Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Female Characters as Leads ...

My latest trilogy The Outcast Chronicles has two strong female leads (and two males). In these books I play around with our prejudices about male-female roles, while telling a rollicking tale because I love a good story.



It got me thinking about female characters, specifically female leads. Here Jennifer Kesler talks about female leads in movies. Apparently, the consensus of opinion is that movie goers won't accept female lead characters, so the females end up as girlfriends and love interests. Kesler talks about Ripley from Alien and how no one had trouble taking her seriously. She reviews other lead females in successful movies and in flops like Ultraviolet, and comes to the conclusion that if females are dressed too sexily we (viewers) can't take them seriously.

In this post about female characters in movies Kelser talks about how her screen writing tutors taught her to write scripts the WOULDN'T pass this test. Apparently the test goes like this:

1) There are at least two named female characters, who
2) talk to each other about
3) something other than a ma.

I laughed aloud when I read this. She says:

'According to Hollywood, if two women came on screen and started talking, the target male audience’s brain would glaze over and assume the women were talking about nail polish or shoes or something that didn’t pertain to the story. Only if they heard the name of a man in the story would they tune back in. By having women talk to each other about something other than men, I was “losing the audience.”'

Unlike the film industry which believes that Women don't go to see movies, publishers know that women read books. You can see from the very big slice of action heroines in paranormal books that women are happy reading about female action characters who drive a story forward. These female characters are often weapons/martial arts experts who can take a man down in 3 seconds flat.

In her post, Writing Strong Women by fantasy author Glenda Larke. Glenda talks about the kind of women are aren't super heroes and don't know how to kick butt. She talks about women who have to be strong while being physically weaker. She says:

'... in the Stormlord trilogy, I wrote of an ordinary woman. She’s nothing much to look at. She’s seriously short-sighted in a society that hasn’t yet developed eye-glasses. For years, she’s been in love with a rogue who’s never given her a second glance. Her magic powers are weak, so she’s not much of a rainlord, either. She’s twenty-eight and unmarried.'

Will readers accept a character who is a mother, who also happens to lead a nation? We'll see when I send my new trilogy off to the publisher. Do you have a fave female lead character in film or books? Is she short sighted? If she takes off her glasses and lets her hair out of its bun do men fall off their chairs? LOL

30 comments:

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Something odd about my post. The test wasn't different sizes when I wrote it.

C Kelsey said...

What you're quoting is what is known as the Bechdel test.
http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TheBechdelTest?from=Main.BechdelsRule

It works equally well for writing to and many authors (especially women) look for it in a book their reading. The idea is that too many women in media are fake people. They only talk about men, they never talk like normal people.

Granted, there are a number of things I read regularly that completely fail this test.

As to whether a strong female lead can carry a series? Well, in movies it does seem to be true that, unless the lead is Angelina Jolie, the film struggles with a female lead. In books? Nah, it's not true. If it was true, Honor Harrington wouldn't be as popular as she is. :)

MataPam said...

I like Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels' female characters, but then she's edging toward historical romance, where famale leads are required. Amelia Peabody and Vicky Bliss are my favorites, although Vicky is showing a tendency to slide into stupidity and incompetence.

Which is my biggest bugaboo about female characters. Joan Hess's Arly Hanks in the Maggoty mysteries started out a fairly competent detective. But over the series, she's failed to keep it up, and failed to show an ounce of competence at anything else remotely related to police work.

Janet Evanovich, same. At least she's kept up the humor.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Rowena,

I'm not going to be mean. Or at least I'm not going to be mean AT YOU. I know the view from that side of the ocean is often startlingly different from reality. It has to be because what you get by and large is our mainstream media, which is often a reflection of prejudices and thoughts frozen in the sixties. Look, huge generations making it through the national consciousness have their own consequences. In this case, as people get older and their opinions ossify, because these are the people who are in leadership positions in media and entertainment (and because the boomers also pride themselves on having overturned established order and don't realize they have by now created their own established order)you start getting a feeling of being preserved in amber.

Lately this is has been getting on my nerves to a level I can't begin to explain. We are at a time of very fast change, but we're not facing the real problems because our opinion makers are preserved in amber, fighting the battles of their youth. For them it's ALWAYS the summer of sixty eight.

Hollywood talking heads are hollywood talking heads. I HAVE teen boys who think nothing of female leads. Why don't they? Not my influence, allas, but because they grew up with female leads in cartoons the LAST TWENTY FRICKING YEARS.

In fact, it's gone so far the other way my three year old thirteen years ago wanted to be a girl, "because the girls get to have all the adventures."

