So this article has been bumping around in my head for a while. Probably because I’ve read too many books/seen too many movies that left me cringing at the stereotypes/clichés that popped up.
Characters should be likable and relatable (unless their purpose is to be the opposite) so throwing in stereotypes that can frustrate, annoy or offend (again, unless that’s their purpose) is not helping to encourage people to read your work.
I do admit to being a bit of a stickler for good characters and a little piece of me dies when I see/read anything where there is the heavily-clichéd archetype dynamic.
(I’ve even seen it touted as something that should be used as a template for creating characters *shudder*)
You know the one I mean, where the cast-list reads exactly like this:
☆ Hero (almost always male)
☆ Plucky Sidekick
☆ Comic Relief (sometimes amalgamated into the Plucky sidekick)
☆ Evil Villain
☆ Love Interest (almost always female and only there to be the prize for the hero)
Maybe it’s just me, but that can feel really trite at times. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve read some great books and seen some great movies where they follow this basic premise lightly and it works. But honestly, those are rare.
So today, I am going to discuss some of the stereotypes that drive me insane and since this became a longer post than I expected, I will be splitting it into two pots. This one will be about Female Characters and their stereotypes. There will then be another about Male Characters and their stereotypes.
NB: These are my personal opinions on what can ruin an otherwise good book for me. You might not agree with some or even all of these which is totally fine. So enjoy your own opinion and please don’t feel the need to flame me if you don’t agree. Just scroll on by!
The Clothes Horse
Psst! Here’s a secret, not all women give a crap about clothes, fashion and owning expensive/trendy shoes, handbags etc. Yes, there are some that do which are totally fine, but there are also some that don’t.
So, if you are writing female characters. Please don’t feel the need to make a big deal about their clothes, or their love of clothes and shoes and shopping for said clothes and shoes.
For those women like me, who can’t think of anything more boring to do than shop for clothes and trying on shoes, it would be nice to have a change.
This is especially important if you have multiple female characters. Just mix it up a little! Don’t make all your female characters gush about shoes (especially painfully high, heeled shoes) or crave the newest Prada handbag. This obsession with material fashion often makes characters look vain and shallow.
Now, on a side note if you were GOING for shallow then ramp up that obsession. Or if your character fits with the love of clothes for whatever reason, then fine.
Just be careful you aren’t falling straight into a typical stereotype about women that’s been done to death. Remember, women are more than the clothes they wear.
Also, don’t go the other way where you make some woman who is legitimately interested in her fashion, to be a snooty, vain, narcissistic person.
Unless there’s a reason to do that, don’t treat the fact that some women take an interest in fashion and clothing as a negative.
The Sexy Warrior
This is something you see more in art than writing but it appears to be creeping into writing as well. Some female character, created as a warrior, ready to slay dragons or fight evil warlords and what do you kit her out in?
Yes, some completely useless, horrifically non-functional metal bikini. Adding some gauntlets and greaves (that’s the metal piece that protects the shins/knees) will not make this abomination anything other than pointless.
Yet I have seen writers, of both traditional stories and comics, insist on having these so-called “Warrior Women” running around scantily clad as they protect the city or fight for revenge.
Since a severed femoral artery (found in the inner thigh) can have you bleed out in minutes, maybe cladding your character in actual armour that protects them would be an idea? Just a thought.
Stop making female warriors into sex objects. If you want a female character to be a fighter/warrior character then dress her appropriately. Cover the thighs, belly, chest… you know, those areas that are easily punctured or torn open.
Stop sexualising strong, fighter-type female characters by making them some porn-y version. It just reads so dumb!
Not sure what a normally-dressde warrior women would look like? Watch The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc to see how they dressed Milla Jovovich when she was kicking ass. Or Brienne of Tarth from the Game of Thrones series.
And while we are on the subject of armour… it does NOT need to be contoured around a woman’s breasts. I don’t care how big they are… just no! That, again, makes it sexualised.
The Hopeless Romantic
Think carefully about the role of your female characters. Women are often written into stories (and movies) as Passive characters.
They can often be just a romantic interest and everything they do circles around their need for a man… or a baby.
Even in books where the protagonist is female and is saving the world, I’ve still seen the need to wedge in some driving urge for these women to be searching for a man. I guess early Disney cartoons did us no favours there.
Am I against relationships? No. Am I against women looking for a partner? No. But does it have to be in every book and the main arc for a female character? No!
Romance/love interests can work well in books. However, they can also ruin them. I’ve read a number of books in my time in which the romance felt forced as if the author had just wedged it in due to some expectation.
