Discussion: The danger of male writers and female characters

I don’t think I have ever been so sad to finish a book. I wanted it to keep going; I was attached to the characters and their story. The book in question was Terry Pratchett’s Monstrous Regiment. I simply love the Discworld series. Pratchett is a master storyteller and he only got better with time. Book #31 is now one of my favorites. Sad that the man is no longer with us to give us more of these great stories.

Mild SPOILER ALERT for the content below. I will try to avoid telling too many of the book’s secrets, if I can.

This post is about male authors and their female characters. That is the core concept of Montrous Regiment, a tale of women adopting male gender roles and doing better than the men they emulate. The story centers on a group of women who enlist in the army disguised as men. By the end of the book, these women have achieved more than any man in their place could have been expected to. The book is an attack on the gender split, the idea that women cannot do what men can. It is a work a feminism, but more effective than other, more aggressive approaches.

I’m still not sure what I think about how Pratchett approaches the gender issue. Anyone who has spent years in the liberal arts knows there are many traps to avoid with female characters. All too often, female characters are defined by their relationships to others, particularly to men or the patriarchy, rather than on their own terms. Pratchett’s work seems to suffer the same problem. The main characters, all women but for one, are ultimately defined in this way. None of them join the army because they want to be soldiers; the enlistment is for each simply a means to an end. One joins in order to search for the deadbeat father of her unborn child; another needs to rescue her brother so he can inherit the family business; a pair join to stay together; another follows her lover; and so forth. Three of the characters are escaping abuse, two are trying to prove themselves in a societies that view women as lesser, one is working a legal loophole against a rule that is designed to keep women from social power; they are all rather cliche as concepts when you really think about it.

Only two of the main characters are defined on their own merits, and they are men. And when one of these characters is revealed at the end to be a woman, her life in the army, a life as the most rugged and successful soldier ever, is degraded to a decision to follow her male lover into the military and then just sticking it out because there was nothing better. What the story lacks is any woman, any female at all, that chooses to join the army because they actually wanted to be soldiers. Every woman soldier, high or low, ended up there indirectly, but some just decided to stay for various reasons or because it was easier than leaving. So the overriding moral message is that yes, woman CAN do the same things that men can but they don’t WANT to. By the end of the book it becomes a sweeping generalization. This in turn helps to reinforce the gender divide, rather than tear it down.

It is ultimately limiting in its own way. The women defeat the strict patriarchy of their society by working from the inside, but their stories are always defined by these relationships. By contrast, the sole male main character is allowed to choose to act like a woman, and to like it, whereas the women are constantly discussing how they don’t like acting like men and how they would rather just be women as defined by their society; it just didn’t work out for them in their past lives.

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s a great book with some of Pratchett’s best characters, but it still suffers the problems above. It has me questioning whether male writer can effectively write female characters.

When I was doing the planning for my own book, one of my friends suggested I needed to add more women characters. My first response was that it was risky for me to write women characters, since I was a man. It’s impossible for me to truly understand a woman’s thinking or motivations. In the end I have added some women main characters; I am actually attracted to strong women characters in fiction when done well. Pratchett’s Granny Weatherwax is a prime example. Major Motoko Kusanagi and FemShep are two of my favorite characters of all time. These are characters that exist largely outside of their gender conditions.

I’ve tried to write my characters in a way that avoids cliches and the trap noted above. I have a woman watch officer who has to prove herself, but the doubt her men have is more based on her upper class social status and lack of experience than her gender. I do benefit from having created a more liberal world for a medieval fantasy story. I feel that the attachment that my city has to magic has allowed them to develop socially, much in the same way science has worked for our world, slow but definite change. That’s not to say that men and women in Marudal are equal, but further along the path than their neighbors. Another character I have written is girl who is trying to prove her skills in her trade. Again the conflict reflects her inexperience and I think a male character would fit perfectly in the same story. That’s part of the reason why I chose to put a girl in that spot, because gender didn’t matter.

So I wonder about other writers and readers experiences with this issue. To other male writers, do you have the same trouble and internal conflicts when writing female characters? For women readers, how often do you feel like male writers get their female characters right? And is it better for us to try our best and come up short rather than not making the attempt?

I should probably add that the stereotypical male mind, sports and cars and machismo, is probably as hard for me to approach as the female mind, or the fundamentally religious mind. I much prefer history, anime, video games, hot baths and audiobooks, over typically male interests. So it is the same problem with all characters or is there something more foreign about the gender divide? Am I making a big fuss over nothing?

I would appreciate any comments you have to offer on this discussion.

If you haven’t read Monstrous Regiment or any other Discworld novel… well, what are you waiting for?

UPDATE: Further examination of Pratchett’s female cast can be found here.

12 thoughts on “Discussion: The danger of male writers and female characters

  1. (sorry this went on WAY too long, but it’s an important topic)

    Of course men can write female characters. BUT it really depends on the man and how he views women (both consciously and subconsciously).

    George RR Martin was once asked how he writes such good female characters to which he responded ‘You know I’ve always considered women to be people.’ It’s really that simple! Sure women and men often have different experiences, but you could say that about any two characters. At the end of the day, you only have your experience and what you have learnt about other people’s experience.

