Sunday, 24 February 2013

Writing For Your Gender

Think of a story you're writing, or have written. Now take the lead female character, and the lead male character. You'll need one of each here, so grab the closest to a lead as you have... if your cast is all one gender, that might say something, but it isn't related to this post. Now, jot down (or at least picture) some key attributes for each lead. Which character seems more dynamic?
Where is this going?

Now please bear with me as I divert into Twilight.


Recently I watched the Nostalgia Critic's Editorial on "Is Twilight the WORST thing ever?". (Yes, I'm referencing Channel Awesome again.) Certainly the latest "Twilight" film swept the Razzy awards last night. But the Critic makes a couple good points regarding the franchise.

First of all, it's not so much the series ITSELF we hate as how POPULAR it became. In particular, given how terrible the characters are, we think our society must be messed up for liking (or at least supporting) that sort of drivel. Secondly, and more relevant to my topic, is how bland said characters are. Here is where it gets interesting, as I quote:

"Bella is and has always been one thing. A blank slate. ... That's why she's so dependent and that's why she never does anything. Because she's just a skin for female readers to put on, and enter into a fantasy world of love and excitement."

Doug draws a parallel with superheroes, then notes the problem is: "...A character nowadays being too much of a blank slate, not doing anything, now equals: uncaring, selfish, lazy, too dependent on everyone, and avoiding responsibility when trouble is afoot."

Interesting. So, that's filed away in the back of my mind. (It also makes me wonder about "50 Shades of Grey".) Fast forward to today, when I watch a review by Todd in the Shadows and the Rap Critic about Alicia Keys' song "Girl on Fire". Now, I find that song rather annoying. (Not "turn off the radio" bad, just annoying.) Because it starts "She's just a girl, and she's on fire" and then here's the chorus:
This girl is on fire...
This girl is on fire...
She's walking on fire...
This girl is on fire...

WHY? Why is she on fire?! Because she's hard working? Because she's very pretty? Because she's an arsonist? (Oh god, in looking up the lyrics, I learn Glee did a cover. Nooooo. I'm gonna be dealing with this song for a while, huh?) Anyway - song, please provide some context!! (If you watch the music video, the context is apparently Mary Poppins. ...???)

At one point, Todd takes Alicia to task for the line, "You can try but you'll never forget her name" because... yeah, the song is a BLANK SLATE. What name? Who is this girl that I apparently can't even look at for being so bright? She's actually VERY forgettable! Just... throw some water on her, let's move on.

Contrast this with Katy Perry's "Firework", where the song starts by giving some context ("Do you ever feel so paper thin"), then suggests there's hope, then hits the chorus: "You're a firework!" It's also fairly generic, yet I find it better because:
1) It builds up to the chorus.
2) It talks TO me to pull me in, using second person, as opposed to providing this skin for me to put on.
3) It's gender neutral. Which is not a knock against Alicia Keys going the female route, but I honestly don't see how third person helps the case for empowerment. (She's a girl who's on fire... eh, and you're over there.)

But then, I'm a guy, quoting more guys. Feel free to educate me.


At any rate, let's return to your lead female and lead male character. One of whom may be more dynamic than the other. Now I ask, is the less dynamic lead trending towards blank slate? And more to the point, are they the SAME gender as yourself?

I'm honestly a bit curious here, as I can only speak on the male side of things. (Along with comparing myself to Stephenie Meyer and Alicia Keys.) As far as me personally, I have to say... my female character is a LOT more engaging. Every time. Male is (like me?) kind of along for the ride. Not complete blank slate but... yeah, this troubles me enough to be blogging about it. In short, does this mean I'm able to pull all types of readers in?

Two quick paragraphs for those who know my writing (or who want to know more). My two biggest stories would be "Virga Mysteries" and "Time Trippers". In the former, Melissa is a quirky kind of gender flipped supernatural Sherlock Holmes, and James is... the guy who writes about her. In my 51,000 page effort he gets some backstory, but never actually a description... which I did on purpose because I wanted an 'everyday' man there, but why did I choose the male, exactly? (Easier to put myself in the story maybe? Huh.)

"Time Trippers" has a cast of no fewer than ten, but I'd argue three main females and two main males. Carrie is a track star cheerleader in a single parent family who wants to change her past. Julie is so severely screwed up by her home life that wow. Luci is an adopted intellectual two grades ahead of her age group. Frank... does research. And his parents often leave him alone for stretches, which I don't think I really address. Phil... is a kind hearted guy who does sports. And he has an older sister. So yeah.

Those who have read my stories, feel free to disagree with me, but I don't think my male characters are as interesting. Which raises the question of whether I'd have trouble pulling in female readers. Because the males are bland and the females are too difficult to identify with. (I can't even use setting as a trump card, because I tend to use urban fantasy. Though, I do have plot going for me. I'm hard to beat on plot.)

