Storytelling

Eight Absurdities We Force on Female Characters

Aes Sedai from Wheel of Time Cover Art

You see, the main problem with female characters is they're always doing colorful magic rituals.

Have you ever noticed how many more articles there are about writing female characters than there are about writing male characters? What’s up with that? Are women such strange and unusual creatures that we need an ever-growing number of books and articles to tell us how to write them?

It probably won’t surprise you that the answer is “no.” Women are no more bizarre or unknowable than anyone else. Writers just have to depict them like they depict men, but with feminine pronouns. By setting out to write strange creatures known as “women” instead, storytellers create the very problems they are trying to solve. Sometimes this comes from individual prejudice, sometimes from cultural baggage around gender. Either way, these human-made problems make it seem like women are hard to write, which contributes to underrepresentation of women in fiction. It would be impossible to list all the difficulties storytellers create for themselves, but here are eight of the most common.

1. Lone Representation

Cover art showing Vin from Mistborn. Mistborn has over a dozen major characters, but Vin is the only woman.

When a novel has just one female character and she’s a full-time parent, audiences complain that the novel is saying women shouldn’t have careers. When a novel has just one female character and she’s a badass warrior with no interest in aesthetics, audiences complain that the novel is pushing women to adopt more traditionally masculine traits in order to be taken seriously. What’s going on here? Is there something wrong with women being full-time parents or having traditionally masculine traits?

Of course not. The issue in these cases is not with the characters themselves but with their status as the only woman in a big cast. When a story has only one woman, that woman cannot help but become a stand-in for her gender.* This is a problem storytellers create for themselves by including one woman in their cast, and the solution is simple: include more women.

Adding more women on top of the existing cast isn’t the answer. That usually results in a bloated story with pointless characters. Instead, storytellers need to change their existing cast to include more women – or better yet, include them from the start. This doesn’t mean any depiction of a female character is fair game – some things will be misogynistic no matter how many women a story has – but it does mean that individual female characters won’t be under a microscope.

This advice scales with the size of a story’s cast. A story with a dozen major characters should aim for at least six women unless it has a compelling reason to do otherwise. A smaller story is under less pressure. Audiences are happy to accept a single female character if the story only has one character.

2. Separate Fighting Styles

The main characters of Outlander's TV show adaptation. Outlander has the protagonist use an ineffectual dagger because a 1.5lb sword is deemed too heavy for her.

I used to think it was strange how often I would see people online asking how to realistically write women in fight scenes. I thought, “Simple: pointy end goes into the other fighter.” But then I realized that people were actually confused and that the debates over which killing tools would work as “women’s weapons” are largely spawned by existing stories.

Every time a novel depicts a woman needing to find a special weapon or a film gives women a sexy fighting style, it furthers the idea that the way women fight is inherently different from the way men fight. This is nonsense – the physics of murder don’t change based on gender – but the idea persists.

Storytellers can free themselves from this problem by simply accepting that women in their setting fight the same way men fight. A sword doesn’t particularly care about its wielder’s pronouns. If a storyteller actually wants to know what tactics a physically weaker fighter would employ against a stronger opponent, they can ask that, but it should be decoupled from gender. If that level of detail is important to the setting, then it should be considered any time combatants differ in strength, not just when one of them is female.

3. Enigmatic Decision-Making

A female mage from Wheel of Time Wheel of Time is obsessed with how strange and inscrutable women are. Who knows why they do anything?

Storytellers often display an intense need to differentiate the way women make decisions. Maybe they read an article about statistical differences in the way men and women solve problems, or maybe they just have an inherent bias.* Either way, this line of reasoning usually leads to stories where women seem like a different species.

In reality, most humans make decisions the same way: by considering available information and past experiences, then trying to reach the optimal outcome. It’s a messy process, but it’s fairly universal, at least at the level most fiction operates. Storytellers rarely seem to have this problem with male characters, but introduce a female character and she suddenly needs to make all her choices based on the phases of Saturn.

While some storytellers will try to defend this practice in the name of realism or creating a deeper world,* it actually does the opposite. Constantly calling attention to a character’s gender creates a stilted world full of characters who are difficult to empathize with. Most people in real life don’t actively consider their gender whenever they make a decision.

Authors can save themselves a lot of trouble by simply basing a character’s decisions off of their personal history and experiences. Instead of asking, “How would a woman react to a rampaging dragon?” ask, “How would a noble with a strong education and court upbringing react to a rampaging dragon?” That method creates all the diversity of problem-solving a story needs without making any unintentional statements about gender.

