On Writing: Characters

Here’s a question I had tweeted to me.

I notice a lack of independant female characters in media. Do you go out of your way to do this or does it come innate?

First of all, thanks.

It’s a great question, but I think it’s the wrong question.  Instead of asking for strong, well-defined female characters or strong, well-defined minority characters, we should ask for strong, well-defined characters of all types.  Male, female,  black, white, human, robot, etc.

I like to think that I write interesting female characters, but I like to think I write many types of interesting characters.  I don’t put more thought into writing a female than I do a male.  I just try to treat them like a character, to make them interesting, believable (as much as the reality allows), and to give them life.  That’s how you make a character worth remembering.  By treating them like characters worth knowing.

To some degree, that means avoiding stereotypes.  Although you don’t have to avoid them entirely.  It’s all right to start with a classic archetype and build on it.  But if you don’t build on it then you’re going to end up with a flat character that, while not necessarily wrong for the situation, is going to have trouble standing out.

In fantasy and science fiction, we see this problem all the time.  It’s not generally found in the humans, but every character that isn’t human.  The mistake many writers make is in assigning defining characteristics right off the bat, based on something as simple as what fantastic race a character might be.  Dwarves are gruff.  Elves are aloof.  Vulcans are logical.  Klingons are war-like.

You really don’t have to look very far to realize how limiting this can be.  In Star Trek, is there any need for a recurring Vulcan character other than Spock?  They’ve introduced other Vulcans, but they tend to stand in Spock’s shadow.  Whether it’s Tuvok fromVoyager or the hot chick from Enterprise, there is very little to distinguish them from a garden variety Vulcan.

How about dwarves?  In nearly every fantasy setting I’ve ever come across, the dwarves are a sturdy people who live in the mountains.  They’re blacksmiths and miners, and they love to drink and carouse.  And they’re hardy brawlers who favor axes and, maybe, muskets.  This is such a standard that creating a dwarf who enjoys the arts or writing poetry smacks of untruth.  Never mind that dwarves are imaginary and that the only limits we place on them are limits we’ve created.

An example close to my heart is that of Mack Megaton, the protagonist of The Automatic Detective.  Mack is a robot, and we all know how robots are supposed to be.  Cold, logical, unfeeling machines.  The standard issue robot either suffers from Pinnochio Syndrome or Skynet Dysfunction.  I deliberately avoided both extreme with Mack.  Mack is logical, but he isn’t unfeeling.  He has emotions.  He isn’t necessarily ruled by them, but they are an important part of who he is.

Mack’s journey as a character isn’t in becoming more human.  Or less human.  Mack’s problems don’t stem from his lack of humanity because I always felt that he was already human.  He thinks.  He aspires.  He faces dilemmas and doubts.  His perspective might be different because, as a robot, he has different concerns, a slightly different way of looking at the world.  But he’s a character, and aside from a few quirks from his robotic nature, he behaves like one first, and a robot second.

It might seem strange to compare female characters to Vulcans, dwarves, and robots, but that’s my point.  Too often, women are handled in this way.  They are assumed to have innate characteristics that MUST define them or that they MUST defy to be interesting.  And if this is how you start, then is it any wonder that women characters can become as flat and lifeless as any stereotype?

To continue the fantasy character example, something I’ve touched upon before, you’ll see that women are often defined by a very narrow set of physical characteristics.  Just as elves must all have pointed ears and all dwarves have thick beards, so it is that women in fiction are usually defined exclusively by their sexuality.  Often to the point of hypersexualization, accidental or not.  Just check out every single urban fantasy book cover.  90% of them feature an extremely attractive woman with exposed skin.  Or a tramp stamp.  Or impractical, form fitting clothing.  While it’s true that male characters are usually attractive on covers too, it’s always less sexual. 

Compare Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files to Kim Harrison’s The Hollows novels.  The original Dresden covers didn’t even feature the protagonist.  The new version of the covers all feature the hero standing in a rather generic fashion.  But he’s fully clothed.  He’s wearing a long coat, a hat, holding a staff.  He might be a good looking guy, but it’s certainly not overemphasized.  Meanwhile, The Hollows shows close up butt shots, mini-skirts, and thigh high boots.  Despite the fact that the protagonist of the books (at least in the first novel) was described as attractive, but not drop dead gorgeous.  Her clothes are tasteful and mostly practical.  Yet if one were to go by the cover art, she fights monsters in a stripperiffic outfit.