Now, I recognize that a chunk of my argument is based on franchises aimed at tweens and adolescents, and I'm not sure that's my demographic. (Also, the fact that I don't know my demographic is it's own problem.) But it seems like we might be able to draw one of two conclusions here. Either:

1) You write more generically for the same gender that you are. (Perhaps it's not a matter of engagement but it's the one you have to do the least research for?) This would imply that females can write more generic female roles, the sort of thing which might 'sell' better in our current times.

2) There is no correlation between author and characters. But even then, it makes me think that female writers would have a better idea on what their own gender wants to see in a female lead role, again giving them a slight advantage in the market.

The one final factor to consider is that I lean a lot towards fantasy and science fiction, not true crime or any of a number of other genres, all of which may portray male leads that are not generic in any way. Plus I tend to trend with pop culture, and may have no idea what I'm talking about. That's always an option. I dunno - what do you think?


  1. (Trying this again. First attempt to comment got eaten by the verification process.)

    I've read both works and wish to comment.

    First, looking at the Virga Mysteries, as you mentioned, James is in the Watson role. In the Holmes stories, though, Sherlock was the lead. Watson was, despite being the filter to experience Holmes, a supporting character. A lot of what we learned about Watson was through comparison and contrast with Holmes. The same thing happens with James. As the filter, everything we find out about Melissa is seen through his eyes, heard through his ears, experienced through his sensorium. How he reacts to Melissa, even when he's trying to be neutral, shows us his personality. He has one, but it's kept subtle.

    With Time Trippers, I'd argue that Carrie and Luci are the main characters, at least at first, with Julie moving in later. Frank and Phil work as supporting characters, though Frank gets far more screen time than Julie. We (the readers) see Frank as a young man starting to take responsibility, even when it's not his to take. Why do his parents leave him alone so much? Because Frank is responsible and mature beyond his years. (His lack of experience causes him problems, but that's not a bad thing.) Phil, especially once his background episode/chapter comes out, is a supporting character, initially tied to Julie's subplot. Once that's resolved, we see how he became to have empathy, how he realized that Julie was troubled. He stayed at her side despite everything that happened. I'd say that goes far beyond kind-hearted, really. And, you never mentioned Lee or Corry, both of whom aren't blank slates.

    Going to the songs... "Girl On Fire". Yes, we will forget her name. Right now, her main characteristic is being on fire. Apparently, literally on fire, because she's walking on fire. Apparently, the girl is a bit of an idiot, because she really shouldn't be walking. She should be stopping, dropping, and rolling. So, yes, we will remember her name because she's just an object right now, the idiot girl who is on fire. Her name can be Googleable, just search for "girl on fire dead", but not only will everyone will forget her name, everyone won't care about her name. Unless the fire is metaphorical. If it is, people will call her Katniss, from "The Hunger Games".

    And that leads to the next point. Stephanie Meyers somehow turned a faceless, bland, girl-shaped blob with elements of Mary-Sueism in to the central character of her story. Meanwhile, Suzanne Collins has Katniss, who has a personality and a willingness to do things. Katniss is not bland. Katniss doesnèt exist to let the reader slip into her body. Katniss is there to propel the story instead of letting the story happen to her. So, it might not be a matter of gender when it comes to writing generic leads. It could just be skill or lack thereof. I know that I don't have many male characters, though I do have some. They're not as memorable (usually) as the female characters, but the women tend to be the leads in my stories, too. Shouldn't lead characters be memorable for something more than a blob with Mary-Sue tendencies?

    I think the best conclusion is number 2. There's no correlation. Ideally, shouldn't the characters be *characters* first, not gender first? Just like no two people think the same way, no two characters should react the exact same way to the plot.

    1. Thanks for the second attempt. Sorry for the delay in response. First, Bwahahaha about your thoughts on the song. I needed that laugh. Also, if anyone's curious about the Pop Song Review I referenced in the entry, it's here:

      Second, thanks for your thoughts about my characters. Interesting that you see Luci as more of a main than Frank; she's not even in until Chapter 5 or so. I guess "supporting" is a role I hadn't considered (I tend to use main/secondary). Now I'm hoping my female characters don't necessarily need males to support them. ^.^ Also not certain I agree with the assessment of Watson as supporting only... but I grant that the way events are told can give us insight into the narrator there. Shades of James I hadn't considered.

      Finally, I don't know much about 'Hunger Games' so I'll yield to your expertise. I probably should read more, tends to be a time allocation issue. Yet while characters should be characters, we do seem to be in a day and age when gender (and race, for that matter) can be sensitive issues. (Not that they weren't previously, but I feel there's more awareness... and certain things probably sell better than others these days.)