Writer’s Craft #15 – Un?conventional

Working on the first draft of Part 10: Unholy Science, of my Okal Rel saga, I find myself confronting my teenage self over characterization of a female protagonist. When I was in high school it was unconventional for women in SF to be the heavy hitters. Lt. Uhura being a bridge officer in the original Star Trek was a cool thing. My generation wanted women to be the future Kirks and Spocks of SF. And so I created Vrellish women out of the thought experiment of a race in which females and males had the same levels of testosterone — being too scientifically minded not to do a lot of reading around the topic. In my fifties, however, I am more interested in confronting vulnerabilities in Demish characters. (Picture the Demish as neo-Victorians with definite male/female differences.) And so I saddle Ilse, in the bit below, with ‘girl’ issues, and find myself writing her very much as a woman, rebelling against the convention of making female SF protagonists XX Rambos, and daring to explore the strengths and weaknesses my teenage self would scoff at for being conventionally female. Is it breaking today’s convention to make a female protagonist conventionally feminine? Is so, I’d like to think I’m doing it on the basis of artistic curiosity. But maybe I just like to be unconventional. What do you think? How do you position your female characters on the conventional feminine/masculine spectrum?

I will not go to watch the duel, Ilse decided, and immediately knew she wouldn’t forgive herself if either Ka or Nyl died for lack of expert intervention. Still, she was sorely tempted by the desire to go to her room and lie on her bed, staring at the dull gray ceiling. She was working long shifts in sickbay treating battle-grounded relsha, and her pregnancy was setting in as ferociously as her first one, perturbing her hormones when she could least afford the emotional instability.


28 thoughts on “Writer’s Craft #15 – Un?conventional

  1. I grew up with a very gender-neutral sort of upbringing, with no preconceptions about what men and women were “supposed to be” like. It shows in my writing, I guess. Of the four stories I’ve sold, the protagonists are as follows:

    -Nameless narrator whose gender is unknown at the beginning of the story, then changes in the middle of the story

    -Nameless narrator whose gender is never revealed

    -Female SWAT sniper

    -Middle-aged male preoccupied with the dissolution of his family

    People often comment on the things I am “saying” about gender in my stories, when the truth is, I tell stories, and I have to assign my characters a gender because most characters have them. I tend to choose the gender pretty much at random, or because I’m thinking of a particular individual I know (real or fictional) when I start making the character, and that individual happens to have one gender or the other.

    I’m not a really big believer in the idea that women or men have any particular qualities “naturally.” I wrote a paper in college about it; our conditioning of children begins earlier than we even realize: we hold newborn boys differently from the way we hold newborn girls. Parents make more eye contact with infant girls, training them earlier to be aware of social cues/feelings/communication. Boys are held more often close and gazing over the parent’s shoulder, and so they become less comfortable with face-to-face intimacy and more action-oriented. And that’s just one example I read about while writing this paper (which I started out researching hoping to prove the opposite, that men and women were just “born different” somehow.)

    If I have any message about gender in my writing, it’s that it’s largely a social construct, and while men and women often end up having different roles in life because of the way we’re wired reproductively (only one parent can breastfeed, and research is increasingly showing the value of human milk for babies), there’s nothing about our hormones that makes us inherently care about the things we’re “supposed to” care about, like cars, babies, sports, makeup, “bringing home the bacon,” etc.

  2. (Mishell, where can we find your published works?)

    Lynda- very interesting topic, I have to admit- up until now I have only thought of the genders as having either ‘this manly trait’ or ‘that womanly trait’. It never occurred to me to play with the boundaries. I write historical fantasy, and the time period I”m writing about had very explicit roles for men and women (most women weren’t educated, for example, and weren’t expected to work). however, I’m threading a very specific myth through my story, but it’s a myth cast wtih female dieties. So my male leads are really representing the great goddesses of antiquity. Hehe. I let them comb their hair and wash their undies, for example. It’s kind of fun 🙂

    1. Kari, the only one that is out so far is “Throwing Stones,” which can be found here: http://www.beneath-ceaseless-skies.com/story.php?s=96

      “Break” will be up at the end of the week at the Daily Science Fiction site. “Butterfly Effect” and “Vaporware” will be appearing later in the year in Electric Velocipede and Redstone Science Fiction, respectively.

