Thursday, November 13, 2008

Creating Characters: Part 1: Why Women are Weird

A couple weeks back in my critique group we went over a writer’s chapter in which two women have a confrontation and argument revolving around a man they both like. I and the other two men in the group thought the chapter worked well. Information was revealed. The plot got moved along. And, we thought there was even some nice characterization going on.

Three of the women in the group were having none of it. The scene didn’t work for them because they thought one of the women in the scene was too aggressive and blunt. In general, the women in the group thought that character was acting too much like a man, and that there should be more subtlety and undercurrents expressed in the argument scene. One woman even went so far as to say “real women” were more subtly vicious and cruel under these circumstances. Now, here’s the kicker for me. The author of the chapter was a woman.

Several weeks before this event, I was telling another group about a scene in a story I was writing where a mother acts a certain way after her child runs away from home. The three women in the group immediately tore my idea to shreds. “A mother would never act that way,” they said.

Skip forward to another moment in my critique group. I have a scene where two women, one a female warrior and the other an empress, are interacting. There’s distrust and hostility there and I tried to convey it with undercurrents in the dialogue, which wasn’t easy because the warrior prefers to let her actions speak louder than her words. One of the female group members said: “Well, I have to keep in mind that this is a man’s idea of women.”

OK, I’m confused. And it’s not the first time I have been so confounded by the other half of the human race. My confusion runs something like this: 1) Would not the woman author in the first instance have a legitimate feel for how women might act in a given situation? 2) Are all mothers precisely the same in how they’d react to a child gone missing? 3) Are there not variations in how women act, or do all women react exactly the same way to such experiences as an argument with another woman?

In defense of my own scene with the mother, I must say that I ran the same scenario past a female friend of mine who is a mother and she said: “That’s exactly what I’d do.”

I understand that men often put women into fiction simply for sexual reasons or to act as window dressing. Well, women do that to men sometimes, as well. And neither of those tactics leads to good characterization. Good characters definitely have subtleties, and they have varied responses to the world around them. I’ve known women who have been blunt, snide, vicious, understanding, supportive, emotional, unemotional, and just about every other descriptor you can imagine in specific situations. I don’t think women are always one thing.

So why are women so hard to characterize in writing? How easy is it to get a female character wrong? What kind of things should you never do in creating a female character? Male writers, and some female writers, want to know.


Rachel V. Olivier said...

There's a writer in my writers group who is exquisite when it comes to characterization of both men and women. He's a playwrite as well as a novelist. He says it's years of being in a book club where he's the only man.

Humans are a paradox, even to those in their same gender. Look at the women making those comments and the woman who wrote that scene, though. What are their socio-economic/ethnic backgrounds? Divorced families or not? Traditional Christian backgrounds or not? Small town? Big City? Straight? Gay? Bi? All these might inform the reactions you get. I know women who are very blunt and straightforward and others who aren't. Also look at astrological signs, or at least the writer's possible use of, and belief in, astrology.

You know. You're a writer. You take in all the comments, look at them, and then decide whether or not they're valid. What kind of background does your character have that may cause her to react or not react in the way you have written her? What's her birth order? WHat are the expectations of her society?

You know all this stuff.

Tyhitia Green said...


Everyone reacts differently to a variety of things. Maybe the women in your critique group just like to :-)

I have seen some chracters that some men have made that caused me to roll my eyes. Even some non-African-American folks who have completely mischaracterized AA folks in their writings. But some men and some non AA folks get it right. This is why research and just knowing people is so important. It shows in the work.

By the way, Charles, I think you do an excellent job. ;-) I'm sure your warrior and empress scene was fabulous. :-)

ANNA-LYS said...

I can imagine Your confusion about this occasions, Women are absolutely not a homogen group of creatures. We are no stereotypes.

Next time this questionings are put forward please recommend this women the book by Clarissa Pinkola Estes; Women Who Run with the Wolves. This book will make them find themselves and the variation amongst women.

Those kind of women You have meet in Your groups are unfortunately those kind that are the worst active workers against woman liberation.

(You should have heard my tone of voice right now, this makes me mad)

Thanks for bringing it to the surface. I hope they wake up before the give birth to children. So they wont implement this stereotyping in the next generation, as well.

Precie said...

Good characters definitely have subtleties, and they have varied responses to the world around them. I’ve known women who have been blunt, snide, vicious, understanding, supportive, emotional, unemotional, and just about every other descriptor you can imagine in specific situations. I don’t think women are always one thing.

