Writing as a man feminist; when no means no

I have spent a lot of time on the protagonist of Politics in Blood (which someday will get published and y’all be able to read it). I wanted Fray to be a ‘strong’ female character (check out this post by Danielle Shipley about ‘strong’ female characters, and then follow my quote back to my post which explains why I keep using inverted commas when I write ‘strong’ female characters). I wanted her to be a woman that women could ‘get’, understand and identify with (in as much as you can identify with a master criminal). I wanted her to be a character that women could read and not be embarrassed by.

In order to do that, I spent a lot of time reading feminist blogs and columns. I wanted to know what kind of things made female characters ‘weak’ or stereotypical. Luckily, pretty much everything I found, Fray wasn’t guilty of. Every now and then I’d find something I hadn’t thought of.

Turning points

But actually, there was one moment when I realised something very important. Which is that, just because I’m a man, doesn’t mean I can’t disagree with something feminism asserts.

The example in question was a really simple choice. I was going back over my first chapter and decided that I ought to describe Fray a bit more. In thinking about the clothes she was wearing, I hit upon an interesting conundrum. Trousers or skirt? After I’d decided what I’d be wearing (joke), I returned to Fray’s wardrobe.

I spent a little time on Google looking over results and reading some feminist thoughts on the subject. I found out two things:

  1. Trousers are evil (and so are men).
  2. Skirts are evil (and so are men).

As Danielle Shipley so rightly points out in her latest post, you can’t please everyone. Some people thought women wearing trousers was a sign of male oppression, as wearing trousers is a ‘man thing’ so women wearing trousers are ‘trying to be men’. But the other side of the coin was people arguing that skirts are a sign of male oppression because they’re a garment just for women, etc etc.

Deciding to say no

I realised after a while that I was spending far too much time thinking about it. It’s a stupid issue. Women can wear what they want, as can fictional women. It doesn’t matter; skirts and trousers aren’t evil, or good. They’re just things that people put on, like hats, or a pantomime horse costume. There doesn’t have to be inherent sexist overtones in a piece of material.

It was an important decision to make, because up until that point, I think I’d operated in the same way a lot of men clued up about feminism do, in that they tread very carefully because we’re obviously guilty of everything. Look at us, with our man faces. Oh, the hate that pours off you. What, you have facial hair? You oppressive bastard; I feel so oppressed right now.

But after reading certain pieces of feminism by people who believe that the world would be a better place if all the men were dead, or kept in zoos, and that mothers should kill their children in order to escape gender roles, and that sex with a man is always rape, I realised that feminism, like religion, capitalism and democracy, is great as a concept, but as soon as you give that concept to humans, they don’t half screw it up.

You can’t please everyone

There is no way I’m ever going to write a woman who everyone thinks is a ‘strong’ character. There’ll always be someone who will accuse me of sexism, and of taking breaks in between writing in order to stab women and then laugh about it. One woman’s idea of equality is to be able to choose to look after her children, not be forced to; whereas another’s is that she has a career while her husband is forced to stay at home. There are people who want true equality, and people who just want to flip things around so that women can have thousands of years oppressing men in order to even things up.

I realised some very important things on that day, just from pondering a simple costume choice for my main character.

I realised that feminism, like everything, isn’t one idea (even jam). There are different factions within the belief (as there are in…jam). Some of them want a better world for everyone, and the start of that is equality in the sexes (these, I like to think, are the true feminists ((or jamists – ‘what do we want? Equality for all jams! When do we want it? Whenever there’s toast, please’)), so just hate men and feminism gives them a handy cover to say whatever they want and get away with misandry, and others think men are the cause of all evil in the world and that no woman has ever done a thing wrong.

What happens when you disagree with your beliefs?

It opened up a very large moral conundrum, however. I’d openly acknowledged to myself that it was possible to disagree with feminism, whilst still believing, and wanting to uphold, its main principles. But half the problem in this world is that there are those who disagree with feminism full stop (or period, for you Americans). How do you be a man who supports gender equality, yet still disagrees with certain parts of feminism?