4. “Feistiness”

Kazuma and Ayano from Kaze No Stigma In Kaze No Stigma, Ayano’s violent anger is portrayed over and over again as harmless and endearing.

Stop me if you’ve seen this before: a female character shouts angrily at a man, threatens him, and maybe even injures him, and the other men in the room look at each other knowingly and say some variant of “she’s a feisty one.”

This scene gets played out with minor variations across countless stories, all of which portray a woman’s anger as no big deal. Sometimes this dismissal is just used to infantilize the character; sometimes it’s also used to increase her sex appeal. Whatever its purpose, it’s a strong signal to the audience that this character doesn’t matter. The author doesn’t take the character seriously, so why should the audience? That specter haunts the character for the rest of the story, lowering tension and investment in everything the character does.

Authors rarely portray male characters as feisty. When a male character exhibits such hostile behavior, he is treated like a serious threat to the safety of others. Dismissing and demeaning female characters who behave the same way reinforces the idea that violence by women isn’t a big deal in real life, which can have tragic consequences for people in abusive relationships.

Storytellers who make this mistake do so because they’ve been taught not to take women seriously as threats. Even though most people intellectually know better, it’s hard to get away from the idea that an angry woman is amusing. That’s just something storytellers need to work on if they want their female characters to be taken seriously.

5. Femininity Balancing

Kell and Lila from a Darker Shade of Magic A Darker Shade of Magic makes it clear that Lila isn’t like other girls (who are weak and slutty) but also that she’s traditionally attractive.

Everyone knows that when you write a female character, you’re basically walking a tightrope. If you make them too girly, no one will like them because girliness is bad for reasons. But if she’s too masculine, then she won’t be hot and might even – *gasp* – mess with someone’s concept of gender. So what you presumably need is a character who disdains dresses and the color pink but screams a lot and looks like an underwear model.

If that sounds like a lot of pointless trouble to go to, it is. There isn’t actually anything wrong with embracing traditionally feminine things or with a woman who takes on traditionally masculine traits.* And yet storytellers keep forcing themselves into this balancing act, to the point that “not like other girls” has become a routinely mocked cliche.

So why does this happen? Because authors are letting themselves fall for the cultural catch-22 that devalues anything feminine but also insists women conform to traditional expectations. That’s why so many storytellers try to make their female protagonist seem cool by degrading other women and yet return to the same feminine stereotypes.

The solution is to let a female character present whatever level of femininity or masculinity makes sense for the story, and then to not make a big deal about it. If your character likes armwrestling and DIY construction projects, that’s fine; they can like those things without deriding dresses and nail polish. By the same token, a character who is into dresses and nail polish isn’t inherently bad. Those are just their preferences.

6. Frequent Reminders of Attractiveness

Cover art from Artemis Artemis makes a point of reminding us that Jazz is totally sexy and hot, narrative flow be damned.

Whether through formal instruction or the mean streets of beta reading, most storytellers know that a protagonist shouldn’t spend a huge amount of time thinking about their appearance. It’s jarring for a character to constantly consider how they look, unless they have a good reason to do so like going to a fancy party.

Despite this common understanding, storytellers also have to constantly remind the audience how hot their female characters are, right? At least that seems to be the case, based on how often authors emphasize their female leads’ looks. Of course, this dual need makes writing women much harder, since readers don’t typically appreciate their stories being interrupted with reminders about a character’s sexy bod.

It gets worse! Storytellers also need to put in some token effort to make their female leads relatable, especially in stories aimed at women, but not in any way that would reduce the characters’ attractiveness. This is why we get characters with the “flaw” of being too slender or having hair that’s too red. It makes readers roll their eyes, but authors clearly have no other choice.

But what if there were another way? What if authors could just describe what their character looks like, and then leave it at that unless it was relevant to the story in some way? That would solve the problem, and there’d be no downside. Sounds wild, I know, but this technology has already been cracked for male characters, and very serious scientists in lab coats have assured me it can work just as well for female characters.*

7. Sexual Abstinence

The Fire's Stone cover art The Fire’s Stone is obsessed with whether or not protagonist Chandra has sex because it will weaken her magical powers, maybe?

Storytellers who want to put their female character in a romance face the ultimate conundrum: such relations usually result in the character having sex, but women having sex is bad! It must be, or else why would we have so many slurs and degrading terms for sexually active women?

Some storytellers try to get around this problem by assuring the audience that their characters have been pure and chaste before meeting their current beaus, but that raises the question of why sex was bad before and okay now. Short of making the boyfriend a divine avatar,* there’s really no explanation that will square that circle. Another common tactic is to explain that the female character used to have sex with many partners, but now she’s seen the light and will only have sex with this one dude. Except that just sounds like a downgrade.

