Tag Archives: gender

Writing Women in Traditionally Male Roles

Thankfully, we’ve got beyond the idea that a woman’s place in literature is to be the hero’s (prospective) love interest, and to scream and break her ankle a lot. However, I don’t think we’re quite at the stage where we’ve got it right yet – this is not surprising. What gets written in books reflects (at least in part) the author’s experiences – whether experiences in life, or what they’ve learned through deliberate research. And society has not yet figured out gender equality. To be fair, this is a pretty big ask, given how many thousands of years has been spent on the patriarchal model. It’s a bit much to expect all of that to be binned in a few decades. We’ve made a lot of progress since my grandmother’s day, when women were expected to give up their jobs when they got married, and it was normal to have the “women’s pay scale” (less) and the “men’s pay scale” (more) for the same job. We can recognise how far we’ve come, while still acknowledging that we’ve some way to go yet.

One of the less obvious issues is, what do we mean by equality?

Some kinds of equality are easy to define: women should get paid the same as men for doing the same job; men should be allowed to be midwives, and women should be allowed to be soldiers. More subtle are things like the value we put on different job roles, and different personal qualities. Traditionally female/caring roles tend to be valued less than traditionally male/aggressive roles. Personal qualities seen as traditionally “feminine”, like being caring, or diplomatic, are seen as less valuable or praiseworthy than traditionally “masculine” characteristics like aggression. When we look at literature, where there is currently an emphasis on “strong female” protagonists, especially female characters who adopt traditionally male roles (e.g. warrior/soldier) it’s interesting to note that these women are often written with so many “male” characteristics, that the impression is (quoting from someone else) “a man without a cock”.

Now, how much of this is just gender-bias, and how much is true? Is there really a psychological difference between males and females which should be written into a character?

Partly, this depends on how much of gender differences in behaviour are genetically determined, and how much is social. If we believe that there is no real psychological difference between men and women, and that all apparent differences are due to social conditioning (which a character may ignore or overcome), this has two consequences:

  1. Homo sapiens would be just about the only species that doesn’t have differential gender roles. Just about every animal species I can think of has differential gender roles between the sexes – whatever those roles might be. Since animals presumably act mostly on instinct, this must mean that in the majority of cases, females have different instincts to males.
  2. Gender dysphoria/transgenderism could not exist. You cannot simultaneously declare that there is no difference, psychologically, between males and females and then say that it’s possible for a person to be physically male and psychologically female (or the other way around). The most you can say is that you have a person of one gender who expresses the characteristics demanded of the gender role of the other gender, and societally-dictated roles are so iron-clad that it’s easier for that person to declare themselves to be the other gender, than to say that they are gender A but prefer the things that gender B is supposed to prefer.

So, yes, there’s a lot of societally-determined gender role enforcement going on – but I don’t think that we can say that there is no real psychological difference between men and women.

So, if we accept that men and women are fundamentally different, psychologically, then what does that mean for writing?

For instance, I attended a fantasy convention this year where in all seriousness one of the panel discussions was “Can a female character be an anti-hero?” I think that – given the context – the organisers were doing the “women are nice and good and moral, and men are base beasts controlled by their lusts” angle, but what this actually means is “Do women have the full range of moral and emotional responses that men do?”

Another example of rampant sexism is this article in Writers’ Digest, which defines male anti-heroes by what they do, and what their morality is, and female anti-heroes by their appearance (smudged lipstick), who they have sex with (men she doesn’t know well), and an inability to fit into traditionally female roles. Admittedly, this was published in 2008, but seriously…!

However, sexist these two examples may be, but they do have one thing right: men and women are psychologically different (just not in the way these examples assume). It’s obviously a sliding scale in both cases, with some overlap – but writing a female character does not mean taking the “easy way out” and writing a male character then adding something stereotypically female, like an obsession with shoes. Or crippling self-doubt about her looks or attractiveness. Jack Reacher and James Bond don’t have problems with self-doubt, so why should your heroine? If we accept that women and men are psychologically different, writing a female character who is essentially male (or is a caricature) can be just as sexist as writing only female characters who scream and break their ankles a lot. Equality is not achieved if the result is to obliterate femininity, or present a one-dimensional view of it.

So, how do you write a character who is female, yet does traditionally “male” things, without making her into a caricature, or just “a man without a cock”?

Furthermore, if we accept that women and men are psychologically different, this will affect how they respond to the situations they encounter, and how they relate to the other characters in the book. What is it like to be female when most of your co-workers are male? What are the characteristics of women choose to move into traditionally male roles/jobs?

To be fair, I don’t have the answer to this. My mother would be the first to tell people that I never got the hang of femininity myself, so I’m hardly in a position to explain it to anybody else. My advice would be to go and talk to women who do things similar to your “strong female” protagonist. Or if you don’t know anyone like that, read words written by those women and listen to interviews. At the very least, read about such women – what problems did they encounter, how did they handle it, how does history see them? How did their contemporaries see them?

