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Too few female characters?

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

  1. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

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    I think you need to be specific about who exactly you think is arguing for this. I have also not continued following the thread, but I find it highly dubious that anyone here would actually say what you are claiming people are saying. I'm inclined to believe that either you've grossly misunderstood someone or you're arguing against a strawman you've seen trotted out somewhere.
     
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  2. Valentinator

    Valentinator Minstrel

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    I don't understand the negativity about describing women in an old-fashioned feminine way. I mean, men are often described in a classic masculine way with all manly stereotypes and stuff. The mere fact that there are women who act like men doesn't change the notion that there are plenty of women who behave differently. Forcing equal standards on both genders seems to me as an oversimplification. Gender is a part of human identity and can not be ignored.
     
    Last edited: Nov 10, 2014
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  3. ascanius

    ascanius Inkling

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    Hi Nihal I can see this has upset you and I do think you misunderstood the past few posts, you're not alone though. I think Nameback and I are also misunderstanding each other. It basically boils down to me saying males and females are biologically different and those differences are an important factor and should be considered when writing a character. Nameback, from what I understand, is saying that biology is not important. I do want to say that I am not advocating biology as an excuse for stereotypical female characters, I would never insult science in such a way, nor my sisters or mother. I apologize if I gave that impression. While I would like to explain what I mean, I can't right now, maybe later, but I do ask for a chance to explain what I'm getting at before you write me off as a sexist nutjob. Again I'm sorry for the misunderstanding and others here know I've had my moments of misunderstandings and lost my cool, it happens.
     
    Last edited: Nov 10, 2014
  4. Nameback

    Nameback Troubadour

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    I'm not sure if this is directed at me, but I think it might be? If so, I just want to clarify that I wasn't suggesting women as a whole deviate from a male norm. I was saying that, e.g. women in combat deviate from a modern, Western norm of female behavior and a norm of soldiery (although that is changing in America, now). Or that e.g. women serial killers deviate from the norm of serial killers (who are almost always male). Not that women, as a whole, differ from "the norm," but rather that in certain fields of endeavor the women present in said field are exceptional to a varying degree.

    The same can of course be said of men in many fields of endeavor also, like primary school teaching, or, increasingly, going to college. Norms are fluid and change all the time and men violate them too--I was focusing on women because of the topic of the thread, but obviously there are men who are exceptions to norms as well.

    Norms are, of course, often nothing to praise or be proud of, especially gender norms, so contravening a gender norm is hardly a bad thing. Usually it's a good thing, whether done by men or women, if for no other reason that it undermines said norm (which is, almost by definition, restrictive and stifles human achievement).

    My other point is that most of the characters we write about are exceptional, in one way or another, so what's wrong with a character who's an exception to gender norms? Why should that kind of exceptionality be treated any differently than the exceptionality of a king, or a great wizard, or a Chosen One, or whatever else? I was trying to illustrate that the same people who call a gender-norm-breaking female character inauthentic are usually perfectly happy to read about a whole cast of characters who are anything but normal, and that's inconsistent and politically motivated. Exceptional people are fun to write about--people who are different are exciting and usually going to encounter lots of conflict. Sometimes people are exceptional for, among other reasons, going against the gender norms of their time--and suggesting that this particular kind of exceptionality is inauthentic while other kinds are authentic is disingenuous nonsense.

    On the note of biology, I will also clarify that I think sex-determinists are vastly overstating their case, especially when you look at the tremendous historical variety of gender expression and gender hierarchy throughout world history. Gender expression is clearly shaped primarily by social factors--but there's a few things that do seem to be universal, like the aforementioned difference in murder rates between men and women. And, of course, biologically-mediated behavior applies both to men and women; saying women are biologically predisposed to be less murderous implies that men are biologically predisposed to be more murderous. It doesn't act any more strongly on women than on men, and of course even biological predispositions are mediated through experience, culture, and incentives, and can be overruled. To continue harping on murder, obviously the murder rate is a fraction of what it used to be, historically, thanks to innovations like modern police forces and court systems--so while human beings (and men especially) may be born with an inclination to use violence to get what we want, we're also able to erect social systems to divert, sublimate, or otherwise suppress many of our inborn tendencies. Biology is not destiny, and I'm not arguing that it is, unlike ascanius.

