I have frequent conversations with clients about gender in writing. It is fair to say that I have to open some male writers’ eyes on the subject, which of course is twofold: presenting women as realistic and interesting characters, and presenting writing that will have above average appeal (thus, marketability) to women. In short: one disregards women, as an audience, to one’s own detriment.
Rather than tell you why all that was so, I thought I’d seek a more expert opinion. I first met Adrienne Dellwo serving on panels at a science fiction convention. We were fellow travelers in the freelancing field, but she has since expanded her creative horizons into fiction and cinema. She was gracious enough to agree to an interview, and she was as candid as I could have hoped. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed participating.
JK: Adrienne, could you go into a little detail about your literary career?
AD: I’ve always wanted to write fiction, but I rarely finished even a short story, let alone a novel. Part of the problem was that I didn’t feel like I knew how the whole process was supposed to work.
I started going to conventions for the writing panels, and that really helped. Then, after a panel on World Building, I started thinking about what my world would look like, if I were to build one. A scene flashed through my head, and it became the opening scene to Through the Veil.
That was the first book I finished, and I eventually found a publisher for it. I now have three books out and just finished my fourth last night, actually. And I have two more that are partially written.
Congratulations. This helps the readership understand why I felt you would be the perfect subject for this interview. To some degree it is a sort of self-check. I wanted to write a blog post about writing women (as characters), and writing for women. Then I realized that my idea was stupid, and that it would be far more productive to ask an actual woman.
First, I want to be clear about generalization. I don’t think any rule, anywhere, applies to everyone in a given group. At most, we might reasonably say that a given generalization is more often true than not. And of course, like everyone else, you are not acquainted with the whole of the population, so you speak from your own circles and experiences. Do those sound like reasonable caveats with which to preface a discussion of the majority of the human population?
Yes, they do.
Great. Let’s start with me running past you some of my longstanding admonitions to clients. If you think any of them are incomplete or flawed, I’d like to know how they can be corrected. First admonition: on average, women are more likely than men to be readers, thus (knowing nothing about the content) the audience is likely to be majority female. Do you agree?
Based on studies and surveys I’ve seen, yes, I believe it’s true that women are more likely to be readers, so it makes sense that they’d consume most of the books, regardless of genre.
The goal there was to hammer home the urgency of the question; if they value their marketability and reviews, they had better reckon with that reality. Running off the majority of one’s audience strikes me as a terrible notion.
Second admonition: most women have an easy time perceiving the difference between presenting sexist characters (which may be simple realism) and an obviously sexist author (which is a correctable flaw). True in your experience?
Oh, yeah. If most of the characters, the female ones in particular, are presented realistically and just one character is a jerk, that’s a lot different from the sexist representations of women that fill some books. Or, rather, that show up in the single token female character who’s surrounded by alpha males.
Would you say that the latter case is the more common? The only woman on the baseball team, or in the office, et cetera?
Definitely. In a ton of mainstream novels, the only developed female character is the protagonist’s love interest.
So we aren’t talking about just a quality problem. It’s as much a quantity problem.
Quantity, in my experience, might be the bigger problem. We’re so accustomed to it that it’s considered normal. Think of the Smurfs–a bunch of males, plus Smurfette. In the Air Bud movies, they’re all male puppies except for the single female. The male dogs have names that reflect their interests, while the female just gets a girlie name, as if she doesn’t get interests at all beyond being feminine. It’s her entire personality.
Then it continues on–how many developed female characters do we get in DaVinci Code, for example?
It’s been a long time since I read that. I don’t remember many.
That’s because there’s one. The love interest.
And it’s one thing if you’re in a male-dominant environment. You can’t slip women into the submarine in Hunt for Red October, for example. Historically, they just weren’t there. But in other settings, women are chronically under-represented.
If authors would include more female characters, we’d get more interesting ones because they’d need to give them actual personalities to distinguish one from the other. Instead, we get one representation, and she’s basically the same in book after book.
Of course, we have authors who write plenty of wonderful and varied women. I’m talking about a subset of mainstream male authors who tend to get a lot of popular attention and have big-budget movies made.
Can you paint me the picture of this fatigued representation? Just so that my clients and readership can know when they find themselves sliding into inadequate portrayal?
She’s tall, slender, beautiful, and smart. But not smarter than the protagonist, of course. She wears high heels and glasses (the glasses let you know she’s smart!) and pulls her hair back when she wants to be taken seriously, then takes it out of the bun or ponytail and gives it a dramatic shake when it’s time to be sexy. Because she has two modes–serious and sexy.