Here are some suggestions:

Women working in traditionally male roles

Diaries and Memoirs

Women who dressed as men

Diaries & Memoirs

Other Non-Fiction

Women who have worked in traditionally male roles (personal experience) and are now authors

Women who have researched women in traditionally male roles

  • Mary Gentle. Did an MA in War Studies at the University of London, looking at the roles of women in combat/war. Wrote Ash: A Secret Historywhich is a sort of weird alternate-history/fantasy/sci-fi novel/series about a female mercenary, starting in 15th century Europe.

Fiction written by men or women who have not performed those roles, about women in traditionally male roles

These authors don’t have personal experience (as far as I know) of being a woman in a traditionally male role, but either I’ve read their stuff and I think it’s well done, or someone else has mentioned it as being good.

I intend to add to this list, as and when I can. If you have additions you would like to suggest, please comment!

Character connections

I haven’t had much time lately for either reading or writing – I’ve quit one job with long hours and low pay, and got a better one with less work, more money, and a better doughnut quotient. Hence lack of blog, complete lack of any writing, and hardly any reading.

One book I have been reading, though, has made me think about connecting with characters – both the connection between the character and the reader, and between the characters in the book.

I was really looking forward to reading this book: it seemed like a really interesting premise. The main character is a prostitute in a sort of alternative steampunk 19th-century America, and – as was pointed out in another blog – that’s the kind of character who generally exists as wallpaper. Prostitutes tend to either get walk-on roles for local colour, or get killed. They don’t really appear in many books as characters in their own right (although there are some: J.D. Robb’s Charles Monroe, a male “licensed companion” in her Dallas books, for one). So I was looking forward to reading one as a main character. When I got into the book, I also discovered that she was a lesbian. Also unusual – although getting less so nowadays – unless you deliberately go looking.

However, I didn’t find myself getting really into the story, to the extent that I kept putting it down. I still haven’t finished it – I moved on to reading something else instead. Now, when a book really grabs me, I tend to devour it in one sitting (with an ebook reader, eating isn’t an obstacle at all, and sleeping takes second place). But not this one: it just didn’t grab me. So I wondered why not.

Thinking about it, I came to the conclusion that I didn’t care enough about the main character to keep reading. I just didn’t feel that connection to her. To take an example at the opposite end of the scale, Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books are one-sitting reads. I also have them all as audiobooks. Harry Dresden can be a bit annoying at times, but I do kind of like him. Even if I sometimes want to smack him, I care what happens to him. He’s also an interesting enough narrator that he keeps the story going at a cracking pace (Butcher’s habit of ending every chapter on a cliffhanger probably doesn’t hurt, either). Lois McMaster Bujold’s Chalion books also have protagonists that keep me reading: the world-weary and wounded Cazaril in Curse of Chalion and the embittered Ista in Paladin of Souls.

If I look at the protagonists who did make me care, they are not limited by gender, age, or sexual orientation. Harry is – at the beginning of the series – a young, male, white heterosexual wizard. Ista is in her forties, a white widow and mother. In Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series, the main character (Peter Grant) is young, male, heterosexual and mixed race. Vanyel in Mercedes Lackey’s The Last Herald-Mage books was white, very young, gay, and male. I didn’t particularly like him, but he was a compelling enough protagonist for me to read all three books straight, one after the other.

So why didn’t the character in the book I haven’t finished grab me? Thinking about it, I think it was because the author just didn’t tell me – or show me – enough about her to let me get to know her as a person. I know she’s a prostitute because it was pretty much the only career option open to her, but I don’t know how she really feels about it. I don’t know what the life involves. I know she’s a lesbian (or bisexual), but I don’t know whether the girl she falls in love with in the book is her first, or whether she’s always been attracted to girls. I don’t know whether homosexuality is acceptable in her world, or whether she’s taking a big risk if she lets her sexuality be known. She’s sixteen in the book, but to me she came across as older – in her twenties, at least. Is that because of the life she’s led, or is it just that the author didn’t make her voice young enough?

It’s one thing to make a character’s background mysterious, or to drip-feed the details to the reader to avoid an information-dump, but if you go too far the other way, you risk not giving the reader enough information about the character to make the reader care. A major way of letting the reader get to know the character seems to be to let the reader know what the character is thinking; after all, if you’re inside someone’s head, you’re going to get to know them pretty quick. However, if you can’t do that, another way is to show the reader how the character interacts with the other characters in the book. In the book I’m reading at the moment, there’s a lot of action, but not a great deal of people just interacting on a day-to-day basis: “Look out! He’s got a gun!” really doesn’t tell you much about anyone. However, “Hey, he’s got a Purdey side-by-side – get a load of that!” conveys a lot more (principally that the speaker can identify a Purdey side-by-side, assumes the listener knows what one is, and thinks that a Purdey side-by-side is the shotgun equivalent of Colin Firth. And how the other character responds tells you even more: “Yeah, whatever,” or “What? Where? Get out of the way and let me look!”