    Personally, I'm a pretty aggressive feminist and I don't see acknowledging a few narrow differences in biology (average differences, with tons of exceptions) between men and women as undermining gender equality. If you could blow up patriarchy and gender peformativity tomorrow, I doubt men and women would cease to demonstrate any aggregate differences in behavior--far, far fewer, certainly, but probably not none, and that's just fine. Difference, of course, is not inferiority. If anything, what biologically-rooted differences there may be tend not to be good looks for men--like the prevalence of sociopathy being much higher in men.

    I have a female protag and my cast of important characters is majority female, although the setting is in a society with gender oppression. This means most of the female characters are "exceptional" in some way, relative to their society's norms, but that just makes them more compelling, as far as I'm concerned. People who fight the tide of their society are interesting.
     
    Last edited: Nov 10, 2014
  5. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    I don't think it's a stretch to think this is at least a little directed at my posts from before.

    When I write, I have to constantly ask myself,"How is this character different from me?" If I don't, I'm at risk of projecting my own personality onto my characters. I don't want to do that. It's not that men are the default and women are weird. It's more of an effort to detach from myself and focus on how I need to change my own thinking to understand someone else.

    From a biological perspective, it's actually the female brain that's the default and "normal," and the male brain that's a little weird because it's changed in a testosterone bath. In a very real but subtle way, it's the male brain that's often missing something, and sometimes has trouble figuring out what that is.


    I would love to talk about the differences. I think they boil down to three tangible things. But I'm not sure that would improve the tone of the conversation. I think it would make it more contentious.

    Regardless, the most important difference to understand is testosterone. Testosterone makes you feel powerful and take risks, and it suppresses the stress hormone cortisol. Testosterone is why men often get bored and spend hundreds of dollars on console games to excite them, while women often feel tense and seek passtimes to help them relax. But it's also the most fluid, the most readily changed by society and by your own actions. Even if women have less testosterone by default, that can change over time based on your upbringing and your choices.

    Here's an excellent Ted talk about Testosterone:

    Amy Cuddy: Your body language shapes who you are | Talk Video | TED.com

    I don't think about testosterone when I write. It's too fluid to really focus on.

    Maybe I'll try and talk about the other differences later on. I don't know. But everyone should understand testosterone for their own benefit, as the Ted talk mentions above.
     
    Last edited: Nov 10, 2014
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  6. Nihal

    Nihal Vala

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    It's not directed to a single person in particular, it's a rant about this new sex-deterministic trend. It has been popping up frequently of late. As you said, Nameback, it's at least grossly overstating any weight those "facts" may have.

    There are so many disturbing issues in relying on those ideas. Here is an example of how it negatively affects writing:

    Women are "more" or "less" prone to something–more than who? You need a control group, a default to compare to and reach these conclusions. It's the "male default" I mentioned. Many people established it in their minds without even knowing. This is the root of the lack of diversity, of too few females and of all the related issues.

    Because you have a standard here you'll automatically fall in it first every time you create a character. If a writer overestimates the sex weight in one's character, and also confuses it with societal expectations and societal norms (which aren't a true part of gender identity, they are a pressure, but they're external), s/he will be pushed to determine the sex right away.

    Then, instead of shaping the character based on the past, the relationships, the goals, this poor writer will be "oh, this character can't be like that because a woman/man doesn't do that", or even "this character doesn't conform to what is expected of a man/woman" (frankly, how many of us fully fit the roles of our genders? How many even care?). If one personality trait is too different from what a man/woman ought to have but it must remain this way, then this poor writer will feel compelled to cheaply justify this anomalous creature's existence. E.g.: The girl picks a lot of fights. Physical fights. Oh, she grew up with a lot of brothers and she had no mother and no "feminine" role to follow at all.

    And, if by happenstance the character came to life to fill a certain role before anything else, unless the role is being a romantic interest or something strongly linked to one gender stereotype the character will most likely have the "default" gender, otherwise the writer would need to justify anything that doesn't fit those "biological facts", and the story may not have room for it, or the writer might be lazy, etc.

    Can you see where I'm getting at?


    Valentinator, because the old fashioned way is the biased way? Do you have any idea of how many women were erased from the history? In fact, what makes an attribute "masculine"? How come a behaviour pattern became gendered?
     
  7. Tom

    Tom Istar

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    Good God, this blew up fast. I try to stay out of hot-button discussions, but this time I have something to say.

    Poor Trick. Trick asked an innocent question, and all of a sudden everyone is discussing something only remotely related to the OP.

    I for one think you're doing the right thing, Trick. A character can't be forced into another role if they've already asserted themselves to you as male or female, one ethnicity or the other, whatever. Giving a female character--who was originally conceived of as female--a strong role is an excellent idea.
     