Most of the time, she’s too busy being serious to have any interest in a romantic relationship, and she may even be resistant to men because of a bad experience in her past (probably a boss or professor), but the protagonist is so manly and brilliant that she’s unable to resist.
So in essence, she is a prop? Like a fake sword or a glucose whiskey bottle?
Precisely. She’s there to give the man someone to bounce brilliant ideas off of, and to fall in love with him.
Another trope that’s layered onto this one is that she’s also a martial artist. That means she can fight well enough to stay alive until the man can save her, and she’s super in shape which makes her more sexually appealing.
Then the author says, “Hey, she’s smart and strong–I write strong female characters!” Um, no. You write fantasy-fulfillment props.
I have a client with an upcoming book where his adventurers, five in number, include one woman. But she’s the fighter and sergeant, and she doesn’t have any love interest. She spends a fair bit of time kicking ass, and speaking of which, her own is not exactly hourglassy. But she’s got enough heart to feel like her own person, not a prop. Sound promising?
It does. Putting a woman in a group with four men and not having her in love with any of them is practically revolutionary.
My client worked hard at this, and it showed.
One more admonition: the most telling cues to the author’s outlook are found when the author portrays women, and in particular interactions between men and women. Agree?
It’s definitely a big one. Something more interesting is interaction between female characters, though, because it’s surprisingly rare and all too often deals with jealousy or commiserating over a man.
In other words, they are not so much about the women, but male-centric. The connection/conflict would not exist without him.
In Through the Veil and its sequels, I have a spiritual order that’s all women. They’re not wives or mothers, their primary interest in life isn’t romance or domesticity. Taking them out of those roles is freeing for me because I can make them individuals on a level I’m not accustomed to seeing.
Because, having grown up with prop women who have no agenda of their own, I have to watch myself. It’s easy to write what you’ve seen and read a million times.
It’s why propaganda works.
So true! I hope younger authors will have an easier time avoiding these issues. In my experience, they’re far more aware of the problems entrenched in media, and therefore more able to avoid the ruts.
In the ’80s, none of us thought Breakfast Club or Revenge of the Nerds or Top Gun were problematic. When I watch ’80s movies with my kids, though, they’re outraged. So we’re getting better, as a society.
Reader by reader, author by author.
Yep. And generation by generation. When I paused The Breakfast Club to talk to my daughter about some of the issues, she told me what was wrong with it. She was all of 12 at the time. Kids are savvy these days, and that tells me that even if authors keep writing hollow women, they’ll stop being successful.
One suspects that certain parents have laid better groundwork than others. I know Joe [her husband], and I’m sure they get mutual message reinforcement on gender issues.
LOL! So true! My kids don’t get traditional gender roles at all. We both cook and clean and buy groceries and pay bills and fix things and create things. Because of my health issues, I stay home and Joe goes to work–but while I’m home, I’m writing medical articles and books and screenplays. On film sets, sometimes he directs, sometimes I direct. So yeah, my kids think any kind of artificial gender roles are just weird.
Where possible, I counsel my male clients to make sure that some of their first readers include women who can offer feedback, but that alone is unlikely to correct inherent biases and flaws. What would you suggest they do in order to write better women, and write better for women?
At conventions and in writing circles, you hear a lot about “writing strong female characters.” I think we need to stop focusing on that, because then we get into definitions of what strength is and what female means. That’s all problematic! Meanwhile, when you read male characters written by female authors, you don’t run into the same issues as with the reverse.
We need to go back to basics. We write good characters when we treat each one as an individual with their own goals, dreams, fears, etc. If you’re looking at a female character that way, rather than as just a love interest or sex object, you’re going to be fine.
The prop women we discussed earlier have one major trait in common–the male protagonist’s goal becomes her goal the moment they meet, whether she has any prior motivation to pursue it. It becomes her goal because he is her true goal, and she’ll mold herself into the proper shape to fit.
So if a man is having trouble creating a decent female character, I’d suggest an exercise–write a short story about that woman, earlier in her life, where she’s the protagonist and there’s not a love interest. Once you see her as a full human being, she’ll come across that way on the page. Or write the character as a male buddy and then change the pronouns.
And if you think, “But I’d have to change everything about the character to change the gender,” then you’ve found the real issue you need to work on.
Because too many of these female props-as-characters have too many qualities that are either a) female-specific, and/or b) centered around a male?
Exactly. And here’s the thing–when women write male characters, they write them the same way they write female characters! I think about his goals, his challenges, his insecurities, how he views the world based on not just gender, but environment, circumstance, culture, and up-bringing.