    Just try to put yourself in other people’s shoes, use empathy, listen to women and ask about their experiences. Women are not aliens with minds profoundly different from men. Women are human beings just like men who happen to often, but not always, have different genitals, and have grown up in a society tries to condition them to be ‘female.’ But this is all stuff you can learn by talking to your female friends, watching movies/tv shows and reading books with female lead characters. It sounds like you are already conscious enough of feminist issues to try to avoid stereotypes you might have as a man, or able to explore those stereotypes consciously in your writing.

    Personally, I’ve never had much of an issue writing female characters. I really enjoy it. One of the manuscripts that I’m working on primary focuses on female protagonists and so far most female readers seem to have really enjoyed it. Oddly, one of the harshest criticisms was from a woman who didn’t ‘get’ where i was coming from with my character and tried to apply her own social conditioning about how a woman ‘should’ act, as opposed to how an individual ‘might’ act counter to Western cultural conditioning. Even more scary was that she thought the abusive male character’s behaviour (which most beta readers found utterly detestable. As per my intention) was understandable in the context (ew). So in that regards, woman can be just as bad at writing/characterising female characters as men.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the response. Good comments, and not too long at all. I like your point about your manuscript and how “so far most female readers seem to have really enjoyed it.” I think that’s the key really. It doesn’t matter if we think we are doing a good job with our characters, what matters is how the readers receive the character. That was a hard lesson to learn back when I as just getting started. I do think I am knowledgeable enough to identify most of the gender traps and stereotypes before I trip on them, but I do not think I am ready to directly confront gendering in my work. Pratchett’s difficulty is a warning to lesser writers I think. By the way, I haven’t actually read GRR Martin. I started the first book and it was too similar to the show to warrant the time for me, damn you HBO!


  2. Reblogged this on JM Williams and commented:

    I’m about to revisit one of my favorite Discworld novels, “Monstrous Regiment,” after deciding I am in need of some lighter reading. So here’s a look back at what I had to say the first time I read (or rather listened to) the book.

    I haven’t enjoyed a Terry Pratchett book in a good long while. Maybe it will provide some much needed catharsis. I’ll let you all know how the second trip through these pages goes.



  3. You have to bear in mind Pratchett leaned heavily on history in Monstrous Regiment. He didn’t set out to write a feminist book (Io forbid!) and fail at it. He wrote a book about a widespread practice a few centuries ago. Also, remember that the book ends with a few of the characters going back to the army without a man-related reason. That said, Lady Sybil Ramkin, Angua, and Cheery Littlebottom are just a few female characters who stand perfectly well on their own two feet. So yes, he can write good female characters as can a lot of male writers. The problem that is being chewed so incessantly on Twitter is actually the problem of bad writing, not bad male writing. The number of one-dimensional male characters written by women is no smaller than the number of one-dimensional female characters written by men.
    Sorry for the rant but I really don’t see why writing has to be genderised (not by you, by many, many others) in this way. Actually, I do see why and I really don’t like it. Write them real, that’s all one can ask of an author for all characters regardless of sex (which still exists) and gender.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with you. There’s a lot of history and cultural critique in this book. And I have, since my first read of this one, come to understand and appreciate Pratchett better. My understanding is that he was a self-described feminist, and yes, his female characters are genrally great. He is very concious of gender issues and how those ideas can vary between cultures. I reposted this in large part because I think my opinion will be different this time around. Especially since I can can consider the whole story in real time knowing what the end twist is going to be. Also, Richie and I talked about doing an upcoming podcast episode on gender, so it’s got me thinking. You’re comments are very helpful in that regard. You’re welcome to rant on my page anytime. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks! Happy to rant every chance I get, especially when related to Pratchett or what I shall diplomatically call certain political issues in modern life. 😀 Looking forward to the podcast!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Representing underrepresented groups and identities fairly and honestly is definitely a political issue today. Your comments here were enlightening. I still don’t know where I stand on the issue of men writing women. Certainly men have the capacity to write great female characters (I happen to love my fictional women the most). But I think there are also some topics that are so inherently foreign that it would be impossible for a man to properly describe. Menstruation. Pregnancy. The capacity to remember minor faults for decades. It’s like a white person trying to describe how a black American feels during a police traffic stop. I don’t know when we are going to lock in the topic of men writing women/women writing men, but would you be interested in providing some comments or maybe an interview for the podcast?

        Liked by 1 person

      3. It can definitely be hard and backfire. Same with women writing erections or testicle pain. There have been some helpful threads on this topic on social networks. It’s really helpful for writing realistic characters biologically different from you. I’d be very happy to help with comments or interview, just give me a heads up so I can prepare. 🙂 Thanks for the offer, it’s really flattering.

        “The capacity to remember minor faults for decades.” 😀 Yes! This is so me! I’ll see if there’s a scientific explanation of this phenomenon.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Interesting. I don’t know if sports are the best place to examine this question though. Because of our gendered society and how we treat women’s sports, women athletes must be extra aggressive. I imagine women athletes are more different than average than men are. Social media might be a better venue for this sort of research.


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