… or “Whose book is it anyway?” Part Two.
I was inspired to compose this post by a friend of mine, MM Bennetts, who feels not at all confident about writing female characters and was therefore somewhat stunned to find one had leapt, fully formed, like Athene from the brow of Zeus, onto the pages of her latest book.
This got me thinking. I’ve never actually considered that I had any difficulty writing female characters. I mean, I’m a girl. It should be easy, n’est-ce pas? I’ve got the inside track on how a woman thinks and feels, her motivations, her desires. Surely it should be the Sons of Adam, rather than the Daughters of Eve, that I struggle with?
Someone commented that “Songs” was lacking in strong female characters. I did point out to the (female) reviewer that she’d only read the opening chapters which are set in a monastic military order, wherein women are, ipso facto, somewhat thin on the ground, but I did another read-through of the script and noted that the dramatis personae had a definite XY bias.
Now I’m not going to start stuffing strong, empowered women into the narrative left, right and centre to satisfy some artificial notion of gender equality. If the story doesn’t call for these characters, I’m not going to write them. It depends on the book. “Trinity Moon” is chock-full of strong women, for instance, whereas in “Songs” they’re few but memorable. But it did make me wonder whether I subconsciously find it easer to write about blokes.
I certainly couldn’t write chick-lit, not if my life depended on it. I don’t understand the heroines, and can’t relate to them, their lives or problems. I have zero interest in shoes except as devices to keep my feet warm and dry. Handbags are what I use to carry my purse, a biro and some lip balm around in–I’d be just as happy with a carrier bag. Boyfriends? I’ve been with the hero of my own particular romance for almost 13 years; I’m happy with the one I’ve got. Freya, Lisa, you can relax. I have no intention of poaching on your turf.
But I couldn’t write bloke-lit either. Will Self, Nick Hornby and their ilk have the field to themselves; I don’t have the mental toolkit. I don’t have (to borrow from Terry Pratchett’s “Monstrous Regiment”) the socks.
The truth is, I don’t actually think about whether a character is male or female. They’re just people. Whether they pee standing up or sitting down is irrelevant to me, to the reader (except those with a feminist agenda–why can’t they just enjoy the story for the story’s sake, without looking for politically-correct points to check off?), even irrelevant to the story, unless a particular plot-point hinges on what Character A keeps in his trousers, or the contents of Character B’s shirt. Or the desires of A to get into said B’s shirt.
It just so happens that when the characters start speaking to me, they tend to be at the bass end of the vocal register. I don’t know why this is. Could some of them be rewritten as women? Sure. They’d still be just as brave, resourceful, stubborn or foolish, but you can’t just swap gender roles like that for the sake of “equality”.
Take a bunch of male characters and introduce a couple of women into the mix. Now, if you’ve written them even half-way credibly, they’ll behave just like real blokes would in that situation, and there’ll be awkward attempts at gallantry, stolen kisses or a sexual harassment lawsuit by the end of the week. I haven’t got room in the narrative for all that. It gets in the way of the story–at least, my story, which is epic fantasy; if you’re writing contemporary women’s fiction it could very well *be* the story, in which case you’re on the wrong shelf and want the next aisle over.
So *am* I secretly a bloke? I was once asked that question, by a man, because he was surprised at how well I got into Gair’s head. I will freely admit that I am not the girliest of girls. I don’t wear makeup or nail polish. I like motorbikes and rugby and tequila. But I can assure you, having just checked down the front of my t-shirt, I am not a bloke.
Or if I am, I need to complain to the manufacturer because there seem to be some bits missing. Specifically, the socks.