In the same way, I imagine, as gay Catholics do. You look at what you believe, and then you realise which bits have been twisted and distorted by people. I don’t believe in God, but I think religion is a wonderful thing. It gives hope, joy and morality to people all across the world. At its core, every religion teaches tolerance, understanding, charity and acceptance. How people have managed to take those core messages and extract homophobia, racism, sexism and general badassery out of them is another issue entirely. It’s like turning gold into lead. (Or something worse, but I haven’t quite decided which swear words I want to appear on this blog.)

What it’s all about

Feminism, at its core, wants equality for everyone. True feminists (I believe) are as worried about the gender stereotypes and expectations that are placed upon men, as they are all the societal constraints that women have to suffer with. Being a man and believing in feminism is not a case of hating oneself or one’s gender; it’s about wanting to make a better world.

So, while I’ll uphold feminism, and will continue to write about it, and try and do my little part to make this world a better place, I also know that it’s OK to stand up and say, ‘You know, I don’t agree with that’.

That women are abused and treated as second class citizens are massive issues that need to be dealt with. But as to whether they want to wear a skirt or some trousers, well; let’s just say I won’t be picketing any branches of Topshop any time soon.

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That Bittersweet Phrase; ‘Strong Female Character’

I’m quite interested in how gender is portrayed and defined in literature and in films and television. However, being somewhat of a pansy, I have refrained from writing about it before now, through a fear of ‘getting it wrong’. The last thing I want to happen is to be misinterpreted and  labelled a massive sexist (or even a small sexist – quality over quantity, right?).

Then I realised that actually, that fear of getting it wrong is one of the problems we have today when it comes to gender. Which is where the title comes in. You might be thinking, ‘Well Rewan, you little/large/supersize sexist, what’s what with strong female characters, eh?’ To which my reply is, absolutely nothing, I love them. Hopefully written one myself. My problem is not with the idea that the phrase describes, but more what it’s attributed to.

This is getting confusing, right?

Put simply, I don’t believe that what is often described as a ‘strong female character’, actually is one. The problem is the word ‘strong’. People take it too literally. We have this interesting problem now that male authors/scriptwriters/directors are aware that it’s definitely not ok to have only one woman in the cast, whose role is to cry uncontrollably and get saved by one of the men, whom she then repays in sex (I mean, come on, he saved her life right? We all know prostitution is wrong, and that you can’t put a price on a woman’s body, but he saved her life. Surely that’s enough, yeah?) They know that their female characters have to have depth and purpose.

The second half of the problem comes from the misunderstanding that, whilst it is true that women can do everything men can do, the fact is they probably wouldn’t. Because men and women are different. Feminists often like to suggest that the world would be a better place if run by women. It wouldn’t, it’d just be screwed up in a completely different way. What’s wrong with the world today isn’t men, it’s people. Back to the point, male writers (I expect) often feel as though they cannot create boundaries for their female characters in the same way they would with their male ones. They worry that, as there are all these people out there talking about how women are equal to men, they’d better make their female characters do exactly what their male counterparts would have done, otherwise they’re a sexist.

Man with tits

Which is why you get this horrible class of female heroines who never feel any emotion whatsoever, who can calmly watch their parents dissolve in acid without even the inclination to even think about the possibility of crying, who strut around and have a left hook that could knock a bison over, who carries a gun twice as big as any of the male characters, and spends most of the book/film topless, because they’re a woman and they’re comfortable with their bodies and their sexuality, no matter what society might try and say.

These characters are so awful to read. Mostly because they’re prats. Female or male, I can’t stand this type of stunted, emotionally crippled, trigger happy idiot, because they have no depth. That’s what any character needs, depth. And, to be honest, what is this kind of character anyway, apart from your typical male action hero with breasts?

