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Too few female characters?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Trick, Oct 29, 2014.

  1. SeverinR

    SeverinR Vala

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    It depends on the story.
    If you are in places with few females it might be hard to plant a female. Most real battlefield stories won't have a long role for females. The men fight and move on, women would not be expected to stay with the warriors. MAybe a war-bride scenerio would work, but the woman would be left behind. The battle field nurse, another possibility.
    Now, if you are in a nunery and have no female characters, there might be a problem.

    Most common period beliefs had women in submissive role. So the outspoken female equal to a male would be a rarity. So a female main character might be a tough sell also. There has always been the rebel, so a female character is always possible.
     
  2. cupiscent

    cupiscent Sage

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    I'm with Amanita - my biggest concern from the first description was the fridging of a lady-character.

    But just to add my two cents: I need to have a lot of positive comment on a book from all sides for me to pick it up if it doesn't mention a woman in its blurb/plot outline. And then, unless an author engages with why the scenario is all-male, and what that means for the characters, the chances of me being very critical of it are pretty high if it doesn't pass the Bechdel test.
     
  3. acapes

    acapes Sage

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    Hey Trick, I'd like to second something Devor said a while back (hope that's who said it!) but maybe you could beef up the role of one of the female thieves?

    It'll probably feel more organic to the story, as opposed to a character being inserted now when you've written so much, and it sounds like she'd be fun to write :)
     
  4. ascanius

    ascanius Inkling

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    Don't you find those criteria limiting? I guess we each like what we like though.

    I think the fridge logic above would be valid if the story were finished and the author doesn't handle that aspect well, a possibility. However adding a female character to cover up short comings can be just as bad, to me they are two different issues.

    I don't see anything wrong with having an all male cast, there are many good works that do such things for both male and female characters. Saving private Ryan and Little Women as examples, both good movies, haven't read little women, that I enjoy and I may like little women more. Little women has male cast but the focus is Joe and her relationship with her sisters, if anything the two males are there for romantic intrest only. I you want to tell a story that focuses more on the male relationships I don't see why that would be wrong.
     
  5. cupiscent

    cupiscent Sage

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    My to-read list on goodreads is 167 books long, so apparently not. But yes, we do all have the things we prefer and don't prefer to see - I was just noting that for me, no ladies is a big hurdle to overcome.
     
  6. Nameback

    Nameback Troubadour

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    Nope, you're still in the realm of "averages" and "usually" in this case. I think I can explain this best by example: it's a "scientific fact of biology" that human beings have more neurons in the cerebellum than in the rest of the brain, despite the cerebellum's far smaller volume. Except, you know, for people who were born without cerebellums.

    That may sound extreme, but it actually happens! Perhaps most interesting about that story, the woman who was born without a cerebellum still managed to develop serviceable motor control, despite missing the entirety of the most important part of the brain for executing movement.

    My point is this: scientific "facts" about humans are not actually "fact" for every human being on earth. Fact: humans have bilateral symmetry. Unless you're born without a left arm. Fact: humans rely heavily on sight to navigate the world. Unless you're blind. Fact: XY humans are male, and XX humans are female. Unless you are born with X, XXX, XXXX, XXXXX, XXXXY, XXY, XYY, XXYY, or are an XX male, or an XY female. And yes, all of those things happen.

    Here's the thing about "scientific facts." The words male and female, along with the categories they represent, are not facts. They do not exist independent of human minds who use those words and those categories to make sense of the world. Now, plenty of things exist whether we are here to acknowledge them or not, but categories are a very human construction that we use to make decisions. Evaluating every human being individually without referencing useful generalizations would be impossible, which is why we evolved such an affinity for putting similar things into boxes.

    The problem is that, because these categories don't actually reflect the extreme detail and nuance of reality, but rather reflect our needs for generalization and decision-making, they inevitably hit upon cases that don't fit precisely into either box, and we're left trying to shove someone who doesn't fit into our preconceptions. To make that idea concrete, look up how doctors in the US used to advise surgery for intersex people to make them "properly" male or female (here's a hint: it didn't usually turn out well).

    So, no. The "facts" of gender are, in fact, averages, generalities, roughlys, usuallys, most-of-the-times, typicallys, and rules of thumb. They are not absolutes. They are not universals--and that's a fact.
     
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  7. Nameback

    Nameback Troubadour

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    More relevant to the OP's concerns, I have deliberately changed the gender of characters to make sure I keep what I see as a desirable gender-balance. I don't see this as "trying not to offend people" and I believe that's a poor way of thinking about it.