Often a female love interest is there purely as some goal or reward for the male character. Or she is to be killed off and acts as a kind of trigger, to set him on his quest for revenge after he fucked off to brood when things were getting too tough.
If you’ve created this strong independent female character, don’t ruin that by suddenly showing that she’s lost without a man or that her life is empty without a baby.
And if you don’t want a strong female character, at least make her something more than just the prize at the end of some guy’s quest. Seriously.
NB: If you are writing a romance where the whole concept is about finding love etc, then it will work better. But let’s still make the female characters a little more 3-dimensional. If all we know about her, is she needs a man and wants a baby, that’s pretty boring – even in romance.
For a good base line, let’s make sure you’re not failing the Bechdel Test, okay?
Personally, I like to read strong female characters. For years my gender seemed to only occupy roles were women needed to be rescued, to be coveted, to be won like some prize at a marrow-throwing contest (do they throw marrows? Is that a thing?)
However, I think some people aren’t clear on what “Strong Female” means. It does not automatically mean that they are physically strong, nor do they need to be excellent fighters. Nor are they simply portraying “male traits.”
Strength comes in many forms and it can be built up or torn down. A strong character can end up weaker and a weak character can end up stronger.
A character may appear weak, can in a time of crisis, show a strength the reader didn’t know was there. Physical strength is one type of strength. There is mental and emotional strength, there is strength of conviction, being willing to fight for what you believe even at the risk of injury or death.
Also, if you do make a female character strong, it does not mean you need to masculinise (is that a word?) them. Often we see being emotional, caring, empathetic as female traits. They are also still often seen in a negative light and as a weakness.
So authors will sometimes compensate by making their strong female character almost stoic, aloof and leaning towards more (stereotypical) masculine traits (we will discuss that more in next week’s article about Stereotypical MALE characters).
Finally – if your female characters are physically strong, can we see it? Physically strong women have muscle, they have a body type, they are not often waif-thin. So let’s not just state they are strong but have them showing zero muscle or keeping them petite. Bodies come in different shapes and sizes, and those who gain strength, will often look like it.
The Clark Kent Beauty
This is best described with movies since it is a sin that occurs waayyyy too often in film. This is the one where the “plain-Jane” character with her glasses, ponytail, flat chest and non-fashionable clothes, is miraculously transformed at the end of the movie.
Her hairpins are removed, her glasses come off (but these women are never suddenly struggling to see, I might add) and she wears some figure-hugging dress that was hidden in her closet and shows OMG she actually does have a cleavage (apparently that’s super important in terms of beauty!).
I call it the Clark Kent Beauty since all Mr. CK did was gel back his hair, remove his glasses and change his clothes. Not buying it, buddy! (He would totally be screwed in today’s world with Facial recognition apps, am I right?)
It’s just not needed. Beauty is subjective and we definitely need to tread carefully when we continue to focus on characters that start out in some weird standardised image of “unattractive” and then transform them into another weird standardised image of “attractive”.
We don’t need to see a tomboy character wearing a dress to show she is beautiful, we don’t need to see a science nerd remove her glasses to be considered attractive. Make your characters lovable, relatable and attractive in their own way.
Also, can we stop making “attractive” the centre focus? Are the womens’ personality, intellect etc just not important at all?
If you look at old 90s movies, you’ll find a lot of badly-created characters that fell in love with the (only) female character because she was beautiful. There was no connection, no learning anything about her. Just “wow she’s hot, I’m in love” Can you say creepy?
Also, what is this need to take the smart female characters and show that all they ever wanted was to be beautiful and popular? Jeez, stop doing that! Not everyone gives a rats ass if some guy thinks she’s cute.
The Angry Feminist
This probably strikes a sharper cord with me because, in the real world, many feminists are treated like crap due to people’s opinions of what “being a feminist” means. This mainly comes from this need to discredit the movement. Hence the term “feminazi”.
I guess having just writing this ranty post about female stereotypes may have some people marking me as “the angry feminist.”
As with all things, there will always be a minority that fit those opinions, however, MOST feminists are not men-haters, they are not wanting women to be solely in charge or to oppress men or to be seen as better than. Feminism fights sex-based oppression which is still a very prevalent issue around the world.
So let’s stop using “feminist” as a negative term and stop perpetuating the negative image that people have tagged onto that word.
The 20-Something Model
Unless your story is set in America’s Next Top Model house, then please let’s throw in some variety. Firstly, not all female characters should be the same age and that age should consistently be under 30.