  3. I’m from an older generation. As a little girl playing with my brother, I wanted to be the doctor but my parents told me that boys become doctors, girls become nurses. I couldn’t be the doctor. But I was also told that women have to be strong to live well in a man’s world.

    Later I became the only woman in black belt class (for three years before another woman came in), and I’m more likely to use that as a basis for female characters.

    My female characters include a little girl in a role meeting a weasely grown man (my first published story – and she’s the bad guy); a stubborn healer in the tallgrass prairies who isn’t supposed to treat men but does; a woman who raises, breeds, and trains horses in secret because that’s men’s work; and one who learned to fight (again in secret) from her mercenary big brother; and a Sheethe warrior who must both rescue and train the story’s protag in order for him to survive and reach his goals.

    None of these women is unfeminine, and I didn’t think of them as being unusual. In the “olden days” of the pioneers, women did lots of stuff later considered to be too masculine. It was a matter of who was capable of doing what needed to be done. Women were not pampered in the Old West, and that became one of my models for these stories.

    1. I can see how the early experiences would shape your outlook as an author. Can’t claim I was ever told I couldn’t do something because I was a woman … except take automotive mechanics in Jr. High. I had to take sewing instead.

  4. Interesting, indeed. My family rolemodels were of the more “vintage” type as well–traditional stay at home Mom, trying to instill in me the qualities of a “lady”; strong and steady Dad, who always took the time to really listen. I adored him. These memories have found there way into my YA Epic Fantasy novel as well; however my teenage protagonist, though conditioned to fulfill her role as a “lady” is forced by events to physically fight a fierce enemy. Because she is defending those she loves, she draws on her experiences in mindlink with predators of the forest…she is then able to move past the fear and find the courage to do what she must. As Tolkien illustrated so well in the LOR, courage is the going on when hope seems gone. So perhaps I see my women characters as frequently possessing this kind of strength; somewhat hidden, until called upon in need.

  5. I see gender as a result of the interaction of biology (which includes both the body’s structure and the body’s hormone-influenced functioning, which starts in the womb and may shape the brain itself) and of society. Where biology stops and society starts is still fuzzy, according to my readings, but history suggests that there are few fixed roles outside of those dictated by biology (breastfeeding, etc.). Some social roles may have been statistically more frequent, but there were numerous exceptions (in Great Britain, men often tended the fields, but, in Native American societies, women were often in charge of agriculture). As the word suggests, roles are partly performances, in the sense that while we play them quite seriously, they are intended for public consumption. What happens in private may be markedly different. (Of course, in science fiction, one can do away with the strictures of biology and let the characters choose the roles they are personally more comfortable with, in a given society.)

    To answer the question, if I wrote a conventionally feminine role, it would either be in a story whose readers I believed to have conventional expectations (can’t think of many cases, actually) or it would be the way Lynda did it, taking care to suggest that “conventional” behaviour is in this case the result of both personality and biology. Or, depending on the story, of fairly oppressive social expectations. Unless I believed the story to have readers with “unconventional” expectations to which I should conform by avoiding “conventional” gender roles. Except, of course, if challenging the readers’ expectations was actually the point of the story…

  6. I’m somewhat in Mishell’s camp, in that gender roles are very malleable for me. In my story “Chimera”, the gender of the narrator is never known, and this character becomes drawn into a destructive relationship with a character who is quite literally androgynous, and self-identifies with the pronoun, “we.” One of my earliest SF novels involves a non-sexual but deeply intimate relationship between a completely ungendered being and a multi-gendered being. (Links to these can be found on my website.)

    Not to discount the function of socialization in the determination of gender roles (it is formidable) but new research is uncovering evidence that biology plays a far greater role than was fashionable to believe a few years ago. Stereotypical gender characteristics may be more innate than we might like to think. But sex and gender are also proving to be far more complex than the neat, bi-polar division that has historically been assigned to them. It isn’t a matter of simple XX or XY. A rich stew of chemicals influences our feelings and choices, hence we include GLBT shades in our broad spectrum.

