Paper Dolls and Strong Women
Hello, Parvus People! Firstly, we must thank you for another week of solid submissions. You’re making our job of selecting our debut acquisitions incredibly difficult. We hope to have some announcements on that front by the end of March, though, so keep an eye on your social media feeds!
This week, I’d like to continue our post series on feedback from the submission pool by focusing on characterization. One of the biggest challenges in writing is developing the skill to write fully realized, three dimensional, believable characters that are different from yourself. If you’re a nice, easy-going, gregarious person, it may be a real difficulty for you to write a believable villain who shares none of those traits.
That’s not to say it can’t be done. It’s just hard. But writers don’t write because it’s easy, do they?
Writing a different personality is hard enough; but how about a completely different gender? We have consistently seen male writers stumbling pretty seriously at writing strong women. This is often because the writer is approaching the character development with an RPG paper-doll mentality.
What do I mean? In a roleplaying game, you add armor, weapons, etc. to your character to modify their kit by dragging and dropping it onto the paperdoll that represents the character. Taking too much damage? Drop on some armor. Getting too involved in the melee? Drop on a crossbow. Character prone to eating lightning bolts? Drop on a ring of lightning protection. With paperdoll mentality, you are adding a specific item to the character to address every individual specific need.
Do you need to demonstrate that your character is struggling against a world in which she has no power? Give her anger. Need to show that she is lost in this uncomfortable environment? Make her silent. Does she have some long suppressed pain that she struggles against? Make her jumpy. This is paperdoll character building and it’s absolutely terrible.
When you show us that your male POV character is scared, how do you do that? Generally, you do it by having the character express outward confidence while telling us that they are nervous. You don’t have them express over-the-top arrogance. You don’t have them overcompensate. Why would you write your supporting female character as somebody who overcompensates with arrogance for fear?
Your male POV character was just drafted into the army. He’s been a small village hayseed his whole life, but now he is among hundreds of other yokels training with rusty weapons and dented armor in a Duke’s conscripted force. How does he deal with this sudden change of circumstance? How does he handle being uprooted and dropped in such a wildly different and dangerous environment? He probably tries to make a few friends.
Why, then, do your female characters react to these same scenarios by drawing into themselves? Why do they present a cold, harsh exterior to everyone around them and snap at anyone who expresses kindness?
It’s lazy writing and weak characterization to make ANY character so flat and one dimensional that they present only one emotion to the reader. All characters are a complex weave of motivations and emotions; make sure that you are keeping that in mind when building them. Quite often, male writers have a bigger problem with this when writing female characters.
I believe that’s from the largely false belief that women are so wildly different than men. Human emotional tells are nearly universal. So much of them are built into our autonomic systems. The blush response, the twitch of hand to heart when we are terrified, the duck reflex. These things don’t care whether you are male or female. There is a commonality of response to stressors.
You don’t need to make your female characters distant to show they are strong; show them overcoming adversity. You don’t show their vulnerability by making them emotionally weak; show their compassion. You don’t show that they are scared by having them lash out at everyone like a cornered rat; show them looking to form a bond with somebody with whom they can share their fear.
In short, make your female characters as human as you make your male characters.