Don’t bite my head off yet.
This is a list of tips that I collected over time regarding common mistakes writer make when writing from a woman’s point of view. 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. So if you want to directly complain about the content, complain to him. Here is some excerpts from that e-mail (it’s not on his site, archives don’t go back that far) and another link to a similar post to mine. Here is his site.
When I originally posted this, I was accused of being sexist, misogynist, and other things I teach my daughters not to call people. It lit a fire. So I took the list down so I could repost it under a different context so we can look at these and see what’s wrong and right. Now is that time. Please enjoy all the disclaimers below so that this doesn’t become another hotpot.
First, David Farland is a published writer. Getting published is my goal and he seems to know what he’s doing. I do not. So I am not ready to dismiss his words right away. But I’m willing to hear differing opinions. This blog is all about knowledge transfer and improving writing. Now is the time to comment. Transfer away!
Second, I am not a feminist ally. I never claimed to be. I believe in not discriminating based on biology or cultural stereotypes, but I can’t call myself a feminist and still watch porn. And daddy needs his porn. In a perfect world, we’d declare us all as humans or people and be done with it. But that’s not how it works. The fact is that male and females of any species have scientifically-proven differences. They think different, they act different, they feel different, their biology is different, their minds are different and it’s ignorant to ignore the mountains of evidence that explain that. Please recognize that the goal here is to create realistic, three-dimensional women that my daughters can be proud of, not women whose only character arcs are based on their biology; e.g., getting raped or pregnant. Stereotypes are not a substitute for characterization.
Third, a lot of the below was accused of being generalizations. Well… yeah. These are tips about writing from a typical woman’s point of view. The “everywoman”. No one character is going to fit every trope. Not all woman are circular thinkers or uncomfortable being alone. But if you want to figure out a polar bear’s behavior patterns, do you have to study ALL polar bears? No, just a sample. These bullet points are about mistakes people make when writing about women in general. A woman CAN become aggressive and violent, but in general, won’t. So any arguments to the point of “these are generalities! I’m a woman and I don’t blah blah blah…” will be dismissed.
Fourth, given any statement involving a “thing”, it does not imply the negation of that thing’s opposite. That’s a logical fallacy. For example, assume A. It is a fallacy to think that because A ^ Q -> P, that (Not A) ^ Q -> (Not P). If I say “young people like Mountain Dew” it doesn’t mean I’m implicitly saying “old people hate Mountain Dew”. So a response to “Give women powerful reasons for what they do” should not be countered with “All characters should have powerful reasons for what they do.” The person who made the statement specifically referred to women because of observations he/she made regarding that specific group. Such arguments will be dismissed.
Fifth, for simplicity’s sake, we’re assuming all the women and men we’re talking about are heterosexual. Homosexual characters and stereotypes are beyond the scope of this list. K.I.S.S.
Sixth, this is advice. And all advice, especially with writing, must be taken with a grain of salt. We are writers, and we make mistakes. Our duty is to tell the truth, but that’s hard. People will misinterpret good intentions, and nothing will please everybody.
Seventh, turnabout is fair play. I also have a similar list of points about mistakes people make when writing from a man‘s perspective. If there’s enough demand, I could post that too. It’s not like there aren’t plenty of negative stereotypes about men — I do plenty of diaper changing, house cleaning, and if I thought about sex every seven seconds, I’d never get anything done.
Finally, this is not the end. There will be a part three, summarizing things I’ve learned about female character creation at some point in the future. I originally thought about simply not continuing this storyline and avoiding controversy. But that’s cowardly, and I promised I would post this. If nothing else, learn from my mistakes.
CRYING & EMOTIONALITY
• Have women get emotional about what they really care about.
• Give women powerful reasons for what they do (true love is the one that motivates most).
• Too much crying is bad. Women might cry, but not in the middle of a fight, or at the drop of a hat.
• Women are extremely sensitive, insecure about their looks, and are slow to forgive and forget when someone makes them feel unattractive, stupid, masculine, or some other undesirable thing (e.g., the person who teased them because their chest was flat, a man who tells she’s getting “big”, a man who says she had big hands, the boy who said her butt was getting jiggly after the end of basketball season.)
• Three things you should never ask a woman: How old are you? How much do you weigh? When is your baby due?