    Speculative fiction gives us the chance to do all sorts of thought experiments with our preconceptions about gender and ways to rethink them. I tend to go in the direction of SF because science fascinates me. I am a geek at heart. Since I am generally accepted to be female (and produced two children to clinch it), this makes me somewhat of a minority in my chosen genre. And that is a whole different topic thread.

  7. Well, the conventional SF action heroine is not just an XX Rambo, but “Rambo in a G-string” – always provocatively dressed, sporting high heels and a lycra catsuit. Hardly the most ergonomic outfit for risky stunts.
    In my novel I’m trying to be somewhat realistic about my heroine’s abilities – she’s athletic and tomboy-ish, but her physical prowess has limits, and her teenage emotional swings often work against her. She’s learning to lose fights as much as she’s learning to win. She comes to understanding that to be completely void of weakness means to cease being human in a higher sense – a noble and compassionate being. Also I paired her up with a male character who is lagging very far behind her in his physical abilities, yet has a lot to teach her about “non-violent” strength of character – and to re-discover her own “dormant” feminine side, that is different from being “womanly/girly/ladylike”.

  8. Interesting topic. Several quick comments:
    1) Minor Characters: when world building, I don’t want to just project my culture/prejudices onto the one I’m building, so after the initial draft I will sometimes go in and switch genders of background characters to see what (if any) difference that will make on the story. It is a simple enough exercise to stir things up and to help recognize when we are being sexist. More often than not, when I find that dialog or actions don’t stand up to the role reversal, the new role assignment gives me much more interesting dialog / responses because it forces me to think beyond the stereotype…
    2) Major characters: I’ll admit that my viewpoint characters are always a projection of myself (or at any rate, my self image which is probably a long way off the real me) so consistently male. My female characters are 90% my wife (don’t tell her that please!), the one exception being my recent sale to Tess15 where the POV was my 13 daughter (as a 15 yr old). That may suggest a lack of imagination, but I tend to get more realistic dialog and interaction when I place characters I know into SF situations. Since my wife is a respected feminist academic, that tends to give me fairly outspoken heroines, and well intended but idiot heros….

    But what I find fascinating is the number of women who write from male POV. I always wonder if this is because they are writing for the market (research shows woman will read books about male heros as readily as about heroines, but that males — particularly school age males — prefer to read about other males) or if it is because they grew up reading SF with male heroes — i.e., are sucked into sexist belief that action/adventure = male.

    Lois McMaster Bujold’s first novel had a great female POV which I found a refreshing change from usual male one; and 3/4 of the interesting ideas/actions flowed from that fact — militaristic SF that addressed issues like what to do with the children of rape victims after the war — not something that shows up in male POV novels. But somehow, that morphs into the Miles VorKosagin series. What happened there. Admittedly heroine in first book remains strong character in first several books, but POV switches to male. What’s up with that? why do so many women write male POV?

    And why are males who write female POV so excrucatingly bad? E.g., David Weber’s Honor Harrington series comes to mind here. Should there be (un)written laws about ‘gender appropriation’?

    Just saying….

    1. Here is my theory on why many men sometimes have more trouble writing from the female POV than the other way around. One of the socially-created (not innate!) differences between men and women is that women are typically taught, by example and necessity, to read small cues of body language, facial expression, etc., whereas young boys are allowed to plow through their social lives without considering what others are thinking or feeling. “Boys will be boys” after all. When a boy is blunt and clueless we laugh it off, but if a young girl behaves the same way we tend to pounce on it and punish it more quickly.

      Combine this with the fact that “social inferiors” rely on being able to read the moods and cues of their “social betters” if they intend to survive and prosper, and it goes a long way toward explaining why, in a historically male-dominated culture, women are traditionally hailed as having some sort of mysterious “intuition” and empathy that men do not.

      This also would explain why stereotypical men have so much more trouble “understanding those complicated creatures” a.k.a. women. It’s not that men are somehow inherently simple and women are unnecessarily complicated. Every human being is complicated. It’s just that men aren’t typically raised to bother trying to understand others’ psychological complexities, nor are they raised to care that their male friends don’t know them inside and out and sense their every subtle shift in mood. The myth of female “mystery” is a by-product of the fact that women seem to understand each other and to understand men, but men have not been raised to read/understand women’s emotions (or even their own).