I'd say you have all this right.

What a massive topic. Forgive me for getting all rambly in response.

Here's some anecdotal info, though...I've never been the type of woman to go to the ladies room in groups. That is, until I noticed that, in some groups, it's an unspoken act of comraderie...and therefore sometimes a test--i.e., to turn down another woman's invitation to "freshen up" is potentially insulting to her--because the invitation isn't simply asking if you need to use the facilities but rather an offer of friendship, of platonic intimacy., not every woman acts or reacts in the same way. But, yes, there are certainly tacit valences carried in women's behavior. Some women might not be aware of, or be exposed to, such minute machinations. But they exist. And being aware of such particulars is, I think, useful to any writer, even though that doesn't mean it all has to play out in a work of fiction. (Strong, silent warrior woman! Woo hoo!!)

So the best I can add is that it's all about context. Does this character behave authentically to his/her character within his/her specific circumstances?

fwiw, I rather prefer reading about authentic characters who aren't "the norm."

Barrie said...

Actually, I think you hit the nail on the head when you asked would all mothers (or females) act the same way? People act differently. Characters act differently. If it's well motivated, it works for me. sorry. I don't know if this helps much. BTW, thanks for persevering when my blog was giving me fits.

Lana Gramlich said...

Thing is, they're not actually telling you what "women" will or won't do/say, they're telling you what they would/n't do/say.

Jeff Doten said...

I'd say it may reveal more about how those women feel about men. I've done the stay at home dad thing for years and there was a point were most of my socializing was with the neighborhood moms. I became great friends with many, but one or two behaved like I was a flasher. ( It only happened once !)

But I'm also in Canada and stay at home dads ( particullarly creatives ) are'nt that uncommon, making our relationships with women (perhaps ) somewhat differant than it may be elsewhere.

A big tip off is how these women speak about their own men.....

SQT said...

When I was growing up an adage I always heard is "it's a woman's prerogative to change her mind."

What that always meant to me is that women aren't predictable, even to ourselves. Sometimes I don't know why I feel moody or irrational, I just do.

On the other hand, I was raised with three brothers so I tend to think in a more male-like fashion. I don't always get along with other women because I don't understand the social shorthand they use. I also don't understand why women are so hard on each other.

What that means to me is that there is no universal characterization one can or should use when writing female characters. Women are not cardboard cutouts, no matter what that writing group says. You can't presume to say what a mother would or wouldn't do. Women, unfortunately, are capable of doing bad things as mothers (just look at Susan Smith) so nothing is really off the table.

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

I think Lana hit it absolutely right. These women in your group are generalizing to what they would or woudn't do without giving thought to the billions of women out there who would act completely differently. I am not a subtle person. I am blunt and forceful. Yes I have been told I act more like a man than a woman. This is both a compliment and an insult. A compliment that I'm told that I am straightforward and honest but an insult that to be so lies in the realm of manhood. It bothers me that your critique group partners would want to continue to uphold a stereotype that I find so irksome.

Women, just like men, come in a huge variety of types and personalities. This applies to mothers too. Mothers who would die for their children cannot believe when they hear of a mother who is cold or indifferent. But that doesn't mean uncaring mothers don't exist. Of course they do. And mothers show affection very differently. I think it is very closeminded of your group to not be open to the variety of people that really do inhabit this earth.

Michelle's Spell said...

Hey Charles,

Really enjoyed this post! I love writing from both points of view and frankly, there isn't anything a man or woman wouldn't do in some circumstance. I think some voices seem more or less realistic, but I hate it when I hear people say, A woman would never do that or men don't think that way. I always base characters off of real people (not the greatest thing if you want to keep all your friends, but there it is) and they've all done weird shit at different times of stress and so on. I think Larry McMurtry writes some of the best female characters ever so the writer's gender doesn't really seem to matter in matters of versimilitude. A lot of my stories for my dissertation were about/concerning middle-aged men. One of my profs asked during the defense how much authority I felt when writing about this group to which my dissertation director burst out laughing and said, I think she knows way too much about middle aged men (she was lots of fun -- had been married five times!) and we all had a good laugh.

David Cranmer said...

I always run my female characters past my wife and another woman who is also a writer for input and usually they add the necessary elements I'm missing.
I also study authors like Agatha Christie to see how they write their feminine characters.

Lisa said...