All of us are much more than gender, so when you start thinking about “how do I write a woman,” it’s easy to fall into the trap of creating a stereotypical woman rather than a realistic one.
Granted. At the same time, I think some of them mean well. They just don’t know what they’re doing, at least in my observed experience. My theory about that is that they have not spent enough time in life trying to see the world through her eyes.
That’s the crux of it–they haven’t examined her as a character in her own right. And I understand how confusing it must be for a lot of men. They put women in the story and get criticism for not creating believable women, so they heap on more “feminine” traits only to get more criticism. I get it, I really do. But it all boils down to the same thing–stop trying to write “a female character” and write fully realized characters who happen to be female. It’s one characteristic of many, not the defining characteristic.
I’ve sat in panels where authors try to define both strength and what it means to be a woman, and the only things that came out of it were stereotypes and generalizations. When you apply them to the whole of human experience, they fall short. I have a lot of traits that are considered traditionally masculine. I know plenty of men who have traits that are traditionally feminine. One of my children rejects gender constructs completely and considers themself neither male nor female.
Then you’ve got gender-fluid people and trans people–gender is a spectrum, not a fixed point. And the longer we go without fixed gender expectations in our society, the more we’ll see that manifested.
I suspect that, beginning with the current generation of children and after, we will see that reflected in how they write.
I’m seeing that already. There’s a great young author named Kaye Thornbrugh who refuses to write unhealthy relationships like you see in so many popular books targeted at girls and young women. I’m in a writing group with several recent college graduates, and they’re writing with an understanding of the gender spectrum that turns everything on its head.
Can you name a couple of male authors who do an excellent job portraying women and gender dynamics? What specifically do they do well?
A lot of people might be surprised by this answer, but I think Stephen King does an exceptionally good job of writing women. I’ve read a majority of his books, and I’ve never felt like a female character was a prop, or under-developed. The reason is that he’s good at developing all of his characters, regardless. He sees them all as full-fledged human beings, and they come across that way. Read Gerald’s Game or Rose Madder or Lisey’s Story to see examples of female protagonists done well. In It, he captures children perfectly. When you read Insomnia, you’re certain you understand what it’s like to be elderly. And it’s all because he doesn’t rest on stereotypes and generalizations. He understands people, period.
Backing up a little bit, there’s been a shift in the way female characters are discussed. At one of my first cons, I heard the criticism that a lot of “strong females” were just “men with boobs,” because they weren’t written any differently from men. Everyone knew it was problematic to define how women should be written, but no one questioned the criticism itself.
At my most recent convention, I saw that criticism questioned because the criticism itself uses a narrow lens of what it means to be female. Sure, you can make generalizations about how women tend to be more nurturing, or how female friendship is different from male friendship, but then you’ve got swaths of women who fall outside of that definition. I have a high school friend who joined the Marines, has never gotten married or had kids, and fits in better in traditionally masculine environments. She lifts weights, goes rock climbing, and jumps out of airplanes for fun. At the same time, she’s heterosexual, loves wearing ultra-feminine clothes when she’s not at work, and decorates her house with floral prints.
Heh. Try pigeonholing all that!
Right? You can’t!
And none of it is because she was abused or sexually assaulted, or because she grew up without a mother, or because she can’t have babies. That’s just who she is. She’s also pagan and has a degree in physics. Wouldn’t you rather read a book with her in it than with some cardboard cutout in high heels and glasses?
Definitely. She sounds intriguing.
We’re all drawn to things that are unusual and unexpected. So create weird women. Create the oddball who can’t be pigeonholed and doesn’t want to be.
Draw from the weirdness inside you and the weirdness in people around you. That’s what’s real.
A science fiction convention could supply enough relevant material for a lifetime of writing.
Hahaha! Without a doubt!
So, Stephen King. Any other men doing above average?
I have a good friend named Bracken MacLeod who’s an amazing author and writes great women. Check out his book called Mountain Home. (Stranded is also amazing but intentionally male-focused, as it’s about toxic masculinity and its impact on men.)
The shared superhero series I write for has a lot of great female characters. It’s the Just Cause universe, and it was started by Ian Thomas Healy. (I know that sounds self-serving, but I wouldn’t be writing for the series if I didn’t admire a lot about it.)
Fair enough. I would also like to note for the reader that it took you longer than anticipated to ponder on this. Do I interpret that fairly to say that the number of major, popular male writers doing a good job on gender is a bit bleak?
That’s fair. I’m browsing through my Kindle and finding a dearth of male authors, and the only big-name ones are Stephen King, his son Joe Hill, Patrick Rothfuss, and George R.R. Martin.
