So I was eating pancakes with a friend, and this conversation happened.
SARAH: Then someone asked me who my favourite fictional character was.
FRIEND: Who did you say?
SARAH: Well, it’s hard to choose, but I think Elizabeth Bennet.
FRIEND: Elizabeth Bennet? But she’s a girl!
The thing is, that didn’t surprise me. I’ve heard, a lot of times, things like ‘I don’t like girl characters as much,’ ‘They’re not as interesting,’ and so on. And sometimes? These complaints are totally valid.
And why is that?
Well, for one thing the earliest books were written in a much more misogynist time. The earliest English novel is (arguably) Richardson’s Pamela. Let me give you a quick summary of the plot of Pamela.
HERO: There is a comely maid called Pamela! I shall ravish her!
HEROINE: Please, no.
HERO: Don’t believe I asked your opinion on the subject.
READERS: … Sorry, this is the hero?
HERO: I pounce!
HEROINE: I faint!
HERO: Oh good, this will make things easier. Time to rip off all of this unconscious woman’s clothes.
HEROINE: I cannot maintain consciousness long enough to fend off my rapist true love, but I have had the presence of mind to write notes to him and hide them under my dress, since I know he is the kind of dude who rips off unconscious women’s clothing his heart will be touched!
HEROINE’S NOTES: Dear sir, please don’t rape me. Seriously. I mean it.
HEROINE’S NOTES: Dear sir, this is kind of not okay at all.
HEROINE’S NOTES: SERIOUSLY THOUGH, I WAS HOPING YOU WOULD BE SO KIND AS TO NOT VIOLATE ME.
HERO: Oh FINE.
HEROINE: I regain consciousness!
HERO: Let us be married!
READERS: … Huh?
VILLAIN: I am the hero’s sister, come to be mean and judgemental about Pamela. Isn’t that AWFUL?
READERS: We no longer seem to be on a carriage journey that’s headed directly for Rape Town, yay!
Yeah. The heroine only gets off by being totally flawlessly good, the hero gets pardoned and redeemed for seriously sketchy goings-on, and the true villain is a lady. (There’s actually a lot more to Pamela than this, but I think you see my point, the gender roles are not all they could be.)
And since most writers, you know, read an awful lot of books, unconsciously we have absorbed a lot of how fictional women are from these early books. It’s the only explanation for having modern books written in which women are frequently virgins (nothing wrong with that, but in a way that seems to directly connect with the worth of their characters) and frequently act like twits.
And why would anyone care about a huge mass of feeble twits? Of course readers are going to care about the male characters more, of course they’re going to like them better.
Another tradition is demonising women, because sexuality can be scary, and a lot of the people writing a lot of the books were straight guys looking at sexuality being scary. So there’s a lot too much of evil women being OBVIOUSLY promiscuous, and good girls being virgins. To the point where feminity itself becomes wrapped up with evil.
Look at the Narnia books, where the women are the scariest villains. The White Witch seduces Edmund with sweets and uh, if you are more pure-minded than me and did not read that as coded sexy times, there’s the Witch of The Silver Chair, who is pretty and flirtatious and pretends to be silly, and who has probably not been playing checkers underground with her captive prince, if you know what I’m saying and I think you do. The villain of The Horse and His Boy, Rabadash, is motivated by lust for Susan – ‘I must have the barbarian queen!’ – and Susan has obviously been an idiot to ever go to his homeland, let alone contemplate marrying him. But what can you expect from Susan? She’s not like Lucy, who as one male character remarks to another, is ‘as good as a man – well, as good as a boy anyway.’ (Thanks ever so.)
And we all know that Susan turns away from Narnia in the end anyway, in a very specifically female way. (Well, I guess Edmund could have turned away from Narnia in the same way, but that would be an intrinsically hilarious scene.)
PETER THE MAGNIFICENT: My brother Edmund is no longer a friend to Narnia.
ASLAN: Oh that’s a pity.
PETER THE MAGNIFICENT: All he thinks about is parading around in nylons and lipstick!
ASLAN: … Say what?
PETER THE MAGNIFICENT: DON’T ASK ME TO TALK ABOUT IT!
