Writer Wednesday | Gender and the Narrative

A Facebook friend shared “I hate Strong Female Characters,” a great piece about gender equality and entertainment. Sophia McDougall writes,

When I talk about this, people offer synonyms; better, less limiting ways of saying the same thing. What about “effective female characters”, for instance? But it is not enough to redefine the term. It won’t do to add maybe a touch more nuance but otherwise carry on more or less as normal. We need an entirely new approach to the problem, which means remembering that the problem is far more than just a tendency to show female characters as kind of drippy. We need get away from the idea that sexism in fiction can be tackled by reliance on depiction of a single personality type, that you just need to write one female character per story right and you’ve done enough.

McDougall draws on film and television to expose the problem with strong female characters, but literature has its own issues – as Kameron Hurley identifies in “‘We Have Always Fought’: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative“:

…the moment we re-imagine the world as a buzzing hive of individuals with a variety of genders and complicated sexes and unique, passionate narratives that have yet to be told – it makes them harder to ignore. They are no longer, “women and cattle and slaves” but active players in their own stories.

And ours.

Because when we choose to write stories, it’s not just an individual story we’re telling. It’s theirs. And yours. And ours. We all exist together. It all happens here. It’s muddy and complex and often tragic and terrifying. But ignoring half of it, and pretending there’s only one way a woman lives or has ever lived – in relation to the men that surround her – is not a single act of erasure, but a political erasure.

Populating a world with men, with male heroes, male people, and their “women cattle and slaves” is a political act. You are making a conscious choice to erase half the world.

As storytellers, there are more interesting choices we can make.

In my opinion, there are counterexamples out there. Shows like Firefly, Scandal, and Once Upon a Time come to mind, and George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is rife with “strong female characters” who are as complex as their male counterparts. However, I see what McDougall and Hurley mean, because I see it in my own writing.


Yes, I was a Gender Studies major. Yes, at some point I considered pursuing my PhD in Gender Studies. And yes, I am a feminist. Yet I still perpetuate gender inequality with my manuscript.

My protagonist is a female. Cassandra is driven, intelligent, and witty. She’s a strategist. Cassandra compels others to action. In every way she can, Cassandra fights with conviction and skill.

With my primary character grouping, she currently makes up half of the women. The male-to-female ratio among my primary characters is 4:1.

The other major female character? Well, she’s meant to deconstruct the Virgin/Whore dichotomy, so female sexuality is front and center with that one.

I finished writing my manuscript almost a year ago. I’ve been revising it since, trying to get it to a point where it’s “ready” (I’ll know it when it happens, okay?). In that time, I’ve realized that some things just don’t work. I haven’t been able to put my finger on it, but I think know now.

Internal and external conflicts center on elements of equality and identity; when your female perspectives are drowned out by a variety of male perspectives, it’s hard to present an equitable story. There are a range of male identities, in a slew of occupations. But the female voice, despite its dominance page-wise, is still weak and one-sided.

There’s a great story here, and clearly it’s still emerging. So as I’m revising, what else can I do? I can’t just put in extra women; I can’t add unnecessary characters just so the reader hears more female voices. I can’t see throwing random women on the page as anything other than a disservice.

I decided to continue revising, paying attention to close attention to gender and sexuality. Until I figured something out, I could at least make sure my existing characters were complex and well-written. I noticed some flaws right away. Rebecca had always been written as a delicate, gentle woman – but that didn’t mesh with her background. I expanded her history (within appropriate limits for the story) and modified her appearance. She’s more than just a wife and mother; she is a dynamic, bold woman.

Then I came up with the “Orlando Option.”

I’m not going to find literary interstices and squeeze female characters in. But if I’m going to deepen my characters, why shouldn’t I consider gender changes as part of that process? There are men in my manuscript who aren’t as layered and nuanced as I’d like them to be. What if I’m tapped out writing them because they’re men?

