The home page for author Eric J. Juneau

My Philosophy on Writing Women

My Philosophy on Writing Women

I decided I needed to write this because I’ve been playing Half-Life: Episode 1 again, testing out my snazzy new computer’s capabilities. And I have the Developer’s Commentary on, which I love. It increases replayability, and gives you incredible insight into things you may have missed, and how a video game comes together. The things I’m most interested is in how it’s written — how do you create exposition in an interactive story, and how do you create characters you care about. One of those, one of the most popular women in video games today, is Alyx.

A great deal about the thought that went into Alyx. When most people these days want to talk about good examples of women in video games, the smart ones point to Alyx. The stupid ones point to Soul Calibur IV.

Shown for purposes of ballyhoo.  Pretty nice ballyhoo, though.
I’m learning about the thought that went into crafting Alyx, as she played a big part in Episode 1 and stays with you almost the entire game. The gameplay had to avoid making her A) an annoying Navi-esque prodder B) too slow and thus a hindrance to progress C) a robot with a gun. Escort missions are one of the worst gameplay elements. Half-Life did it right. It took story breaks to let you know Alyx is a human, and thus create a bond between her and the player.

A good woman is a good character, not a Red Sonja/Wonder Woman warrior amazon and not a damsel in distress. Alyx is not defined by the fact she’s a woman. She doesn’t do anything that only a woman would do. She doesn’t act like how a stereotypical woman acts. For examples of that, watch any television commercial.

But that doesn’t mean a writer can ignore the woman factor. That, like everything else in her life, makes up her character. It’s part of her past, but it does not define her. It’s part of the recipe. If you substitute man for woman, you’d get a similar Alyx, but not the same Alyx (I guess that’d be Alex). And you may have substituted salt for sugar. Might make the recipe unpalatable or it might not make much difference. But its change will have an effect.

When I write women, I try to make that part of her character incidental. Influential, yes, in small ways, but not the defining characteristic. My last story (Merm-8) didn’t have much focus on women (only two female characters — only one of which is central, and really, only half a woman). It would have failed the Bechdel test, even though it is feminist (at least it tried to be). But my next story will have lots of women and girls. It will succeed. I think the Bechdel test is important to keep in mind when writing stories, mostly for the spirit of which is intended — that 50% of the world is women, yet they are underepresented in media. It is not the goal to center attention on a woman, but to make them characters just like you would do with men. Not Smurfettes.

I don’t want a character that’s defined by her presence, but by her motivations. She is a person first and a woman after that. A person with characteristics/traits that tend towards womanliness (is that a word?). I don’t characterize her by her body or her boyfriends or yogurt or being inept with technology or doing laundry things. I give her interests and traits universal to any person. Then I layer a thin sheet of woman on it — a little more emotional intensity, a little more nurturing, more connectivity with people. She’s not aggressive and violent, she’s not a linear thinker, not a constant crier, not so goal-focused (though goals are important and necessary, they are less tangible). A Barb Wire, high-heeled, cold warrior bitch is not a woman. It is a woman doing an impression of a man doing an impression of a woman. It’s a fantasy — unrealistic and implausible.

Take Hannah Hart for example, I’ve talked about her before, how much I love her and her funny. She’s also likes girls, and I had no idea about that. I didn’t even get a clue until her first second season episode when she was talking about Charlize Theron being on Top Chef and wanting to marry her. And yes, because I’m human, I had to stop for a second and think “what did she say?”

But the fact is, it doesn’t matter one damn bit in her videos. Because she’s not being a lesbian, she’s being a drunk, inept cook. She’s funny, cute, awkward, charming, winky, drunk, and lovable. It’s not like she’s those things despite being a lesbian. She is those things because that’s who Hannah Har is. They’re all part of the recipe.

I originally thought of this because of hearing this old laundry tag chestnut on the radio.

I can’t remember which one it was

Doesn’t mass media realize that times are a-changing? The fact is, this just isn’t funny anymore. Not because it’s offensive. It’s not funny because I don’t get it.

I do all my own laundry because if my wife does it, she’ll screw it up. She’ll put my underwear in with my pajamas or won’t run the dryer until the clothes are actually… you know… dry. But that’s fair, because every time I do HER laundry, I screw it up. So we just do our own.  It’s stupid to think that woman are there just to make laundry or sandwiches.  As much as I’d like a personal slave, marriage doesn’t work that way.

At this point, this kind of humor is simply lazy and dull. Not only has it been overdone, but it has no meaning anymore, like what a tar baby is.