    All texts, I would argue, are political artifacts. That includes works of fiction that are not explicitly political--your fiction exists in a wider world, as do you, and both you and the fiction are influenced by the society in which you live (even if that means opposing aspects of the society), and you and your fiction have an influence on that society in turn. To that end, it's perfectly natural and artistically appropriate to consider the political implications of one's work and make sure they match what you want the implications to be.

    I want my fiction to represent diversity in a positive way. I want my fiction to deal with racism, and sexism, and class hierarchy, and get at the underpinnings of these things while also commenting on possible alternatives. Thus, when I change something in my book to make it more in-line with my politics, I'm not bowing to external pressure--I'm doing what I want. What I want, among many other things, is to write a book with diverse characters and lots of women with agency. Do what you want to do--if you want to write a book that includes a more even gender-balance, for whatever reason, then do it, and make deliberate choices to do so, just like you would make deliberate choices in your writing to reach your goals for plot, character, and setting.

    Edit: To make this a little clearer, we all make deliberate choices when writing to ensure our work meets our goals for things like character and plot. If you want to write a book with fully-realized characters, you will make conscious decisions to achieve that goal. You won't just say to yourself "well, I ended up writing something with one-dimensional cardboard characters, but that's just the way the dice rolled. It would be artificial for me to go back and change my book so radically just to please people who want complex characters with rich inner lives."

    There's no difference between a goal like that and a political goal, and people ought to stop acting as if they're unrelated. Overcoming bias and social hierarchy usually requires purposeful, conscious action. If such overcoming is a goal of yours, then be purposeful in reaching it, and don't worry one whit about being "artificial."
     
    Last edited: Nov 6, 2014
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  8. Trick

    Trick Auror

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    I solved my problem in the book without having to switch any genders (see my last post) but I disagree with the concept that men and women are not different. I believe we are equal but different and I don't mean that in an exclusionary way (except perhaps to exclude men from child birth, which is pretty significant). People keep saying "the law of averages" ... 99% is a hell of an average. However, I do not begrudge others their opinions and am happy so many people weighed in on my dilemma.
     
  9. Nameback

    Nameback Troubadour

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    I'm not saying that men and women are the same. I was addressing ascanius to point out that the aggregate differences between men and women (and there are many, including political beliefs, wages, educational attainment, risk-tolerance, communication style, illness prevalence, life expectancy, criminality, height, etc.) are factually not applicable to every person on earth. Using the word "fact" to describe entire categories of people is almost always a good way to be wrong. Universal arguments only require one piece of counter-evidence to fail, and when it comes to gender, counter-evidence is abundant.

    Most of the differences between men and women are not on the order of 99% prevalence, and a difference may be prevalent throughout the population while remaining a small difference. I am average height for a man, and thus taller than most women, but more than 1% of women are taller than me.

    The point is not that there aren't meaningful gender differences in the world--the point is that none of us are required to make sure our characters adhere to those differences, because there are always exceptions. Also, if you have wizards in your world, it's worth pointing out that there is a 0% chance of those existing in real life, so a hugely buff, skull-crushing female berserker is pretty damn plausible by comparison.

    Ursula K Le Guin once wrote that (paraphrasing here) many contemporary female protagonists in modern fantasy seem like men with breasts, to her. Meaning that they acted and thought and spoke in the ways men tend to. And I think that's a relevant concern--representing the aggregate differences is an important part of diversity, and I think it's authentic and even preferable to have female characters who differ from male characters in priorities, perceptions, values, etc., in ways that reflect common differences in real life. But I also think it's clear that not every character needs to differ in such a way--and that's important because it means gender-swapping your characters (if someone needs to) doesn't have to be a big hurdle.
     
  10. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

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    Excuse me, but the whole complaint about "female characters thinking like men with breasts" assumes that women in a given fantasy setting should have mindsets like those of aggregate women in our own culture. It doesn't take into account that a setting might have different ideas of gender from the one we're familiar with. If a fantasy culture has a longstanding tradition of gender equality, its women probably wouldn't think like those in an hierarchical and industrialized society that just started creeping away from patriarchy (i.e. modern Western culture).
     
  11. Nameback

    Nameback Troubadour

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    True! Although I do think there's something to be said for having representation of a diverse array of real-world types of people in fiction--even in SFF. Now, I do think that includes highlighting modes of gender relations that characterized real historical cultures, and obviously many of them had far different gender roles/hierarchy than we do now, and many were more equitable than even we are today. But, personally, I like to keep that kind of stuff grounded in history, even if I am presenting something that differs substantially (in a positive way) from our present time and place in the West.

    Edit: And given that nearly all cultures we have historical documentation for, other than hunter-gatherers, had at least some kind of gendered division of labor, I think that in most plausible fantasy settings there will be at least some kind of influence that gender has on characters' lives and personalities, though that influence may vary substantially from place to place.