The same effect can be seen in superhero comics.  Superman, Batman, Spider-Man all get to be fully realized characters in unrevealing costumes.  Meanwhile, women tend to wear revealing outfits that show off their cleavage and asses.  Part of this is fanservice, no doubt, but another part is that without these elements to define them, writers aren’t really sure what they are.  The same thing happens to minority characters, who usually have powers and origins related to their ethnicity.  Because apparently black people never stumble across strange meteors or have freak lab accidents.

The poster child for this particular effect is Luke Cage.  Once known as Power Man, he now fights crime as Luke Cage.  He doesn’t need a code name.  He doesn’t need a costume.  He’s black.  He’s from the streets.  That’s all the effort that really needs to be put into his character.  Once you understand this, you can see the problem, and it is everywhere.

Everywhere.

Female characters are far more likely to be “baby crazy” than male ones.  Even if it doesn’t fit with the female characters portraly in any other light.  Female characters are far more likely to cry.  Female characters are expected to be nurturing, and if they’re not, they’re ice queens.  There’s no in-between.

And they are almost always beautiful.  Even if it’s in that Don’t realize how beautiful she is way, which is kind of a copout.  Has there ever been a movie where the female equivalent of Seth Rogan scored with the male equivalent of Katherine Hiegel?

So how do I write strong female characters?  The same way I write strong male characters.  With a few simple rules:

RULE 1: CHARACTERS ARE INDIVIDUALS

Remember that every character should be an individual.  Important characters especially should not be defined by any of the following qualities: gender, race, job.  If the primary way of identifying a character is based on some external quality of appearance or occupation then it’s safe to say they are not very strong.

Appearance is of particular note.  I like monstrous characters, for example.  But all the great ones are more than a gimmick.  The Hulk might be a giant green man, but he’s also the embodiment of rage and possesses an often child-like innocence.  The Ever-Lovin’ Blue-Eyed Thing is a guy made out of rocks, but he’s also a bruiser, an average Joe, and a dude who don’t take any guff.  Even one of my favorite Marvel characters, the Man-Thing, is defined by his lack of defining personality.  He is little more than an empathic plant monster, and that lack of personality is what makes him unique.

Rule 2: CHARACTERS SHOULD LIVE OUTSIDE YOUR STORY

Characters should never seem that they are just standing around waiting for the narrator to appear and get the action going.  They should seem like they had some sort of life before the story started, and, unless they die at the end, it shouldn’t seem like they’ll disappear once the story is over.  This is fairly easy to do with your protagonists and antagonists, and most writers get it right.

Where they fall flat is usually found in the supporting characters.   Too often supporting characters end up sitting on the sidelines.  Their entire existence revolves around the primary characters, the heroes and villains.

One of my favorite deconstructions of this notion was shown in an episode of Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.  In the episode, Perry White and Jimmy Olsen spend much of their screen time talking about the lives of Lois and Clark.  Until at one point, Perry points out that it’s absurd that they’re doing this, that they have their own lives.  It’s a funny moment because, up to that point, I hadn’t even realized that every scene of Perry and Jimmy revolved around the series’s main characters.  It was invisible because it was so expected.

It’s important not to overdo this though.  We really don’t care that much about Jimmy or Perry.  We know who the heroes are, and that’s who we are there to see.  But you don’t do your supporting cast any justice by having them orbit the protagonists like tiny planets.

RULE 3: DON’T BE AFRAID TO LET EVERY CHARACTER CONTRIBUTE

You can create the most wonderfully well-developed secondary and tertiary characters in the world, but if they don’t add to your story, what’s the point?

I write a lot of crazy stuff about a lot of crazy characters.  And none of these characters succeeds or fails on their own.  This doesn’t make the protagonist seem weak.  It makes them seem like they are part of a living world.  We all get by with a little help from our friends, and having characters contribute to your hero’s successes shows that there is a real obstacle.

Okay, I could go on all night, but I’d rather stop than wear out my welcome.  The point is simple.  Treat characters of any type like individuals.  Avoid stereotypes.  Even the good stereotypes.  And remember that, whether a robot, a witch, a talking gorilla, or a giant fuzzy green monster that wants to devour the universe, there is something worthwhile and interesting about any character.  It’s just a question of finding it.

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,

Lee

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2 Comments

  1. Doug Johnson
    Posted October 20, 2010 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    Not sure what is going on in your head (well, I’m at least partially sure, because I read this stuff) but the last two blogs are GREAT stuff for aspiring novelogists…or anyone who treads the creation of fiction through the written word (hmmm…that would include most resumes, might have to think that through). In any case, thanks for what you write, and for your insights into the writing process.

  2. Sean
    Posted November 14, 2010 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

    Terry Pratchett is an author that has dwarfs being other than traditional dwarfs. Though he also uses the stereotype.

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