Great discussion and I'm with Lana and Ello. I wouldn't pay any attention to feedback that starts with "no mother" or "no woman" would do or not do anything. I suspect this characterization may also be getting mixed in with another of my pet peeves: the need for a "likable" female character. We expect women to behave in certain ways, but the expected is kind of boring, isn't it? Beyond the expected, we have women capable of incredibly noble acts as well as heinous acts. Not many women would become nuns, or take a vow of celibacy and poverty, but some do. We've had female serial killers - rare, but it's happened, and far too often we read about women who have knowingly allowed men to abuse and even murder their own children. I think you should go with what you have and decide what's driving your readers to provide this input. Is it their comfort level, experience and taste in books? I suspect it may be.

Heather said...

if you stay true to the character then you will always be correct in the actions you portray for her.

Some mothers abandon their children - they are still, technically mothers.

I think that it's easy to pick chapters to death because often, it is difficult to see the character as a whole and to take into account their emotional and personal growth as the story moves on.

Only you can know your character and what she would do, if it feels right do it, if not don't.

Miladysa said...

I couldn't say how anyone else would behave because I am totally unpredictable myself. I have no idea how I would react to any given situation until it happens and I can react differently to the same set of circumstances.

The only thing I can add is your character reacts the way you decided that they will.

In the words of my mother, ""I suspect they're just jealous." ;D

Heff said...

I'm no help with this topic, as I've only ever met a Ms. Snide or Mrs. Vicious.

Anndi said...

I too think Lana hit the nail on the head.

See?! Women CAN be to the point and direct!

Making an assumption on how a character will act based on gender is something I can't wrap my brain around personally. I wish I could help, but I'm as confused as you are.

Cath said...

Charles I have never been a member of these groups but it strikes me that the women in the group are allowing what they think is their prior knowledge of a situation cloud their judgement.

There cannot be any hard or fast rules. You know your characters best. They are their individual selves much more than they are a man or a woman. Let that individuality drive their actions or reactions, not their gender.

The case of a missing child is a case in point - wouldn't a father react in a similar way? Can't fathers be distressed, panicky, hysterical? Then in a similar way a mother can react perhaps with a level head, cool, or lashing out. I don't know how the character was portrayed, but to me it is not the gender that counts, but that the character is acting in a way that you would expect from that character.

Others' opinions are useful for you to examine what you write, and you are doing, but don't let it detract from the nature of your writing or the individuality of your characters.

Just mho. As a reader more than a writer. As a reader, I trust the writer to tell me what the character is like...

Aine said...

Gender, schmender... I'd argue that a particular female character's actions are rooted in her personality type (big surprise!). So yes, one could say that an ENFJ mother would never react that way, but an INTP mother most certainly would, for example. And the fact that the F/T function does have significant alignment with gender would explain why a female "T" type would seem out of character to the majority of women readers who are "F" types.

Just my two cents...

(Oh-- and I agree with Lana!)

laughingwolf said...

good questions, charles, but only one solution: tell them they are YOUR characters, and that is how YOU envisage their interaction... if anyone dislikes it, tell em to do better with their OWN tale

that's not to dismiss the points presented, valid as they may be, but the story is YOUR story, flawed... or brilliant....

Synchronicity said...

this is such a fascinating topic. there is a great deal of difficulty in developing a character of the opposite sex and making the character seem real.

i agree with you that a good character is not a static stereotype. why not have a woman character who does not behave stereotypically?

i want to read all the comments to see what others have to say. great post!

Cloudia said...

Charles: Thanks for a thought provoking post. Hmmmmmmmm . . .
Aloha from Waikiki!
Ps: You are a fantasy writer. do you watch "True Blood" on HBO? I always wonder what you'd make of it. Let's RIDE! Aloha ;-)

Travis Cody said...

I was raised by women...three distinct women. I don't think there's a right or a wrong or a single way any woman reacts to anything.

ivan said...

Nutty professor department.

While at least one wag in my all-male radio and television arts class joked (remember, this was l966), "Women should be obscene and not heard", it did bring a laugh.

Real masters could draw wmen very well, and convincingly from old Leo Tolstoy through Fitzgerald and Herman Wouk.
And who could forget Big Nurse out of Ken Kesey. And Updike does it very well.
Myself,when I draw women, I kind of cheat. Every love letter, telephone call, moment of candor, come- hither pose while leaning against a wall--is used. That way, the character ends up speaking in her voice, her mannerisms and not mine.