    And, finally, there are some differences in aggregate behavior that do seem biological--like violent criminality, which is more common in men regardless of when or where you're looking at--so keeping that in mind when writing a setting with a different culture (but modern human biology) is probably worthwhile.
     
    Last edited: Nov 6, 2014
  12. Trick

    Trick Auror

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    I can see your point here and agree that these "norms" are not applicable to everyone on earth. I think that there are certain things I'll want to incorporate into my characters that are "standard" for the sake of readers identifying with them but creativity in character is a positive and thus can definitely break the norms.

    Fair enough. I have no problem writing a female character who "seems like a man" but what I was going for was simply an increase in female presence in my book without doing so just to appease people. I found an existing character who will suit the purpose perfectly and she is not a "girly girl" so I think most people who like the book will like the change.
     
  13. ascanius

    ascanius Inkling

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    Awsome article! and very interesting, going to have to see if there are any follow up research.

    But first I'm not an idiot I know there are exceptions in life. I'm sorry it gets really annoying to make an argument and someone always says but what about this exception like I'm an idiot and don't know about exceptions. However those exceptions have an explanation and most often they fit really nicely with what is already established. Pointing out exceptions doesn't invalidate my entire point, Einstein was famous for this. His relativity theory worked until an exception brought the entire theory crashing down. Trying to get it to work he added the cosmological constant, turns out he simply didn't add a very important variable. Hehe bad example they now think there may in fact be a cosmological constant, point is exceptions don't invalidate an argument.

    Second my point in the entirety of my post was that it is a fact that males and females are biologically different both physically and mentally fact (see below not going to get into the mental aspect, its a lot of research papers to go through).

    Thirdly in my quote above everything you put down was exactly what I was getting at. A persons biology is important we are not blank copies each other. If a person is blind, that is determined by biology, or hell the fact that that woman was born without is cerebellum is based on her biology. Biology determines everything about us and that was my point. If a person has down syndrome that is solely due to their biology, trisomy 21, they have 3 chromosome 21. blindness is not a social construct, it has a firm basis in biology even if it was caused by an accident there is a biological reason why we cannot fix it, yet. Actually bad example we are very close to curing blindness. Maybe a better word instead of biology is genetics but you get what I'm saying. People take into account height when writing their characters and that height affects little details, they take into account strength, skin color, hair color all have a biological/genetic basis. Why does it cause some much angst to say something as important as sex should be taken into account too.

    This is called sex chromosome aneuploidy, can happen with non sex chromosomes too down-syndrome , in some species aneuploidy is actually what determines the biological sex though I cannot remember which, its really interesting. When I first heard about aneuploidy I didn't think much about it, it wasn't until I took cell and molecular bio that I learned about barr bodies. Chromosomes controls gene expression with a number of different methods but it brings the question. If males have XY and females have XX does this mean females have more chromosome expression of certain genes to create female characteristics or are males missing genes to create female characteristics. answer X inactivation and the formation of barr bodies, basically a super-coiled X chromosome that isn't used, some good research on which X chromosome is chosen FYI. Only one X chromosome is used which makes it very difficult to identify because their phenotype is no different than that of a normal XX genotype, basically it creates no difference between the two. Even if you have XXXXX only one X is used. This changes a little bit in males where problems do occur with Y chromosome aneuploidy, but guess what they are still male that Y chromosome determines a lot. What this means is that sex is determined by the sole presence or lack thereof of the Y chromosome. And this is scientific FACT that has nothing to do with averages.

    Also as to the point about intersexed people the most common practice was/is to go towards female due to simplicity for the a*****e doctor, my assumption. And no this topic is not new to me and FYI this wasn't/isn't just a problem in the US but is/was common practice throughout the world. However everything I said above still stands save for one case. Hermaphrodism is caused by fertilization and embryonic issues along with mutations SRY gene which controls development of male sexual organs "testis" and saying controls is simplifying a lot but it is not caused by aneuploidy, which is what I'm assuming you though. The interesting thing is a lot of time what you get is a mosaic of certain cells can be from one person and others for another, there was a whole CSI episode revolving around a guy who had this. In that case a person can have certain cells that are female and certain cells that are male. I don't know how the competing hormone regulations of the differing cells affects the physiology of the person to comment so it might be the one case where you may be right. My best guess is that it is going to depend on the dominant cell type having the greatest influence on physiology. But my point still stands that biology is the determining factor. Actually this would be a great research topic.