If this seems like a headache to you, then you’ll be delighted to know that all the obsession with how much sex a woman has is nothing but misogynistic cultural baggage. Sexual activity has nothing to do with moral value, no matter what gender or lack thereof is involved. So relax: you officially have permission not to comment on how much sex a female character has had before their current relationship. In most stories it’s not relevant, and if by some chance it is, you can save yourself a lot of trouble by mentioning it in nonjudgmental terms.

8. Gendered Magic

Cover art from Gifts. In Gifts, women can pass the genes for magic death rays down to their sons but can’t use the power themselves, for science reasons.

A lot of people hold views about ways in which men and women are just inherently different, and when those people are spec fic storytellers, their views can translate into gender-based magic. Sometimes this is explicit, with characters openly stating that women and men have different magical abilities. Other times the split is more subtle, with female characters only receiving feminine-coded powers like healing and telepathy by sheer coincidence.

No matter how it’s manifested, gendered magic systems earn the story a lot of extra scrutiny. Suddenly, every choice about how magic works seems like a grand statement about gender.* If women are better with fire then men, is that a statement about women being more hot headed? If a system has men gain their magic through long periods of isolation, is it saying that men aren’t fit to be part of a family?

Gendered magic also raises unavoidable questions about people outside the conventional gender binary. In a world where magic discriminates between men and women, what kind of magic does a nonbinary or trans person use? Audiences can’t help but ask these questions because magic represents the physical rules on which a world runs. It’s like crafting a world where E=MC² only holds true when a woman calculates it.

For all that, most gendered magic systems aren’t trying to say anything interesting or insightful about gender. It’s usually something an author does for a bit of added novelty or that they simply add on impulse. That’s not a good enough reason to add such a deep pitfall to the story. The vast majority of stories will do better to leave their magic unaffected by gender.


Speculative fiction would be in a much better place if storytellers would stop making things unnecessarily difficult for themselves, especially when it comes to writing women. So many (mostly male) authors approach the subject as if they’re solving an ancient puzzle, like it requires intensely deep thought to write about a woman slaying a dragon or piloting a space fighter. It doesn’t, and the sooner people realize that, the better.

Need an editor? We’re at your service.

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Comments

  1. SunlessNick

    Good article. I especially like the comparison with E=MC².

  2. Dave L

    >most humans make decisions the same way: by considering available information and past experiences, then trying to reach the optimal outcome.

    You have a much more optimistic view of most people than I do, especially after November 8, 2016

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Look when your available information and past experience is several decades of racist Republican propaganda going all the way back to Nixon’s Southern Strategy, Trump starts to make sense.

  3. Lana

    You do realize that there is nothing wrong with NOT wanting to have sex either, right? Or wanting to wait until you’re with someone that you love or want to marry? Neither promiscuous sex, nor abstinence is a bad thing. So writers can right women either way, as long as they don’t do it in a bad light. You’re no better if you judge those who don’t want to have sex. You might as well be calling them a prude for it. Being the kind of person, male or female, who is abstinent, doesn’t automatically mean that you judge those who are not. It’s just a personal choice. Whatever choice you make about sex should always be respected. There’s nothing wrong with treating sex like something special between partners, or like a brief physical encounter that means nothing.

    • Mike

      As an asexual, I think you’ve missed the point. It’s not about a character who doesn’t want to have sex, it’s about a character who’s not asexual but has inexplicably kept her virginity until her love interest comes around. If the character has no interest in sex before marriage, for example, that needs to be clear in the story.
      If you’re talking about a character who has no interest in sex at all, though, I’ll quote another one of their articles (can’t remember which one right now). Asexuality will still be unusual for most readers, and if a character is asexual, it has to be explicitly said. That is, she has to make it clear she doesn’t have sex because she’s not interested in it.
      The point is that sex is naturally expected to happen when there’s a romantic connection. Not having sex can be explained by a plethora of circumstances (asexuality, religious beliefs, someone’s first relationship) but, all too often, what authors do is make a female character chaste simply because they think she should be “pure,” which is complete nonsense.

      • SunlessNick

        It’s not about a character who doesn’t want to have sex, it’s about a character who’s not asexual but has inexplicably kept her virginity until her love interest comes around.

        The “her” is a thing worth calling out specifically. I can think of exactly one male character who fits this description.

