Welcome back to my ongoing and inconsistent series, Controversy in Fiction! I’ve written posts on female authors and characters before, but there’s still much to cover. What about male characters? And how do they compare to females?
As a female, I have a really hard time writing female characters. Say what now? Let me rephrase—despite being a woman, I have a hard time writing stereotypical feminine characters. While this shouldn’t be a bad thing, when I get critical feedback from other writers, male and female alike, I often get comments like, “This is more of a masculine trait” in reference to my female protagonist speeding or even “I thought your character was a guy” when her name comes up.
Thanks, guys. I appreciate the feedback.
I will admit, I am guilty of making assumptions of my own, except I’m more likely to assume a character is a female rather than male. Perhaps it’s easier for readers to understand characters they can identify with. Stereotypes exist for a reason, but more often than not blatant stereotyping can be obnoxious. Here are just a few such stereotypes and some well-written characters that defy them.
Disclaimer: This post may contain controversial opinions that are not necessarily the same as those of readers. I will not be discussing sexuality or gender identity. Rather, the purpose of this post is to examine some of the stereotypes between males and females and how it relates with fiction.
Not all Strong Female Heroes Wield a Sword or Bow
Don’t get me wrong, I like swords and bows. I’ve taken fencing lessons and would like to learn longsword fighting, though I might be better with long-range weapons. I was called Annie Oakley the last time I handled a gun. My little sister even has a collection of seventeen daggers, two of which are throwing knives. But strength isn’t just in the ability to fight or defend oneself.
Strength can be in recognizing one’s self-worth, like Roza in Bone Gap.
Strength can be in the ability to recognize one’s shortcomings yet to love wholehearted all the same, like Emma in Fawkes.
Strength can be in reaching out to help somebody even when it’s hard, like Samantha in The Art of Feeling.
Strength can be in standing up for what one believes in despite brutal opposition, like Clara in Audacity.
Strength can be in the ability to empathize with others when logic is seen as superior, like Octavia in A Conspiracy of Stars.
The above are just a few of the many characters who have shown their strength doesn’t have to lie in the ability to lead an army. While I do enjoy stories about adventure and revolutions (I will sing “Do You Hear the People Sing?” and “Red and Black” all the livelong day), I also enjoy stories about personal struggles or fights that don’t take place on a battlefield.
After all, there’s more than one way to be strong.
“Male” Recklessness and “Female” Sensitivity
This is the part where I probably confuse critique partners. I’m a female, but sometimes I can be pretty reckless. For example, I have driven up to 110mph, though unlike my protagonist, my experience was on the speed-free section of the autobahn, not an American highway. It’s not just males who have impulses.
That and I don’t include a lot of feelings in my initial drafts. I’m just not a touchy-feely kind of person. I don’t really care for reading paragraph after paragraph about how a certain character felt guilty about eating a slice of cake or couldn’t make up their mind whether to get into a sketchy car. I’d rather jump to the action, then add the emotion later.
Just a few of my favorite characters who don’t quite fit the stereotypes or reckless males and sensitive females:
The Cinnamon Roll—Beck in A Thousand Perfect Notes
I Wish I Could Be Sweet but I’m Not, Deal with It—Rumi in Summer Bird Blue
Is Actually a Cinnamon Roll—August—and Looks Likes a Cinnamon Roll but can Actually Kill You—Kate in This Savage Song
Not all Males Have to be Dark and Brooding
Not all men can be Batman. Actually, if they were all Batman, it would be really annoying. If anything, I find that characters who are solely dark and brooding appear less developed, as if the writer couldn’t think of anything for the guy to say and gave him as few lines as possible.
As you’re probably aware, I’m a huge fan of Marvel movies—take Guardians of the Galaxy for instance. At one point, Yondu, Quill’s father-figure, accuses Quill of being overly sentimental after he joins forces with an assassin: “Is that what she’s been filling your head with, boy? Sentiment? Eating away your brain like maggots!” Nevermind that, as it turns out, Yondu is actually one of the most sentimental characters. He collects figurines for his dashboard and treats Quill like a son.
Guys can be a good friend and more than just the love interest, like Caleb in Tell Me Something Real.
Guys can be tender-hearted and sweet, like Julian in A List of Cages.
Guys are allowed to love and grieve, like Carver in Goodbye Days.
Guys can have dreams for their future and not want to fight, like Ponyboy in The Outsiders.
Fitting the Stereotype
Sometimes, though, stereotypes are there for a reason. For example, I’m a very stereotypical young adult author—I’m a white female with a hard-to-spell first name; I like coffee and tea; and I enjoy chasing butterflies with my camera. But in other ways, I’m different—I’m a military brat who struggles to keep time zones straight; I don’t actually like killing off characters; and I like quirky and obscure novels.
Women can like makeup and wield words with power, like Phillipa in The Light Between Worlds.
Men can be secretive and protective yet kind and ready to let women protect themselves, like Adrian in Renegades.
It’s all about the balance of knowing what the stereotypes are and when to use them. Characters should not just be their roles or their gender, but first and foremost, characters should be human.
Let’s chat! What are some of your least favorite gender-orientated stereotypes? Who are some of your favorite strong female characters? How about soft male ones?
Film references: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 1 and 2
Literary references: Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap, Nadine Brandes’ Fawkes, Laura Tims’ The Art of Feeling, Melanie Crowder’s Audacity, Olivia A. Cole’s A Conspiracy of Stars, C. G. Drews’ A Thousand Perfect Notes, Akemi Dawn Bowman’s Summer Bird Blue, Victoria Schwab’s This Savage Song, Calla Devlin’s Tell Me Something Real, Robin Roe’s A List of Cages, Jeff Zentner’s Goodbye Days, S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, Laura E. Weymouth’s The Light Between Worlds, and Marissa Meyer’s Renegades