There’s been a lot of talk lately in the science fiction and fantasy community about “strong” female characters, with various authors weighing in about how to write them, what they are, and why the term is flawed in the first place. There are discussions of deadly tropes and how to avoid them. This is all fine, and I agree with the points made for the most part; the last thing we need is a rehash of eyerollingly blatant male fantasies. But with all the focus on writing techniques on the one hand, and political imperatives on the other, I wonder if we’re not losing sight of the big picture.
Just as I don’t imagine most women want to be thought of as “female writers,” the idea of “female characters” as a category for discussion seems problematic. That this category continues to thrive, and to spawn essays and blog posts—including this one!—points directly to the underlying problem: we are issuing prescriptive Do’s and Don’ts about the depiction of women as if they are a separate, exotic species. There is of course good reason for this—frequently in fiction, and in genre fiction in particular, women are depicted as alien beings, even when it’s with the best of intentions.
. . . .
There is an uncomfortable feeling in online discussions about how to write “female characters” that some are squinting hard in their attempt to see women as people, while others are approaching the subject with the dutiful submission we bring to a meal of thrice-washed organic kale. One subset wants writing tips on how to take on the otherworldly she-goddess; another wants to make sure we are doing feminism properly. The first reminds me of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, where through innumerable books and sexual experiences, the male characters never cease to lament their inability to understand women. As to the second, well, I think feminism is complex, and what constitutes a feminist character should be part of an ongoing dialogue, not a set of precepts sealed in blood. It is also individual: Lisbeth Salander annoyed the hell out of me, but for others she was empowering…and I’m not out to argue someone out of their empowerment. At twenty-one I found Joss Whedon’s Buffy empowering, and I know that is not for everyone.
What I think is missing from some of these discussions is: writing a fully realized character of any gender requires one trait above all others, and that is empathy. When a female character goes off the rails, it is often because the author experienced a failure of imagination; while he could imagine all the emotions a man might feel in a similar situation—and in the case of literary fiction written by men, this is often recounted in great detail—he has neglected to understand his female characters in the same way. Instead there is a hyperawareness of her beauty and sexiness even from her own perspective, such as in Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot; an inability to grasp how the character might experience life from the inside. I think when male authors make this mistake it’s because they forget we don’t see ourselves the way they see us. I don’t want to go so far as to call this a lack of empathy, but it is certainly a failure of imagination.
Link to the rest at Tor.com and thanks to HN for the tip.