        • Cay Reet

          Yes, female virginity is treated like this extremely rare and important mythical beast which you have to protect under all cirstumstances

      • El Suscriptor Justiciero

        ^ This. There are ways to write an adult character that hasn’t engaged in sex before the story without it feeling like pure bullshit. A demisexual character makes sense; a character that has sexual hangups because they have been raised in an Abrahamic religion makes sense; a character with a history of abuse that makes them scared of intimacy makes sense. A character that is socially inept and has never managed to find a lover makes sense.

        A character that is chaste just because the author believes women are “pure” does NOT make sense.

    • American Charioteer

      This subject was discussed at length in another article.
      https://mythcreants.com/blog/five-unrealistic-character-traits/#comment-307535

      The summary is that there is nothing wrong with a character who is chaste or asexual or does not have sex for some other reason. What they are talking about is the very common trope where a character abstains from sex until they meet one special person (this character is most often female, but Chris has also cited Edward Cullen). This is implicitly contrasted with “those other girls” who engage in sex more frequently.

      This trope isn’t about abstinence until marriage, either (Edward wasn’t particularly concerned about marrying Bella before having sex). It is about abstinence until you meet that special someone, for the implied reason that if you were to not be a virgin when you meet then you wouldn’t have the same value as a partner.

    • 3Comrades

      No one does that though, they just find it odd that female characters have over emphasis on when they have or have not had sex.

      Like when a guy has never had sex in media, it’s usually mentioned right before sex, or given as a reason for not having sex, which makes sense (or derided for it, which is sexist against men). But with women they don’t say “she was waiting” or “hadn’t met the right person” but make it sound like a kind of purity.

      Abstinence isn’t the problem. It’s the overconsideration that whether she was abstinent or promiscuous as something that informs anything about her besides a simple choice.

      She can be abstinent or sleep with everybody. But treating her as pure because she was abstinent makes sex seem tainted. The same if she is treated as a better person due to sleeping with less people. It makes a conundrum because when sex does happen it seems corrupting which is opposite (usually) of what the author wishes to convey.

      No one is saying characters shouldn’t be abstinent or judging them for it, but just that it should be treated as a simple personal choice which says relatively little about them as a person. And shouldn’t come up unless important to the current action.

    • Cay Reet

      This is not about slut-shaming anyone or saying everyone should want to have sex. It’s about the only-female trope that someone waits for the ‘right one’ to have sex, unlike all other women around them. If a character believes that sex should wait until they’re married, it’s fine. If a character has lots of one-night stands, it’s fine, too. Context about why someone hasn’t had sex so far (once they’re above a certain age, of course) matters a lot. Some people just aren’t interested. Some people just don’t have the opportunity. Some people don’t have sex before marriage, because they’re highly religious and their religion forbids it. Some people live in a family with five older brothers and a very conservative idea about women and sex and simply have no chance to have any sex until they’re away from home.

      The problem with a lot of female characters is that they are a virgin until they meet the male lead for no apparent reason whatsoever other than ‘she’s not like those other girls who sleep around.’ That is a very bad reason for not having had sex. Especially when it could just as well be ‘she’s so focused on her education that she’s never tried to have a relationship’ or something similar. As mentioned above, there’s a lot of more realistic reasons why someone (male or female) hasn’t had sex before.

    • Passerby

      Kudos for this post. I was going to write this myself. If anything, all those books where the author goes to extra lengths to emphasize that the main heroine never had sex before are offensive against the people who decided to wait or didn’t find the right person yet. Like “50 Shades of Grey” – oh, you’re over 20 and a virgin? Oh my, how wierd, we can’t allow for it to continue!

      • American Charioteer

        50 Shades is the opposite extreme of Twilight. Treating virginity like a disease that needs to be cured is obviously as harmful as suggesting that people who aren’t virgins have reduced romantic value.

        The problem isn’t that these authors don’t have the right idea about when it is best to lose one’s virginity, the problem is that there IS NO ONE ANSWER to when someone should lose their virginity. What Oren is suggesting isn’t that abstinence is inherently good or bad, but that novels should not suggest that a person’s value is in any way tied to their sexual history.

      • Cay Reet

        It’s actually more about using the virginity as a ‘she (rarely he) waited until the RIGHT PERSON came along, unlike all other girls (rarely guys).’ It’s about that ‘unlike all other girls’ part much more than about the ‘no sex so far’ part. Our society is horribly fixated on how and when girls have the first sex in their lives and there’s still that myth that the first time is something special and should only be with a very specific partner. If it’s phrased as ‘the chance never arose before’ or ‘just no interest so far,’ it’s a completely different thing. From the bit of 50 Shades I’ve looked at, I’m not surprised that Ana had no sex before, though.