Let women be women

That’s the problem. Writers have become too worried about being called sexist that they feel their female characters have to measure up to their male characters. A lot of problems in society come from this idea of having to compare women to men. What would a woman have done in that situation? Bet he only did that because he was a man. Writers spend too much time judging their female characters from the perspective of their male characters. Which means that if a male character is physically strong, and a female character isn’t – you’re a sexist. Which is rubbish. But I think a lot of writers operate like this, thinking the way to empower women in their novels or films is to take them one step further than their male counterparts. Leading man got a pistol? Better give the leading woman a machine gun. Leading man got a sword? Claymore it is then.

It’s this kind of comparison that really hampers the creation of strong female characters. Surely the whole point of feminism is that women are their own people? If we continue to define our female characters by looking at what our male characters are doing, that’s just another form of marginalisation. You don’t create a strong character by making the others around them weak. If your character is not strong on their own, then they are not a strong character.

It seems obvious, but…

These terrible heroines come from several assumptions, that run like this:

1.If women have been forced by society into the role of care-giver, so their whole lives revolve around looking after other people, then making my female character not care about anything or anybody but herself is inspired. Liberation, baby!

2.Women used to be referred to as ‘the fair sex’, and were always thought of as weak. My heroine always carries a warhammer, which she can lift with one hand. This character is shaping up to be amazing! Perhaps I should get posters made of her, seeing as so many women are obviously going to look up to her as a role model, they’ll probably want her on their bedroom walls…

3.Crying is supposedly a sign of weakness, and another stereotype of women is that they are too emotional, so my character won’t have feelings at all. My god, I’m a literary genius and the most epic feminist there’s ever been!

It’s all bollocks. A character like that is just a hideous anti-stereotype, and the problem with creating characters that directly oppose a stereotype is that you are still shaping your characters by using stereotypes. Your characters are still defined by gender stereotypes, even if you use them as things to avoid.

At the end of the day, the key is just to find the right balance between gender and character. To say ‘forget about the gender of your character’ would be wrong, as it will affect what they do. Men and women are different, and that’s an important thing to remember. Neither is inferior to the other, but we will react differently to situations based upon our gender. Are your female friends indistinguishable from your male friends? Of course not, and although personality is most of that reason, personality is built upon a foundation of gender. It’s inescapable, but that doesn’t mean it has to govern everything.

Political points don’t make it right

When writing my female characters, I tend to keep in mind one question, and that is ‘Is she doing this because she’s a woman, or because it’s what her character would do in that situation?’ Saying ‘she’s a woman, so she would do this’ is making things a lot more political than they need to be. At the end of the day, it’s not about what your female characters do, but whythat can make them strong, weak, empowering, or sexist.

It’s the difference between crying because the scary monster has attacked, and crying because the scary monster just ate the man/woman you love. It’s ok to have a woman cleaning the house, if the story demands it. What wouldn’t be right, is if in The Hunger Games, Katniss entered the arena, looked around, and thought ‘bloody hell, this could do with a sweep’.

Male is not a blueprint

The bad kinds of ‘strong female characters’ come from people pausing when writing and asking themselves, ‘what would a man do in this situation?’ Be loyal to the character, because that is the key. The character and the situation defines what should happen, not gender. It is ok to have a character cry at the big scary monster, if that’s what the story demands.

Having a crying woman, or a woman who cleans, or looks after a family, or gets overly emotional, or whatever, doesn’t make you a sexist, if the story demands it. But if your story is a science fiction piece, in which robots do everything for humans, does the wife really have to walk around with a tray of drinks for the husband’s male guests?

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The importance of character flaws

Ergh. Those people

We all knew those people in school. You know the ones. The ones that were perfect at everything. The ones who had learned everything there possibly was to know about every musical instrument by the time they were twelve, got themselves A grades in 100 exams, yet were also amazing at football, basketball, tennis and bareknuckle fighting. Teachers loved them, parents loved them. They were perfect.

And everyone you knew hated them, right?