– This study seems to indicate that women experience heightened emotional intensity “in the moment”. But over all time, they’re about the same. This might explain the perceived frequency of crying.
– How Stuff Works: Women & Emotionality and other science.
– Are women more sensitive? Read this article and decide if the anecdote applies.
– Women cry. They cry when they’re upset, when they’re happy, sometimes when they see a commercial on TV that reminds them of their child. Hermione cried. Jane Eyre cried. Scarlett O’Hara cried. But then they picked themselves up, and got back to work. Men cry too. I cried during John Q, but I attribute that to the nine beers I had. I think when they cry matters more. And that they shouldn’t cry when it doesn’t make sense to.
– Perhaps the first point should be reworded to be “All other things being equal, a woman will be more emotional about something than a man would.”
– It may be more accurate to say that women and men are just as emotional, but women show it more. (source) A 1998 study said that men and women do not differ in emotional response, but women are more expressive about it (source and abstract)
– Someone in the previous post said: “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.”
– I’m not too cool with “true love” being something that motivates the most. But I’d like to hear from the masses.
• Women have close friendships with other women. If Ted Bundy had been a woman, her friends would have known. Women keep a circle of women friends around to talk about issues. Without that circle, women feel completely and utterly alone.
• Women become intimate by talking and they talk about everything.
• A woman who is friends with guys must hit the “sister/buddy” button to belong. Not the girlfriend button. It doesn’t do much for your love life.
• Women make connections.
• A woman alone will feel it more than a man. She will miss not having someone to talk to. A woman who says she hates women and only likes men is a danger flag. Note how many hero’s girlfriends have no female friends whatsoever.
• If a woman has no female friends, this means something’s wrong (unless that wrong thing is that she’s a genius in a tiny town and doesn’t fit in, which means she’ll be fine if she moves somewhere with more people).
• Relationships are the most interesting thing in the world.
– Someone in the original post said “Because there’s never been a woman serial killer in the history of the world?” If you’re writing about a woman serial killer, she’s probably the focus of your story, not an “everywoman”. 93% of all serial killers are men. Of the remaining 7%, 1/3 worked with a man. (source) That leaves 5.6% of independent serial killing women. And serial killers, by nature, don’t follow typical behavior patterns.
– I wish I could find this story again, but I remember reading about a woman hired by NASA. She was working in a group mostly of other males, and she found it incredibly frustrating that the men would rarely talk to each other. This led to avoidable problems and repeated mistakes. She took it upon herself to get the team organized and communicating more. Because of this, she was promoted to their supervisor. This can be a good or bad thing depending on how you look at it — although she was now in a position of authority, she was no longer doing the job she was hired to do, and became removed from her peers.
– I think the point of these statements is to show that women are frequently shown with no friends besides the male leads, i.e., The Bechdel Test. It’s one of the reasons I hated Once Upon a Time. Titanic, one of the most loved movies by women, only just passes because of some short conversations with her mom about money. Rose has no friends she can talk to. No wonder she tried to kill herself. On the contrary, in Jane Austen books, the females have friends and relations they talk to almost constantly. Even Daria, one of the most antagonistic, aloof, unapproachable women in fiction, had a friend. Also see “Bechdel Test in Movies”. For more fascinating reading, look at the Top Movies Picked by Females. Not one passes the test until you get to #17 Spirited Away — a foreign film.
–I don’t know about a “circle”. At least one friend to talk to is important, if for nothing else than so there can be a relationship character.
–I’m not even sure what that third bullet point means. What is a “sister/buddy” button? Does that mean that a girl has to hide romantic/intimate feelings for the guys in her circle of friends?
–I believe there are plenty of women who like being alone. That’s not determined by gender, it’s determined by personality. I wonder how many female introverts have no one to talk to, and if they’re fine with that.
–There seems to be a trend these days of the Manic Dream Pixie-Girl, e.g., New Girl, Bones, 500 Days of Summer, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Elizabethtown, Garden State. Shows about an adorkable, quirky, crazy girl who has no friends because she doesn’t act like everyone else. It seems to be a concept carried over from Japan. Anyway, my point is those types of girls don’t exist. They’re a male fantasy.
– How do women form relationships with each other? In my observations, they talk to each other. Men need to be doing something, some purpose, some task. But women are more than fine sitting around a table and doing nothing but talking.