      • Nikita

        I think the idea is that women often get tied down to some kind of explanation as to why they did or did not try to have sex. I personally would like to see more characters who are more conservative in this area, but I don’t think offending people like that is the point. In many novels, especially in romance, the female character’s sexuality is often widely discussed, as if it was some sort of virtue. In reality, the trope mentioned above often acts like the woman’s sex life is completely tied to the male main character. If she didn’t have sex before him, there should be an actual reason, not just because she hasn’t met the “right one”. That makes it seem like her entire sexuality is focused on the man. If someone wants their female character to be sexually inexperienced, it should be for a reason that affects real people, such as religion, or lack of opportunity. Not because this particular guy has come into her life.

  4. 3Comrades

    I have seen a good gendered magic system. In it, the main character is a man wielding feminine magic. He has trouble doing so because no one will teach him. He even uses a sword to channel it which everyone says is too masculine to work, that if he can channel femininity it must be feminine as possible.

    Another character was a woman channeling male magic, and completely dedicated to her goals stating male magic suited it better even while generally being derided.

    The book did well at going about gender roles and how it corners our actions. It makes it clear everyone can use both types of magic but gendered magic exists because of cultural pressure. I think it managed very well.

  5. American Charioteer

    Addressing #1 (lone representation) goes a long way towards solving #5 (balance of femininity). If you have plenty of female characters then you won’t have to worry about how feminine any of them are, because each one will be an individual instead of a stand-in for her gender. ATLA is a good example of this, having one girl who was compassionate and gentle and another who was aggressive and forthright among the core characters.

    • N

      I agree: all the characters in ATLA are very well written, but the women especially get much more nuance and diversity than is usual even in “serious” adult media. (And this is without going into how powerful they are shown to be even compared to the men.)

      • American Charioteer

        I did greatly prefer Katara to Toph for this reason. Though both were very powerful benders, Toph’s relies on her power for everything. Her entire character is shaped around her need to be tough.
        She helps Aang is by helping him become tougher.
        She gets out of her greatest peril (being captured in a metal box) is by finding a way to become even more powerful.

        On the other hand, Katara’s compassion is shown as her greatest strength. My favorite episode was The Puppetmaster, where we see what Katara would be if she had power but lost her compassion.
        She helps Aang is by keeping him grounded and centered on what really matters.
        She gets out of her greatest peril (nearly being killed by Azula) when she is saved by Zuko, who may never have switched sides if she hadn’t shown compassion to him in the crystal caves.

        • SunlessNick

          Katara also gets out of a cage by running on the spot for a while, making herself sweat and then using the sweat for her water magic. She’s powerful, but she wins with her head.

        • N

          I agree that Katara uses her head and her heart in addition to her bending – she is certainly one of the most nuanced characters in a strong ensemble. However, I personally felt that Toph relying on her bending for everything is (at least partly) a reaction to being coddled and stifled for her disability. Her outward reactions are built around appearing tough (e.g. she was delighted about her portrayal in the play in season 3) even when she feels vulnerable (e.g. her idea that pairing up with Zuko right before the finale would help her understand herself and/or change her life for the better). It could also be a function of how young she is – I think she’s the youngest, except Aang (who has had to take the shortcut to maturity). In the care of Iroh-like adults who knew how to coax kindness out of her, she might have had more scope for turning out like Katara.

  6. Leon

    On the gendered fighting styles thing, you’re spot on. The way you fight depends entirely on your strengths and weaknesses in comparison to your opponent. And men and women are build differently.
    Look at MMA where female fighters use their legs more in grappling. And these are fighters, if the characters in your book have a back ground in gymnastics or something else that will similarly distort the body, the differences will be even more obvious.
    The idea of male / female fighting styles is clearly just plain stupid, but a female fighter is going to favor different techniques than a male fighter.
    If anybody is interested in depicting combat I would recommend learning about MMA and Shaolin kung fu.

    • Cay Reet

      Yes, it stands to reason that a very strong character would favour fighting styles which allow for them to make use of their strength, whereas another character might prefer styles that rely more on agility or precision. That has nothing to do with gender, but rather with build and training. There can be female characters who are very strong and male characters who are built a lot more slight and will favour other techniques instead.

      • leon

        Yes, but you’re talking about outliers (unless your talking about a female professional soldier punching down on some poor conscripts in the third world).
        In role playing games strength is just one number that covers any situation where a character has to test their strength, but in real life there’s a lot more to it. Agility and speed come from strength, and precision only lasts as long as your strength lasts. My reasoning on the subject is extrapolated from what I have seen in real fighters; On the same level, the vast majority of women do not have the same upper body strength as men, so why would a woman risk breaking her hand on a strong fighters face, when she can far more easily break his ribs with her feet – a woman I actually know.
        I did say that gendered fighting styles are stupid. I’m not saying that there are gendered techniques. I’m only saying that a fighter is going to exploit their strengths.

