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Discussion: The danger of male writers and female characters


I don’t think I have ever been so sad to finish a book. I wanted it to keep going; I was attached to the characters and their story. The book in question was Terry Pratchett’s Monstrous Regiment. I simply love the Discworld series. Pratchett is a master storyteller and he only got better with time. Book #31 is now one of my favorites. Sad that the man is no longer with us to give us more of these great stories.

Mild SPOILER ALERT for the content below. I will try to avoid telling too many of the book’s secrets, if I can.

This post is about male authors and their female characters. That is the core concept of Montrous Regiment, a tale of women adopting male gender roles and doing better than the men they emulate. The story centers on a group of women who enlist in the army disguised as men. By the end of the book, these women have achieved more than any man in their place could have been expected to. The book is an attack on the gender split, the idea that women cannot do what men can. It is a work a feminism, but more effective than other, more aggressive approaches.

I’m still not sure what I think about how Pratchett approaches the gender issue. Anyone who has spent years in the liberal arts knows there are many traps to avoid with female characters. All too often, female characters are defined by their relationships to others, particularly to men or the patriarchy, rather than on their own terms. Pratchett’s work seems to suffer the same problem. The main characters, all women but for one, are ultimately defined in this way. None of them join the army because they want to be soldiers; the enlistment is for each simply a means to an end. One joins in order to search for the deadbeat father of her unborn child; another needs to rescue her brother so he can inherit the family business; a pair join to stay together; another follows her lover; and so forth. Three of the characters are escaping abuse, two are trying to prove themselves in a societies that view women as lesser, one is working a legal loophole against a rule that is designed to keep women from social power; they are all rather cliche as concepts when you really think about it.

Only two of the main characters are defined on their own merits, and they are men. And when one of these characters is revealed at the end to be a woman, her life in the army, a life as the most rugged and successful soldier ever, is degraded to a decision to follow her male lover into the military and then just sticking it out because there was nothing better. What the story lacks is any woman, any female at all, that chooses to join the army because they actually wanted to be soldiers. Every woman soldier, high or low, ended up there indirectly, but some just decided to stay for various reasons or because it was easier than leaving. So the overriding moral message is that yes, woman CAN do the same things that men can but they don’t WANT to. By the end of the book it becomes a sweeping generalization. This in turn helps to reinforce the gender divide, rather than tear it down.

It is ultimately limiting in its own way. The women defeat the strict patriarchy of their society by working from the inside, but their stories are always defined by these relationships. By contrast, the sole male main character is allowed to choose to act like a woman, and to like it, whereas the women are constantly discussing how they don’t like acting like men and how they would rather just be women as defined by their society; it just didn’t work out for them in their past lives.

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s a great book with some of Pratchett’s best characters, but it still suffers the problems above. It has me questioning whether male writer can effectively write female characters.

When I was doing the planning for my own book, one of my friends suggested I needed to add more women characters. My first response was that it was risky for me to write women characters, since I was a man. It’s impossible for me to truly understand a woman’s thinking or motivations. In the end I have added some women main characters; I am actually attracted to strong women characters in fiction when done well. Pratchett’s Granny Weatherwax is a prime example. Major Motoko Kusanagi and FemShep are two of my favorite characters of all time. These are characters that exist largely outside of their gender conditions.

I’ve tried to write my characters in a way that avoids cliches and the trap noted above. I have a woman watch officer who has to prove herself, but the doubt her men have is more based on her upper class social status and lack of experience than her gender. I do benefit from having created a more liberal world for a medieval fantasy story. I feel that the attachment that my city has to magic has allowed them to develop socially, much in the same way science has worked for our world, slow but definite change. That’s not to say that men and women in Marudal are equal, but further along the path than their neighbors. Another character I have written is girl who is trying to prove her skills in her trade. Again the conflict reflects her inexperience and I think a male character would fit perfectly in the same story. That’s part of the reason why I chose to put a girl in that spot, because gender didn’t matter.

So I wonder about other writers and readers experiences with this issue. To other male writers, do you have the same trouble and internal conflicts when writing female characters? For women readers, how often do you feel like male writers get their female characters right? And is it better for us to try our best and come up short rather than not making the attempt?

I should probably add that the stereotypical male mind, sports and cars and machismo, is probably as hard for me to approach as the female mind, or the fundamentally religious mind. I much prefer history, anime, video games, hot baths and audiobooks, over typically male interests. So it is the same problem with all characters or is there something more foreign about the gender divide? Am I making a big fuss over nothing?

I would appreciate any comments you have to offer on this discussion.

If you haven’t read Monstrous Regiment or any other Discworld novel… well, what are you waiting for?

UPDATE: Further examination of Pratchett’s female cast can be found here.

3 Responses to Discussion: The danger of male writers and female characters

  1. Robert von Garrett

    (sorry this went on WAY too long, but it’s an important topic)

    Of course men can write female characters. BUT it really depends on the man and how he views women (both consciously and subconsciously).

    George RR Martin was once asked how he writes such good female characters to which he responded ‘You know I’ve always considered women to be people.’ It’s really that simple! Sure women and men often have different experiences, but you could say that about any two characters. At the end of the day, you only have your experience and what you have learnt about other people’s experience.

    Just try to put yourself in other people’s shoes, use empathy, listen to women and ask about their experiences. Women are not aliens with minds profoundly different from men. Women are human beings just like men who happen to often, but not always, have different genitals, and have grown up in a society tries to condition them to be ‘female.’ But this is all stuff you can learn by talking to your female friends, watching movies/tv shows and reading books with female lead characters. It sounds like you are already conscious enough of feminist issues to try to avoid stereotypes you might have as a man, or able to explore those stereotypes consciously in your writing.

    Personally, I’ve never had much of an issue writing female characters. I really enjoy it. One of the manuscripts that I’m working on primary focuses on female protagonists and so far most female readers seem to have really enjoyed it. Oddly, one of the harshest criticisms was from a woman who didn’t ‘get’ where i was coming from with my character and tried to apply her own social conditioning about how a woman ‘should’ act, as opposed to how an individual ‘might’ act counter to Western cultural conditioning. Even more scary was that she thought the abusive male character’s behaviour (which most beta readers found utterly detestable. As per my intention) was understandable in the context (ew). So in that regards, woman can be just as bad at writing/characterising female characters as men.

    • Thank you for the response. Good comments, and not too long at all. I like your point about your manuscript and how “so far most female readers seem to have really enjoyed it.” I think that’s the key really. It doesn’t matter if we think we are doing a good job with our characters, what matters is how the readers receive the character. That was a hard lesson to learn back when I as just getting started. I do think I am knowledgeable enough to identify most of the gender traps and stereotypes before I trip on them, but I do not think I am ready to directly confront gendering in my work. Pratchett’s difficulty is a warning to lesser writers I think. By the way, I haven’t actually read GRR Martin. I started the first book and it was too similar to the show to warrant the time for me, damn you HBO!

  2. Pingback: Pratchett’s Thud! – Part 2, the Ladies Night Out Scene – jmwwriting

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