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Writing Fantasy Gender Stereotypes – Part Two: Writing the Opposite Gender

This is Part Two of a series on Writing Fantasy Gender Stereotypes.

If you missed Part One you can read it here.

Prince of PersiaThis past July, I attended Polaris, a sci-fi conference that features panels on everything from Star Trek to anime to writing fiction. I had the pleasure of attending one panel in particular where fantasy authors Brandon Sanderson and Kelley Armstrong shared the floor, and I posed this question: “How do you, as the individual you are, write believable main characters of the opposite sex?”

I was particularly interested to hear what Sanderson had to say on the subject, because—if you’ve ever read his work—you’ll know that he writes well-rounded, fully-fleshed characters who often happen to be female main characters. Notice I don’t say “well-rounded, fully-fleshed female characters”. This is an important distinction. We’ll get to that in a bit.

Sanderson and Armstrong gave a lot of excellent advice, but the one thing that really stuck with me was this: Be aware of gender inclinations, because the deviant aspects will affect their relationships. And all things considered, aren’t novels about people? People who do things, who interact with others, who live and move and breathe as individuals in context with other individuals? And if you’re writing these people, being aware of who those characters are as people is what will help move beyond the stereotypes.

Falling Into Stereotypes

Lamia and the Soldier by John William WaterhouseHere’s where things get tricky: How can you avoid writing stereotypical men or women if you’re not sure what the stereotypes actually are? Last month, we looked at visual stereotypes for females in fantasy literature (keeping in mind that this tends to happen more often with new writers, as opposed to established, published authors…but not always). Next month, we’ll look at visual stereotypes for males. But this month, we’re moving into different territory.

This month, I’d like to talk about the personality and character trait stereotypes that tend to arise when the author forgets to put him or herself into the shoes of the opposite gender, instead attempting to write his or her character as an isolated ‘male or female’ in a main character role. Often authors neglect to acknowledge the aforementioned (and very important) gender inclinations and deviations, and even more so, disregard the necessity of writing their character as a person first, and a gender second.

And to be clear, I am aware that there are always exceptions. But for today, I want to touch on two prominent stereotypes in fantasy fiction:

– the woman who acts like a man
– the man who acts like a woman

“But wait,” you’re saying. “Don’t we want strong women in fantasy fiction? Aren’t they good role models? And don’t we want men who are in touch with their feelings and who do more than bash people over the head and ravish beautiful women?” Sure we do. The emergence of “women who act like men” seems to be a direct result of the public’s cry for strong female leads. Many male authors have risen to the challenge, and created female main characters for their novels, doing their best to create believable women that reflect the empowered role of females in our own culture. And female fantasy authors? They strive to create well-rounded males. The problem? They’re trying to create strong women or emotionally-driven men. Not strong characters.

Strong women. Emotionally driven men. And when the gender of your character takes center stage, rather than who the character is, the risk of stereotyping that character rises considerably.

The Perfect Woman Who Acts Like a Man

woman-punchGrab your manuscript. Find the place where you introduce your female main character for the first time. Ask yourself this: Is your strong female introduced on that first page by her physical appearance, or by who she is and her achievements prior to this introduction? Does the narrator and everyone around her remark on her attractiveness, her youth, her vigor?

And shortly thereafter, does she don her form-fitting warrior/mage/[insert role here] garb, defer to her male superior for instructions—or give the instructions in a direct, confrontational way—and spend the rest of the novel lacking significant interaction with other females, suppressing her feelings (or never having any emotional reaction to the surrounding events), focusing on her outward goal without thought for her inner goal, pining for the male lead, obsessing over sex, or (perhaps worse) constantly seeking out casual sex because she’s the kind of “strong woman” who doesn’t need the “baggage” of emotional attachment?

This, my friend, is a male character’s brain inside a female character’s body. While there are women who hate other women, who spend their lives flitting from one casual relationship to the next, who deny their feelings…these are unusual. They’re not the norm. If you have a character who acts this way, your readers need to understand exactly why she acts this way, or else you’ve lost your readers’ ability to relate the character.