But I have found, while conducting writing classes, that it's best if the instructor kept quiet during a period when he has to hold himself back.
Like quoting my joker, just out of devilishness.
And being careful in an all- woman
class, not to confuse the class with the pub you'd just come back from.

I recall coming to class half-drunk one day, cofusing calculus with cabbage heads and saying, in a discussion of Singapore, that in New Guinea, the men seem to have abnormally large penises.
I felt a stir in the class, a groan.
Unfazed, I said, "Ladies, ladies, the boat for Port Moresby does not leave till ten o'clock tomorrow morning.

Did the dean get mail!

Greg said...

i've always thought women were hard to write. at least, good women. men, no problem, but women always seem to be more complex.

Vesper said...

Fascinating topic, Charles!

Every person is different and can behave differently due to many circumstances including temperament, upbringing, or what's at stake.
Those three women in the group seemed to use a stereotype. That's not what you want; what you want and what, in fact, I'm sure you do, is create a well motivated real character.
As an example, I always put my children first so I could say I have a very strong maternal instinct. Yet not all mothers have that - some even murder their children...

It's hard to say (for me at least) "This is what I would do in this or that situation" until that situation appears. So I don't know how those three women knew so well what a woman would or wouldn't do.

Great food for thought.

BernardL said...

‘How do you write women so well?’

‘I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability.’

Classic Jack Nicholson line from the movie 'As Good As It Gets'.

Your post gives me further doubts about critique groups. :)

Josephine Damian said...

Few male thriller writers write women well. It's usually the-girlfriend-with-a-career-who-needs-to-be-rescued-when-kidnapped-by-bad-guy.

I'm afraid since most men see women as sexual objects, and most male writers describe them physically, sexually, or worse, reduce them to "the mother" but never consider what's going on inside their heads or even think that there IS something going on inside their heads.

Charles Gramlich said...

Rachel, the woman who’d written that scene was definitely more of the blunt variety, and I’ve appreciated her comments on my work much more because of that. As for Socioeconomic status, all the women I mentioned in my post were middle class. Most were academic types with advanced degrees. All were educated.

Demon Hunter, thanks. I’ve only tried an African American main character (Creole) in one short story and in the novel Cold in the Light. I’m not sure how well I got it because I’ve not heard from African Americans who have read it. I’ve done more stories with main female characters and so far haven’t gotten a lot of complaints.

Anna-lys, that’s really what I was thinking. Women aren’t all the same so I’m curious about women who have criticized writing as “if” all women would do or not do such tihngs. It may just be a handy short hand for them to make their comments.

Precie, I’m gonna post some more about the topic because I think it’s a key one in understanding how to develop fictional characters.

Barrie, no problem. I think, too, lots of variability in both men and women.

Lana, I suspect you’re right, although their wording is definitely a bit over the top then.

Venusian, thanks for visiting. At the time these comments occurred, I didn’t get a feeling that the women really had a strong agenda so much as they were spontaneously relating a feeling/ experience they were having. That this, whatever “this” was, was not authentically female.

SQT, I certainly don’t understand certain social ways in which women interact among themselves either. I know it must serve a purpose for them but it seems like a lot of expanded energy at times with not much to show for it. But that’s definitely my male side coming through.

Ello, their responses seemed genuine but I was thinking that there would be more variation as well. Perhaps the group interaction led them to feed off each other in a way they might not have had it been one on one.

Michelle, I can certainly see some things that could be put in that aren’t generally “realistic” as far as a male or female character goes, but I figure subtelties, such as bluntness or indirectness are widely enough spread in the human race that either males or females could illustrate them.

David Cranmer, I’d actually run my characterization of the “mother” past my wife and got an “OK” on it before I brought it up to the group. Alas, it didn’t help in that case, although in practice I think you’re right on the money and it’s a good idea.

Lisa, I didn’t think about the “likable” aspect of it. That may indeed be part of the situation. I know I once deliberately wrote a horror story in which “all” the villains were female. I decided I’d done too many stories with only male villains. That story was rejected first time out with a stern note about how sexist it was.

H. E., I think that’s part of it too. Critique groups are “looking” for something to say to help the reader but that may mean they pick up on things and discuss things that would be passed right over by a normal reader.

Miladysa, I can certainly imagine how I might act in given circumstances, but, as you say, we don’t know for sure.