[BULLET POINTS & UPDATE 1 REDACTED — SEE UPDATE 3 BELOW]

UPDATE 2: Foz Meadows wrote some interesting stuff in the comments that I think is worth repeating (edited just a little bit for readability, let me know if you think I changed too much):

In order to write real women, you don’t have to deny them femininity. Women aren’t demeaned by their participation or enjoyment of traditionally feminine things/behaviors — what demeans them is the idea that doing so makes them lesser people.

Wearing pink, crying, and shopping are stereotypically feminine behaviors, but that doesn’t make them unrealistic. More importantly, though, they’re only seen as negative behaviors because we associate them with women. Thus, men who shop, cry, and wear pink are also belittled for being feminine.

This is a problem, because it tarnishes femininity by association — it makes us think that the only way for women to be valued or to rise above patriarchy is, in effect, to stop behaving like women, or doing things associated with women. But even so, woe betide us if we act in too masculine a manner. Then we’re just being sexless imposters. Which only leaves us with gender-neutural things to do and be, and really, that’s an erasure of womanliness, not a way of encouraging it.

Women who behave in stereotypically feminine ways are not inherently less narratively interesting, worthy, or human than women who don’t.

A woman with some traditionally feminine characteristics (say, a love of shopping) can still be a kickass warrior. These things are not mutually contradictory.

Women are whole and multifaceted human beings whose gender can define them in important ways without being the sum total of their identities.

Female characters don’t have to be wholly likeable to be interesting and relatable. All too often, people shy away from writing women who are anti-heroes, difficult, belligerent, grumpy, or otherwise flawed because culturally, we’re conditioned to see women who act in those ways as bitches (always a pejorative) and therefore undesireable, even though we exalt male characters for exactly the same attributes.

I think that second to last bullet point is the most important. And it’s what I was trying to communicate all along: being a woman is one part of the recipe. It should not be their whole identity, as is the case with The Chick.

And Anonymous (that guy gets around, I seem him or her posting everywhere. Sounds like a Greek name.) sent this link to a nice essay about the “strong, independent, warrior woman” persona and how it actually undermines feminism because, while people claim to want strong, independent women not defined by a man, it limits female characters to a single type. Diversify!

UPDATE 3: Since I’m getting so much flak for these bullet points (if you’re fresh coming here, I had a bunch of bullet points up here regarding writing tips for writing women characters), I’m taking them down. Not because I believe they’re wrong or that it’s the fires I’m putting out are overwhelming, but because I DIDN’T WRITE THEM. These are not my words, they are the words of OTHER WOMEN, and I am not going to get flamed for someone else’s crap.

But what I will do is put these up at a later date so we can all discuss them, whether they’re right or wrong, since I don’t want them to get confused with my actual content above. ‘Kay? Kay.

Eric J. Juneau

Eric Juneau is a software engineer and novelist on his lunch breaks. In 2016, his first novel, Merm-8, was published by eTreasures. He lives in, was born in, and refuses to leave, Minnesota. You can find him talking about movies, video games, and Disney princesses at http://www.ericjuneaubooks.com where he details his journey to become a capital A Author.


Reader Comments

  1. Woah, woah, hold the phone dude! Women have friends who they talk about things with? You're blowing my mind!

    That bullet point you posted is equal parts thuddingly obvious- you're not a feminist just because you write a female character who doesn't need a man to save her- and ignorant sexism.

    You were doing well in the first part of the post, then it's like you got possessed by a Men's Rights Activist or something.

  2. If you disagree with the bullet points, please say why, citing specific examples. I am eager to learn, but there's lots of different viewpoints and flames like "uh… no." and "a well of clueless" don't help change anything.

  3. If you had read the actual column, you'll see I plagiarized nothing. I condensed and simplified the information presented in the column, just as one would do in a research paper.

  4. I read your column. The first part showed promise, despite the offensive comic images you chose to include, and despite your tendency to refer to women as girls.

    But then came the bullet points, which you borrowed without attribution from another writer. That's called plagiarism.

    Oh, and speaking of research papers, you might want to consider using a more rigorous approach. Try observing women, listening to them. Don't depend on some other clueless writer's failed research. Think. Take off the blinders of your preconceptions.

  5. You may not have seen the update I made, so I'll requote it here.

    "UPDATE: I see I may have lit a fire. First of all, if you disagree, please say why. Second, I did not write these. Most of them come from David Farland/David Wolverton — a published, well-known author, most known for the Runelords series. And he is directly quoting _from other women_. … The entirety of that e-mail is here: http://author-quest.blogspot.com/p/david-farlands-daily-kick-in.html"

    The column I was referring to was David Farland's column, not my own. And I never said I wrote them, I said I collected them. But I have included a citation if it will satisfy you.

