Thursday, February 9, 2012

Female Characters and the Readers Who Love Them

A characterization guest blog from the Word Nerd. . .

After sending them for A.C. to use in his blog, I realized that my posts about characterizations featured only males as examples of multifaceted, interesting, complex characters.  Surely there are some female characters out there that can be held up to similar scrutiny.  I'd like to think that the difficulty in creating complex female characters lies in how complex women are in real life, but I'm afraid it's due more to misunderstanding and even misogyny on the part of society.  In fact, it's a sad commentary that, here in the early 21st century, this even has to be an issue.

Women are pulled in so many directions and sent mixed signals by modern society regarding career, children, education, appearances, aging, and even personality.  Assertive, opinionated women in politics or on television are often vilified.  (You know the word they use.  It starts with a "B".)  Thirty years ago, a TV news anchor named Christine Craft was fired from her job for being "too old, too unattractive and wouldn't defer to men."  She was 37 years old at the time.  I don't know what's more horrific here -- that a person in her 30's is compelled to file an age-discrimination lawsuit or the idea that a female news and sports reporter had to be deferential to men in order to appeal to the viewing public.

Go to your newsstand and count how many men's fashion magazines are on the racks.  Then count the ones aimed at women.  There are far fewer magazines for men, and even they don't simply deal with skin care and accessorizing.  I remember when I was a teen and my dad subscribed to Esquire.  It wasn't uncommon to find featured articles by Kurt Vonnegut or Norman Mailer or one of Lloyd George's grandsons.  I haven't seen anything by Anne Tyler or Amy Goodman showing up in Glamour or Good Housekeeping.  Once in awhile, we're thrown a bone with a two-page article on health care or reproductive issues, but those are rare and, though relevant, keep the worldview pretty narrow.  Don't look for a meaty article on foreign policy or history because you won't find it.

Instead, women in America are bombarded with images of size-0 airbrushed plastic figures, gooey romances, celebrity gossip, and cake recipes.  Of course I like cooking and make-up and shoes, but I feel insulted that these editors and publishers believe that's all there is to me.  American pre-teen and teen girls are glutted with princess and "damsel-in-distress" stories and told "boys won't like you if you. . . (get good grades, kick a soccer ball better, have your own opinions)"  As a teacher, I see it every day:  girls who dumb themselves down because they don't want to intimidate their friends or alienate boys.  Suddenly, what they think of themselves takes a back seat to what their peers think of them.

I am seeing eight-year-old girls who should be riding bikes and getting dirty sitting in the nail salon having a set of acrylic nails put onto their fingers.  Once I saw a little girl in Target who couldn't have been older than four with expensive salon streaks in her hair.  When we begin at such an early age teaching little girls that nails and hair are more important than brains and hearts, it makes it difficult for them to identify true role models when they read or create them when they attempt to write fiction of their own.

Literary archetypes are another problem.  Female archetypes generally fall into three categories:  The Good Mother, The Bad Mother, The Soul Mate.  Women are defined by their relationships, by whether or not there are children or a man in their lives.  One thousand years of Roman rule where women were chattel and a thousand more of Roman influence on government and society haven't helped the situation any.  There are thousands of examples in mythology and folklore that present women as conniving and vindictive.

How to create a female character who isn't conniving and selfish, a princess, or a Mary Sue?

Stay tuned.

(See Lynne's blog at