      • Leon

        Sorry, that was a bit long winded. Basically a punch is a punch and a kick is a kick no matter who you are, but women are built differently from men. So there are subtle differences in the way they fight (And I’m talking real world fighting here, not sexy spy thigh grapelling and flying/simultaneous-opposite-direction/nose-bones-into-the-brain punching).
        I take my opponent to the ground because I’m short and have very weak shoulders and legs, but I am very good at grapelling and applying submission holds. I can dodge punches well enough to close with most opponents, but I knew a girl who would have a better than average chance of breaking my chest with her foot if I tried that. Because her upper body strength can’t match most men her first instinct is to back up to effective range and kick, when most men will rely on their arms? There’s no reason a man couldn’t fight like this but in most situations a man would do better to develop upper body strength (there are no Taekwondo fighters in MMA that I am aware of).
        How do you fight?

        • Cay Reet

          I’m actually agreeing with you, you know. Women will favour different fighting styles than men, but it stands to reason that not all men will favour the same fighting still and nor will all women. So giving every member of a team their own fighting style makes sense (unless we’re talking about a soldier unit here which will all have received the same training), but it shouldn’t be a ‘women can’t fight as well as men and can’t use the same weapons because they’re women.’

          • Leon

            Of course. But in his article Oren insists that strength comes down to a single number (ie, 50 str points), and how a that the way these points afe distributed through the body is irrelevant.
            He also doesn’t mention that a sword fight with rapiers would require the same kind of strength as an arm wresteling match.

  7. 3Comtades

    It has been a long time. I more remembered it because everyone was super LGBT and the series ended with a mass marriage of all the characters, which was a bit odd.

    It was a co-author with Diane Duane I think.

  8. Cay Reet

    I would like to add “Girl Reporter” (which I’m just rereading for the umpteenth time) to the list of books which do well with representation (women, but also more). I’m not rereading it just because of representation, though, but because it’s well-written and very funny. The representation just ices the cake for me.

    The book has five female characters with a lot of screentime: Friday Valentina, her mother Tina Valentine, the superheroes Solar II and Astra IV, and the partially retired supervillain Megadethra.
    Friday is a millennial girl running a vlog about superheroes (a big topic in her reality) and studies media. She’s well aware of her privileges as a white girl from a wealthy family. She’s also the POV character and describes herself as bisexual, but tending more towards women. She loves dying her hair in all different colours.
    Tina Valentina, the original Girl Reporter of that realitiy’s Australia, is a journalist, businesswoman, and single mother who has build her own wealth and is still a no-holds journalist at the age of 50. Her claim to fame is that she was the first journalist to interview an Australian superhero – and for a long time it made her the girl reporter – regularly kidnapped to lure in Solar I, the hero she interviewed and was supposed to have a relationship with. A lot of people even think Friday is his daughter.
    Solar II is the legacy of the longest-serving superhero of Australia (Solar I was a guy) and has gotten more than enough shit for daring to replace a seasoned male superhero as a 16-year-old girl. She broke the ‘one girl’ rule of the Australian team – before her, the 5-person team always only had one woman on it, so when she arrived, Astra IV assumed Joey (Solar’s real name) was going to replace her, but she didn’t. In addition, Solar II was born with a missing left hand and didn’t have the Machine * make her one. And she’s into women (although it’s not addressed whether she’s lesbian or bisexual).
    Astra IV looks like the sparkly, pretty girl on the team, but in reality, all Astras are among the most powerful, because they can control dimensions to a certain degreen.
    Then there’s Megadethra who has seemingly retired when Solar I was replaced, but is still hungering for that last fight where she will defeat him and puts a lot of things in motion to make that happen. Since the first time we (and Friday) see her is in bed with Tina, it’s safe to assume that she’s at least as much into women as into men, if not more.
    And during the novel, a third female hero joins the Australian team, which means, with a woman of Asian descent taking up the mantle of Catsuit II, women now outnumber the men. When it comes to powers, two of the three female superheroes (Solar II and Catsuit II) are more into physical fighting than into using amazing mental abilities.

