Why Good Female Characters


I’ve been reading the first book in the Dark Angels series, based on a recommendation from a young male friend. And, well, the writing is really good––I never stumble on how he says things; it’s smooth and well-constructed and full of wonderful descriptions. The story’s a rip-roaring yarn with lots of nice innovation and a plot that’s not at all predictable.

But I have a small problem. I’ve gotten to page 115 without finding a single female character that actually participates in the action.

Yes, there’s a girl who gets hurt, but she’s helpless, bounced around from place to place by the more resourceful male characters. She has no agency (See Maiden/Victim archetypes, below). And there’s a woman in the powerful Nine, a consortium of people who run things, behind the scenes.  She does have agency. But she’s an ex-whore, and her place in the Nine is to be in charge of all the brothels. Sigh. And in the context of the story, she offers advice and succor when people are having problems, but stays out of the main action (see Wise Woman and Whore archetypes, below).

This got me to thinking.  Perhaps a small guide is in order for those smart young male friends in the world, not because they are too stupid to figure it out, but just because we don’t always see past our own experiences.  I know many of you will roll your eyes because it should be obvious. But it occurs to me that a straightforward laying-out of the issues might be of use to someone who hasn’t been in a position to examine them before.

See, we read because we want to be part of the adventure; and when the people who represent us are set on the sidelines, it becomes a little dreary — not because the book itself is dreary (far from it!) but because we want to go along on the adventure, too, even if it’s as a sidekick. So as a female person reading an adventure in which all the interesting bits are being performed/experienced by men, I start to feel a little depressed. Where are all the people like me?

It’s a little like a smart, intellectual young man reading a really great book all about football players and bodybuilders and creaky old men with bladder problems who used to be construction workers, with a couple of cardboard cut-out nerds thrown in to move the computer portion of the action along.  Oh, and they keep talking about how ugly/badly-dressed the nerds are. Would the young man want to keep reading after the first hundred pages? Well, my bet is he’d start to wish for some real-life intellectuals, and maybe some young people, and maybe he’d like to see the author question the idea of building a world full of jocks.

‘Cause, see, those missing intelligent folks are maybe who the smart young man identifies with.

But unlike jocks and old men with bladder problems, females make up 53% of the population, so there’s not really any good reason for them to be given so little of the action, unless it’s a historically-based novel.  In a world created from scratch, it’s hard not to believe the author doesn’t have an underlying belief that women shouldn’t or can’t participate fully. Which is a whole can of worms in itself.

Now, you might say, “This just happens to be a world where women are simply not equal members of society.” To which I would answer, “Okay, then since the author has deliberately chosen to make a world like that, then it needs to be a specific part of the story.”  They shouldn’t just make it like that and then ignore the results.

Typically, people who don’t write women into the action tend to go for archetypes, and don’t really step out of the archetype (or combination of two archetypes) for that character. Here are a few of them:
–Maiden (virgin/young girl/innocent/pure)
— Mother
— Crone (old lady or asexual Wise Woman)
— Whore
— Victim (raped, beaten, etc)
– Egghead (knowledgeable but otherwise helpless)

Here are the females you don’t see a lot of in a book that relies on archetypes:
— Proactive Female Geek
— Warrior (except in tiny brass bikinis or when the author means “kickass” to equal “sexy”)
— Person in power who doesn’t use sex/beauty as a primary power tool
— Older women as main characters
— Master of some amazing skill other than magic/wisdom/healing
— People who break archetypes (maid who goes off into the woods to become a permanent hermit, whore who has a PhD)

…You get the gist.

Other things to watch out for are:
— A woman’s life being ruined because she’s not pretty anymore (Might as well be dead if she can’t have her face back)
— Female characters who are fully-rounded until the action happens, and then they become feeble
— Female characters who have fate thrust upon them, and never take control of their own fate (no agency)
— Female characters being described by the narrator in terms of their looks (hair, figure, clothes, etc) when the men have not been; the problem with this is, it put us on the exterior of the women and on the interior of the men. Which means she becomes someone to admire (or not) from afar — the reader is evaluating how hot she is (or isn’t) — and that makes it much harder to identify with her, get inside of her.

Okay, good examples of some reasonable (I say reasonable, not perfect) women characters in popular fiction:
— Trillian, in Hitchiker’s Guide
— The female characters in the Enders books are (mostly) pretty good.
— The last four years of Doctor Who (Clara!)
— The girl in the first How to Train Your Dragon  (though where are the kickass grownup women in that film?  I was pleased to see them correct it in the second one)
— Pretty much all the women in the 2009 movie Avatar
– Rose the Elder, and all the implications of her life, in Titanic
— Merida, from Brave
— Kaylee, from Firefly/Serenity (who is sexual but not a whore, a total master of what she does, and an innocent on top of all that)
— River, from Firefly/Serenity (who the hell knows WHAT she is…?)

…Well, okay, we can include many Joss Whedon-created female characters.

To be honest, ultimately, stories are better stories with characters like these, because when ALL the characters are good, both female and male, it just makes the story better in general, whether you’re a female reader/watcher or not.

In any case, you get the picture: I get tired of impatiently leafing ahead to find out where the female characters come into their own.  Because it’s just a little too much like waiting on the sidelines myself, for a chance to come into my own.

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