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  8. Nameback

    Nameback Troubadour

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    Nihal, I agree that the issue of a male default is something to combat in one's writing, and I think most of us are susceptible to it regardless of ideology. It's the same thing with the white default (although that one is probably even more pronounced).

    To repeat myself a bit, this is why I recommend all writers who are concerned with such things to make a conscious, deliberate effort to put in more female (and non-white, and queer, and disabled) characters. I actually think quotas can be really useful. For instance, I noticed at one early point in writing my novel that I didn't pass the Bechdel test. I'd written 20,000+ words, and had a female protagonist, yet I didn't pass. Now, that particular test isn't the be-all and end-all of gender parity, and it's meant mainly to represent a larger point, but I just decided to deliberately change one character's gender so that it passed, and it made me more conscious of looking for female character opportunities going forward. Which, really, is the point of things like the Bechdel test--to get you to think critically about gender and be consciously aware of the choices you're making instead of being led by bias.

    People tend to feel very negatively towards quotas or other ways of deliberately adjusting one's work to achieve diversity, but that's pernicious and dangerous, I think. Not too get too political, I hope, but studies continue to show that identical resumes with different names (one "black" name and one "white" name) will get different callback rates based on how "black" the name sounds. I don't really see how else one can combat or account for such things without taking explicit, deliberate, conscious steps to counteract it, as in affirmative action hiring policies.

    The thing about unconscious bias is that it's unconscious. It's very hard--maybe impossible--to know if your evaluation of someone or something is biased, or if it's a fair appraisal. You can think about it and agonize over it and try to work out what your motivations are--or you can just assume you're a human being, and therefore influenced by your society like everyone else, and take practical, conscious steps to counteract bias.

    Edit: This applies, obviously, to writing characters. Assume you're a bit biased, that you've internalized some societal defaults, and decide for yourself if you're happy being led by the nose by your socialization or if you want to be consciously in control of your own work.
     
    Last edited: Nov 10, 2014
  9. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Yep. It's a big mistake that some writers make, in my view. It goes back to what I was saying about writers not remembering that their character is an individual and instead treating them like a statistical distribution of probabilities (which, ironically, only seems to happen when people are dealing with gender, although you could certainly find stats to give you distributions for just about any group - whites v. blacks, older white males, people of asian descent. You never heard anyone say "Oh, I can't write this person that way because a black man wouldn't behave that way. When it comes to females, though, the fallacy stampedes ahead).
     
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  10. cupiscent

    cupiscent Sage

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    I'm not going to say what people must or mustn't do with their own writing - I might suggest things to consider, but our relationship with our writing is our own - but personally, I disagree with this:
    I made these people, I can take 'em apart and remake them in a more interesting way. No, it's probably not as simple as "switch", because the new aspects of character will have impact on how that character fits into society. I might have to tweak some other elements as well to ensure that character can still fulfill the function they have in the story. But I look at my characters all the time - hell, I'm looking at a completed, polished, has-been-sent-to-agents novel right now - and ask, "Would this be more interesting if you were a different gender/race/sexual orientation?"

    You invented these people. They aren't inviolate.
     
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  11. Trick

    Trick Auror

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    I read it as it being more natural and easier on the author, which might produce better work.
     
  12. Tom

    Tom Istar

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    I'm all for it if it works for you, but I myself find it unnatural to take a character who came to me this way and make them that way just to suit the plot. I might do it if the character didn't fit into the story without some tweaking, but if I had to switch anything as major as gender, ethnicity, core personality aspects, etc., I'd get the sense that the character isn't meant to fit in that story. Trying to fit a character into a story he/she's not meant for is like a kid trying repeatedly to jam a block into a shaped hole it isn't supposed to go in. Instead of hacking essential parts out of the character in an attempt to make them "fit", I'd simply put them in a story that suited them better.

    Thank you, kind sir, for giving me a chance to exercise my debating skills. I'm sick and stuck at home today, so having something to stimulate my thoughts is doing wonders for my mental state.
     
  13. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    I found it quite amusing that so many people felt targeted by the "remember that women are people too" comment. Admittedly, I asked myself as well if I'd written something to that effect, here or elsewhere. I probably have.
     
  14. Tom

    Tom Istar

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    Amusing in what way?
     
