Monday, February 27, 2012

On Being a Fictional Misogynist

Creating female characters has always been one of my biggest weaknesses as a writer.

I don't fully understand why this is. My best guess is that it's because I'm not female and so this creates a mystification process, where I create some version of my female ideal and then I try to recreate this on paper and it comes out cardboardish. I've been told at one time or another that a female character I created was too male-fantasy, too grotesque, too shrill, too quiet, too agreeable, too bitchy. And at one time or another these have been legitimate gripes.

I try to combat this problem. I'm in several writers groups and, in doing the math in my head, a quick census reveals that 80% of the people in these collective groups are female, which is probably what I need. And I do feel like it's helped. I'm writing a novel that revolves around a fictitious football team, and so most of the characters are male, but there are a few key female characters. I want to get this right. There have been times in the past when my fellow writers have saved my female characters from veering into bad stereotypes.

However, I'm at a point where I'm struggling with my female characters again. So for my writers group Sunday, I submitted a novel excerpt that was pretty rough because, among other things, my major female character is poorly conceived in it. It got the response I expected, and some suggestions as to how to make her more realistic as a character.

The only problem was that A.J. O'Connell was the most vociferous about the issues with my female character.

That in itself isn't a problem. A.J. is

1) a talented writer (if you haven't read her novella Beware the Hawk yet you need to do so).
2) female
3) a friend
4) generous in her time and ability to help

But here was the problem: she, too, submitted an excerpt for our group too. And on Saturday night, at the same time that she was reading my excerpt and being less-than-enthused with my female character, I was reading her story and finding that I really disliked the male character in it, to the point where I found him a little offensive. For many of the same reasons she disliked my female character. I felt like this character devolved into many of the bad male stereotypes -- he was nameless, he sat around and watched shoot-'em-up movies or played with guns, he seemed to only be in the story when the protagonist needed to converse with someone in between scenes, and then he spoke in grunts and monosyllables or in a way that demonstrated he wasn't paying attention.

So I was pissed. Not because I felt like A.J. was wrong about my female character -- she was spot-on. I got pissed because A.J. was spot-on while, in my opinion, doing the same thing she accused me of doing.

It's like this: if you tell me you're gonna pick me up at 8 and when you arrive I still need to shower and shave and brush my teeth, you'd be pissed at me for holding you up, and rightfully so. I'd apologize and try not to do that again. But then, if it's my turn to pick you up and you tell me, "Hang tight, I'm jumping in the shower now," I'm gonna be Pissed + 1 at you for doing the exact same thing.

And because I was one of the first to be workshopped and she was one of the last, when it was A.J.'s turn I was loaded for bear.

So I reacted. Badly. I whacked my hand on the table and said her character was a meathead and that I was offended by him. We're all in these groups, not to be carried across the room and told how great we are, but to become better writers. Yet I feel like you can offer writing advice without being a dick. And for a couple of minutes, I crossed the line. I felt bad for the rest of the meeting.

After the meeting ended and we walked to our cars, I was worried that brawl would spill out into the street. But A.J. and I hugged it out and we were fine, which was a huge relief to me. I wouldn't want to lose a friend over this.

Everything worked out in the end. We both have a better understanding of what not to do. We both got a blog out of this: (hers is here). We challenged ourselves to work on gender-based writing exercises. This isn't really the way I envisioned it happening, but maybe a few minutes of accusations of misandry and misogyny will help make us better writers.

1 comment:

  1. I am so glad that we could brawl about this, hug it out, blog about it and then get constructive and do some writing exercises. Also, I'm totally lucky to have a friend like you. You're a stand-up type guy, Phil. Just the kind of guy that my male characters are not.