  6. I saw that. I notice you added that attribution only after called on the sexist nature of the bullet list.

    And I don't care that Farland is a published author. That doesn't make him an expert on writing believable, three-dimensional female characters. SFF is renowned for rampant sexism and racism. (It's getting better, but it still has a long way to go.)

  7. Eric,

    Updating your blog post with attribution is a good thing. Yes, you changed a few words. But comparing your bullet points to the source material, you were definitely plagiarizing (presenting other people's work as your own). The fact that you've fixed this is good.

    But following your link, it looks like you posted Farland's column in its entirety. Did he give you permission to do so? Because if not, you've gone from plagiarism to copyright violation.

  8. @Beth You seem to keep missing keywords from what I am saying. If you read the article, you can see that he is not responsible for the content of that article. That content is _directly quoting from other women_.

    @Jim I never said that I _wrote_ those writing tips. I said that I _collected_ them. Leaving out the attribution was an oversight on my part. But I will work on seeing if I can get Farland's permission for posting the article (it's not in his archives, otherwise I would've linked it. And I wanted to show that these are not my words. They're not even his, but all credit in the article is to him). If not, I'll reduce it to fair use excerpts.

    @everyone I'm seeing a lot of negative feedback in the comments. That's fine. But unless you tell me WHAT content is wrong and what I should correct it with, nothing is going to change. This blog is about knowledge transfer and improving writing.

  9. I should also mention that those bullet points were copy and pasted from one of my personal notebooks full of writing tips. I didn't check them for plagiarism at the time since they were for personal use. That was an oversight on my part and the attribution in the blog post has been corrected to reflect this. Those responsible for the previous error have been sacked.

  10. Eric, I'm not missing anything. Bad data is bad data. (And let's not even get into how that data was selected, or if it was edited along the way.)

    And you aren't passing along writing information. You are passing along stereotypes and cliches.

    But, yanno, if you are determined to fail at creating realistic, three-dimensional female characters, go right ahead. You won't be the first clueless male author to do so. If that bothers you, then do some more research. The information is out there.

    And now I'm done here. I have my own novels to write.

  11. "She is a person first and a woman after that. A person with characteristics/traits that tend towards womanliness (is that a word?). I don't characterize her by her body or her boyfriends or yogurt or being inept with technology or doing laundry things. I give her interests and traits universal to any person. Then I layer a thin sheet of woman on it — a little more emotional intensity, a little more nurturing, more connectivity with people. She's not aggressive and violent, she's not a linear thinker, not a constant crier, not so goal-focused (though goals are important and necessary, they are less tangible). A Barb Wire, high-heeled, cold warrior bitch is not a woman. It is a woman doing an impression of a man doing an impression of a woman. It's a fantasy — unrealistic and implausible."

    So, the incredibly creepy and sexist bullet points aside, this paragraph, right here? Is deeply problematic.

    First off: 'a thin layer of woman'? Really? Womanliness, if you want to use that word, is not a thin layer of anything. Yes, women are people, but that doesn't mean you can just tack our gender on as an afterthought.

    Secondly: You seem to have adopted a stereotypical view of femininity to use as your base definition of womanliness. Women do not have more emotional intensity than men; we are not inherently more nurturing; we are not 'non-linear thinkers' (what?); we CAN be aggressive and violent; our goals are not 'less tangible' than yours because we have ladyparts; showing a woman crying does not make her a bad female character – however, the attitude that 'crier' is a valid pejorative to fling at women who do cry is a harmful one; and while the stereotype of, as you call her, the 'Barb Wire, high-heeled, cold warrior bitch' is depressingly prevalent in videogames, the contextual problem is of such characters being visually hypersexualised and narratively belittled – NOT that they are tough, cold, bitchy warrior women.

    I appreciate that you're trying to be a feminist ally here, and that you are addressing a real problem; but having good intentions doesn't prevent you from unintentionally replicating the same sexist tropes you've set out to criticise. You've also said here that you're wanting to learn. So I hope you'll take on board the fact that you haven't succeeded with this piece. If you really are a feminist ally, you'll take it on the chin, rethink your words, and accept that you've caused some offense. You might not have meant to, but then, that's the problem with living in a pervasively sexist culture: we're often blind to all the ways in we've absorbed its messages, even when our aim was to rise above them.

  12. Thanks for the non-help. This WAS the information that was "out there". Unless you can point me to something that's correct, then you're just a troll.

  13. @Foz I suppose "thin layer" was a poor choice of words. My intention was that I try not to make the woman a "smurfette" by making her overly feminized, existing only in relation to a male, or stereotypically woman characteristics. In other words, I try not to make a female female-impersonator.