Let’s try some differences and no I don’t mean having a blonde, a redhead and a brunette.
I want to see REAL characters, I want to see different body sizes. I want to see different heights. I want to see different races, cultures, religions. I want to see differently-abled characters. I want to see different aged characters and different versions of beauty.
By the way, let’s try some realism as well. If your character is waif-like, then unless she had plastic surgery, 9 times out of 10, her boobs are going to be small to match her figure. Let’s avoid DD boobs on svelte women.
Let’s also avoid larger women constantly feeling insecure and wanting to lose weight as their ultimate goal (usually as a way to snag themselves a man). There are many larger-sized women who rock their curves and love their bodies. Let’s see more of that.
Positive body images people!
Laugh lines, stretch marks, birthmarks, port-wine stains, freckles, vitiligo… these and all other physical traits are part of being human and should be embraced. If all your female characters have smooth skin, no blemishes, no wrinkles… then they lose their realism.
The gay community is underrepresented in fiction and too often when lesbian characters are created (especially by straight authors) they are written as stereotypes.
If we think about traditional gender roles and behaviours, we can broadly class them as “masculine” and “feminine”. This covers the career someone has, how they act, talk, dress and look.
Some women will look and act in a way that seems to fall under what is considered the traditional “masculine” sense, while others will appear in what is considered the traditionally “feminine” sense and all other women fall somewhere in between.
From this, we consider two points, firstly it is independent of their sexual orientation so the cliche of lesbians being heavily masculine will no doubt be true for a small proportion of lesbians but not all.
Secondly, the concept of traditional notions of masculine and feminine is what gives rise to a lot of cliches and stereotypes. However, as a society, we are now increasingly aware of the fact that “masculine/feminine” traits, physical gender and sexual orientation are three different things.
If you chose to have a lesbian character then remember that is one aspect of that character. It is not her entire defining quality. Don’t make her orientation the entirety of her characterisation. Real people, regardless of their sexual preferences, are multifaceted.
The Virgin, The Mother, The Slut
I was once told that a “good” female character, needed to fall into one of these three. Let’s sidestep the awfulness of that “advice” and discuss these:
Naive, young, innocent, pure. These are the words people associate with the word Virgin. They are also limiting.
Let me give you an example, a young girl lives with her father who is a drug addict.
Every day she watches him get strung out on his drug of choice, sees how he’s losing more of himself.
She grows up fast, learning to steal just to feed herself. She’s 12 and she’s a virgin. Would those four words really describe her? Maybe – if only you consider her in terms of sexual experience.
Also, the word “virginity” is really a non-concept. As if there needs to be a word for having sex for the first time. The word virginity has a very patriarchal sense as it is mainly connected to women and was often used as some kind of valuing system.
Finally, can we also get away from the concept that just because a character is inexperienced in regards to the act of sexual intercourse, that they do not have to be lacking knowledge. Especially when dealing with more modern fiction.
On a side note, it is (again, my opinion) getting tiresome to see so many naive, virginal female characters being “shown the way” by the experienced and dominant male character.
Caring, nurturing, supportive. When I’ve asked people, these are the words that come to mind when you think “Mother”. Okay, but what about an abusive mother? An absent mother? A neglectful mother?
What about a mother who is struggling with post-partum depression? Or a mother who became a mother by accident and isn’t a bad person, but can’t really feel a connection to her children?
Trying to force a character to fit into this “stereotypical role” because it’s expected is not good writing.
Easy, cheap, dirty. More words that are often connected to Slut (also referred to as Whore). But this word is used to describe a woman regarding sexual experience.
And society still isn’t too happy with a woman who likes sex, who is experienced or knows her own body and wants. So we diminish a woman like that with a label, a negative label. We shun her and make her unclean.
Another stereotype that can feed into societies bad labelling system. Let’s try and avoid it.
So, what did we learn from these three words? Simple – they are limiting. They provoke thoughts and images often that society has already manipulated.
They are not ways to define a character because characters are types of people and people are complex.
Overall, you need to create good, multilayered characters that can enrich your story. They should be more than a word or an orientation or an ability.
Related Article: How To Avoid Male Stereotypes in Your Novel
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First apology, sorry for the lack of a post last Friday. Big thanks to those of you who sent me messages and emails 🙂
Second apology, sorry for the length of this post, it definitely got away from me and as I wrote it, the damn thing just kept growing!
As always if you like this post, do follow this blog, I upload new posts on Fridays (usually).