Male villains tend to be much less sexualised. It was never suggested, for instance, that Sauron or Saruman was sexy. (If you just got an image of a big flamey eye doing a booty dance, I am truly sorry.)
So we’ve got women who are twits and women who are evil, and then we’ve got men who can sleep with as many or as few women as they like, who can be evil and be redeemed, who have way more adventures. Naturally we know who people will empathise with and like.
Yes, Sarah, you might say, but that was all in the olden days. We’ve wised up now, and I just tend to like male characters better, okay? Well, let’s leave alone the fact that the world is not quite as wised up as I’d like it to be, because I tend to get obnoxious about that, and once a friend told me that she wasn’t a feminist and I stole her credit card and wouldn’t give it back because without feminism she wouldn’t have had her own bank account, and I realise that was unacceptable behaviour.
But let’s talk a bit more about why.
There’s a reaction to the helpless heroine, the Heroine who is Made of Awesome, who is better than guys at everything, smarter, stronger, and often in a way that just builds on the traits of guy characters. And I at least don’t tend to like that heroine any more than Little Miss Twit.
For example: Our Hero Jason is the greatest shark juggler the world has ever seen, and we get to know Jason, and how shark juggling is a huge part of his personality, and we believe in his shark juggling skills, and then Annette rolls up and she’s even better than Jason. I for one am not going to like Annette much until there’s more to her than Being Better Than The Guy (Isn’t It Feminist, Isn’t She Awesome?), until I see something about her that makes her unique and makes her an individual.
A lot of these heroines are the kind who can whip boys’ asses with one hand tied behind their back. Both hands tied behind their back! Blindfold! In David Eddings’s Belgariad books we have an awesome thief called Silk, and several books later we meet an even more awesome girl thief called Velvet. She was so awesome, she showed Silk all right! Yay girl power! Except essentially she was Silk, except female. And younger. And very conventionally attractive, which Silk wasn’t. (And I liked those characters! But I think you can see where there’s a problem here.)
I do not wish to bag on all kickass heroines. There are very cool kickass heroines. I will put in a word for Kitty Norville in Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty books, in which the heroine is a werewolf and thus has super strength, which does her absolutely no good when facing off against other werewolves. Kitty has to go to self-defence class to learn how to use this super strength, and when we see Kitty kick ass, we think she’s earned it.
We don’t even have to see the evolution into being kickass, too. There’s Kate Daniels in Ilona Andrews’ Magic Bites books. At first I looked at her and yawned because I thought I’d seen her before, but Kate turned out just fine. She’s stronger than some people, weaker than others, scrappy but able to use her brain, gets dumped for girls who are prettier than she is, is not awesome all the time and much more awesome for it.
I don’t just mean heroines who are kickass, though. The book The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, while very well-written, rubbed me up completely the wrong way because the heroine Mary Russell’s sleuthing skills map onto her teacher Sherlock Holmes’s and then she goes one better than he does a lot of the time. Sherlock also mentions that he must adapt himself to Mary’s brilliance and equality with him as he’s used to consorting with Watson’s inferior intellect, which brings up a point I have to make about making characters awesome.
Characters can be awesome in all sorts of different ways! For instance, I am really not sure that Sherlock Holmes is smarter than Watson. (I speak purely of the Arthur Conan Doyle stories here, in several adaptations Watson’s obviously meant to be an amiable idiot.) Watson’s a doctor, for one thing, which usually indicates a certain amount of smarts. Watson’s more socially and emotionally intelligent, for certain. And Watson knows a lot of things Holmes doesn’t, like ‘The earth revolves around the sun, Sherlock,’ and ‘THAT COCAINE IS BAD FOR YOU, SHERLOCK.’ Watson, being a nice, unsuspicious and not all that observant guy, is simply not as good at sleuthing as Sherlock. Which is fair enough, sleuthing is Sherlock’s job. If the Holmes stories focused on a medical practise, Sherlock would be ‘Watson’s flatmate who occasionally shows up and is a smartass. Plus is on the coke.’ If those books were set in modern times, I wouldn’t have a problem with Watson as a girl, though occasionally I’d want her to slap Sherlock upside the head.