    Also, I see you've mentioned a lot of 'don't's. Can you mention any 'do's, because that's what I'm looking for.

  14. The Smurfette problem isn't that she's overly feminised; that would be fine if there were other women around her. It's that she's the lone woman whose distinctive trait in a group of creatures all known by a single defining feature – being wild, or brainy, or fatherly – is femaleness.

    Also – and I will give you some dos in a minute – I think your problem might be with this idea of stereotypically female characteristics being bad, or things to avoid. Femininity isn't bad, and it's not the same as negative sexualisation. In order to write real women, you don't have to deny them femininity. Women aren't demeaned by their participation in or enjoyment of traditionally feminine things/behaviours – what demeans them is the idea that doing so makes them lesser people. Wearing pink, crying and shopping lots are stereotypically feminine behaviours, but that doesn't make them unrealistic: more importantly, though, they're only seen as *negative* behaviours *because we associate them with women*. Thus, men who shop, cry and wear pink are also belittled for being feminine. This is a problem, because it tarnishes femininity by association – it makes us think that the only way for women to be valued or to rise above patriarchy is, in effect, to stop behaving like women, or doing things associated with women – but even so, woe betide us if we act in too masculine a manner; then we're just being sexless imposters. Which only leaves us with gender-neutural things to do and be, and really, that's an *erasure* of womanliness, not a way of encouraging it.

    So, things to do:

    – Do embrace the idea that women who behave in stereotypically feminine ways are not inherently less narratively interesting, worthy or human than women who don't.

    – Do move beyond stereotypes in all respects: a woman with some traditionally feminine characteristics (say, a love of shopping) can still be a kickass warrior – these things are not mutually contradictory.

    – Do look at women as whole and multifaceted human beings whose gender can define them in important ways without being the sum total of their identities.

    – Do embrace the idea that female characters don't have to be wholly likeable to be interesting and relatable; all too often, people shy away from writing women who are anti-heroes, difficult, belligerent, grumpy or otherwise flawed because culturally, we're conditioned to see women who act in those ways as bitches (always a pejorative) and therefore undesireable, even though we exalt male characters for exactly the same attributes.

    That's all for now. I hope it helps.

  15. You want to know what's wrong? Ok. Let me give you my two cents. This could take a while.

    "• Men are linear thinkers …"

    This is crap. Some PEOPLE are linear thinkers, and some PEOPLE are not. Gender has nothing to do with it. If you want to write a believable character, get inside their thoughts, but don't decide on a thought pattern simply on the basis of their gender.

    "• Have women get emotional about what they really care about."

    How about: PEOPLE get emotional about what they really care about?

    "• Give women powerful reasons …"

    Oh, FFS. Give all your characters motivation for what they do. Women are not only motivated by "true love" whatever that is. There are ambitious women out for money and power too.

    "• Do not confuse romance and sex. Female drive is wired to how a man makes her feel emotionally."

    Except for all the women out there who like NSA sex. Or who don't like men. Or who are asexual. Or who are not 'wired' that way. Sigh.

    "• Romance equals effort…"

    This may be true for some people, but not for others. Do you really think that romance is the same for everyone?

    "• Write a woman character so that she isn't dependent on a man to save her."

    This one is ok, in that the 'female in distress' is such a tired trope. A writer should try to avoid ALL such tropes unless their going to make an effort to twist or subvert them.

    "• Women have close friendships with other women…"

    Oh, yes, because there's never been a woman serial killer in the history of the world? Sigh, gender generalizations like this are just dumb. Yes, some women have very close female friends, but others hang out with guy friends more. Some women are loners, just as some men are. HUMANS ARE DIFFERENT. If you, as a writer, are relying on stereotypes to create your characters, men or women, your writing will suck.

    "• Women become intimate by talking and they talk about everything."

    Some do. Some don't. Gender essentialism. Stupid.

    "• If a woman has no female friends…"

    Some women have more male friends than female. Nothing wrong with that. A lot of people choose their friends based on who they happen to get along with, not their gender.

    To be continued…

  16. Continued

    "• A woman alone will feel it more than a man…"

    Again with the 'women like to talk and need company' stereotype? Bull.
    Some women have more male friends than female. Nothing wrong with that. A lot of people choose their friends based on who they happen to get along with, not their gender.

    "• A detailed description of appearance is not a substitute for characterization."

    This is a good one, but it applies to all characters, male and female.

    "• A woman who looks like a super model …"

    This one is ok… but again, it applies to men as well.

    "• Men fall in love with their eyes. Women fall in love with their ears."

    FFS. Gender essentialism. Stupid. Different people find different things attractive.

