How I Write Female Characters
This post, by Marie Brennan, originally appeared on Science Fiction & Fantasy Novelists on 4/16/09.
But Marie — aren’t you a woman?
Yes, I am.
Do you really mean to imply that you write female characters in some different, specific way?
No, I don’t. Thank you, Imaginary Questioner, for leading me to the exact point I want to make.
Some years ago, a writer-friend asked me what I thought of his female characters. I told him that honestly, I hadn’t given them much specific thought. But now that I did, it seemed to me that he wrote them first as people, second as whatever kind of people they were (a soldier, a noblewoman, etc), and third as women. And that as far as I was concerned, that was the right way to do it.
That’s how I write characters, be they male, female, or (in the case of one story I’m wrestling with) mystical bilateral hermaphrodites. Female characters aren’t “marked” in my head, but neither are male ones; when I sit down to include a male character in a story, I don’t ask myself “okay, what are things guys do? They belch, they fart, they scratch themselves, they drink lots of beer –” A) That way lies stereotyping and B) I know plenty of women who do those things, too. When Deven gets drunk with his buddies and suffers through a hangover early in Midnight Never Come, he doesn’t do that because I was trying to write Guys, he does it because I was trying to write young Elizabethan gentlemen who had gone to war together welcoming a newcomer into their ranks. Their gender was not their foremost defining characteristic.
Of course, if you follow the path I outlined above, you run the risk of a result aptly described in The History Boys (though they’re discussing Michelangelo’s nudes): “These aren’t women, they’re men with tits. And the tits look like they’ve been put on with an ice-cream scoop.” Except I question the “of course”-ness of that danger; I have a hard time thinking of any stories I’ve read or watched where the women seem like men with a female paint job on top. The reason for that may lie in last month’s post; I’m more likely to process those characters as women who happen to exhibit characteristics usually associated with masculinity, rather than as somehow Not Real Women.