Remember that point of advice I received: The deviant aspects of gender inclinations will affect a character’s relationships. That means, as a man, you can’t create a highly attractive female and simply make her act the way a man thinks a female would act. Yes, I’m speaking to male fantasy authors here. If you want to write a female, don’t write your female main character the way a man thinks a female would act and make decisions. Instead, think about the women around you: What’s important to them? What makes them tick? If they have a quirk, why are they that way? And if you don’t know, ask.

And what is perhaps the most important piece of information pointed out by Sanderson? Women are typically risk-averse…so if you have a female main character rushing into battle at every chance she gets, there had better be a darn good reason for her doing so. Otherwise, you’re writing a woman like a man.

The Perfect Man Who Acts Like a Woman

Sacrament by anndrPick up that manuscript, if you didn’t do it in the previous section. Find the place where you’ve introduced your male main character. Does your main character enter the scene with his shirt off, muscles glistening in the sunshine, sword in hand, barking orders to his troops, and then…spend several paragraphs thinking about the woman he loves, wondering if she’s thinking of him, and reminiscing about their history together?

You’ve read plenty of fantasy novels with male main characters. It’s not uncommon for the male to be incredibly strong from the very beginning, or at least develop a significant amount of personal strength over the first few hardships that arise. Now, I don’t necessarily see this as stereotypical, because there are many ways to show this in a character. However, the problem arises when the male main character gives an order, wonders whether his generals will like him for it, plans out his next trip into the city, and then worries about how his romantic interest feels about his love for raunchy folk ballads.

I’ve got news for you, female fantasy writers: Men aren’t thinking about their feelings all the time, and neither do they spend their days barking orders at others. Men can be strong without being forceful, and they can be sensitive and emotional without constantly second-guessing their feelings. If your male main character suffers from either of these issues, you’re writing your male lead the way a woman thinks a male would act, or should act.

In the same way that most women are naturally wired as risk-averse, men are risk-takers. A man is less likely to be introspective in the way a woman is, and he’s more likely to make a decision about something and move on, rather that dwelling on how his decision will make others feel (though he may have considered this before making the decision, but he’s not dwelling on it once it’s done). While there are highly introspective men, as well as those who bark orders at others, in this world—as I said, there are always exceptions—these are unusual in everyday life. And if they do act this way, there’s a reason, and it’s up to you as an author to convey that clearly to your audience.

Character Creation from the Ground Up

When you’re creating a character of the opposite gender, there are a few things worth considering (in fact, I would argue, crucial if one wants to develop a realistic, well-rounded character) before plopping that character down on the page:

– What are the natural gender inclinations of my male or female character?
– How does my character deviate from those natural inclinations?
– What happened, or why does my character deviate from those natural inclinations?
– How do those natural inclinations influence the way my character interacts with others and reacts in his/her world?

Asking these questions will help you to gain a sense of who your character is within his or her assigned gender. “But wait,” you’re saying, “I thought you told me not to think of my character as a male or female, but as a person first!” Exactly.

Back to back by anndr

You can build a person’s profession, history, background, likes and dislikes however you want. You can create them the way you want, because you’re the author. However, to make your characters real and believable to readers, thinking about all of those amazing traits and details you gave that character in context with natural gender inclinations and deviations will further your character’s ability to interact with the other people in your novel in an authentic way. That character will make decisions that reflect not only the personality and history you’ve created for him or her, but will do so in a way that demonstrates your understanding of the differences between men and women, and how these differences inform everyday life, the decision-making process, and reactions to people and events.

Getting It Right

It’s a difficult process to write a main character of the opposite gender, but incredibly rewarding to yourself and your audience when you get it right. Next month, we’re going to continue this series and take a look at the male visual stereotypes that tend to arise in fantasy literature, and examine how those stereotypes have shifted and changed over the past few decades.

Title image by LordHannu.

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15 Comments

  1. Overlord says:

    Such a fantastic series and unbelievable advice – Thanks Faith 🙂

  2. Anne Lyle says:

    Excellent article – lots of food for thought! There were a lot of these “perfect men who act like women” around in 80s fantasy written by women, and I found them very tiresome – one of my main aims in writing my hero was to write a believable guy who is neither a testosterone-fuelled hunk nor an angst-ridden wimp!