Look, I get it – I don’t want to “add women and stir,” and I can see how this might seem to be the same thing. To me, it isn’t. I’m dealing with a handful of characters that I’ve written and can’t take any farther except to Mandyville. “Maleness” doesn’t add anything to their story, or the story as a whole. They don’t have to be male to be interesting or compelling; making them female offers them previously unavailable opportunities.

I’m dealing with identity here – and relationships change dramatically and for the better when gender dynamics shift.

So far, it’s working. This manuscript is getting closer to “ready.”  And the active players in my narrative have plenty to say.

How do gender perspectives inform your narrative? How might they shift to tell a different story?

Writer Wednesday | I Was a Teenaged Mary Sue-Wielding Writer (and I Didn’t Write Fanfic)

Ah, yes. The “Mary Sue.” One of my favorite tropes, despite the fact that its definition varies. I do think this description from TVTropes suffices:

Since there’s no consensus on a precise definition, the best way to describe the phenomenon is by example of the kind of character pretty much everyone could agree to be a Mary Sue. These traits usually reference the character’s perceived importance in the story, their physical design and an irrelevantly over-skilled or over-idealized nature.

Looking for a great example? Cleolinda’s Mary Sue meme entry (“Cleo Sue”).

This is the outfit I was wearing when Professor Lupin asked me out. I'm not sure what Professor Tonks was so mad about, though. Probably just jellus that she can't transmogrify her hair as good as I can. And then Gwen Stefani apparated out of nowhere and told me that I must join her tour, as my style is totally B-A-N-A-O-M-G-W-T-F.

This is the outfit I was wearing when Professor Lupin asked me out. I’m not sure what Professor Tonks was so mad about, though. Probably just jellus that she can’t transmogrify her hair as good as I can. And then Gwen Stefani apparated out of nowhere and told me that I must join her tour, as my style is totally B-A-N-A-O-M-G-W-T-F.

Go read it all. I’ll wait.

Finished? Cool.

So here’s the thing. I started writing my manuscript when I was fifteen. When I revisited my manuscript, I made some interesting discoveries about fifteen-year-old me. Namely, I was a terrible writer. I had a great story and some really cool ideas about/for characters. What was on the page wasn’t cool. It was shallow and contrived and illogical.

It was a lot of work. There was a ton of overhaul. It’s still getting there, but it’s a lot closer than it was.

One of the biggest changes comes from my protagonist Cassandra’s characterization. See, Cassandra was a Mary Sue back in the day. She had it all:

  1. Perceived importance in the story: Protagonist! Hero! The world revolves around her! No, really, I think at one point in my draft the world literally revolved around her.
  2. Physical design: Cassandra was a Mobius Mary Sue; she didn’t know she was beautiful, that’s what made her beautiful.
  3. Irrelevantly over-skilled or over-idealized nature: Perfect! Could do no wrong! I have a crush on every boy! Every boy has a crush on her!

If this manuscript had ever been published with Cassandra’s original characterization, she would have been the Bella Swan of heroic fantasy.

CassSue had to go. For one, she was boring. When all the parts are completely special and the sum of those parts is perfection, there’s really nothing interesting about that character. Sure, I can say CassSue is interesting until I’m blue in the face, but I can’t show you how CassSue is interesting because there’s nothing to show.


How did I save my hero from crippling perfection? I decided that a perfect character made things too happy and unrealistic. There’s no conflict there. I started asking some questions:

  1. What does my character want?
  2. Why does she want that?
  3. Who and what stands in her way?
  4. What does she have in her arsenal that can help her remove that obstacle?
  5. What does she still need?
  6. What does she value?
  7. Where does she find motivation to keep her going?

With each read, she’s different: a little more complex, a little more nuanced. she’s still important, but she is no longer universally desired. She has flaws and weaknesses.

CassSue is gone; Cassandra’s here to stay.

Next week: a semi-companion piece about strong female characters, gender and narrative, and how I turned men into women.

How do you add complexity to your characters?