    * an alien machine which makes superheroes and turns them back to normal citizens at the end of their term, they arrived on this earth in 1981 and work on a regular schedule, Australia has a 6-months turnout, but it’s not universally the same, as Japan has 2 weeks

    Now I’m going into spoiler territory, so if you don’t want to read any spoilers, stop here.
    There’s two more characters in the story which are not what they seem at first glance. Officially, Surf (still a team member, came on board recently) was the first indigenous Australian to join the superhero team, but during the course of the story it turns out that the second-longest-serving superhero, known as The Dark, is indigenous, too. Since his costume covers every inch of his skin, nobody outside the team knew that before. And he’s been in a happy homosexual relationship with Solar I (dubbed the Bachelor of Steel) for most of the 25 years they served together. In addition, he was a paraplegic before being transformed – an accident which happened about 2 years before he became a hero. When Friday asks him whether he had a choice he answers that he didn’t realize he had one, but if he had to do it again, knowing he would serve for 28 years and counting (at the time of the novel, Solar I has been retired for 4 years), he’d still do it, but not for the same reason. With Joey/Solar II fully accepting her disability and making the best of it (she uses the curve, as she calls the stump where her left hand would be, just as much for fighting as her right hand), Aaron/The Dark wouldn’t be the type of superhero he is, had he not accepted the eradication of his disability. The Dark is modelled a lot on Batman, but with less tools and, perhaps, slightly above human strength and agility.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Sounds super cool. I’ll add it to my reading list, which is admittedly too long already.

      • Cay Reet

        I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. Of course, I also love the book, because Friday at one point refers to The Dark as ‘The Crown Prince of Brooding.’ The book has a lot of funny moments, including the moment when Tina Valentina realizes it’s the first time The Dark himself has become the bait. She’s too happy about that for someone who has been reduced to ‘girl reporter bait’ yet again.

  9. Julia

    ” but introduce a female character and she suddenly needs to make all her choices based on the phases of Saturn.”

    Hey – sometimes Sailor Saturn is busy, and you should check her calendar first to see if she’s available to help out.

  10. Jeanalle Bonifas

    “Writers just have to depict them (women) like they depict men, but with feminine pronouns.” As a woman, this line really offended me. I know and appreciate that you want to see equal treatment of women in writing, which I agree is sometimes a problem, but if you write women just like you write men, you’re going to come up with some pretty unrealistic women.
    Women are good. Men are good. They are both equal, but equality does not equal identicality.

    • Chris Winkle

      Technically we’re slightly different from men, mostly because we’ve been socialized that way. But when writers aim to put that difference into their writing, they end up writing stereotypes, not interesting and unique characters. And because men are thought of as default and women as weird, it’s female characters who end up being sidelined the most as a result of this approach. Many of the best female characters out there there, like Ripley from Alien, weren’t written as women.

      • Michael Campbell

        “Many of the best female characters out there there, like Ripley from Alien, weren’t written as women.”
        I’m not so sure that Gail Anne Hurd would agree?

        One of things to watch out for is the cultural expectations on gender.
        In Australia, bush fires are such a catastrophic part of the culture that women have traditionally fought grass fires the exact same way as men, with a wet hessian bag.
        In the US, the Mormon church practiced polygamy and the slave master’s house-slave was usually his half-sister.
        Cultural expectations are a product of a culture’s history and can have a big influence on levels of misogyny.

    • Cay Reet

      As a woman, I actually agree with that line, because I read it as ‘write a woman as a character first and foremost.’ Men are the standard, the default, in storytelling. You don’t have to tell someone the nameless hero of a story is a man to make them imagine a man, but if that hero is a woman, you need to make it clear early (or pull a Metroid on them).

      When you write a character, you should write a person with strengths and weaknesses, with wants and needs, with agenda. That is what you usually get with a male progatonist, but what is often lacking with a female protagonist, because people focus so much on what supposedly (because gender* is a social construct and the idea about what constitutes a woman is tied closely to the culture you’ve grown up in) makes a woman a woman that they end up with a stereotyped woman. Instead, we should see as many different women as we see different men.

      *there is a difference between gender and sex. Sex is biological or genetic, gender is the social idea of what makes a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’ … or something else in societies which don’t have a binary concept of gender (yes, those used to exist until the Christian missionaries came).

      • Tifa

        A very thought-provoking post, Cay Reet.

        “Pull a Metroid on them.” Heh. Samus is one of my favourite video game characters. I think what makes her rather unique is how, no matter the odds, she goes in and does what she sets out to do. It may seem not so special, but far too few women characters in any kind of media have that kind of core.
        Am I making any sense? It’s been a long day of writing [well, typing out what I’ve written]…

        • Cay Reet

          Yes, it does make sense.

