters into roles – such as warrior – that were traditionally male.

The risk of rape cannot be ignored.  Although men can and do rape other men, men more commonly – even traditionally – rape women.  This is not even necessarily a sexual act.  It’s a “marking territory” act.  It’s an act of dominance.  It’s an act of violence and intimidation.

The terms raping and pillaging are lightly joined together, as if the brutalization of women and the stealing of property are one and the same.  And, indeed, in many cultures they were.  But if you have a novel where women warriors are common, we’re not dealing with cultures as they were.  We’re dealing with cultures where the dynamic has been skewed.

How do you deal with raping and pillaging when you have women on the battlefield?  Does Brunhilda smile, wave at the guys, and say “Have fun raping the women?”  while she focuses on getting the best jewelry and horses?  Is she aware of the risk that the violence turned on stranger women might be turned on her?

Then there’s the issue – already manifest in twenty-first century warfare – that a woman solider faces sexual abuse not only from her enemies, but from her ostensible allies as well.  If she chooses to have a relationship with one man in her company, others may feel slighted and resentful.  This happens all the time – but remember, this time you’re not writing about rock stars or office workers, you’re writing about people accustomed to using violence to get what they want.

When I wrote When the Gods Are Silent, my warrior woman, Rabble, and her male companion, Bryax, belong to a culture that deals with at least part of this through “Ferman’s Oath,” where they swear to be comrades, nothing more.  Since the rest of the story does not include rape and pillage as set pieces, it’s enough.  But I didn’t dodge the issue.  I acknowledged it.

When I was writing Artemis Invaded I realized that there was a point where if Adara was present for a certain event she would – not might, would – be raped.  I spent a lot of time working the plot so she had a reason not to be there.  In the novel In Enemy Hands, when Honor Harrington is captured, she is saved from being raped only because she needs to be more or less unmarred for the show trial her enemies intend, and she promises that if anyone comes at her, there will be marks.  Otherwise…

I could continue, but I’ve already written more than I usually do.

I hope this makes clear that including more women characters in major roles is not a simple matter of flipping pronouns as so many pundits seem to think.  I’m very much in favor of putting women on center stage, but let’s make sure they’re really women not men in drag.


7 Responses to “Real Women As Main Characters”

  1. mandy Says:

    Thank you for writing this ☺ It is definitely a great reminder when attempting realistic character development. And I’m glad you mentioned the overly busty females commenly depicted in fantasy. That’s always bothered me. As an overly busty woman who is also highly active, I can attest to the struggles you listed – and then some.

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    Even though I’m male, I can personally testify that not every woman gets cramps every month. There’s a lot more variation there than people might like.

    For humans in general, the rule seems to be that there are “average differences” between “the average man” and “the average woman,” (averaging across all 3.5 billion or so people of each sex) but these differences are fairly insignificant compared to the huge differences among women and among men. This doesn’t mean you can swap pronouns and walk away, as Jane rightly noted, but it does mean that stereotyping based on averages is problematic too.

    Incidentally, this also goes for the putative races, which is why the geneticists say that race doesn’t exist. The genetic variation among, say, blacks and whites is enormous compared to the relatively small differences between the average black and the average white. If races were real, we’d expect to see the opposite, which is that there are large differences between the races, but there are relatively small differences among individuals of a particular race. A lot of what gets counted as the biological differences among races in America are actually due to things like discrimination, poverty, and differential access to health care, education, and food. Racism has very real biological effects. Race doesn’t.

    Not so incidentally, discrimination also plays into gender and sex differences. Women do face discrimination in our society, and that does cause biological effects. Not that long ago, women were regarded as stupider than men, and not worth educating because of that. AFAIK measures of intelligence at the time were based on education, so the idea that women were stupid was a self-fulfilling prophecy. It lasted until enough women were educated to convince everyone how wrong the idea was, and it still hangs on in many quarters.

  3. Chad Merkley Says:

    In Terry Pratchett’s Sourcery, there’s a character named Conina, who is the daughter of the famous Cohen the Barbarian. She’s pretty much every ridiculous trope about female fantasy warriors there can be–except she she really just wants to be a hairdresser.

    But Jane is right in addressing the fact that the biological differences between men and women result in sociological and economic differences in the roles men and women play, especially in low-tech societies. It’s actually a very efficient division of labor, and effectively increases a family’s reproductive success. It’s not impossible for a women to be a warrior or a commander (like Joan of Arc, although I’m not sure how much actual fighting she did personally), and men are certainly capable of domestic, nurturing lifestyles. In the present, though, western society focuses beyond biological reproductive success to things like achieving wealth, status, and personal fulfillment.

    And, Jane, I agree about the scene in Artemis Invaded (assuming we’re thinking of the same scene). That would have been ugly.

  4. Heteromeles Says:

    You’ve got to be a little careful. Remember Pratchett’s Monstrous Regiment? There’s a book called Battle Cries and Lullabies: Women in War from Prehistory to the Present. I tripped over it looking for a reference on the expanding armor worn by the pregnant Japanese Empress Jingu during her invasion of Korea. It’s probably worth chasing down for someone who wants to have a realistic depiction of women in war.

    • Louis Robinson Says:

      You remind me of an item of some amusement value: Egypt, China and Japan all seem to have been so rattled by their one experience of a reigning empress that they went to great lengths to make sure it never happened again [the Ptolemids don’t count – they were Greeks in nemes]

      Which is not to say that the reins of power never again ended in female hands, because they most certainly did, but never in their own right. I guess the men looked at what happened and decided that if they didn’t take steps they’d never get their rumps on the throne again.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Thanks for the book recommendation. That definitely sounds like a “find and read”!

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