    In this you are correct "gender", a category as you explained above, is in "fact" averages, generalities, etc. This is because the term gender, as we now use it, being coined by a feminist in the past 20 yearsish for an article choose to use a "grammatical" term for biological sex to argue that male and female are socially constructed categories, like gender is a linguistical category for words. This leaves us with the socially and political new category of gender that by it's inception was meant to be all those things you say above. But I was never arguing about gender I was arguing about sex differences. My point stands and I enjoyed reading your post they were thought provoking and you make a lot of good points. Liked the Liguin refrence.
     
    Last edited: Nov 7, 2014
  14. ascanius

    ascanius Inkling

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    O common that's like saying gravity doesn't exist because birds fly, or penguins aren't birds because they cannot fly and in my story because penguins don't fly I can call them purple smirfitcus because there are exceptions and because there are exceptions I can call eagles penguins and ostriches ravens, and the raven the broke its wing and cannot fly is now a penguin. I know I can simply because I can write what I want to but but that is completely different from what your getting at, plz

    I give up.
     
    Last edited: Nov 7, 2014
  15. cupiscent

    cupiscent Sage

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    This question is a little over-innocent, because it supposes that there isn't a long history in popular media of men's stories being privileged and represented and prioritised over women's stories. Our starting situation is not equal.

    But overall, I don't think "quotas" are helpful. But thinking about why your story has no/few women, and whether that's something worth working on and/or making part of the story, and what decisions you made consciously or unconsciously to get to this position, is all very important.
     
  16. ascanius

    ascanius Inkling

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    I totally agree. Though I would probably write the story about women only and restrict my setting to a small group of women with the sole focus being on them and their troubles, hopes etc, they wouldn't be in a vacuum but all male characters would be part of the setting. The same can be done with an all male cast. I would have no problem reading both.
     
  17. Nameback

    Nameback Troubadour

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    Well, if your point is that people should write male and female characters a particular way that is representative of the norm, then it does invalidate your point. There's nothing stopping anyone from writing about the exception--in fact, that's usually what we write about: exceptional people. Kings and nobles were hardly the norm, but they get plenty of representation in fantasy.

    You could say that it was a historical fact that people in 200 AD had a life expectancy below 40, the overwhelming majority were farmers who lived in rural villages, and they had very little control over the forces that affected their lives. Those things are all true, all "facts." But who wants to write about a farmer in some peasant village who dies at 35 of tetanus after doing nothing particularly interesting? We'd rather write about people living in cities, or fighting in armies, wielding influence and changing the course of events.

    By the same token, there's nothing wrong with writing about, say, a black person in a medieval-European type setting, or a woman who is a brilliant warrior. Such people have indeed existed, and there's no objective reason why it's somehow more "factual" to write about the minuscule portion of the population who were kings than to write about warrior women.

    Well, again though, sex is complicated too, as we both discussed, with lots of room for variation. Like I said, women are far less likely to commit violent crime than men, and I don't see any explanation for the historical and global consistency of that fact other than biology, but there are still women murderers. There are even women serial killers. There are women drug dealers and robbers and all the rest. So, there's nothing wrong about writing characters who differ from the average.

    I mean, have you ever heard of Griselda Blanco? She was one of the heads of the Medellin cartel and probably in the top 0.001% of sociopathy and violence in the human population. So, when a person wants to write a character like this, why not? In fact, the exceptionality of someone like Griselda is part of what makes her so fascinating and worth writing about.
     
  18. Nameback

    Nameback Troubadour

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    I don't understand this at all.
     
  19. Nihal

    Nihal Vala

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    I have serious questions to anyone who argues that females are biologically different beings that deviate from normal people:

    What exactly makes you think men are the default? What makes you deny your female characters the right to individual (true) characterization? Why male characters can be individuals, people shaped by the experiences, with their own aspirations, but women, these three-headed biologically different creatures are bound to dubious conclusions of what they're supposed to be? If they're not, their existence is justified as an anomaly.

    For you're not even attempting to establish differences. You're establishing women as deviations from your idea of regular people. Oh, dear, you're focusing on the wrong side of this!

    I tell you with all the honesty that this current of thought is revolting—if not downright insulting—and flawed, and I won't mention what I'd do (or not do) to books from authors who I knew thought this way, lest it becomes a huge flame war. The truth is that in the few posts there I tried to keep civil, for it's not my intention to offend anyone, thus I avoided mentioning certain things, yet at this point you should be made aware that this whole concept is offensive. It's worse than the lack of females, or token females. We're entering in the territory of stereotypical females, cardboard females, agency-less females (for if they're slaves to their "biology" they lack personal character). Those are the worse to put up with.
     
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  20. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    I haven't really followed this thread for a while, but has it really come to the point where someone has to point out that women are actually people too?
     
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