On female characters
This morning I was sent a video about the trope “born sexy yesterday”, and that made me think about the female characters in my own work…
Don’t know about you guys, but I’ll never be able to look at The Fifth Element the same way again… In fact, it’s kinda marred by the gross infantilization – and sexualization of infantilization – that previously just felt like a comedic bit. A device that added to the narrative, the emotional arc, and made my cry every time Leeloo realised the might she had at her disposal, and kicked all the arse**spoiler for a 20 year old movie** but as a result discovered how truly mortal she was in the process…
Other than ruining a wonderful movie for me, the deconstruction of the trope made me freak out a little, forced me to stop and think back to every book and movie I’ve ever loved, searching for more examples of the same patriarchal overtones that were in plain sight, but hidden behind a narrative.
And then, as I got out of that tailspin, I had another thought.
I’ve got nineteen books out.
Another thirteen coming out this year.
Have I been guilty of this trope? Have I been subconsciously exorcising some kind of insecurity about women, masculinity, sexuality and so forth on the page? An old William Gibson quote popped into my head, heavily paraphrased. It’s something like:
Male authors always want to sleep with their female characters.
So I decided to look back over the nineteen books that are out, to see if I’m just another male writer acting out some kind of fantasy with the way I characterise women in my novels.
Starting at the top, with @
The lead in @ is most certainly naive. She’s coasting the boundary line between Millennial and Digital Native. Hell, she starts out dating an older man who breaks her heart, then happily throws her life in the hands of her Twitter followers after yet another poor choice.
She’s naive, check.
But she’s not stupid, certainly not childlike.
She has agency, even if the reigns of her decision-making are held by others. And she figures out who’s behind it all by herself, using the very tools that were manipulating her. Plus, she’s in control of her sexuality, and although she takes more than one hit emotionally, men don’t define who she is.
I Hate Time Travellers / Simon & Emily / What A Day To End The World
I’m going to lump these books together, because each of them has female characters that are better and smarter than the men.
If we’re going to break it down subconsciously, that’s probably because all the women in my life have always, without anything close to a doubt, proved themselves to be better and smarter than the men that surround them.
A story set in the dawn of a cyberpunk world – a genre a little notorious for thinly drawn female characters… Eek.
However, all our leads in this series walk into the situation of a shady medical trial 100% naive, no matter of age, gender, orientation, race, religion, and so on. And their combined knowledge and experience sets them free.
Oh Gods, I just realised the subtext of that is some kind of utopian dream, in which the world at large would be better if we’d look past those fragile constructed lines and just work together for the betterment of the planet.
I am such a damn hippy.
I think there are only three men that get to speak in this book. One of them is an antagonist, one is trying to help, and one is not.
It also makes me well up just thinking about how dark this story gets…
Jumping ahead to this year:
Hopefully you’re all caught up with the first two books, so it’s not a **spoiler** to say there are two love interests.
The first is our lead’s equal in skills, but emotionally fragile. The second is all too aware of how cruel the world is, but can’t match the male lead skill-wise. But she also doesn’t need to… Time and time again, she proves herself willing and able to do whatever it takes to keep herself and her loved ones safe.
She makes up for her lack of skill with the blood with resourcefulness and thinking outside the box. Ben might be the lead as far as out point of view goes, but he wouldn’t be able to get where he’s headed without her.
Which brings us to the new series that’s launching in a few weeks…
The one with a naive young woman brought into a world of magic… The book I was sweating myself about more than any other, in which I might have succumbed to painting the picture of a woman who was incapable without a male figure to guide her, who would fall in love with him because he was the more experienced of the two…
Our male lead is a magician, world weary, but experienced. He has knowledge of the supernatural, fights monstrous fiends even though he’s low on power… Hell, he used to work for the same agency in Shadowmancer, which takes down massive Lovecraftian beasts on a regular basis…
And our female lead is new to the world. She’s living a mundane life, and it’s only the death of her grandmother that sucks her into the world of the supernatural. Where he, for lack of a better term, will have to be her saviour.
It’s at this point, thinking about the plot, that I should point out that I got chills and needed a cigarette before I could delve in to where the story is headed. Because that basic setup kinda gives the possibility for it all going wrong, gives some patriarchal demon in the back of my head the chance to take over and just turn her into the male lead’s quirky mundane sex puppet.
But, some nicotine later, I realised that’s not at all how it goes down.
She doesn’t take any crap from him, doesn’t give a damn that he knows so much more than her – and she certainly doesn’t fall for him because of his advanced experience. He’s her gateway into a new world, her guide, but she’s not bewitched by such trivialities. You don’t go on a walking tour of a city and fall in love with the guy holding the bright yellow umbrella that’s leading the group, just because he knows where he’s going.
Although that said, I’m pretty sure ~20 years back on a school trip to Poland, my partner at the time slept with our tour guide… But that’s not how it *usually* goes down.
That’s probably not enough self-deprecating levity to close this out, is it?
What I guess this has made me realise is that there are traps and tropes all over the place that a writer can fall into. And if anything, I’ve probably shot straight to the other side of the spectrum, stumbling over cliches I’m not aware of that concern female characters with agency. Let alone the orientation, race and religion and all the other character facets that have just felt natural for the people in my stories.
But part of that is just wired into me.
I grew up as an ethno-mongrel in a religious society. Probably mentioned that before, but that’s the framing reference for yet another story about me.
However, despite that upbringing, I had the gift of a grandfather that was a leader in the community who never had blinkers on. He held interfaith groups, so I got to grow up surrounded by people of all races and beliefs. He never cared of orientation and that was subconsciously passed down to me. His wife, my grandmother, was basically just the caterer for these things (and therefore is subconsciously indentured in my mind as ‘his wife’, which is demeaning to say the least, but societally that is how she was perceived) – and yet there were powerful women at his groups that were more vocal, more eloquent than the men.
As a result, I guess I’m programmed not to draw lines between such trivialities.
Whether that works on the page or not, is of course, a matter for you to decide.
Because I live a life of aesthetic privilege.
I can pass for ‘white British’. I can pass for heteronormative. I can pass for male.
But you can’t look at me and know it.
Sure, every now and then I’ve had experiences of abuse, of society shitting on me in hilarious attempts to disparage or offend. I’ve been told to go back to France/Italy/Greece/Iran/America (delete as applicable, try not to be as confused as I’ve been when those have been hurled at me.). I’ve been called a “fag” and politely explained that I’m heteroflexible. And of course, I get called ‘lad’ and ‘mate’ and so on, when my gender is more than a tad more fluid than that (despite what the goatee I’ve had for 15 years might tell you…)
To conclude this ramble, what I’m saying is that I – as an author, but also as a human being – can never truly understand where characters/people that are not from my ‘enlightened’ world-view come from. I can only put myself in their heads, back it up with intense and long discussions with friends from that ‘place’ and ask how they see the world. Ask them how they think the world sees them.
And all I – and every other writer, in whatever medium – can do, is hope that we write characters that echo those perspectives in a way that rings true.