I don’t want to make this an overly complicated or deep post. Mostly this is just set-up for this week’s discussion on “Hybrid Genres.” Below is an interesting and thought-provoking “map” of genre fiction and all of its attendant subgenres. You may be aware of more subgroups or disagree with the categorization but it does make you consider exactly what is it you are writing/reading.
Sometimes finding books with good women characters is really hard. I’ve spent a lot of time in the bookstore scanning the shelves for stories that I wanted to read. For a while, I even read romance novels — Harlequin Intrigues mostly because they had action and mystery, too — because it was so difficult to find much. I’d also look at the covers of fantasy novels for pictures of women. But then I’d have to flip to the summary to see if the book actually featured a woman. Sometimes the publisher would put a woman on the cover to get the guys and then she’d be nowhere in the story.
Then there’s the current trend of having a female protagonist because — news flash — women buy books! It’s most noticeable in Thriller, where the writer often pairs the protagonist with a male sidekick. Am I ecstatic about this, given all the difficulties finding books?
A lot of the female protagonists read like they’re men, that if I changed their name to John and “she” to “he” I wouldn’t know the difference. I’m reading a thriller now, with a female protagonist AND antagonist. Women tend to show emotions more, but the author downplayed it to the point of making the women unemotional. Kind of a problem when the protagonist is trying to solve the murder of her friend. She should have cried at some point for her friend. She should have been angry that someone was now trying to kill her. Instead, the story was unemotional to the point of clinical.
By the way … the second character raised a family with a bunch of kids and then found time to kill people for hire in other countries. But no motive was ever given to why she become a contract killer, and her family was often portrayed as a trophy to be displayed: “It’s a tough business, but I can still juggle a family!”
Yet, I go to writing message boards where the question gets asked: “How do I write a character of the opposite gender?”
The answer is often not to bother with the gender. Characters are characters. That gender doesn’t really influence characterization.
Huh? How can it not?
If a character is born with a disability, that will influence their perception of the world.
If a character is of Korean ancestry that will influence their perception of the world.
If the character is short or very tall, that’s going to influence their perception of the world.
So why should gender not be an influence like these other elements?
My top five ways writers get women wrong:
- Women characters who are idiots and airheads and lacking even common sense. A book with the first woman Vice President had a character with such bad judgement that she would have never been elected to the PTA. Curiously, all the ones I’ve seen of this are from women writers.
- Women assessing their “taut bodies” in the mirror, as well as other features that men find attractive. Seriously, ladies, do any of you look into a mirror on a daily basis and assess that your breasts are still firm and supple? Yikes!
- The “perfect” woman. I keep running into descriptions — both male and female writers — where the women characters are perfect, like an airbrushed model, except with words. We’re all different shapes and sizes, and most of us don’t look like we’ve been airbrushed.
- Women who can do physical things they shouldn’t be able to do. I was at a con where the male writers were talking about their kick ass heroines. I asked about how they dealt with the differences between genders and they hemmed and hawed about not doing “Men are from Mars and Women are From Venus.” Uh, newsflash. Men have more upper body strength than women, and women have more lower body strength than men. Surely this would make a difference?
- Having only one woman character in the entire story. I’ve even seen this in books like urban fantasies, written by women. I go to the mall and see women. I go to work and see women. Heck, I was in the army. Saw a lot of men, but even in the particularly male-dominated field I was in (truck driving), there were still more than one woman present.
What authors do you think get women right?
About two weeks ago, my sinuses told me fall was coming. They’re good at doing that because they don’t like the changing weather. Since then, the weather in Washington, DC has been in transition — hot out, but not right for summer and not right for fall. It’s sort of this in-between thing, at times fleeting. That’s kind of like a subplot in a story.
The definition is often frustratingly vague. Kay Kenyon defines it as:
Subplots are story lines in addition to the main one. They often feature a different point of view character, but not always. For instance, if your detective falls in love, he may pursue his interest in a way that needs a new plot thread.
K.M. Weiland chimes in with information on how not to do them:
In fact, too many subplots or the wrong kind of subplots can easily water down your main plot and theme and end up distracting the reader.
The first thing I thought of was an action thriller I read. Through most of the book, the villains were pursuing the main character and her husband, planning to do evil things. Most intrusive was the hand-wringing subplot about the main character going “Woe is me” about the state of her marriage. I kept wanting to scream at the book, “Lady, people are trying to kill you! Worry about the marriage later!”
Maybe it’s stuff like that story that makes me get my subplots as tightly integrated to the plot as possible. I hate reading a book and feeling like I’ve left the main story back on the road somewhere.
So your turn. What subplots have you really liked, and what what ones have made you want to throw the book across the room and into the fireplace (if you have a fireplace anyway)?
Wander on by and check out my flash fiction story Sand Dollar Wishes on Writer Unboxed. No subplots in this story, since it’s flash fiction and under 250 words. No room!
As readers of Unleaded know, I’d like to see women portrayed better in fiction. There are a lot of books available with women characters, but as Davonne Burns @brohne noted:
@LindaAdamsVA thanks ^^ I think my prob is, I don’t read anything with fem protags, tend to find them rather annoying.
Frankly, I agree. I’m still cringing from a thriller I read when the female protagonist was being pursued by armed bad guys in a museum. Male sidekick suggests hiding in the women’s restroom. With bad guy looking for them, she screeches non-stop at him for being in the bathroom. That book was by a woman. In a book by a man, the woman protagonist falls down the stairs and out of the scene while the male sidekick defeats the bad guys, and then she reappears once the fight has ended.
I thought urban fantasy would be a great answer to seeing more women in books. The early books were like discovering gold. Instead, the women in these books evolved into objects on the covers, and often have extremely bad judgment when it comes to relationships. The thing that bugged me the most is people are so used to women being represented like this they don’t notice it, and even the women are writing this way.
But it made me think about why I can see it when others can’t. It’s because of clothes.
When I was growing up, I had a mother raised in a culture that taught her everyone else came first and that her opinion wasn’t important. The area where this turned into a problem was clothes. My father despised shopping and would only do it if we could run in and out. Ever been in the women’s section of a department store? Riiiiigggghhhttt. My mother took the path of least resistance: She didn’t ask; she went to the thrift store. I sort of got left out. Most of my clothes were grandparent hand-me downs or gifts. The rest I bought money scrimped together from my allowance. If my mother had been a little assertive, this problem would have not existed. If she’d said, “Can you drop us off? We’ll call you in a few hours.” — my father would have done that. But she never spoke up.
So when I look at a book where a woman is treated like she simply exists and turns into wallpaper when the male character steps on the scene, I have a problem with it. I don’t expect the character to be a bull in the china shop or be the protagonist of the story.
I want the character to be represented as a person, not a character inserted into the story for marketing.
I want the character to think about something else other than having a relationship with a guy, as if her whole world was about finding a guy to take care of her.
If the character is attacked by a bad guy, I want her to try to help herself, not melt into a puddle of helpless and wait for the rescue. She doesn’t have to be good at it — heck, she could be so bad at she makes the situation worse. But she has to be more than waiting for the guy to fix her problems for her, because in real life, if you don’t speak up for yourself, it ain’t going to happen.
What do you think about how women are portrayed in books?