One of the most perplexing questions I see pop up on forums is: “How do I write female characters?”
It doesn’t seem like it should be a common question. Nobody seems to ask “How do I write soldiers?” or “How do I write race car drivers?” or “How do I write criminals?”. And yet, women – who make up more than half of the world’s population – come up as a question mark with enough regularity for the Onion to have spoofed the phenomenon in an article about an Area Novelist pestering his girlfriend for insight. (It is, sadly, an article I can no longer find).
It really shouldn’t be all that complicated.
Rule the first: Women are people.
Rule the second: Women – like everybody else – are influenced by the cultural context in which they live.
In a clever reversal of expectations, we’re going to talk about the second rule first.
It’s easy for those of us in Western countries to forget that women didn’t always have the right to vote, or the ability to find meaningful work. It’s easier still to forget that the equality we like to pretend exists is still a ways off. Women are still paid less than men for equivalent positions. They still frequently face barriers in the halls of power. Their sex lives and appearance are still matters of great public import.
Sexism, in other words, is still kicking around, and this in societies that are more equitable by orders of magnitude than most of the historical cultures we fantasy writers witter on about. But the most is important.
The Hellenistic Greeks believed women to be basically infants, incapable of the rational thought to which men are born. The Victorians believed the same, and felt it improper to burden the poor dears with intelligent talk – after dinner, the men retired to the drawing room and puffed on cigars, while the women presumably had a pillow-fight and gushed about which of the Misters had the most finely-turned calf.
But some Celtic tribes believed that women were more naturally fierce than men, and thought nothing of following Boudicca into battle. Babylonians believed women to be inherently civilizing, and that their charms (for those few that don’t speak euphemese, ‘feminine charms’ = sex) were all that stood between peace and prosperity on one end and men grunting their way back to the caves on the other. This view should be familiar to anybody who’s watched a sitcom about a dumb schlub and his long-suffering wife.
And, of course, we certainly don’t have to look that far back to see significant differences in attitudes towards women. We can just look around.
What’s interesting is that differences in attitude don’t necessarily follow from differences in gender roles. The level of respect accorded to women has fluctuated, but their societal roles haven’t actually changed all that much over millennia. Traditionally, of course, women stay home with the kids and mind the house, while men earn money so that there’s food for the women to cook. Even in our most socially liberal societies, this didn’t start to change until quite recently, in a historic sense. Modern feminism’s roots are in Europe’s factories during the world wars, when so many men went away and women needed to enter the workforce to keep things from collapsing. Turns out women are perfectly wonderful factory workers (which came as some surprise at the time), and the emergency measures slowly normalized.
In a historical context that plays it fairly straight, a gender-based division of labour is all but ironclad, and there are lots and lots of rich story possibilities in the way women have been treated.
Women were pushed towards particular jobs, and by particular jobs, I generally mean ‘running a household’. Mothers would teach daughters to cook, clean, sometimes to balance the ledgers (in some cultures, women were considered to be better with money for the obvious reason that they were the ones buying all the food and what have you*; in other cultures, the hard work of adding one number to another number was strictly the province of those rational menfolk). In higher society, servants did most of the dirty work, and daughters were taught culturally appropriate skills that made them desirable wives – music, drawing, horseback riding, and, in some societies, the deployment of ‘charms’. Noble wives may not have done much of the actual housekeeping that their soot-stainedier equivalents got up to, but that didn’t free them to do whatever they wished. Nobles, instead, were often expected to invite other luminaries to dinner, to organize entertainments, and to do charitable works. Of course, in a fantasy world (or, once upon a time, the British Isles), they might just as easily buckle on a sword and go forth a-hewing while servants watch the kids.
*To the point where there’s a saying – I think it’s Chinese, but I’m not sure – that goes something like: “If a man pays for a woman’s meal, they are courting; but if a woman pays for a man’s meal, they are married.”
Traditional Marriage, not to be confused with the mythical construct some people like to refer to in order to strip or keep rights from gays, works something like this: family wanted a boy because boys are economically useful, but the mother was a perfidious sort and decided to deliver a daughter instead. There’s only one way to salvage this state of affairs, and that’s to marry the daughter off to a wealthy or noble family in the hope that this leads to some sort of advantage in the future. Sometimes, merely handing off one’s daughter isn’t enough, and our put-upon father must pay her new husband for the privilege. A dowry was often wielded essentially as a bribe; overlarge dowries were a way to entice people into marriage with women of lower social standing, or less obvious ‘charms’.
