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.