The Impossible Female Character (and how to avoid her)

Monday, December 15, 2014

via pinterest

I did a post awhile back about The Impossible Male Character, which people seemed to like, and in the comments I noticed a trend: this was applicable to women as well. With a little research (it's hard to beat down on your own sex, I'm sorry) and a little probing, I present to you The Impossible Female Character, and how to avoid her.

Characteristics of The Impossible Female:

1. Perfect hair (it probably flows in the wind and curls like a Disney princess).
2. Is the immediate object of every man's attentions (hey, she's just drop-dead gorgeous and completely unavoidable!)
3. Is shy when it suits the plot but still kicks rears without blinking (because that's normal).
4. Even if she's not busy winning the war with her hairpin, she still manages to look like the hero (heaven forbid a woman be portrayed as gentle).
5. Gets her feelings hurt easily (but it's always someone else's fault for crushing her creativity).

I can't say I haven't written my share of the impossible females either. It's one of my weaker points, making the woman into the person that I want her to be (and consequentially that I wouldn't mind being myself) instead of the person she ought to be, from a literary perspective, or who she actually is.

So. Let's avoid her, shall we?

How to Avoid the Impossible Female

1. We all have some dream hair, and too often it's manifested in our main female characters. Don't believe me? Open up the book nearest you and find a description of the female lead.
Avoiding this is surprisingly un-difficult, but it depends on the setting of your book. Instead of giving her "wind-touseled locks" how about straight up messy hair? If she's running around through the forest odds are she hasn't had time to style them with the latest TreSemme product. Or maybe she does have nice hair (they don't all have to be disheveled, after all) but at the price of other things. Just balance it out - a real girl doesn't look like a model all the time. (Hair does not bounce back as cartoons would suggest.)

2. It's obvious the male love interest needs to, at some point, fall for the girl. But please don't make it a head-first fall on page ten, yes? Don't make it so easy for the reader that when the two come together it only seems a matter of time. Yes, the relationship should be natural, and of course there are the characters that need to fall together early on in the plot-progression, but for the majority of literature it remains true: the girls that are fought for are won better in the end. One of my favorite examples of this is The Eagle of the Ninth; go read it.

3. This third stereotype is probably the most common, not because it is such a great idea, but because it is so often looked over. The characteristic of woman to be shy and exceptionally quick at once is so rarely the case in real life, and so often the case in modern literature. Please, tell me the last time you felt capable of slicing and dicing a villain (whether verbally or otherwise) while lying on the couch feeling puny and hiding behind thick-rimmed glasses? It's just not natural. True, a woman has mood swings. True, the shy girls have a lot of talents you wouldn't know about (because they're too scared to share) but if you're too scared to share, why do you think being in a tense situation is going to make her show-and-tell any better? (And on the flip side, have you ever met a girl who can judo-flip a 200-lb man and hides the fact? Women are proud creatures by nature and we probably won't let you forget it.) I speak from experience as a quiet girl: I may have delusions of grandeur but even I know I won't be the first to win a battle of strength. Again, it's all in the balance.

4. And then there's the girl who doesn't do much, yet somehow it comes out that any sucess is by her doing. This is a bit of a caveat for the weaker female characters to still get some time in the spotlight. I must admit - I like to see a good wit winning now and then, but if I'm honest it's usually the hand-work that gets the job done. As fun as it is to let your female characters sparkle and tongue-lash, words don't win real wars. Just keep it in perspective. (This one doesn't apply to all genres.)

5. I'm hesitant to throw this last one in the mix, as a crying woman doesn't seem very perfect to me; I could be far from the mark, though, as I am a woman myself. Nevertheless, she does crop up in a lot of novels these days, and more often than not her weepy nature is blamed on other sources. I'm not sure why this is; it seems everyone wants to blame someone else for his problems, but either way if a woman can't own up to her own faults it makes for a pretty sorry read (side note: a woman who whines about her faults is no better). Give her a reason to cry that is her fault, make her understand it, and yes, maybe a little pettiness will be appropriate - we're being realistic here, as you'll recall. In short: write a girl who cries about the right things, and sometimes the wrong things (because we all do). Don't have her blaming her tears on someone else, and don't make her a soppy mess all the time, unless you intend her as a joke or a caricature.

Female characters are hard work and a lot of maintenance, so keep up the struggle (I'm right there with you).

4 comments

  1. Females are a lot of work and take a lot of maintenance. I know. I am one. O_o (Which is not to say that men are not also complex, they simply tend to be complex in different ways.)

    You mentioned The Eagle of the Ninth in Number Two: I'd be willing to throw Sophy from The Grand Sophy in as an example for Number Four. There is plenty of banter and wit shared in that novel, but there is also an excellent depiction of a woman who knows that to get things done, one has to do them. And, you know, Sophy is just a paragon of womanhood. Couldn't have a better title. XD

    However, one of the safest bets, I've found, is to not use story women as the measurement for writing one. If you rely on others' caricatures of women, you do get the weepy, hard-core, fainting, perfect, bipolar female. But if you look at reality, how Woman works, and how she shakes out in various personalities, you get a much more rounded person. Any person is chock full of paradoxes, but even within those paradoxes, she makes sense.

    Sophy.
    And The Eagle of the Ninth.
    And Jane Eyre.
    Mm... <3

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    1. Sophy is perfection, which is part of the reason she is so loved (yet so rare). As you said: it's important to not only look to literature for inspiration but to real people; they are the ones we're aiming for, anyway. I recall someone teaching me that the best way to know a counterfeit dollar bill is to look at the original, not the copy. This can obviously be applied to a lot of life, but particularly writing; copy another man's work and you get just that: a copy. Seek to immitate life, and we find a much nearer likeness.

      I need to read Jane Eyre over Christmas Break.

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    2. I love how you say "I need to read Jane Eyre over Christmas Break" so casually, like, "Yeah, I'm gonna read a full-sized nineteenth-century novel in a few says. Ain't no thing."

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    3. I take my Christmas Break Reading very seriously. Besides, two weeks for a novel ain't no thing. XD

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