April 8, 2018

Writing better female characters

 A few weeks ago, I started writing a thriller because thrillers are my second favorite genre to read (after YA speculative fiction). I was pretty stoked to dive into a new genre. Then I heard about the Stanch Book Prize, which is awarded to the best thriller in which "no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered." I'm not eyeing a Staunch Book Prize, but I thought that was a great thing to recognize because it does seem like every thriller I've read includes harm to women. Looking at the story I'm writing, though, it wouldn't qualify for the Staunch. I was going to follow the same tropes that I've read over and over again, and I was perpetuating the theme in the thriller genre of women as targets to be beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped, or murdered. Now I'm trying to figure out how to tell the story I wanted to tell without including those elements. I honestly don't know if I'll be able to meet the Staunch criteria, but I won't be treating my female victims differently than how I would treat male victims.

Shortly afterwards, I read Kameron Hurley's essay, "We Have Always Fought." (I urge everyone to read it. It's short. I'll wait for you.) It talks about what I had been thinking after learning of the Staunch Book Prize. It's easy to believe something if what you read and what you see on TV portrays it that way, even if it's not the truth. As Ms. Hurley says in her essay, "Populating a world with men, with male heroes, male people, and their 'women cattle and slaves' is a political act. You are making a conscious choice to erase half the world. As storytellers, there are more interesting choices we can make."

Finally, to top it off, I learned of the recent meme asking women authors to describe themselves as a male author would. If that didn't drive the point home, how about some examples of how male authors would have described their male characters the way they describe women?

As an author, I write primarily to entertain, especially for readers like myself who would enjoy the types of stories I enjoy reading. However, the longer I've been at it, and the older I've grown, the more I've become aware of the responsibilities of my writing. My words will be read by people I don't know and impact them in a way that's out of my control. I don't get to sit down and explain to them what I really believe or what I really meant by my stories.

YA happens to be a genre with many strong female protagonists, and by writing in that genre, it has made it easier for me to have strong female protagonists in my books. Yet, in reflecting on my own works, I see that I've still been lazy in following some gender stereotypes. Take my Driver series, for example. The protagonist is a teenage girl named Claire, and when I wrote the series, I made sure that she was the one in charge of what happens in the stories. Claire was the agent; she was not a passive bystander or just some guy's love interest or sidekick. Hopefully, I've succeeded in that. However, why is she the Driver? Why is a boy her Protector? There are two Drivers who figure prominently in the series, and they are both women. Their Protectors are both men. I imagined a world in which Drivers can be female or male (or non-binary), and the same goes with Protectors, but what I wrote doesn't support that. I should've done better.

The more I read in my favorite genres and the more I read about gender equality, the more I'm learning about what a true strong female character is like, and the kind of world they should inhabit. Authors have the advantage of not just writing to reflect the real world, but to create our own worlds to perpetuate the themes we want others to believe in. If enough stories are out there that portray women and men equally, maybe that will be the default thinking one day. I, for one, plan to work harder to do that in my stories.

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