– I’d like to hear from any women that have no other female friends — only male friends. How do they feel? Do they think they’re missing out on something?
– I can’t tell if that last bullet point means “relationships are very interesting” or “women find relationships very interesting”. What do you think?
LOVE & SEX
• Men fall in love with their eyes. Women fall in love with their ears.
• Do not confuse romance and sex. Female drive is wired to how a man makes her feel emotionally.
• Women are sexual, but not stimulated by the same things men are. Women like things clean e.g., mouth, body, house, sheets.
• Give her some motivation. If she’s breaking a man’s heart, we should know the reason–eventually, at least.
– Someone in the previous post said “My female housemate and I are both much messier than our male housemate. I am a slob. I know MANY female slobs.” Agreed, but I think “clean” in this instance is not referring to clutter, but to stains, dirt, foulness, hygiene. The messiest woman I knew in college also had the most bathroom stuff. My wife recently told me “You’ll never find a female plumber — too much grossness”. I’m sure at least one must be out there, but I’ve never found one either. (Although a female plumber would be a great character for a story.)
– None of the Disney princesses, great symbols of femininity, have any motivation. The only thing Belle, Jasmine, Ariel, Pocahontas, Aurora, Cinderella want is “more”. At least Mulan was trying to save her father.
– Someone in the original post said: “Except for all the women out there who like NSA sex. Or who don’t like men. Or who are asexual.” It looks like the number of women who like “No Strings Attached” sex is on the rise. However, it also looks like that kind of sex makes women depressed. (source) And feel dissatisfied by that type of encounter. So I guess the takeaway is, if you’re making a woman character who likes NSA sex, make sure the rest of her personality fits. Otherwise, you’re just making a male fantasy.
– Female sex drive is a funny thing. Seems to be all over the map. Some like porn, some don’t. Some are kinky, some like vanilla sex. The one common thing I hear is that, while women have better sex with someone they have an emotional attachment with. (source). This is not the case with men.
– Men might become initially attracted using visual criteria, but that definitely can’t sustain a relationship.
• Romance equals effort. If a man pays attention to do something she likes, buy something she wants, says something she needs to hear, that is romance. If he tunes in to her, turns away from everything else and listens, that’s romance.
• Women love how men look. When they smell good, in a shirt and tie, young, thin, muscular, older, tall, smart, handsome, accomplished, kind, generous.
• Give us a reason, other than sex, for the man to love her.
• Women find sincerity, humor, self-confidence, and broad shoulders attractive. Jaw lines, powerful hands, and how a man presents himself are also attractive.
– I asked my wife “Why do women like getting flowers? There’s no male equivalent for this. Flowers are just plants that die in two weeks.” She said it’s not the flowers that are important, but it’s that I was thinking of her.
– My wife thinks I’m most attractive when I’m in a suit. I hear lots of other women get turned on by men in some kind of uniform. Even UPS guys.
– Women probably have as much variety of what they find attractive as men do.
– Someone in the previous post said “This may be true for some people, but not for others.” If romance does not equal effort, then what does it equal?
• A detailed description of appearance is not a substitute for characterization.
• A woman who looks like a super model must work very hard to do so. Women come in all shapes and sizes, interests and personalities.
• Your female character shouldn’t be worried about clothes and hair while she’s saving the world.
• Write a woman character so that she isn’t dependent on a man to save her.
– In my experience, sometimes when authors introduce a new woman character they focus solely on what they look like, especially sexual characteristics. Men rarely have descriptions. That seems unequal.
– I love that last point, and that’s probably the most important takeaway from all this. If nothing else, at least write a women who’s happiness is not dependent on the love of another.
• Keep in mind their age and monthly cycle. Menopause can be very freeing, because they won’t have the emotional ups and downs. From age 10-50, the hormonal bell curve has a constant effect in life.
• Teenage girls think about boys and sex a lot. Women are more inclined to think about careers or something that doesn’t involve men. Thinking about babies occurs, but tapers off after 40.
– Menstruation effects seems to vary wildly from female to female. However, I think it’s poor writing if you have a character action based on that, even if it’s a legit action. Because then, you’re simply using biology as an excuse for a plot point again.