So marrying for love was fairly uncommon. Daughters could sometimes push doting fathers towards a match with that hot Sir Knight, but the norms in most historical societies were such that women and their suitors didn’t get a whole lot of unchaperoned time together and so any such guess was a bit of a shot in the dark. That isn’t to say they didn’t occasionally sneak out for some euphemistic quality time. Of course, it’s also true – and widely ignored by fantasy writers because most of us are westerners and the idea isn’t culturally palatable – that many arranged marriages led (and, of course, do still lead) to a genuinely loving relationship.
Given that marrying for love was relatively uncommon, one might expect a lot of infidelity throughout history. Good bet. Adultery has, historically, met with pretty fearsome punishments, but that’s never stopped anyone. People don’t generally break the law if they expect to be caught, after all. Our modern sensibilities often lead us to assume that infidelity was less acceptable in women than men, and while that was often true, it wasn’t a universal constant. Even in some societies where women were considered lesser creatures – Victorian England, for instance – wives’ affairs were often overlooked as long as they were kept quiet. And, of course, some societies codified affairs into culture to the point where ‘mistress’ was practically a full-time job, and wives and mistresses were frequently aware of each other and sometimes on genuinely friendly terms.
Finally, women are often considered the vector of culture, and this is important – and interesting – enough to separate out. Because women generally spent – and spend – more time with children than men, it frequently fell to them to instruct those children in proper behaviour and cultural norms. There’s a reason why, for instance, the Jewish faith is traditionally held to pass down through the mother. In societies where this sort of thing is vocalized rather than unspoken, it’s common for women’s behaviour to be under a lot more scrutiny than elsewhere, lest they corrupt those precious youths.
But can’t we just ignore all that?
The thing about sexism and other discrimination is that people face enough of it in the real world that they don’t necessarily need to see more of it in their entertainment. It’s perfectly valid to sidestep all that, and modern audiences do tend to expect a greater level of involvement from female characters than: sweep floor, serve tea.
But if you’re going to declare that women in Totally-Not-Medieval-England are just as likely to be knights as men, you need to think through the implications. Somebody needs to serve that tea and sweep those floors.
It might be that everybody has servants (which has complicated social and economic ramifications on a grand scale, but is perfectly believable and indeed historically accurate for the sorts that had cash enough to buy weapons and armour in the first place).
It might be that husbands and wives trade off duties.
It might be that women only head out for a spot of the old orc-bashing until they get married, and then they settle down and start having kids.
Attempts to ground a fantasy society in this sort of logic tend to propose some excellent stories, and a setting that feels more logical is easier for readers to get into.
Given all that context, let’s return to rule the first:
Women are people. They are perfectly capable of any behaviour you could care to name. There are women with strong maternal instincts, and women with none. Some women are concerned with social status, some aren’t. Some love weed and booze, some prefer tea and sweets. Some find dick jokes hilarious, others roll their eyes and excuse themselves from conversation.
And there has never been a time when that wasn’t true, although of course the women of history frequently operated within stricter societies than our fantasy writing does. Mata Hari used exoticism and a disdain for ‘proper behaviour’ as a weapon to spy for the Germans. Elizabeth I used her position to string suitors along, without ever marrying, so that she could appear the dutiful queen while actually ruling shit. Boudicca chopped up lots and lots of Romans. Amelia Earhart was every bit as taken by the spirit of exploration and exciting technology as anybody else in the early 20th century. Jane Austen never married, but she used her wit and perspicacity to write book after book of often biting satire about the Regency meat market. The ‘Mulan’ story, of women pretending to be men in order to head off to war, was a surprisingly common fixture of Victoriana (both in reality and in period entertainment), which I can’t help but think was only possible because the men and women spent so much time apart that they no longer recognized each other.
While social pressures do of course shape people, characters in fiction are free to be unusual, and any deviation from norms – or, indeed, reinforcement of same – is hardly without precedent. So the answer to “How do I write women?” is, quite simply, “Write a character.” What does she want? What will she do to get it? What will she balk at? What does she believe?
Yes, you’ll want to know how your woman interacts with the rest of the world. You’ll want to know how she’s different from others, and how she’s the same. You’ll want to know why she acts the way she does. Just like any other character, she can be brilliant or stupid, naive or scheming, gentle or prone to explosive anger.
It’s not rocket surgery. Just writing.