    "• A woman who is friends with guys…"

    I'm not sure what this even means.

    "• Women make connections."

    Umm. Some humans make connections, others don't.

    "• Female characters must strike a balance between strong-willed and bitchy…"

    Please don't tell me what female characters 'must' do. That's ridiculous, and all your characters will come out one-note.

    "• Keep in mind their age and monthly cycle…"

    So… make sure to write all your female characters with PMS once in a while? Really? Ah, yes, once again we have the sexist stereotype of the moody woman.

    "• Women are sexual…"

    My female housemate and I are both much messier than our male housemate. I am a slob. I know MANY female slobs. The rest of this is ridiculous too: women are sexual…except for asexual women, right? Women are not turned on by the same things as men… except for the ones who are.

    "• Women love how men look…."

    Except for the ones who don't. Have you heard of lesbians?

    "• Women are extremely sensitive, insecure about their looks…"

    Stupid sexist stereotype. I'm sooo fking tired of this one. Some HUMANS are insecure, some HUMANS aren't.

    "• Women have feelings…"

    Humans have feelings.

    "• Relationships are the most interesting thing in the world."

    Uh…? Do you mean that women find relationships the most interesting thing in the world? Stupid gender essentialism. Some do, some don't

    To be continued…

  17. "• A good writer can hook women by giving the characters interesting motivations…"

    A good writer will hook ANY reader by providing convincing motivations and characterization. Not characterization based on tired, worn-out sexist stereotypes.

    "• Females are nurturers…"

    FFS. Stupid gender essentialism. Some PEOPLE are nurturing, others are not.

    "• A woman who understands men will provide…"

    Stupid gender essentialism.

    "• Strong women don't have to be cold."

    Strong characters don't have to be cold… but they might be. Depends on the character.
    To be continued…

  18. Continued:
    "• Too much crying is bad…"

    Are you saying that women who cry too much are bad, or that portraying women as crying all the time is bad? Look, some women cry a lot. Others don't, because people are different. Some people might actually burst out crying in the middle of a fight. It depends on the person.

    "• Your female character shouldn't be worried about clothes and hair while she's saving that world."

    I should hope that no one is.

    "• Give her some motivation…"

    Yeah, yeah, we've been through this. Give ALL your characters motivation, male and female.

    "• Give us a reason, other than sex, for the man to love her."

    Well, unless he's only interested in sex, right? I hear that happens, sometimes, to both men and women.

    "• Girls are stupid, women are smart…"

    Well, isn't this stereotyped and offensive. Listen up, again, people are different. Some teens don't think about sex at all, they may be asexual or late bloomers. Some women NEVER think about having children, others will think about children until the end of their life. Relying on stereotypes to define your characters will just perpetuate stupid stereotypes and give you awful flat characters.

    "• Three things you should never ask a woman…"

    I don't care if anyone asks me those questions. I would not be offended in the slightest. Other people would. And what the hell does this have to do with writing female characters?

    "• Women find sincerity… "

    Except for any lesbians out there, of course. Or anyone who likes skinny, shy nerds… or anyone who has a different taste in men. Sigh.

    OK, I got that you weren't the originator of the stupid bullet points, but you seem to like them enough to post them as legitimate tips on how to write female characters. They are full of awful stereotypes and stupid gender essentialism. By you own words about women being more nuturing than men, I get the feeling that you buy into the stereotypes as well.

    Look, I don't really care what you think, privately, but if you are trying to write realistic characters, male or female, you've got to break yourself free of this lazy stereotyped thinking. The only tip there is for writing realistic characters is to study real people.

  19. So, Eric, how is that attitude that rape is love? How does that make you an ally and a feminist? Or was that all a terrible misunderstanding and not your fault? Even though those are your own words.

  20. Eric, I think it's time to change your diaper. Because, even from here, I can smell the defensive load you dropped.

    Must suck when it turns out you're not as brilliant as you think, huh? Btw, it's not our job to teach you empathy. Figure that out by growing up.

  21. Uh, wow. Everything I have been reading here suggests to me that you have some serious reading and research to do. If you really have an interest in learning WHY all these people are upset with you here:

    http://www.doctornerdlove.com/2011/11/nerds-and-male-privilege/

    http://www.doctornerdlove.com/2012/01/nerds-and-male-privilege-part-2/

    http://feminism101.com/

    Also – 'Keep stewing in your rape juices' makes you out to be an enormous asshole who has the emotional maturity of a zygote. If you want to do damage control you had better suck it up, admit that you may be wrong on some points and use this as an eye-opener to the real world and that people (not woman or man) are immensely more complex than what a video game portrays them to be.

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