– Also, you never hear about when hero’s need to go to the bathroom. There’s a ton of books and movies that follow the main character and never leave. But you never see when they go to the bathroom. It’s a biological need everyone has, but you never hear about it. Didn’t Dorothy have to poop sometime when she was going around Oz? Did she excuse herself to go in the woods? What were the toilets in the Emerald City like? Did she freak out when she saw her poop was green?
– How important is the monthly cycle to a woman? Does it affect your personality? Is it always on your mind? Or do you have to be reminded of it? Do you look forward to menopause? Do you find a personality shift around menstruation time? There is no male equivalent for this, so I think it’s important to get this right.
• Women have feelings. Write about that. Guys have no idea how much every little action or possible meaning behind an action is noticed.
• A good writer can hook women by giving the characters interesting motivations, including the relationship, in the middle of action. Example: They’re being chased through the jungle by a giant zombie dinosaur. Does the guy run off and leave the girl to fend for herself? How does she feel about that? Does she dare toss the arm of their dead companion into the clearing to distract the zombie dinosaur? A woman might have feelings about that where a guy might be more practical.
• Men are linear thinkers – one thing at a time, in straight lines of logic. They want to deal with HOW. Women think in circles – circles that are connected and have relationships and emotions. They want to deal with WHY.
• Female characters must strike a balance between strong-willed and bitchy. Maybe she’s tough as nails with some things, but small animals turn her to mush.
– I remember watching “Beauty and the Geek” and when they visited the female geek’s house, she said one of her favorite things to do was talk about this guy in the library she had a crush on. Analyzing what he did today and if it means he likes her. So it happens.
– Differences in the ways men and women communicate is also a function of sex-specific areas of the brain. Women seem to have an enhanced awareness of “emotionally relevant details, visual cues, verbal nuances, and hidden meanings,” writes Nadeau. Similarly, while male infants are more interested in objects than in people, female infants respond more readily to the human voice than do male infants. (Robert Nadeau, “Brain Sex and the Language of Love,” The World & I, Nov. 1, 1997)
– The linear thinking is supported by this expert. Doesn’t mean it’s wrong, it’s just different.
– If you write down every little action that a female is fascinated with, you risk miring the story in unimportant details.
– Someone in the previous post said “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.”
– Someone in the previous post said “A good writer will hook ANY reader by providing convincing motivations and characterization. Not characterization based on tired, worn-out sexist stereotypes.” Agreed — men and women should both have some feelings about tossing the dead companion’s arm at it. They will feel it differently, though. However, that leaves the question when would the woman start to ask herself questions about the man’s conduct regarding the giant zombie dinosaur?
– Do women notice more details than men? Do they assign meaning to those details?
– Do women feel they are constantly walking a balance beam between seeming strong-willed and seeming bitchy?
• Females are nurturers. Men are fixers. A woman may try to sense what someone needs and provide that. But if a female is self-absorbed, she wants nurturing herself and will go to any lengths to get it. But it is still about nurturing.
• A woman who understands men will provide nurturing by trying to “fix” a problem for the man, since that is how the male goes about it. A woman tries to get nurturing by providing it. She may not receive it from men, so she has to get it from other women. The male who nurtures a woman will likely have putty in his hands.
• Strong women don’t have to be cold.
– Basic sociology says that men tend to be more goal-oriented. Women are experience-oriented. Look at the games they play when they’re children. Boys play basketball and tag and hide and seek. Girls play hopscotch and jump-rope and jacks, games with no clearly defined goal. Think about shopping. A man finds what he wants, gets in, and gets out. A woman explores. (source)
– Researchers have injected testosterone into unborn female monkeys. Male monkeys are aggressive and fight, while the female monkeys typically groom and nurture the young. The testosterone-injected females didn’t groom or nurture their children. They fought and behaved like males. (source)
–“If socialization alone explains why societies are patriarchal, there should be any number of societies in which leadership and authority are associated with women, and one should not have to invoke examples of non-patriarchal societies that exist only in myth and literature.” (Steven Goldberg, The Inevitability of Patriarchy, Open Court, Peru, Illinois, 1993, p. 15.)
– Is it a social construct? Maybe what happens is men ACT LESS nurturing in order to relieve their burdens and face less competition in the workplace (source).
• Girls are stupid, women are smart.
– The Hunger Games.