Posted by: Alastair Rosie | July 7, 2012

Lighting a Candle: Creating Believable Female Characters in the 21st Century

One of the stories in this week’s New Statesman caught my eye last night. It was an article about Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist critic and blogger. Apparently her site, Feminist Frequency has been haunted by trolls after she asked for donations to fund the making of a series of videos on feminism in video games, specifically targeting the misogynist views of video game makers. Much of the criticism she suffered was outright hate speech and definitely misogynistic.

The article bothered me, not because I’ve never encountered misogynism but because in the Twenty First century it’s still there like a cancerous boil. I’ve always been of the opinion that men and women were actually created equal, it wasn’t as if women had to come ‘up’ to a certain standard, they were born equal. Back in the ‘60 s and ‘70s, I just sensed that the John Wayne view of life was like a familiar piece of music played backwards and out of sequence. It didn’t make sense. There were some nice notes but ultimately it could never satisfy me as a whole.

I had a strange upbringing. On the one hand my mother took the view of Scotland’s most infamous misogynist, John Knox who raged against a ‘monstrous regiment of women,’ and on the other my father’s view that all women were deserving of respect and admiration. I never had to read The Female Eunuch, still haven’t, nor Ayn Rand to know that the view foisted on us by many writers and filmmakers was false and misleading.

Here are some of the more familiar stereotypes I had to suffer through. In literary terms they’re referred to as tropes or cliche characters.

The Victim:

Starting with Fay Wray’s unearthly screams in King Kong and running right through to Wolf Creek, these females do an inordinate amount of screaming, some scream more in two hours than most women do in their entire lives! The minor female Victims are inevitably killed in a gruesome fashion and the Main Victim would be one of of them if not for the Hero, the manly type who overcomes all kinds of adversities, including the screaming of his Victim, to defeat the monsters. She falls helplessly into his arms like a wilting flower and we are left feeling that women are ultimately useless if they can’t find a man willing to take them. It’s a depressing image of women and always leaves me feeling cold because it’s so far from the real thing it’s like a black comedy without the humour.

The Love Interest:

She functions as the Love Interest for the Hero. He may start of not liking her but eventually he falls head over heels in love with her after rescuing her from bad guys. Somewhere along the line she may even contribute some vital information or even physical aid to our Hero. But she’s always playing second fiddle to the Hero. There are screams, crying, panic attacks, tantrums and our Hero of course is above all this. This kind of representation is ridiculous considering the fact that women do take the lead in their careers, home life and social life. A single mother has to take the lead, she can’t not take the lead role when raising her kid(s). In other words it’s unrealistic.

The Femme Fatale:

Think Basic Instinct, Fatal Attraction and a few other lamentable examples. They’re bloodthirsty killers with no remorse or compassion. They’re ambitious and ultimately want complete domination. The Femme Fatale has been used to shock audiences who are used to seeing women in subservient roles or in more ladylike settings. Subtly, it serves as a warning to women against attacking men because bad stuff happens to women who attack men, they die horrible deaths. Only men are allowed to kill people because well, that’s what men do well isn’t it? In reality female warriors stretch back to the time of the Amazons, the Celtic goddesses of war, and they were revered and celebrated rather than feared. One recent movie, Centurion was particularly harsh on women warriors with the character Etain.

The Siren:

Probably the most common, we find multiple examples sprinkled throughout a movie or book. They’re beautiful, sexy, alluring and serve only one purpose, to titillate male viewers/readers, especially sixteen year old boys. They are based loosely on Eve and other ancient myths, woman as a seductress and not to be trusted. The Siren and other minor Sirens are threshold guardians preventing the Hero from reaching his goal. It reinforces the view that a sexually liberated woman is ultimately dangerous, after all what would happen if women started taking charge in the bedroom? I find the Siren particularly repulsive unless it’s in comedy and played deliberately that way.

The Sidekick:

A subtype of the love interest, she may not wind up with the Hero but she serves a secondary role in that she helps him achieve his goal of defeating the bad guy and saving the world. She has become more common as the big studios and numerous writers have finally realised that women actually have jobs and as a consequence, a disposable income. I know, it took them long enough. The Sidekick is tacked on to make it look like we’re doing the right thing, similar I guess to Tonto in the Lone Ranger or an African American in a supporting role to a white male lead (common in the 60s and 70s). Some representations work better than others but many fail. One that did work I thought was Pelican Brief because we saw more of Julia Robert’s character than Denzel Washington’s and when the action reaches a climax they’re one on one.