    I put my opening chapters up on authonomy.com a couple of years ago, just to get a diverse range of reactions, and the one person who dldn’t empathise with my male MC at all was a female writer whose own book began with a long, introspective scene. I took this as an indication that I’d done a good job of capturing the male psyche 🙂

  3. songofsorrow says:

    i waited so long to read this!!!! the part about ‘the perfect woman who acts like a man’ absolutely nailed it in the head!!!! i mean, they’re exactly the women who embody the ‘kick-ass-heroines’ that we so love reading, but tire of when each book seems to replicate the other… but at any rate, i dare say, i prefer the kick-ass-heroines despite all the ‘acting-like-a-man’ to a whining, ‘oh-i-thought-i-was-plain-and-silly-but-do-you-really-think-i’m-pretty?’, woman…

  4. I really enjoyed in this article and this came just in time for me! I always felt that a woman can be strong without sacrificing her femininity. You said it perfectly about a warrior women thinking like a man and it would be very hard for a woman to relate to that!

    As a fantasy writer I found it a bit difficult at first writing a male character because I don’t think like one! So I just became really observant of the men in my life (like my husband, his friends, etc.) and draw on that to make them as believeable as possible.

    Awesome post!

  5. SpiritCat says:

    Great advice!

    Thanks,

    –SC

  6. James Kelly says:

    Great article, Faith. I suppose it comes down to observation, rather than imagination, of the world around us and the people in it.

  7. AE Marling says:

    A greater variance of personality exists within the genders than between them. By this, I mean that the average woman might be slightly more introspective about feelings than the average man, but within women, some are wildly more thoughtful in regards to others’ feelings than other women. So I can’t really say it’s unreasonable for a character to have any specific personality, given gender. However, I can see it would be wearisome if all female leads (written by male authors) have the same strong-headed, doubtless personality.

    Ultimately, I would like to see characters with personalities that make them interesting independent of gender. Also, gender would play far less a role on shaping personality than the character’s background and upbringing. A woman waif on the tough streets would act much different than a princess.

  8. Great article! One point really comes through: focus more on the character than the gender. Love that advice.

    I’m always nervous writing male characters, because I DO want them to be believable, strong, etc. I usually have my husband read all of my stuff, and he’s not afraid to say things like, “that’s not what a guy would do. That’s what a girl wants a guy to do.” Such advice is always helpful… 🙂

  9. xiagan says:

    I second all the cheers. It is a great article. 🙂
    I’m writing a novel with a female main character told in first person at the moment, so I can relate to a lot of things you’ve said. Luckily she made it quite clear that she just isn’t the beautiful but cold warrior maiden, so as long as I’m respecting that, she’s not giving me much trouble. 😉

  10. Mark says:

    So, wait, the first article in the series tell us to break stereotypes about how a woman is supposed to look, but this one tells us to adhere to stereotypes about how both genders are supposed to think and act? Does not compute.

  11. […] This is 3 of a series on ‘Writing Fantasy Gender Stereotypes’, if you missed part one you can read it here and also, part two here. […]

  12. […] You can read part two of this series, Writing the Opposite Gender, here. […]

  13. themeaningnotthename says:

    A little sexist? I am a male, and find I think exactly in the opposite of how this post/college psych classespretty much everybody says I do, I know many people of both genders who act vastly dissimilar from how they are “supposed to”, and therefore I see know reason why they should not be represented in fiction. That being said, the perfect male who acts like a woman might being uber sensitive, but then having an interest in shirtless swordswingery and risque folk music is a bit of paradox, not because a dude would not be like that/think like that, so much as because the two sides of his personality do not fit. He doesn’t work as an individual,

  14. themeaningnotthename says:

    I find that the most egregious problems in my writing is when I think of my character as a gender, instead of an individual, who your character is and how he/she acts should be determined by who they are as an individual, not a gender.

    I don’t want to come across as offended or ticked off, looking at my first post I see that I certainly read thusly, I liked this, I really do, the ending bit in particular about upbringing coming into play more than gender really clicked, however I do feel like fiction deals with cha

  15. […] check out Faith Boughan's set of articles on the topic at Fantasy Faction. Here's part 1, part 2, and part 3. It turns out male characters are also subjected to cliché far too often for many […]

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