      These same types of traditionally-raised men -think- they understand each other and themselves, but often really don’t. They’ve been denied the chance to develop empathy and emotional perception, and they decide that anything they can’t perceive in themselves or others isn’t actually there. It’s kind of sad, really.

      Sorry for rambling; this is a topic of great interest to me. 🙂

      1. “but men have not been raised to read/understand women’s emotions (or even their own). These same types of traditionally-raised men -think- they understand each other and themselves, but often really don’t. ”

        Yes! That observation made my day, because that is the core of the character (and therefore action) of the novel I’m currently writing. Hero is obsessed with trying to date the heroine but has absolutely no clue about who she really is or what she is feeling. He just plows ahead oblivious.

        Male reviewers are going to kill me because action heros are supposed to be alpha males who inuit everything instantly (“Say, these must be the warp drive controls on this alien ship I just discovered and boarded 10 seconds ago”) and always get the girl; rather than a guy who completely blows it with both the woman he has been chasing and the one he could have had, had he been paying the least attention.

        God but I get tired of the same old macho stereotype heros in our genre. Even when we get strong female characters as a foil for the POV male hero, I have to ask, how did THIS guy get that strong female character interested in HIM? Yes the hero saved us from the alien fleet/invading orc army, but in the real world, that doesn’t automatically make one compatible with the woman in the story. You know? So you killed some orcs…is that steady work? Is there a dental plan with that? Make you a good parent? A good listener? Interested in the same things now that the orc aren’t in the picture? Sexually compatible? Okay with her family? Not so much!

        No wonder so many ST fans end up living in their parent’s basemen: because all they read and view tells them that the best way to attract females is to demonstrate their alphamale dominance — say, through speaking fluent Klingon better than their peers– and women will flock to them. Actually, you know, taking to women or trying to understand their feelings doesn’t seem to occur to most of them….

    2. I used to puzzle over why I wrote male protagonists, Robert. I think it was partly because I identified with the heroes in the SF of the 60s and 70s more than the heroines. Then I decided I was a bit “in love” with my male characters and found them more interesting for that reason. Amel has an overlay of female psychology. “A gay woman in a man’s body” is how a friend once described him to me. But I also made a point of giving him a couple of typically male issues. Horth Nersal was my most drastic alpha male experiment (featured in Righteous Anger, part 2 of the Okal Rel Saga). I “play” Horth as a thought experiment in alpha-maleness. And I’m proud to say I’ve had lots of feedback from men to the effect that he ‘rings true’.

  9. Most of my primary characters, male, female and shades in between, are projections of myself. Writing is acting, impersonating. It is the ability to empathize, to feel another person that enables a writer to bring that person to life. To be them, to speak for them.

    Writing is a kind of schizophrenia.

    1. ooh that speaks to me, too, Justine. No character I write is “me” but there are aspects of me in lots of them. And aspects of people I’ve known or traits I’ve generalized from people I’ve known. And, like you, “I” as as apt to manifest in my male characters as my female ones with respect to personality traits.

  10. Notwithstanding all the feminist SF novels I read (1960s – 1980s mainly), which dissected sex roles in angry and loving detail, in my own writing I tended to take the attitude that I had enough of that to deal with IRL, and stick with setups where egalitarian attitudes were assumed and technology had smoothed out the physical inequities.

    However, when I came to write the Darkborn trilogy, one of the contrasts I set up between the Darkborn and the Lightborn was in gender roles. The Darkborn are a gender-divided society, with the traditional public-private division of spheres. Telmaine had to be a product of that society, and a privileged product at that: she’s an aristocratic lady who likes being the darling of society and declares no interest in power or politics. But she has a lifelong secret that would cost her her social position – she’s a mage, a form of power that is completely illicit – and so she has a sort of psychological contract with fate: if she behaves, if she’s good, everything will be OK. Writing Telmaine, I found myself having to deal with the fact that she wouldn’t expect to have agency, and wouldn’t want to have agency, and I had to turn on the heat to get her moving. Her forceful actions were almost always in direct response to threats to people she loved, and then she’d try to retreat into proper ladyhood in reaction.