There are other types but I would suggest they are subtypes of these main categories and they all bore me to tears. As a writer I’ve always tried to put women in a more positive light and to use women as lead characters rather than secondary ones.

So what do we men do to create believable and admirable female characters as leads or major characters? Do we have to subscribe to Elle or Marie Claire? Do we have to get in touch with our feminine side?

Thankfully help is available and these tools are free. You were born with a mouth and ears, and fingers. Ask questions orally or through email, not of men because we don’t know. Ask women what they think of your female characters. You’ll get an opinion, I can guarantee it. You may not like the opinion but you asked! I’ve been one of the more fortunate men in that I have as many female friends as male, so if I’m stuck for an answer I ask questions. I’ve asked all kinds of questions, some fairly deep and intimate questions, from menstruation issues through to, how would you react to this situation? I’ve never once been shut out by a woman for asking questions. Women do communicate readily I’ve found, far more naturally than the men I know. I’ve always had my questions answered when I’m clear about why I’m asking. For example when I had to abort a goblin foetus in The Deepening Dark I asked women who’d had miscarriages, they answered my questions and I was able to rewrite the scene.

The other thing I would suggest for us men is to absorb books that feature women in lead roles and watch movies that have female leads. Here’s my reading/viewing list.

Manda Scott’s Dreaming Series based on Boudica, Dreaming the Eagle, Dreaming the Bull, Dreaming the Hound and Dreaming the Serpent Spear. She has one major female character, Boudica of course, but then we have a host of other women in major and minor roles, alongside men as well. This isn’t a feminist feast, I would suggest it’s far closer to the real world of the Celts than any historian has managed to imagine yet, and the best example I’ve seen yet of mixing and matching male and female characters.

Philip Pullman’s Dark Matters series, Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. Lyra would have to be one of the most endearing little girls I’ve met. She features in all three books and if not for Lyra the world would have ended so to speak.

Jean M Auel’s series for obvious reasons!

Larsson’s trilogy is a good example of feminist writing although he did tend to preach a little too much, but Lisbeth is a flawed character who has a realistic feel to her.

There are many others of course, Kate Mosse, Helen Fielding, Jules Watson, Gail Carriger, Melissa De La Cruz and I guess you can get the picture. Read books written by women to see how they portray women. You may not like all their portrayals, I certainly questioned a few but it moves you from thinking from a male-centric view to one that’s more balanced.

One non fiction book that did catch my eye was What Women Want Men To Know by Barbara De Angelis. It’s probably one of the better ones for men because it goes into thought processes. Much of what I read here was familiar, but I hadn’t quite verbalised the hows and whys. This book did explain why women do the things they do and in the process helped me create more believable female characters. Oh and there’s also a book for women, What Men Want Women to Know that helps women understand men. Other non-fiction books I’d recommend would be biographical works about women, especially those written by women. Not a guarantee of a good read but you’re absorbing a different view of women and maybe even getting inspiration.

For movies I would suggest Silence of the Lambs, The Brave One (also starring Jodie Foster), The Blind Side, Underworld, Kill Bill, Jerry Bruckheimer’s King Arthur, Alien vs Predator, although I’d ignore AVP2 Requiem! Robin Hood (the Russell Crowe version), Charlotte Gray, Erin Brokovitch, Contact, Salt, The Accused and The Pelican Brief.

It’s not an exhaustive list by any stretch of the imagination but it should get you started, and once you have created your female characters, run them past women and ask questions. Be prepared for interesting answers. As has been said before, it’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness. This isn’t about bashing men over the head, I’m one of them so it’s kind of masochistic. But isn’t it time we started admitting our shortcomings and righting some of the wrongs? When it comes down to it, women buy our books too and wouldn’t it be nice for a woman to say how much she loved your Lisa, Sarah or Fiona?

I wish you all the best of luck in your writing careers.

Written by Alastair Rosie.


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