Home Stretch and Hating Female Characters

So I managed 2,000 words of a blog post yesterday and then only about 800 of actual new words in my WIP, which is disappointing, but on the flipside I got to have lunch with a friend and then an epic phone call with a mentor I hadn’t talked to in far too long and then Sailor Boy and I watched Beasts of the Southern Wild last night, which was weird and pretty and a lot more realistic than I’d thought it was going to be (I’d been envisioning Treme: Where the Wild Things Are and really it was more an examination on abject poverty seen through the eyes of a child). But I think if I put my nose to the grindstone I can finish a book this week. Won’t that be something? My first book of the year.

And then I read Cassie Clare’s great new post on Tumblr (which I tried to Tumbl, but I guess it just goes to show I don’t get Tumblr, because everything I wrote just kind of disappeared) about the ending of A Clockwork Princess and general opinions about female characters, in which she writes:

‘I can’t stand Tessa at all’

You are absolutely within your rights to not like any character you choose, but this attitude is not something that I, as a writer, can really respond to. As the writer, I love all the characters, but Tessa is heart of the tale, the one I chose to focus on, to build the world of TID around. Without Tessa, everything would be changed. (Without Tessa, in fact, Will and Jem would both be dead. Everyone in the Institute would be dead.) I spent years of my life writing Tessa’s story, and I can’t talk about it as if it was anything but Tessa’s story — as if she is not, naturally and obviously, the most important character in her story. (I have also often talked about how of all the characters I’ve written she’s the most like me, so it’s a bit of an ouch to hear someone say they hate her, but — that’s my problem!)

And lots of other cool stuff about how people seem to assume that the purpose of a female character, even if the writer wrote the book to be about her, is to serve the men.

Which I thought was really interesting. Sarah Rees Brennan and Cassie and some other people and I have had lots and lots of conversations about the way readers treat female characters in fiction and it’s something that Sarah and Cassie and deeply concerned with. I am also concerned when I see the mail they get, where the men in their books are forgiven all manner of sins, and the women in their book are pilloried for nothing–nothing!I am concerned when I see women who are criticized for being too beautiful (oh, look at that debut YA writer! She’s young and beautiful and must be a total bitch) or not beautiful enough (Oh look at that writer/actress with her own TV show — she’s so ugly and untalented) or too outspoken or too ambitious or, well, maybe she has all those things, but she doesn’t have a man!

I have also had this conversation with my romance writing friends, about how the men in romances are getting darker and darker, not just “bad boys” but actual murderers. (Like I recently read one where the hero actually kills several thousand people over the course of the book and it’s really never remarked upon at all. In the first chapter, he goes to fetch the heroine and kills ten or twelve of her friends, named characters, characters who we know their backstory and they have had conversations with the heroine, and she doesn’t actually think about it. She doesn’t bring it up to him. She doesn’t even seem upset.) One very famous romance writer once told me, in a critique where she said the heroine I was writing wasn’t likeable, that her heroes could do ANYTHING and the reader would forgive them, but her heroines had to be perfect, because the readers would find any excuse for the heroine to “not deserve” the hero.

I’m not sure if I should consider myself lucky that I don’t get nearly the complaints about my heroines that friends of mine do. People are much more likely to complain about my heroes. Like with For Darkness, the only time I’ve seen people dislike Elliot, they disliked everything about the book, from the premise to the writing to the format to the characters to the pace, so the fact that they disliked the girl who was the central piece of all that didn’t really surprise me. Readers, to judge from my mail and discussions I’ve seen online, are far more likely to complain about Kai. Kai is a jerk, Kai is mean to Elliot, why does Elliot forgive Kai after the way he treated her?

Which actually doesn’t bother me so much, because it means that they are so in Elliot’s head, that they have seen so much of how she suffers that anyone who is mean to her is on the reader’s you-know-what list. Yay, Team Elliot! And yes, I agree. Kai is definitely a jerk in the early chapters of the book. He is very, very angry at Elliot, and he’s even angrier at the establishment, which is what Elliot abandoned him for, and those two things get really conflated in his head, and he’s a teenager and passionate and living in a terrible world and why should he sit around being polite? He is also angry that she claimed to stay behind to run the estate and he arrives there to find the estate on the verge of collapse. He’s heard all the stories of the bad times, and all he’s been thinking for four years, the times that he’s been suffering and the times that he’s been prosperous is that Elliot couldn’t help him, Elliot abandoned him, and now she’s sitting there watching everyone he grew up with suffer and not, as far as he can see, doing anything about it.

Kai also has prospered far away in a Post enclave, where his friends have been encouraging his revolutionary thoughts, where his best friend, Andromeda, really, REALLY hates Posts. A lot. And you see that she has her reasons, and Kai hints about terrible things that have happened to him, and Elliot spends several of the first chapters thinking about all the terrible things that could be happening to Kai.

