Writing Female Characters101: The Difference Is Not Biological

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 8.442% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

My friend was very excited, because his new novel featured a first for him: a female protagonist.  He was looking forward to the challenge of writing something long-form that had a different viewpoint character than his other, male-centered, novels.  And he was so concerned with getting it right that he’d asked a bunch of us to talk it over wih him.
Unfortunately, he made an error that I think a lot of male writers do.  And that error arrived with this statement:
“Okay,” he said.  “At this point, she’s been brought to a foreign land, and I need to raise the stakes so that she wants to stay here and fight for this culture.  So I think she needs to get pregnant.”
Cue groans from the women in the session.
Now, I’ve observed before in that in fiction, women have one of two roles: to get raped, or get pregnant.  And I think, watching my very well-intentioned friend go at it, I’ve finally understood the reason why men do this.
See, in his excitement to write a woman, he got caught up on the differences between men and women.  If women can get pregnant, and I’m writing a woman, well, I should immediately start with this biological difference!  That’ll be a plot that only a woman can have!
Except it’s a plot that almost any woman can have.  In attempting to differentiate your character, you’ve just made her like 95% of other women in fiction.
Plus, pregnancy is just one of a thousand different motivations that can get a woman to do things.  If you had a male character, would you define his sole reason for staying as being biologically-based?  Of course not.  You’d look at all the myriads of motivations that could drive humanity to fight for a cause – love, justice, revenge, obligation, pride, the challenge of starting over again, survival, redemption, hatred – and choose one that was not based on a man’s unique ability to squirt sperm.
So why do you narrow it to pregnancy?  Why?  To write a woman’s plot?  Then what you’re saying, whether you mean to or not, is that women have one role… and I gotta tell you, from the groans of protest I heard from the women, they’re getting pretty tired of that crap.
Pregnancy is just one aspect of a female character.  Look at all the emotions that might motivate a woman, and allow that pregnancy is also an option, but let it be just one option among many.  Then choose the one that fits this character.
As someone wisely said during the session, “A woman’s character is not formed from biological imperatives.  It’s formed from a difference in experience, and that experience is often societally driven.  If women think differently, it’s because people treat them differently – but that doesn’t mean we don’t feel all the same emotions that men do.”
And those emotions run the gamut to “not wanting to be pregnant.”  Yes, protecting your baby is noble – but as others noted, assuming that I was whisked away to a foreign land consumed by war, my instinct would not be to double down on fighting for this land, but to get my kid to a nice safe hospital back in the States. Pregnancy is a specific event for a woman, yes, but there are lots of abortions and lots of neglectful mothers, and not every character is going to react in the “traditional” way to the news of impending progeny.
In fact, is “traditional” even what you want?  I mean, when you’re writing a male character, do you want someone who reacts in the way that men are inevitably supposed to react?  Isn’t the point of characterization to give us something surprising?  Don’t you want something a little better than the stock-in-trade reactions that have been seen a thousand times before?
So why make pregnancy, that traditional “This is where the woman gets strong” moment, the crux of your novel?
The good news is that my friend listened to the feedback given, and hopefully changed all this stuff before he started.  As a guy, that’s the best start you can have – talking to women you trust, and listening to what you get wrong.  I sympathize.  I’m about to start a novel involving two teenaged girls, and as a guy I assure you I’m going to get it wildly wrong.  The female experience is complicated, female adolescence doubly so.  The best I can do is to write honestly, and keep listening to actual female feedback to keep me on track.
But when I write women protagonists (which I have in Sauerkraut Station, In The Garden of Rust and Salt, My Father’s Wounds, and The Backdated Romance, among others, each of which features wildly differing characters) I’ve always tried to ensure that their motivations are more than biology.  I think that’s the baseline with which to start.

4 Comments

  1. TGG
    Mar 22, 2012

    This is excellent.

  2. M
    Mar 31, 2012

    Great article! As a woman AND a female reader, I am SO happy to hear someone finally discuss the fact that character motivations are not gender-specific! Thanks for imparting this wisdom! 🙂

  3. Zazas
    May 9, 2012

    Good grief! I’m so glad he had his mind changed in time. Pregnancy is a huge, specific and special occurrence that most women I know want to PREVENT at all costs.
    We’re not just our bodies, guys! Thanks for this reminder.

  4. Julien Brightside
    Jul 10, 2012

    That is a very good point. Thumbs up for this article.

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