In the previous post in this series on “How to Keep Strong Female Characters Likeable,” featuring Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica and Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, Debra Kristi commented, “I always liked these characters because I saw something of me in them. I never felt the way you are describing. I guess I am in the minority.”
Sarah Zahorchak on Google+ also asked, “Are we geared to automatically like stereotypical male and female characters more? (I’m no psychologist, so maybe we do! I don’t actually know.)”
All those “stereotypical” male and female qualities are stereotypes because they contain some truth. Women generally do like shopping for a great pair of shoes or a killer purse. We generally are more emotional (or at least show our emotions more). We generally talk more. Writers in the Storm recently had an excellent guest post by Rob Preece called “Women Are From Venus, Men Are Annoying” on some of the key differences between the sexes and how this should affect the way we write our characters.
I think sometimes we fight so hard against admitting these differences because we’re afraid that, by admitting them, we’re saying men and women aren’t equal. But we can be different while still being equal. In fact, we should be proud of our differences. The differences between my husband and I work to our advantage in coming at problems from fresh angles, and force us to look outside ourselves and really consider someone else’s preferences.
But aren’t there exceptions? Don’t some men and women have characteristics that usually belong to the opposite sex?
Of course. As Debra mentioned, she’s an exception. So am I. If you bring a problem to me, instead of giving you empathy the way a normal woman would, I’m going to try to explain why it happened and find a solution for you, much like a man. It’s not that I don’t feel empathy. I feel your problem deeply, but I’m a born fixer.
Before you create a character who’s the exception, analyze your motivation.
Why do you want to make your character this way? If you’re doing it because that’s really the best character for your story, write on. If you’re doing it because you’re trying to make your female character strong or because you’re trying to prove men and women are equal, stop and find a better way to do it.
What does it contribute to your story? Sometimes we add qualities to our characters because we’re trying to make them unique or help them stand out, but if we don’t think them through, they end up looking like wallpaper that was applied incorrectly and gets all bubbly and saggy. Quirks are good. Unique is good. But it all needs to be considered in terms of the story you’re writing and your character’s background. Make it organic.
Then, if you still want to create a character who breaks the norms, here’s the important thing to keep in mind—this decision should come with consequences the same way it does in real life.
Other characters will notice the difference and sometimes even comment on it.
My university roommate finally said to me in exasperation, “I wish you were less like a guy. Sometimes when I bring you a problem, I just want you to listen.”
That was a revelation for me. When you have a man or a woman who breaks the norm, people will notice. How will your character react when they do?
If you break an expected norm, it will sometimes cause frustration and awkwardness between characters.
Last summer my co-writer and I taught at a writer’s conference, and during a break, we sat with another female instructor. She had a problem, and she told us all about it. What did I do? Like a man, I tried to fix it.
But because she was looking for empathy, not a solution, and because she had the expectation of receiving it since I’m also a woman, you could visibly see her grow more upset rather than less.
Because I’m wired differently, I interpreted her increasing agitation as a failure on my part. Clearly my solution wasn’t a good enough one, so I should suggest another one. I was frustrated when the second solution didn’t work either.
The vicious circle continued until another woman joined our group. The instant she gave the desired empathy, the other instructor cheered up.
We can’t give a character qualities that traditionally belong to the opposite gender without realizing how that will play out in their close relationships, as well as in their interactions with strangers.
Your character might change these qualities over the course of the plot.
Characters can be born with certain attributes or they can develop those attributes later in life.
I hate shopping, but it’s not because I was born hating shopping. I hate shopping because I’m 20 pounds overweight, don’t have the money to buy new clothes, and my taste in clothes doesn’t always mesh with what’s fashionable. If one or more of these external situations changed, I’d go back to liking shopping.
Why does this matter? If your character developed their contra-gender qualities later in life, you need to know how the situations they’ll face during the plot might interact with those qualities. If we don’t figure this out, we might miss an excellent opportunity for growth and change in our character over the course of the story.
What “stereotypical” male and female characteristics do you think are right on and which do you think are largely exaggerated?
If you missed the first post in this series, you can find What Do We Mean By Strong Female Characters? here.
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