Some readers have told me that they didn’t understand the extent of the terrible things that happened to Kai until they read “Among the Nameless Stars” because the Kai you see in FDSTS is rich and beautiful and powerful and enhanced. You see the end result, not the four years it takes to get there. And it’s hard to see the scared, starving slave boy being beat to a pulp on the streets of the Post enclave when Kai is so closed off and so haughty and so determined to hurt Elliot the way he feels Elliot hurt him.

But other readers have seen it right there in the text, when he sees what has become of his home, or in the letters, where they have seen a boy awakening to the idea that if he stays in the North he is no better than a slave, and he would risk ruin and starvation and death to be free to choose his own fate, and the cold result you see in the early parts of For Darkness speak of a prosperity hard-won, and paid for with blood and tears, and fear. Because whatever else Elliot is, she is also a Luddite. She is part of a system that thinks he and his friends are less than human, less than whole, less than perfect, and he can’t be sure if he trusts that. He has already been betrayed by her once.

Kai has definitely been the most polarizing male I’ve ever written. People who love him really really love him. People who hate him… they just see that “he’s meeeeen,” which I find interesting because it’s Kai’s lack of empathy for what Elliot’s been through and the kind of person she’s trying to be that makes him mean to her.

But back to females. The most polarizing girl I’ve ever written is Phil Llewelyn, from Rampant and Ascendant, who is not even the main character. Phil is one of my favorite characters I’ve ever written, until Persis, and I’d totally want to be her best friend.

Which brings me to Persis. I have been very good about staying away from early reviews of Across a Star-Swept Sea, but I have been pleased when people wrote me and told me how much they love Persis, and how much they love the other girls in that book, from Persis’s best friend Isla to her enemy Vania. Persis’s character was one a lot of readers of early drafts of the manuscript struggled to get a hold of, and the reasons they gave me were fascinating. Apparently, if you have a female character who is rich and beautiful and privileged, people are already coded to dislike her, even if she’s a good guy, so deeply ingrained in our cultural mindset is the archetype of the rich, beautiful, snobby villain.

Well, I thought to myself. Isn’t that exactly why I’m writing this book? Because it’s so easy for Persis to take this disguise, so expected of her? Because it’s really easy for a girl to convince people that she’s stupid and shallow and not worthy of attention? Isn’t that the whole idea? That we are ready and willing and eager to hate female characters, to hate women?

I fully expect for there to be readers who hate Persis because there have always been readers who hate things in my books, and that’s what happens when you write a book. Some people hate it. Some people hate Anne Shirley and Mr Darcy and The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. This is a true fact.

(And yes, I keep these things on hand to read when someone says something nasty about one of my books or to send to a friend when someone says something nasty about THEIR books, because you can’t please all of the readers all of the time.)

So there will no doubt be people who hate her, too (maybe there already are and I haven’t seen it, and no, please don’t send me links) and that’s okay, because there will also be people who love her as I love her, or people who are intrigued by her, or people who want to hate her and then ask themselves why, and then ask themselves why it is they’ve been taught to hate characters like her, why they’ve been taught to hate people like her, and start to look at that kind of thing more closely. And that makes me happy.

Posted in Austen, boys, feminism, narnia, other writers, PAP, star-swept, unicorns, writing life

5 Responses to Home Stretch and Hating Female Characters

  1. ConnieOnnie says:

    Funny I had just finished watching this video on facebook of Dustin Hoffman talking about how making Tootsie made him understand something we women have known for so very long. http://www.upworthy.com/dustin-hoffman-breaks-down-crying-explaining-something-that-every-woman-sadly-already-experienced-3

  2. Pili says:

    Great post right here, and it is also something that has bothered me so much when reading comments or reviews online, so much dislike of female characters… and it makes me think that we tend to see heroines as competition in a HS enviroment and not someone we identify with?

    And that Dustin Hoffman video was great indeed.

  3. Cynnara says:

    Great post. My friends and I were discussing this recently. It’s like everyone is shifting their concepts of what women should be and it’s not in a positive, upbuilding way for women or for men in how they view women. It’s great to see this post and to see how an author takes this issue not just as a person, but within their writing as well.

    It’s also great to “see” you again. *grins*

  4. Alexa Y. says:

    This is a fascinating post! I always like female characters in books and it makes me sad when they are belittled, disregarded or used as a prop for other (male) characters. Personally, I find journeying into their story fascinating as I try to uncover the logic behind who they are and what they believe. This is what happened when I read For Darkness Shows the Stars, and I’m eager to have it happen again with Across a Star-Swept Sea.