Your DNA says ‘I hate you’

It’s weird, but we seem to be biologically engineered to hate people more successful than ourselves. I suppose it’s a survival trait. A cavemen who was happy to kill one bison/tiger/wild bowl of noodles and sit down to celebrate his achievement would soon run out of food for his family. A bison would have only gone so far, and instead of hunting for another one, he was sitting there going ‘oh yeah, I’ve done pretty well. I’m a good caveman.’ But if he saw another caveman who had three dead bison in his cave, and was jealous of him, he would go out and continue hunting and try to best him. He wouldn’t die of starvation, and by being competitive, he was reducing the risk of his family running out of food.

Also, your brain says ‘I hate you’

It’s not just our biology that makes it hard for us to identify with characters who have it all. At a dead basic, selfish level, what’s the point? If everything is going well for someone, why do they need us to care about them? It’s why none of us ever sit down and think, ‘God, I really hope Bill Gates is ok at the moment.’ It’s a waste of time to give compassion to someone who has no need of it (Yes, Bill Gates probably has problems too. Don’t dig too deep into the example). To be cruelly honest, if Mr or Miss perfect has a bad time, we’re probably going to think they deserved it.

The thing is, we identify with the characters we read about as though they are real people. If their marriage breaks down, we are sad for them, if they die, sometimes we go as far as to weep, and we are happy when they succeed. But because we think of them as real people, if they’re too good, our biology kicks in and the hate appears. And it’s very hard to care about someone you hate (although if I was a 1950’s comedian I would probably make a marriage joke right now).

Being in a story doesn’t count as a flaw

Which is why your characters need to have things wrong with them. You might think that the story, which practically by necessity must have bad things happening in it, will be enough to win our compassion. We’re a bit more fickle than that. Deep down, most readers know that the chances are, the main character of any novel will get what they want and will be fine at the end. We open a book knowing this, even if we know it at such a deep level that consciously this knowledge doesn’t register.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a cliché. Please shut up

A brilliant example of this is superheroes. By rights, they should be on the list of people we don’t care about. They are so much better than us, either physically or mentally. Why do we care? Because they still have problems. If you want to create a superhero, the easiest and most effective formula to use is to give them a superpower that requires the one thing that they don’t have. When Thor gets banished to Earth for his arrogance, it is only in becoming humble and willing to die that he gets his hammer back. A superhero is usually someone we can identify with because their power is the polar opposite of their normal character. Peter Parker becomes a loved and celebrated person, despite being a college nerd who people look down upon. What’s more, it is the struggle to cope with the responsibility they now have that gives them a weakness we can identify with.

Perfection = Dullness

As I said in We read stories because, without hard work, success is bland, it is the conquering of obstacles that makes us want to stick with a character until the end. But if that character has no flaws, the obstacles will seem very dull. In The Matrix, Neo’s flaw is that he is new and untrusting, and unable to live up to everyone’s expectations. In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo is the weakest, most unsuited person to the task of taking the ring to Mordor. He is surrounded by powerful warriors; the first time he sees the Ringwraiths, he drops his sword and runs away.

It’s all about balance

Flaws give characters more problems to deal with, and because we all like to see people overcome their problems, that makes them more appealing to us. But be careful not to go too far the other way; your characters still have to be likeable. A struggling alcoholic, addicted to prescription medicine, coping with the death of their parents by turning to crime, becoming arrogant, patronising and not listening is going to be a hard pill for us all to swallow. It is worth noticing in that list, that flaws can be huge (such as alcoholism or drug addiction), or they can be smaller character traits (such as not listening or being arrogant). As long as it gets in the way of characters forming perfect relationships with everyone they meet, and complicates the story, then you are on to a winner. Generally, a character’s flaws are what makes the story possible. In my book (which had better get published one day. Please?), Politics in Blood, the whole plot is based upon the fact that the antagonist plays on my protagonist’s arrogance. What should be an easy thing to walk away from is something she can’t resist, because of her pride.