Martin is a controversial one in this area, with some people thinking he created a sexist world in order to show women (and other oppressed people) overcoming it, and other people thinking he himself is sexist. I’m having trouble remembering much about most of Rothfuss’ female characters. I’m not sure whether that’s his fault or mine. LOL
Let the record reflect that the interviewee, like most readers, has voted with her wallet. A thing for prospective and evolving authors to consider.
That is the final arbiter, isn’t it?
If not the final one, it is surely of importance even if it is not the primary determinant of quality.
I should mention Erik Scott de Bie, as well. He’s got some great women in his books.
In young adult, Cory Doctorow.
Cory Doctorow I’ve heard of.
His books Little Brother and Homeland are the best YA I’ve read, and as a YA author, I’ve read a lot. They should be taught in every high school. Sorry to go off-topic, but he deals with themes of personal freedom and government over-reach in the name of safety, all with near-future technology and phenomenal character development. Great books.
I feel like I should mention female authors who provide great examples of female characters, as well. High on my list is Diana Rowland, who writes the Kara Gillian/Demon Summoner series as well as the White Trash Zombie series. Her women are tough and quirky and fully developed. I also like Lish McBride, A.G. Howard, and Jennifer Brozek.
And Mercedes M. Yardley. She’s brilliant.
Now I’d like to know who among the men is doing it wrong, and how they are blowing it. The more prominent the names, the greater the percentage of our readership that will relate.
I stopped reading Dan Brown and John Grisham a long time ago, largely because of their female characters. I can’t provide more examples because I don’t read a lot of mainstream fiction anymore, especially if it’s written by middle-aged, straight, cis white men. I feel like I’ve read it all before, over and over. (I should add that I don’t read romance or much “chick-lit” for the same reasons, even though a lot of that is written by women.)
Fair enough. I’d add W.E.B. Griffin to that list, even though it’s speaking critically of the recently deceased.
Just because they’re dead doesn’t mean they were good writers.
You can find a ton of articles online with examples of how men have written women poorly. They’re often hilarious, while also sad. When they describe a woman being aware of how her breasts move, you know they’re so entrenched in the view of women as sex objects that they think we actually view ourselves that way.
My mind reels with comic examples of women busy living their lives, punctuated by internal monologue about breast movement.
Yeah. Can’t say I’ve ever experienced that in real life. I mean, what kind of bras are these women wearing? They shouldn’t be moving that much!
I’m told most women are wearing poorly fitting bras. Of course, I’m told that by people who are selling bras.
They do, but even those keep them from swinging around and rubbing against each other.
And the key point, of course, is the tendency for the whole thing to be about the breasts because that’s what the author identifies with femaleness. Or femininity. “Welcome to You Are Your Ta-tas!“
Okay. Narrowing the focus for a moment to the portrayals of women, what would you say are the most prevalent flaws–the moments where nearly every female reader rolls her eyes? I say ‘female’ because the reader may well be under the age of eighteen. I understand that this may be slightly redundant, but I’m looking for identifiable trends.
When she cowers and waits for the man to save her. Or when she falls prey to obvious emotional manipulation.
The scene in Captain Marvel (spoiler alert!) when she looks down at her former commander and says, “I have nothing to prove to you,” is possibly the most empowering moment I’ve ever seen on screen. Because every girl and woman has been made to feel like she has to prove herself to a man.
Would it be fair to say that ‘proving oneself’ to the men is another of the prevalent flaws in men’s writing as well as on the screen?
It’s everywhere, in our society as well as our media. That’s why it’s believable when he throws down the weapons and challenges her hand-to-hand.
I didn’t see the movie, but I know that it inspired very polarized reactions. Some of them struck me as comically insecure.
It’s a great movie. One of the best of the MCU, for sure. And any man who has a problem with it should probably get professional help.
I sense that most of the men who feel threatened by the fact that there’s a movie about a superheroine, of which most women and girls seem to approve, aren’t too receptive to help.
What are some obvious early ‘tells’ that inform you there is bad gender writing ahead? The one that comes to my mind is the inability to distinguish girls from women, but you would surely notice more than I would.
I cringe when there’s an excessive emotional response to something because it signals that the author considers women to be over-emotional. If you want to create a character that is highly emotional, it needs motivation–just like anything else. Gender isn’t motivation enough.
I’m pretty selective about who I read, though, and probably 80 percent is by female authors. So I don’t come across it a lot these days.
Oh–something that hasn’t come up that’s important to mention: We need to stop using sexual assault as the default reason for a woman to have emotional or psychological problems. Yes, it’s prevalent in society, but it’s used too often as a convenient and easy explanation. Men get more varied backstories.