And if I don’t know much about a character, I can’t connect to them, and I’m not going to care what happens to them enough to spend precious minutes of my life reading about it. I’m going to do something I care about more, like the washing up, or the ironing.

So I’ll go back to the book – eventually. It’s got enough of my interest that I’ll devote a few more minutes to it. Just… not right now. And, having been disappointed once, I’m less likely to read any more of that author’s work in future.

Characters and their cultural place

I’ve just been reading K.A. Stewart’s Jesse James Dawson series, and it made me think.

I assumed that K.A. Stewart was male. In fact, she isn’t. She’s female. According to an interview by The Qwillery blog, the reason she started writing the Jesse James books was because her husband mentioned that he couldn’t find the type of protagonist he liked in urban fantasy books – so, like Benjamin Disraeli, K.A. Stewart decided to write the book her husband wanted to read.

Well, fair enough. But what really got me thinking was that it seems to me that Stewart got the dynamic between Jesse and his mates exactly right. She’s also got the tattoos-kilts-blacksmithing-stuff right – I feel like I know these guys, not because of how much I’ve read about them, but because they’re so similar to some of the real people I know. Either Stewart also has a lot of male friends, her husband helped her with writing the male bits, or she’s an excellent observer of people and gifted at getting it down on paper. Or all three.

On the other hand, Jes Battis is a gay man. His urban fantasy protagonist is a straight female. I haven’t read any of his books yet, but one reviewer said that she found it obvious that the writer was gay – there were lots of references to gay culture, and in the love scene between the protagonist and her male love-interest, all the description related to the guy and his body and responses, so much so that she thought that the scene could equally have been about two men. She also said that she found Tess (the protagonist) almost sexless. Since the book this refers to (Night Child) is the next book I’m going to read, I’ll be able to see what I think for myself.

The point is, though, that an author’s gender and sexuality either may, or may not, show through in what they write. Stewart manages her male protagonist and his mates brilliantly (or so I, from my female perspective, think). Jesse is thoroughly male – not in a sort of ridiculous uber-alpha way, but in a realistic way. There is no hint that he was invented by a woman. Jes Battis does not seem to have done so well, according to that reviewer. And this does matter; one of the reasons why I enjoyed the Jesse James Dawson books was because the characters were so familiar and realistic – evidently in Jes Battis’ books there is some cognitive dissonance that spoils the story for the reader because the way he writes his protagonist conflicts with our personal experience. Tess is less convincing because she isn’t authentically female.

This does not mean that a character has to conform to gender stereotypes in order to be convincing – but it does mean that if you are not going to conform to what is generally regarded as ‘normal’, there should be a reason why. And the reason, whatever it is, should be fully-rounded.

Jane Austen is an illustration of this point, in a way. I’m no Jane Austen scholar, but I did read that in her books there are no scenes where there are no women present. If that’s true then Jane obviously decided that she wasn’t going to go beyond what she had the experience to write, since she presumably didn’t have the resources to research what men did when there were no women present. J.K. Rowling is another author who got it right – if you remember your schooldays, you can tell that the interactions between the kids in the Harry Potter books are spot on. But then, Rowling had been a teacher (and everyone’s been a kid), so that wasn’t surprising.

The key seems to be to remember that when you write a character, you have to think about who they really are, and where they fit in their society and culture – and that may not be the same place as you fit.

Stewart fits Jesse into his male culture perfectly; Austen avoids the problem of not knowing how men act when there are no women present by simply not writing scenes like that. Rowling uses her experience of childhood and teaching to write convincing young people. Battis, on the other hand, appears to have put his straight female protagonist – and, from the chapters I’ve read so far (I’m multitasking) most of his other characters – into his gay male culture, and it doesn’t work.

The thing is, it’s quite difficult to discern where one’s cultural place is. It’s like asking a fish to describe water. It’s so much part of us that it may not occur to us that the cultural experience is different for other people.

Because Battis is immersed in gay culture, does it even occur to him that to those who aren’t, the places, the people, even the language, are all different? To Battis, gay culture is obviously a big part of life in Vancouver. Now, maybe Vancouver is the gay capital of the world and it’s impossible to live there without being involved in gay culture. I don’t know. If it is, then I apologise to Battis. But if it isn’t – if it’s like most big cities – the gay scene, even when it’s large and active, it’s still a relatively small part of the city’s life as a whole, and unless you actively seek it out you can go your whole life without encountering it. You certainly don’t get non-participating persons using culture-specific terminology; with specific reference to sexuality, if you are not part of gay culture, then you may not realise the people you meet are, unless they bring it to your attention. After all, sexuality is about sex, and you don’t generally talk about it in the office except to people you know well.

I guess the bottom line is, what do you know about the culture that your character belongs to? If you don’t know how their culture works, how can you find out? And if it’s not the culture that they normally would inhabit, why are they different? Does it fit in with the rest of their character? This isn’t something that can be ignored; if you are writing about a character inhabiting an existing culture, then some of your readers will belong to it and will know if you get it wrong. And it will spoil the book for them, and they won’t read any more.