So the lesson for everyone writing would be to be trying to make a girl character awesome, think about her and her interests. Don’t make her interested in the boy’s interests just for the sake of making her more awesome (and having them fall in love). Focus on her as her, not as her being ‘better than him.’
Then there’s the fact that men are as a whole pretty visual, and don’t tend to fancy book characters. (Many do, I am sure! I am generalising!) And ladies read more. And ladies fancy book characters. (Let me be the first to step up and say I do.) And we tend to be interested in the characters we fancy, which tilts the balance in the favour of the male characters some more.
And so writers and readers are, when it comes to female characters, crippled by tradition, trained on what to expect and primed not to like the girls. And a lot of readers concentrate on the guys because we fancy them. And even when writers try to go against tradition (see: kickass heroines) they sometimes get it horribly wrong. It’s harder to write women, and then people won’t like them as much!
So why bother? Why not just set every book, I dunno, aboard ship or on a planet with no ladies (there’s one in Ethan of Athos by Lois McMaster Bujold, but of course it’s all about Ethan leaving Athos because Lois McMaster Bujold is awesome). Speaking purely about the books and not thinking about the world and larger issues thereof, why bother?
Well, for one thing that’d be terribly boring. Generally I feel worlds work best with women as half of them, and if the women are going to be half the world, there is no excuse for just concentrating on the men. I’ve read many books that focus mainly on men, and unless there’s a good reason (such as… being aboard ship in the 1700s) it makes me deeply uncomfortable. It makes me want to run away from that book and not read any more by the same author. And if that’s how I feel, other readers must feel it too, so er, I don’t think anyone wants to inspire that feeling in their readers.
Sometimes books just happen to have male main characters, you might say, and that’s quite true. Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books, for instance, have two male main characters and they’re set in a male-dominated society: they’re very male. But there are still a ton of women in there, and they’re people as well as being women, and they’re better than the men at some things and worse in others, and also, the main character Laurence’s sometime girlfriend Jane Roland, who is older than him, very practical, scarred in the face and likes to smoke cigars? I LOVE HER. That doesn’t bother me.
For another thing, sometimes going away from tradition leads to results that are pure awesomeness. For instance, seeing many versions of Little Miss Twit has made me so that when I see a Very Sensible female character, I am totally slain and I love her and I want everything to go right for her and I cheer at every scene. I love Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility and no other character in the book, but Elinor keeps a lid on herself, tries to organise her crazy family, doesn’t let on when her heart is broken, and I cannot turn the pages of that book fast enough. Same goes for Kel in Tamora Pierce’s Protector of the Small series and Sophie in Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle. Well, I love Howl, but that brings me to one more point.
Think about the poor male characters! The reader likes them. They can’t all be gay, and even if they are they do have to live in that world half full of ladies. A lot of them are going to end up with ladies, and if the guy is awesome, the girl should be awesome (but, as I may have mentioned before, in a different way!) I love a good romance, and that necessitates me having to love both the characters, and the particular way they spark together as individuals, and the things they bring out in each other. I love Howl, the vain cowardly wizard, and Sophie, the bossy ferocious housekeeper, and even more I love Howl-and-Sophie. There are many riffs off Pride and Prejudice in which Another Girl gets Darcy, because every girl wants Darcy. I will not touch them! (I did watch some of Lost in Austen because a friend knew my preferences and fibbed to me about the inserted heroine and Darcy not having a romance.) Because I love Darcy, but I love Elizabeth, and I love best Darcy-and-Elizabeth, the way they are together and the things they bring out in each other. I can’t imagine really loving a romantic pairing unless I loved both characters.
Elizabeth Bennet couldn’t kick ass (particularly not in her bonnet), and was presumably a virgin but seemed perfectly au fait with the idea of attraction, and was clearly interested in two men besides Darcy during the course of the book. She liked long walks, was hugely embarrassed by her family, was funny and witty and occasionally an idiot prone to snap judgements. Her flaws and virtues were very different from Darcy’s, though they overlapped in several places. She was written as a female character with the stress on character rather than on female, and she reads as so alive she could leap off the page, and I love her.
Why bother? Because it makes for better books.
Elizabeth Bennet’s my favourite fictional character. It’s worth doing.