Same for domestic violence?
Yeah, domestic violence, too. Along the same lines is having lost a child or having an inability to conceive. Give us motivations that aren’t rooted in the fact that we’re female. Just like a character in a wheelchair may have something to be angry about other than being in a wheelchair, or a person of color might have a chip on their shoulder about something not related to race.
Or if you’re going to use those elements, don’t just make it a throw-away.
I think a similar interview could be done with a reader of color, with equally productive results.
Or a disabled person. Or a non-straight or non-cis person. It’s far too common for one trait to define a character’s entire personality and backstory.
You definitely never want to read Harry Turtledove. Not only are you your difference in Turtledove, but it comes up in every single scene.
Ugh! “Othering” needs to end. If someone can’t recognize the full human experience of someone who’s not exactly like them, they shouldn’t be writing. We all face limitations to understanding other people, but we need to do what we can to overcome them. I know that as a white person, I can’t fully understand what it’s like to be, for example, a brown person in America, but I can pay enough attention to know what issues people of color face, and I can view people of all types as complete people with complex lives and personalities and experiences that aren’t all tied to a small set of characteristics.
Okay, this goes back to characters like Captain Marvel, at the risk of ground already having been trodden. Please think of female protagonists you have encountered in fiction. Can you identify some whose appeal you consider very widespread among women, and tell us what makes them so appealing? One of my favorites is Ari Emory, out of C.J. Cherryh‘s Cyteen series.
It’s hard to deny the appeal of Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games. She’s capable, independent, brave, and analytical–all traits that are considered typically masculine. She’s also insecure and protective of the people she loves. You might think of that as her softer, more feminine side, but how many books and movies picture men protecting their families? (Die Hard and Taken come to mind.) And insecurity is universal, even though we see it portrayed in women and girls more frequently.
Because that’s how the authors view women and girls, one supposes.
Yep. And because we don’t want our alpha males to show weakness.
Kara Gillian, in Diana Rowland’s Demon Summoner series, is someone I think would appeal to a lot of women. (Those books should really be more popular!) She’s a homicide detective who summons demons on the side. She’s tough, snarky, and intriguing with a mysterious backstory.
What do you think of Laurell K. Hamilton‘s Anita Blake?
I actually haven’t read her yet, but she’s on my list.
Patricia Briggs‘s Mercedes Thompson, for a localized example?
I’ve read a little of that series. I’ve heard Mercy criticized as an unbelievable female character because she’s too much of a loner and “women need at least one close confidant.” I don’t buy it–I think that’s too stereotypical a view of what a woman is, and that characteristic is believable in the character.
Mercy has a lot in common with the two heroines I’ve mentioned, and that series is wildly popular. Interesting, eh? Amazing what happens when you put a complex, non-stereotypical woman on the page.
Now I would like to look at your own writing experience. I can imagine it going the other way. Do you find it challenging to write male characters in your own fiction?
I don’t, and I don’t think many women do. How many articles have you seen calling out women for unrealistic portrayals of men?
I think the reason for that is complicated. For one, we’re inundated with the male viewpoint all the time, and a disproportionate number of characters we read or watch are males written by males. Second, there’s a pervasive myth in our society that women are mysterious and men will never understand them–so why should they try?
The book I just finished (Plague, which will be out in September) is my first long work with a male protagonist, but I have prominent male characters is all my fiction. I don’t find it hard to relate to that experience because I pay attention to people. I watch, I listen, I learn. I go beyond a small set of traits when imagining who people are.
As a screenwriter, I’ve never had an actor say, “This isn’t how a man would act.”
Here’s the thing about authors who write bad female characters–their men aren’t that much more interesting, either. They’re generally what the author wishes he could be, not honest reflections of the human experience. Readers who like those authors like to see male and female in terms of stereotypes and dated expectations, and they tend to get whiny when their expectations aren’t met.
Is there anything I should have asked you, but didn’t think to?
I don’t think so. We’ve covered a lot of ground.
Indeed. Anything you’d like to add?
I’ve worked it all in already. LOL
Thank you so much for taking time to share your thoughts with the readership, Adrienne. Best of success to you in all your creative efforts!
My pleasure, and thank you!
2 thoughts on “Writing women, and writing for women: an interview with Adrienne Dellwo”
This is simply brilliant. I can’t imagine a better case being made or presented. Thanks J.K. and Adrienne.
Many thanks, Randy. Appreciate your readership and your thoughts! Adrienne was a very candid subject who did not require much drawing out. I can’t thank her enough for her time.