  15. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    There was this serious discussion going on about something or other relevant to personality/physiology/representation/etc. It seemed quite involved. Then Nihal stops by, drops a bomb, and there's at least three posts saying something like "oops, that might have been me, sorry".
    It's like everyone got carried away by the act of discussing/debating and then got reminded of the actual topic itself.

    Then again, if you don't find that kind of thing amusing, you'd probably not agree.
     
  16. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

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    Historically and culturally, the "men and women are the same and if you say they're not that's sexist!" trend is the brand spanking new one.



    Obviously women would be "more or less prone to something" than men. But at the same time when talking about men, they would be "more or less prone to something" than women. It's not about having a "default" or a "control group". It's simply comparing and contrasting the two sexes against each other. There is nothing wrong with making comparisons or identifying contrasts between the sexes.

    So you're saying because authors might confuse biological differences with societal expectations they should just pretend that biological difference don't exist? Better safe than sorry? Are we completely disregarding the possibility that authors might be able to take biological differences into account without confusing them with societal expectations?

    Furthermore, are authors not allowed to consider societal expectation in their settings? Are they meant to create characters in a vacuum before plopping them down into a setting and situation?

    For someone arguing that all characters should be shaped by their past, relationships, goals, etc. you are making an awful lot of negative, blanket assumptions about what your fellow writers will and won't do while creating characters. Maybe you should step back for a moment and consider that like fictional characters, all authors are different and are all shaped by their environment, upbringing, relationships, dreams and, yes, even their biology. Every author will approach characterization differently.

    Personally, I like to give people the benefit of the doubt. I like to think that every person who loves to write stories also loves to create characters and really tries hard to create characters that are interesting and vibrant and real. Though in the end, not every author's efforts will be equal.

    Still, I don't think it's the right of writers to tell other writers they're doing it wrong. You can say "your characters aren't interesting to me" or "I wish there were more women in your story" or "I really didn't like the way this character was portrayed" or whatever you felt as a reader of the work. But no writer has the right to tell another writer how to write their stories, period. Story quality is too personal and subjective. You don't have to like another writer's work, but you don't have the right to tell them it's wrong or bad.
     
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  17. Tom

    Tom Istar

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    I found it amusing, in the sense that sitting back to watch the fallout is both amusing, frustrating, and oddly satisfying at the same time.

    Maybe we should take our discussion somewhere else, though, and stop cluttering up Trick's thread, eh?
     
    Last edited: Nov 10, 2014
  18. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    I just want to say, I see stereotyped female characters all the time - the kid shows are just awful about it - and if I sound like those are the kinds of characters I want to write, then I'm coming off all wrong. A stereotype is what you write by default because you're not thinking. If anything, by considering a couple of the real and very subtle differences when I look at female characters, it dispels the nonsense and makes me feel far more capable of opening up the character and delving into them in ways that are actually important. That is, the goal is to not stereotype, to break or diminish that sense of "otherness," and to develop the character in a way that feels more complete.

    If that's not what people are hearing from me, then I'm not being clear enough.


    I don't think it matters. I think Trick's question was answered pretty well, and if we stopped or moved the discussion, the thread would just be dead.
     
  19. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

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    Just going by what I've witnessed, I think a more accurate definition of the way most people use the word "stereotype" is "what you call something that you've seen more than once and that you didn't like". Too many people decide that something is a stereotype because it doesn't work for them personally, they never take into consideration all the people it does work for.

    Seriously, you're making a BIG assumption here. You're assuming that people who write something you think of as a stereotype are not thinking. What's your evidence of that? That if you thought about it you wouldn't write it that way? That does not mean the writer wasn't thinking. It more likely means that they thought about it differently than you.
     
  20. Legendary Sidekick

    Legendary Sidekick The HAM'ster Moderator

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    When I asked that question, my point was that I think while some people might do (or be annoyed by) this…
    …I doubt any one in this discussion would write a story about, say, four woman warriors, then say, "Uh-oh. I better get a male POV character in this story. Maybe I'll take one of the existing characters and turn her into a guy. Problem solved!"


    For the record, I simply write characters and not worry so much about race, gender, age… the characters are who I see them as when I create them. They don't need to fit into any kind of stereotype or fit a quota. I won't change a character's race or gender to someone s/he is not, though I might cut, add or replace a character.

    I have the feeling most—if not all—in this discussion do exactly that. (The difference might be to what degree gender and such matters as you write the character's decisions, actions, place in society, etc.)


    EDIT - My last paragraph put far more eloquently:
     
    Last edited: Nov 10, 2014
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