    I sometimes think that the appeal of writing male characters for a woman – aside from the artistic stretch and license – is to get away from a kind of “angel in the house” phenomenon wherein women writers are expected to advance their own gender.

    1. I’ve read the novel, Darkborn. Telmaine is set up very nicely in the party scene near the beginning with respect to her role in society, both as a woman and in terms of her social class and special problem. The fact she is hiding from her innate power sets up an interesting conflict, and an expectation in the reading that she will need to unveil it at some point.

  11. Awesome blog and comments, quick reply while children are amused elsewhere:
    I write from the subconscious, so I usually won’t say, let’s try this gender reversal, although I did write a MG series where the men were the fortunetellers and the females run the business, so theoretically equal but the girls got called bean-counters while the boys were Gifted and prophecy was considered a science. The readers who commented on it liked the social commentary, but I have yet to sell it and get a larger n.

    In RL, I’m an emergency doctor, and like Robert, most of my POV characters are me. So what surprised me was the number of people who find her (usually her) “strong” but “unsympathetic.” I told this to Kris Rusch and she just said she gets the same crit and figures society isn’t evolved enough to handle strong women and consider them sympathetic. A nice way of thinking of it.

    The babes in bikinis, as Olga pointed out, and meatheads in armour and, well, the art in general would have turned me off SF if my husband hadn’t told me it was worth reading. (We’ve been together since high school.)

    Agree with Jean Louis that it’s biology and society, but I’ve always been interested in society and how its role is underplayed. Just finished reading _Cinderella Ate My Daughter_, and entertaining and thoughtful book on gender roles. I do think people comment more on my daughters looks and my son’s intelligence–sure, she’s an infant, but I expect that to continue.

    I’d write more but must run and get my son out of the bath. BTW, he is VERY attuned to social vibes. When he was two, or maybe less, he’d point at a cartoon character on a page that was crying and say, “Sad” or “crying” and be very disturbed by it. He wouldn’t listen to the story because he was so focused on their unhappiness. “Why?” He won the compassion/bonte award at school. I would not have chosen Catholic school (long story, we aren’t religious but not much choice in a rural area if you want a strong French program), but I do like that they emphasize caring as well as academic achievement (such as it is for a 4 y.o.). Hopefully he won’t be teased for this later on.

    Agh, you guys made me write instead of doing yoga during my precious seconds of free time. 🙂

    1. What a wonderful anecdote about your son. My daughter is the same way; I was reading her “Curious George and the Bunny” before she could talk, and she kept turning back to the page where George was sad because he’d lost the bunny; he was drawn to look very heartbroken. She kept staring at it and furrowing her little brow and wouldn’t let me read further, she kept checking back on him to see if he was still sad.

      A “traditional” parent would have belittled your son’s response to the sad character by saying “don’t be silly, it’s just a picture,” whereas a girl’s response would have been encouraged with “awwww, what a sweetie you are. He’s going to be okay, don’t worry.” A baby dressed in pink will get called “pretty” and and a baby dressed in blue will be called “smart” or “big” or “strong.” I used to brag to people in the store about how big and strong and brave my pink-clad daughter was, and you shoudl have seen the looks I got. In the 21st century.

      But seriously, my daughter got a flu shot at 13 mos. and DID NOT CRY. Didn’t even whimper. I am as proud of that as I am that she has blue eyes the size of small planets, and I’d feel the same way about both things if she were a boy. How many parents (besides me) brag about how bold their baby girl is or what incredible strength she has in her arms and legs? Even more touchy… how many parents brag about how pretty their baby boy’s eyes are or how soft his skin is? How many would squirm just reading that? Why, for Pete’s sake??

      1. Mishell, I for one think that your daughter rocks hard for toughing out the injection at 13 months, but rocks even harder for her empathy for Curious George. The “traditional parent” response to a boy makes me shudder. Why the heck should we minimize empathy in anyone, boy or girl? We need more compassion in the world, not less. Kurt Vonnegut called W a psychopath and, when I reflected on it, I realized this was precisely what bothered me about him: he did what he wanted with no apparent second thoughts about others, especially if they were not in his tribe.