Heff, Ms. Snide did it in the reading room with a tea pot service. (Clue reference there)

Anndi, but you’re too blunt! You should have beaten around the bush more. ;)

Crazycath, I know the ladies in the groups were well meaning. They genuinely had a reaction to the issue. I do believe they were making their judgments off prior experiences but I’m wondering what shaped those. It’s certainly a complicated issue.

Aine, I tend, unfortunately, to fumble along in the development of my characters. I’d probably be better suited to give more consideration to issues like this. Sometimes, though, the character pops into my head fully developed.

Laughingwolf, I agree completely. I’d still like to understand the reactions though. And I’ve heard men make similar statements about male characters in books. It’s a kind of blinder that both genders occasionally have on their minds.

Merelyme, one problem that I’m going to post about later in this series is that, I fear, that if you break the stereotype too dramatically you’re character is going to come across as unrealistic. It’s a problem.

Cloudia, I actually don’t get HBO and haven’t seen it. I get very little time to watch TV but I have thought it looked interesting.

Travis, I’m with you. I see a lot of variability. Lana is certainly unique.

Ivan, dude, that “boat leaving” comment was definitely pretty outrageous. You’ve got more sand than I’ve got.

Greg Schwartz, I’d agree. I’m definitely finding female characters tougher. Female Villains are not so hard, but the good decent kind are a struggle.

Vesper, I’m amazed at how much discussion I had when I got up this morning. The post definitely triggered a lot of input. That was the thing the women were responding to about the mother. They didn’t think she would be able to seriously consider revenge until she knew her child was safe. I thought she could.

Bernardl, I’m glad you quoted that and not me, dude. Lol. As for critique groups, you have to take the good advice with the not so good.

Josephine, I definitely see what I think of as poor characterizations of women. The key is to let the character act rather than forcing the character through motions. Thrillers, with their sometimes heavy plotting give characters less chances to act. I’d be interested if you ever happened to read Cold in the Light on what you thought about the main female character there, "Melissa."

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

I think of women like hurricanes. They're able to kick up a storm and when they leave they take your house with them.

laughingwolf said...

agreed, but not worth fretting over, life's too short....

btw - charles/lana has an award on my page

Barbara Martin said...

Men and women are different, no getting around it. Everyone acts on a given situation the way they see it, and not necessarily from another's point of view.

I tend to look at situations like a man because I grew up with three older brothers. Some of the things women do irritate the heck out of me, as most of it is childish; a carryover from their childhood where they got their own way, so now they think this will continue to work.

No one person will ever respond to a given situation the same way, although there will be variables that are similar.

Unfortunately, both sexes tend to be stereotyped into certain roles.

I think an author can write their character's method of dealing with any given situation whatever way they see fit. Sometimes this method sets off anger in readers, but that is to be expected. Writers are meant to evoke emotions in their readers so they can identify with the characters.

Thanks, Charles, for providing such a thought provoking topic which has provided many different answers from your readers.

david mcmahon said...

Mate, I am lost for words. But the question intrigues me, because the strongest characters in my first novel were ALL women.

Rick said...

Dear Charles. Dangerous waters are only for good swimmers. I'm glad you're handling this topic instead of me!

Rachel V. Olivier said...

You know Charles, I'm sure you do just fine.

Donnetta said...

Ah, Charles: Women are fickle. OH ITS OKAY! I can say that since I'm one of 'em. D

Charles Gramlich said...

Archavist, I've heard that comparison made. :)

Laughingwolf, thanks, buddy!

Barbara martin, it sure has provoked some thoughtful commentary. thanks for your input.

David McMahon, I've tried to put strong women in my books, although I typically write primarily male heroes because I know them much better.

Rick, if you see me sinking, throw me a life vest.

Rachel, thankee.

Donnetta lee, can I quote you? LOL

JR's Thumbprints said...

Who can hold a grudge longer? Man or woman? I don't dare answer that question. Best not to argue on this topic. As long as you're comfortable with your characterization, then trust your judgement.

Erik Donald France said...

I take most writing group comments and indeed most comments with a grain of salt and a dash of holy water. Saboteurs!

virtualjourney said...

yeah, good post. Doesn't it boil down to the fact female stereotypes in society are on a broad spectrum nowadays - and each separate group perceives their own as THE stereotype. (Having moved around, I can vouch for this aka having been brought up in a matriarchal fishing community, and living most of my life in patriarchal middle class suburbia for eg.) Translate either of these into fiction and inevitably one group would have a problem recognizing itself in the reactions of the other...?

