Writing female characters · 10:32pm
This is a post of random thoughts and ramblings. It's tangentially related to "Sunshine and Fire" in that it collates some issues I've had on my mind writing it, but I'm not going to tag it for subscribers. It's a bit too incidental for that, and probably not really up everyone's alley anyway. But it's stuff I want to get off my chest, and I'd be interested in hearing other perspectives on the subject.
Once upon a time, quite a few years ago, someone made a topic on a literature forum of a website I frequent, asking for advice on how to write female characters. I must have thought I was some sort of hotshot, because even though I'd never finished any stories and couldn't begin to guess that I'd one day have ambitions of being a "writer," I gave an incredibly authoritative answer - you write them just the same as male characters.
Do I still believe that? Not... exactly. I'd like it to work that way, but I'm not sure it does.
Keep in mind, I'm writing this all under the assumptions that most anyone reading it will share (to varying degrees) one basic premise with me: that there are vast, persistent and insidious problems in the portrayal of female characters in fiction, starting from basic under-representation and ending with complexities related to various sexist cultural standards too overwhelming to summarize here. (I know I'm not the only one for whom MLP's counter to these issues is one of its draws.) Accordingly, I feel it's important - even necessary - to account for and try to offset these problems. One way of doing that, in theory, is to essentially flip a coin to determine a character's gender. It's a very literal way to even things out, but it can create problems as well as solve them.
I should also mention that one of my bigger pet peeves about the debate regarding these matters is the belief that sexist intent is necessary for a work to be sexist. No, I don't think that's the case at all. Dialogue about missteps in these areas cause a lot of friction probably in part because criticism of a writer is taken to mean that they are held to be some sort of evil, wife-beating oppressor, but I imagine it mostly just happens by accident. I'd wager that the majority of problems with the writing of female characters are a result of completely unintended implications that just happen to come off negatively. Each such implication is just a tiny piece of a culture that paints a picture of certain colors. It should be perfectly possible to discuss some of these implications without accusing anyone of anything. Shit happens. It can be severe or it can be very mild. Discussing things like this openly is a good thing.
Nowadays, I am inclined to believe some distinction should be made in the handling of male and female characters, if only to reflect differences in the standing of men and women in real life and catch these sort of implications. Even stories taking place in fictional universes where none of this applies directly are informed by the context of the real world. Of course, nothing is absolute on an individual basis. Any differences between the sexes, whether behavioral and socialized or biological and inherent, are vague generalities, with plenty of outliers on both sides, so I don't think there's any kind of character you couldn't write, if you know what I mean.
I think my original answer to the question accurately reflects a disconcerting division between "regular characters" and "female characters" in the world of fiction. There's a tendency to view male as default. I certainly have that tendency, and I've tried to defy it on a number of occasions, including with the story at hand. There are instances where I feel this has come back to bite me in the ass. I'll give a few examples.
Did you know that the pony colonel in chapter 7 was male in my original plans? As I was writing it, I figured having a random minor military hardass be female would mix things up a bit. All well and good so far, right? But coincident with the change in gender came a change in character and motivation. The original male character was amoral and coldly uncaring, whose reason for hounding the villagers was a belief that they were hiding resources from his requisitioning efforts. The final result was a paranoid hysteric who was deathly afraid of griffon spies and trying to flush them out by any means necessary. Don't get me wrong, I think the latter concept is a lot more interesting and dynamic, and served the narrative of the chapter much better. It also kind of plays into gender stereotypes if you think about it. Certainly, there's nothing particularly troubling in the text itself, but doesn't knowing these additional details make things just a tad awkward? Just a bit?
Frederica Greenhill is another example, sort of. When I first mentioned the character (again in chapter 7), I again thought it would be neat to make the venerable old warrior type a woman. Nothing about the end result is too bad, but I can't help but notice that when her role expanded, I ended up writing a situation with several male characters coming across with various degrees of reasonableness and one female character coming across as profoundly unreasonable, at least at the surface of it. (My original plans involved a bigger role for another female character, the aeromancer I pointed out a few times, but I decided to cut her role down to make the chapter more manageable, at least for now.) Of course, I'm leaving Twilight, Fluttershy and - to an extent - Gilda out of that equation, but they're not my characters, are they?
I could also point that I originally meant to make King Humphrey neurotic and fearful, but then ended up using the same basic personality type for Emerald Hope the Apple Underground book-keeper all the way back in chapter 4, so I redrew Humphrey as sarcastic and somewhat more composed. This came about through gradual and organic development in the narrative, but it just happened to paint a female authority figure as weak and a male authority figure as strong.
These are minutiae, of course. I hope it doesn't seem like I'm taking any of it super-seriously. I don't want to minimize the aforementioned vast, persistent and insidious problems by suggesting these examples rank among them. I wouldn't take much issue with any of these situations in the work of another author... at least individually. It's patterns that concern me and trends that worry me. It doesn't particularly matter if a movie fails the Bechdel test, but 99 out of a 100 movies failing it is another matter entirely. And I hate to think I'm playing into patterns and trends, however slightly, that I condemn.
I toyed with the idea of making Lord Fairweather Lady Fairweather (though he/she was going to have a different name at that stage), but chose not to for reasons now irrelevant that I won't reveal just in case they'll turn out to be spoilers. I mentioned the Griffon King all the way back in chapter 5, so he's been locked into place (besides, I wanted at least one male monarch alongside Queen Celestia and the dragon matriarch). But thinking back on it now, I honestly can't remember whether I ever even considered making Reynald female. If not, then why not? I wanted Reynald to be a model for a knight in shining armor, more a symbol than a character. I was drawing on a cultural association that's traditionally been male, true, but would my intention really not have come across with a woman? Would flipping the gender have made a difference? If so, would it have been for better or for worse?
We can also look at things from a broader perspective, in the depiction of femininity within the alternate versions of the Mane Six. There is a tendency - probably especially in fantasy fiction - to make "strong female characters" tomboys, which has all sorts of unfortunate implications in itself. In "Sunshine and Fire," the two least feminine characters - Applejack and Rainbow Dash - are the proactive and physically able ones, while the two most feminine characters - Rarity and Fluttershy - are the emotionally and physically frail ones. Obviously, that's an abstraction, with a bunch of quantifiers to it. But it's there, and seems blindingly obvious to me. As it happens, Rarity and Fluttershy are my No. 1 and No. 2 favorite ponies respectively. I'm not going to ask whether I've done them a disservice, even rhetorically, because... well, it's a bit too soon to tell for you guys.
These are... coincidences. I don't feel they reflect any particular biases in my world view, and I also don't feel they would matter much to anyone but myself. The implications trouble me nonetheless. There's a part of me that wants to pat myself on the back just for being self-aware and reflecting on these issues, and there's a part of me that wants to dope-slap myself for thinking that. Come on, this is a matter that just about any writer should display some minimal level of concern for, right?
This post feels like it's building to some sort of conclusion, but I'm not really sure what I'm trying to say here. As I said before, this is just random thoughts and ramblings. I've come to believe that it's a little naive to treat male and female characters as interchangeable in practice, but then again, maybe I've just been doing it wrong? Or perhaps I'm just belaboring something that's obvious to everyone else. What do you think?