        My son’s teacher said that she didn’t know what to do with Max because sometimes when she talks to him, he stares at her without answering. I said, “He’s thinking.” I Googled his personality and showed her a copy of Elaine Aron’s book, The Highly Sensitive Child. I tried to explain that up to 20% of the population prefers to assess a situation/person/speech before responding. To her credit, she did read the book and try to understand this bizarre phenomenon.

        Did you read the article about a women who dressed her 5 y.o. boy up as a girl at Hallowe’en? It made the rounds on Facebook. Max loved the colour pink, but I gotta admit, I didn’t want him to get teased, so I didn’t pack his pink thermos to day care/school until now. When we went to the shoe store, he liked the sneakers with glitter, and the sales guy said, “A lot of boys do.” I asked if the parents ever bought them for them. “No.” And you know what? Neither did I. I think gender roles are limiting and lame in many ways, but I don’t want my son to get teased unnecessarily.

        I do dress Anastasia in Max’s previous clothes, including his blue snowsuit and a tuxedo sleeper that I love. Strangers tell me what a nice boy I have. I just laugh and tell them she’s a girl in her brother’s clothes, but I am the only mother I know who does this, even though it’s much easier for a tomboy than a “jane girl,” which is what one article in the Utne called it.

        Thanks for the discussion!

  12. Just a few data points:

    I do not particularly enjoy reading stories about protagonists of either sex who have characteristics that are “feminine” if those “feminine” traits are defined by patriarchal misogyny. I also don’t generally enjoy stories about people of either sex who have “masculine” traits, if masculinity is going to be defined by post-modern misandry.

    It isn’t particularly novel to go back to “Old School” sexist dogma in writing characters. A lot of feminists would argue that taking the same package of “masculine” traits and dumping them on a female character never was a challenge to those stereotypes in the first place; people have been writing about Amazons since the ancient Greeks, and they were a pretty sexist society.

    On the other hand, judging by the passage you’ve posted, the character you’re writing is not a return to Old School sexism at all. Sounds to me like the woman has an education and a responsible job, for one thing. Her distaste for violence is perfectly natural based on her profession–gender doesn’t have to come into it at all. If I sewed up wounds at work all day, I’d hardly consider it relaxing or recreational to watch the idiots get wounded for sport at night; having a penis or not wouldn’t enter into consideration.

    As far as the characterization of female doctors go…oy. I don’t think it’s just that people are not ready to cope with “strong” female characters in general; I think that certain strengths in particular really bother them a lot when a woman possesses them, rather than a man.

    A lot of people are not ready to deal with female characters who need to have the same traits that male characters do in order to succeed in certain professions. The same biases are actually what make it very hard for REAL women to succeed in those professions in the real world, quite honestly. The reason that there are fewer female doctors, politicians, generals and film directors is at least partially based on the fact that people are unwilling to accept the necessary traits of a doctor, a political leader, a general or a director when a woman is displaying them.

    Example: no one becomes a successful surgeon without having a solid intellect, a good memory, a healthy ego, and the ability to take charge of a situation instantly and without hesitation. No one becomes a successful surgeon without having made a serious commitment of time and resources and earned enough academic and professional laurels to build a significant fund of confidence in their own judgment. And all successful surgeons have certain character traits in common beyond these–one of those traits is detachment under stress.

    People who find these traits “unsympathetic” in a woman need to seriously ask themselves whether they want a MAN prone to self-doubt or hysterical breakdown to be holding the scalpel when they end up in the emergency room after that cataclysmic car wreck on I-90. I don’t think any of us would have trouble answering that question if we faced it in reality. It doesn’t matter whether the doc has breasts or not: no one wants a bleeding heart when they’re bleeding.

    Personally, I tend to think of character traits as being positive or negative, interesting or uninteresting, rather than deciding in advance that they “belong” to one group or another. Scientifically speaking, gender is a completely arbitrary construct. It’s renegotiated in every culture, and has no necessary link to biological sex. I’ve seen enough transgendered burials in the archaeological record to be sure of it.

    People are people. The majority of human traits are very evenly distributed in the general population. This is why I tend to save my reflections of gender and biological sex for races that are not human.

    1. Interesting. Found myself wondering at the end, though, whether we can ever really be writing about anything but humans even when conjecturing about non-humans. Something else I’d find myself arguing with my younger self about, I suspect.

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