Guess that's why people eventually end up reading what they identify with.

writtenwyrdd said...

You've put your finger on it: we're totally different yet symbiotic species who comingle in order to procreate! (But don't tell anybody or the religious right will be knocking on your door...)

Honestly, the way many people do not recognize their own assumptions and biases when it comes to gender and critiquing writing! I have had similar experiences, not over gender behavior specifically, but it's like people get overly picky about stuff. Personally, I like a hard-nosed woman character as much as a man. Assuming I could tell one was female by occasional differences, it shouldn't matter.

I'm waiting for crits regarding my current wip because half the soldiers are women, and they act just like the men because it's what these soldiers do. But now I think I'll consider seeing if I can addin in some feminity (whatever that is, cuz I'm a gal and I'm not clear on the definition!).

G. B. Miller said...


Don't have really have anything to say about this post other than the people are giving some excellent feedback.

Was curious about your blog after seeing your thoughtful comments elsewhere, so I thought I would stop by to take a look.

Glad I did.

laughingwolf said...

por nada, amigo :)

Virginia Lady said...

It's entirely possible that the criticism stems more from a subtle prejudice that people have about writers writing the view point of the opposite sex. For years men have had to write with a woman's name in order to sell romance, readers would automatically look for ways to criticize even if nothing is wrong.

Everyone reacts to different situations differently and more importantly, most don't have a clue how they would really react.

I've been trained with self-defense techniques, but the first time I was actually hit by someone I was so shocked I just stood there and stared for a moment. Never would have imagined that. Not in a million years. I grew up wrestling with older brothers so it's not like I was some little flower. But I was so stunned and surprised that someone would actually hit me in a fight, I was frozen for a bit.

It's hard to predict how someone would react, but usually we like give characters the best reactions possible for them-at least as a reader. As a writer, the more difficult the situation, often is the better choice.

Scott said...


I remember a friend of mine saying he thought Robert Jordan's female characters in his 'Wheel of Time' series were realistically written because they were so aggrivating. I'm not surewhat that says about him or jordan, but here you go.

I haven't writen any ficton in years, but I would think that women are just like men in that no two are exactly the same, and should be written as such. I will say that I have given up on trying to figure out any real-life women a long time ago. :)

Charles Gramlich said...

JR, good question. I'm not pursuing it either. But I always heard that many primitive tribes turned their captives over to the women for punishment. Eeek!

Erik, I've learned to do so as well. Sometimes the comments are helpful, othertimes not.

Julie, good point. People bring their own biases to the operation and have a hard time seeing beyond those.

Writtenwyrd, I do wonder about the use of critique groups sometimes for just that reason. But at times I've had them catch me in a serious error that I'm glad didn't get out to the public. Gotta take the good with the bad, I guess.

Georgie B, I appreciate your comments. Thanks for stopping by. Love the avatar.

Virginia lady, I think there is an element of that definitely. As soon as we see a reader writing from "our" perspective we get a bit defensive and standoffish. I remember the first time I got hit too. Pretty stunning.

Scott, I'm fortunate in that Lana is usually pretty straightforward. I understand her; that makes her easy to live with.

Rick said...

Just thought I'd check back in to see if they'd lynched you or not.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


You know, this is what is beautiful about blogging. A great, great post with an excellent question. It is the composite of what everyone said that seems as close to the truth as anyone will ever get. I just loved reading everyone's response.

One sort of side thought - the last chapter of Ulysses, the Molly Bloom chapter, has always been held up as a sort of model of men writing about women, or in that case, writing as a woman, in the first person. I thought it was great and kind of feel it might have a thing or two to impart on the topic, as a sort of learning tool.


Steve Malley said...

My rule of thumb: stay true to what little I've learned of the human experience. Judging by the mail I used to get, one in three thought I had no idea what I was talking about and didn't believe human beings EVER behaved this way or that, and two out of three felt I was speaking to the secret truths of their hearts.

They often sent pictures of cats. Lots of cats.

Women: the Tiny Dynamo often tells me I know nothing of humanity and that what I'm saying is completely impossible. She usually says this when I'm reading her something out of the newspaper. Whatchagunnado?

j said...

I backspaced over a LONG comment about this post. I struggled to make my point make any sense.

I agree. Women are weird.

Charles Gramlich said...

I'm out in the country and well armed, my friend. And I know Lana will defend me. I'm safe as any man can be.