Flaws make characters. They are more important than hair or eye colour or many other physical descriptions you may spend hours getting right, as they actually impact the story, unlike ‘My blue hair means I’m going to piss off the wrong people.’ Having said that, if a person’s hair colour is a focal point because they are vain, there’s your character flaw. Be careful not to overburden your character with flaws, or else they will become impossible for your reader to care about. Also, make sure that their flaws are ‘flaws’, not nasty traits. You probably want your MC to be likeable. Eating puppies isn’t a flaw, it’s an evil act. Paul ‘Fido Chomper’ Smith is not a character whose flaws will draw you into caring about him…

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People Who Drink Lime Juice Are All Assassins (Why I don’t like character sheets)

imageThere are lots of different approaches to writing a novel, I gather. There are those who plan and plan and plan (Iain M. Banks spends more time planning than he does writing), others (like myself) just think ‘Sod it, I’ll see what happens’, and others blow up a factory of alphabetical fridge magnets and then copy down what ever lands on the ground from left to right.

For those who like their planning, you may be aware of character sheets. These are generally questionnaires and you fill them out as your character would. These, in my opinion, are rubbish.

All People Who Drink Lime Juice Are Assassins

We know this not to be true, I’m sure. If I met someone and they told me they drink lime juice, I wouldn’t duck and roll, push over the nearest table and reach for my Uzi. What’s this got to do with character sheets?

I understand that writing down a few details about your character can be a good idea, but the kind of character sheets I’m talking about in this post are the ones that go way further than that. The kind that get you to list your character’s top three favourite foods.

Since when does eating Ham and Pineapple pizza give away loads of character information?  Unless when they order it they say ‘And I don’t want it delivered by a man, because I think they’re all scum because of relationship which ended badly, the emotional scars from which still affect me to this day.’ I’ve been in Domino’s. People don’t order pizza like that.

What’s In Their Pockets?

This was a question we always got asked at university. What’s in your character’s pockets? I dunno – their half-finished autobiography, listing in detail all the reasons they’re looking for a father figure? A map to treasure? Some Nazi gold from their dark, Nazi past?

Again, it seems like the answer will almost always be simply; phone, keys, wallet, occasional sweet-wrapper. ‘But the absence of a sweet wrapper hints at their life changing diabetes’, someone might cry out, but they won’t, because it’s utter rubbish.

And if there is something of importance in their pockets, that is vital to the story, you will already know what it is, because it’s bloody important. ‘Oh my god, he can get out of this situation by using the sweet wrapper! Thank Christ I filled in that character sheet!’

How Do They Grow?

I think it can also negatively affect character development. We learn to know and love characters in novels in the same way as we do people in real life. We learn about them gradually, new facets of their personality uncovering as we grow closer emotionally or, in the case of love, or being stuck on the roof of a sinking car, physically.

So writing your characters from the start knowing everything about them could be dangerous, because you have all this information you know about them that you want to put across, despite it being unnecessary. As I said in 6 Reasons Why You Need Proof Readers (which perhaps should have been titled Six Raisins You Nead Proph Riddlers…), you will always know way more information than the reader.

Knowing all of it in advance might lead you into the dangerous territory of infodump. They don’t need to know what’s in the character’s pockets, unless it’s the severed head of their uncle, for instance.

They Can Work

Of course, I’m sure they work for some people. I even think that the bare essential details might be quite handy if recorded on a character sheet for easy reference. But when you get down to their favourite ice cream, the actual address of their school, what their allergies are, and whether or not they had a pet when they were young, how much is that actually going to add to your story?

Unless, of course, you’re writing the story of an ice-cream van driver, who teaches an afterschool pet-care workshop at his old secondary school, which he moved to because his first school was too close to an almond factory…

Do character sheets work for you? Or are you a sod it and go type of person? Has listing a character’s favourite pizza in advance actually helped you when you’re writing? I’d love your thoughts.


Also like your quirky lunacy in bite-sized chunks? You can follow me on Twitter: @RewanTremethick.