          It’s the kind of character trait you almost expect of a male hero, but find far too seldom in female heroes. Samus has the weaponry (and also the training for it, obviously) and she also has the right mindset for the kind of work she does.

  11. Jeanalle Bonifas

    You’re all saying that “men are always the default in writing” but then you say “so just keep writing men as the default, but call them women”. How utterly insulting to women to suggest that they can’t possibly be written to have unique personalities on the page while being written explicitly as women. I promise you, if the writer has any skill at all, he or she can write a woman as a woman without making them into stereotypes.

    • Michael Campbell

      I think you’re misreading.
      It’s don’t write men as the default: write people as the default.

      Archbishop Desmond Tutu had TB as a child and was bedridden for about a year.
      He was taken books by the local priest. Not great tomes of theology as no one had any idea that he’ld enter into the priesthood.
      No, they were just ordinary everyday novels.
      But after that, Desmond Tutu was stuck with an idea that he just couldn’t shake.
      At their core, white people are just like black people. They have the same desires and the same fears.

      So the question then becomes, is the same true of home-sapiens whose genitalia differ rather than their skin’s melanin levels.

    • Cay Reet

      You are misunderstanding me. What I say is that if you write a character without a name and not using a pronoun, instead only saying ‘the warrior,’ ‘the healer,’ ‘the thief´,’ or whatever definition you want to put on them, the reader is going to assume your character is male. Because without being given any hints such as a ‘she’ or a female-coded name, readers in our culture will assume a character is male as the default.

      As a writer, you will always know the gender of your character, but if you write a character, you write a person first and foremost, and, as I said before, a lot of male writers who try their hands at female characters (and some female writers, too, but they have less of an excuse), rely a lot on the stereotypes of women we see in stories. They rely on stereotypes seen on TV or in the movies, on stereotypes from novels or fairy tales, on stereotypes of society as a such (such as ‘women don’t like technology’ or ‘women want to be mothers’ or ‘women can’t decently park a car’). Whatever you read in books like “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” comes down to such stereotypes and it goes back into the stories to reinforce those stereotypes. Because which each new movie/TV/novel/etc. which uses those stereotypical women, it’s shown as the rule again. And people will believe it.

      The only way to break that up is to write a woman like you’d write a man, meaning not starting out thinking ‘now what kind of woman should she be?’ in terms of ‘which stereotype will she resemble.’ To write a woman as a character first and foremost. That’s how I, as a woman, write my men, as it were. I write them as characters, given them the skills, the strengths, the weaknesses which fit with the character in my mind and with the story I will tell (fear of drowning would be a pointless weakness in a story set in a desert, for instance, because the character would never encounter large bodies of water). And for a man writing a story with women, writing women as characters, even though he has no first-hand experience at what being a woman is like, is just as important. That means writing a woman the way he’d write a man. It seems to be easier for women to write men that way than the other way around, though.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Editor’s note: I’ve removed a comment here for transphobic content. Disagreeing with each other or us is fine and encouraged, but claiming that trans women or trans men do not exist is not acceptable.

        • Jeanalle Bonifas

          I understand your authority to remove anything you don’t want on your website, but I was only respectful. I’ve read your comments policy, and I never made a personal attack on anyone here, or any groups of people. I didn’t even bring up trans people. I didn’t comment on anyone’s tone, or say anything harmful. I just wanted to shift the conversation more towards facts.

      • Michael Campbell

        So you’re saying it’s okay to have stereotyped female characters so long as you also have stereotyped male characters!?!

  12. Michael Campbell

    “fear of drowning would be a pointless weakness in a story set in a desert, for instance, because the character would never encounter large bodies of water”
    One word:- mirage.

    • Cay Reet

      Fear of drowning comes up on a large body of water or in it. You can’t row a boat across a mirage or swim in it.

      • Michael Campbell

        And you have a psych degree to support that?

        A person who’s had a bad encounter with a Tsunami (even has been told they had a bad encounter with a Tsunami e.g. “The reason you’ve never met your father is that he got taken by a Tsunami a month before you were born”) could easily have the effect of sheer terror for a person merely in line of sight of a mirage of a large body of water.

  13. Oren Ashkenazi

    Editor’s note: I have removed a comment for a combination of ableist and trans/enby-erasing language. As I always say, disagreeing with me is fine, but putting other people in a position to defend their existence is not.

    • Jeanalle Bonifas

      How was I ableist?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      You weren’t, this is in reference to someone else’s comment. If you’re interested, I removed your comment for the statement that anyone born with a vagina is automatically a woman, and anyone born with a penis is automatically a man. There are many trans and non-binary folks for whom this is not true, and their identity is not up for debate.

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