Don, I must confess to never having finished Ulysess. I started it. But man it isn't easy going.

Steve Malley, there are times when I'd be happy to know nothing of humanity. I'm not a big fan of the species particularly.

Jennifer, men are too. In fact, it's probably just the human race that is screwed up.

cs harris said...

When writing a character that is meant to be sympathetic, I suspect the trick is to create a character that will appeal to most of your readers. I ran into trouble writing romances because my heroines tended to be seen by many readers as too cold and masculine--true to a certain type of female, but unsympathetic to many. So I now write books about a kick-ass thriller heroine..

That need to have readers like your main character is also why I think that, on the mother-with-child-in-jeopardy, anytime three out of four (ahem, educated, strong female) readers say, "I'd hate a mother who did that," you know you're going to have trouble.

Charles Gramlich said...

Candy, I figured out something even better to do with that character after the group's critque on her.

Cloudia said...

Aloha, Charles:
Ulysees, yikes! A literary acid-trip indeed!
My first claim to being a writer?
Being born on 'Blooms Day' June 16th, the day that the book covers; a holiday of sorts among Joyce & writing fans....
Glad to know you folks are well armed too ;-) Best to Lovely Lana!

Sarai said...

Can I just say that as a woman I have a hard time writing woman. We are all complicated and we all react in a different way to different situations. There is no one way with us LOL!
I think you should stick with your gut and if you think it works and another person said yeah I would react that way then go with it. Obiviously there is no way to please us all *wink*

Charles Gramlich said...

Cloudia, Bloom's Day. Lol. Kinda cool though.

Sarai, men do seem a bit easier to write.

Charles Gramlich said...

Cloudia, Bloom's Day. Lol. Kinda cool though.

Sarai, men do seem a bit easier to write.

Angie said...

I realize this is old (but I'm catching up!) and I haven't read the 56 comments ahead of mine, but... first impression is that the problem is more with those three readers in your critique group than with the female characterizations being criticized.

No, women are not all alike. There is no Right Way to write a female character, and my guess is that this little clot of women have built a wall around said little clot and have forgotten that there are women in the world who are little or nothing like them.

Sure, there are some vague generalities one can make about both genders. And yes, if I read some significant number of stories by a writer (all the stories about different characters, not linked in a series or whatever) and all the female (Black, Jewish, gay, blind, whatever) characters behaved pretty much alike and they were all way over on one end of the graph where the outliers dwell, then in that case I might speculate that the writer doesn't have a very good handle on that type of character.

Short of that, though, any internally consistent character can be made to work by a good writer.

And based on what you've said, I'll bet that if I wrote a story with a protag based very firmly on myself, my own personality and behavior and speech patterns, your three arbitors of femininity would insist that no women behave like that. [eyeroll] I'm nowhere near the center of the graph, no. But then, not everyone is. And some of the most interesting protags are the ones who aren't right there in the middle of the bell curve for their group(s).


Charles Gramlich said...

Angie, I'm with you. I like characters who are off center. I also agree that you need to consider the "consitency" angle. Do all the writer's female characters show particular traits, for example? I remember how I'd been selling short horror stories for a while in which I always had male bad guys. I decided to write one with all female bad guys, and man was that story blasted for being sexist. I thought, but how could you say that I'm sexist if 1 out of 40 stories features female bad guys?

Angie said...

I thought, but how could you say that I'm sexist if 1 out of 40 stories features female bad guys?

You can't, of course, not with any legitimacy. But I've seen this happen too, where one or another -ism is flung at a writer based on a single story. Sometimes it obviously is whatever the -ism is, but just making the villain(s) a member of Group X doesn't mean a writer is oppressing that group. And that's true even if it's the writer's first story, much less if it's the only one out of forty where they do that. :P

To me, that sort of comment comes across as pretty stupid. I don't care what stupid people think, so I ignore those comments. Much better for the blood pressure.


J. L. Krueger said...


I'm catching up too.

I concur with everyone who disagrees with the "no woman would do xyz" cliche.

I also think that when you have a female character who is a ruler or warrior, they will not behave like a typical soccer mom or other image of "proper" womanhood.

A successful warrior or ruler has to have a certain element of ruthlessness and iron will. If she didn't, she wouldn't survive and would therefore be a less believable character.

Charles Gramlich said...

Angie, I'm with you. Sometimes I can't escape the irritation factor though. I try. I try.

J.L., that's a good point. Roles do define our actions more than we'd like to admit.