Rest easy. You're not exploding any status quo -- you're renforcing it. Nine out of ten main characters in sf/f books are "strong females." Outside Baen it's IMPOSSIBLE TO sell a strong, action male (Okay, some Tor -- F. Paul Wilson, but not the majority of it.)

I had to change my character in Darkship Thieves from male to female to sell the book. Why? Well, the character is for good and sufficient reason psychotic. You can sell a psychotic female. Most people just see her as "kick ass." You cannot sell a psychotic male.

IT'S NOT SIXTY EIGHT. FEMALE LEADS ARE THE NORM IN ALMOST EVERYTHING. IN FACT, THIS IS DRIVING BOYS FROM READING IN DROVES. COME OUT OF THE AMBER, BROTHERS AND SISTERS.

Oh, yeah, and to all the "counter-cultural" leaders in positions of power in the media and entertainment: You ARE "the man."

Anonymous said...

Well, you really only have two choices for leads here on Earth, male or female. I suppose any writer, whether screen or book, has a 50% shot at getting it "right," right being the one that works.

In the YA novel I'm working on, I've considered changing the MC from male to female. I've always heard that there are more young female readers out there than male readers, and that female will read male leads, but that males don't generally read female leads. If that's true, it makes statistical sense to make the MC female. I do know that on the YA shelves at our bookstores here, they are covered in books meant for females, most being dark fantasy romance. I recently counted these on the Walmart shelves, and dark fantasy comprised 2/3 of the shelves while specifically vampire novels were most of those. What's a poor writer to do? I don't want to write a vampire story, not to specifically go against the grain, but I've never been all that attracted to vampires as characters. I do read some and enjoy them, but I don't want to spend a year of my life writing about one.

So, back to the original question: male or female MC? I think I'll stick with male, simply because the character will be dealing with what he perceives as male stereotypes and whether or not he measures up. I suppose I could make the MC be female and deal with the perceived stereotypes of being a member of the weaker sex, but I think I 'll stick to the original plan.

For movies, I think people forget movies like the Terminator series co-starring Linda Hamilton, the Alien series (already mentioned here), almost anything with Angelina Jolie (also already mentioned here), the two Charlie's Angels movies (maybe not good movies, but they were box office hits), The Fifth Element (campy but we enjoyed it), Joan of Arc, and so many others.

I guess my point is that, especially in today's culture, if the story is good, the sex of the MC will only enhance the story because it will be interwoven with the story on a subconscious (or maybe not) level. I don't think you have anything to worry about Rowena. Forward!

Linda

Anonymous said...

Whoops! It makes statistical sense to make the MC male, not female. And I proofed that one! Erg.

Linda

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

And Chris, that test is one of the most misguided pieces of wishful thinking I've ever heard of.

I've been female (checks) for the last ... 48 years and I have startling news for you. MOST WOMEN DO TALK MOSTLY ABOUT MEN AND CHILDREN. REAL WOMEN, yep. Unless, they are in a) highly technical situations. b) with very close friends and the women themselves are of a philosophical bend. Like, when talking to Kate, say, I often take the world to pieces and put it back together again.

However, take, say, the superbowl party. Or even Dan's office party. Or... Okay, you throw together a group of women who don't know each other very well particularly if under stress. What will they talk about? Kids. Husbands. Birth experiences. WHY? It's where the commonality is. Men will do the same about usually sports and cars. Stereotypical, sure. But say in my husband's company parties, am I going to talk to people about politics? Oh, hell no. Am I going to mention my economic/religious/philosophical ideas? Oh, hell no. Are kids and husbands safe? Kids more than husbands, but yeah, because every woman either has kids, or was a kid at some point. Also, women are EVOLUTIONARILY relationship oriented. We held the tribe together, in a way. So relationships are endlessly fascinating to us in a way social engineering can't change.

For women to base their reading choices on this is another example of "I'd rather have my dream than reality, even if it kills me." (And it might.)

C Kelsey said...

I hear you Sarah. I really do. I also see almost every other female author out there whom I follow insisting that the Bechdel test is the only way to judge a book. I disagree, of course. But they are saying it and they're the ones who are *writing* it. Go figure.

MataPam said...

I think the preception of male leads being better or more common or whatever, comes from a quick glance at Fantasy mega-bestsellers, not any deep analysis.

Or fresh analysis, or something.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

C Kelsey,

The Bechdels test made me smile. It was so true.

I think film is inherently conservative because of the huge financial commitment to create even one film. So the men in suits who make the films and need the financiers to back them, play it safe.

Meanwhile, the write, who doesn't pay anything for special effects, can install an Honor Harrington as the female lead and, as you say, her popularity proves readers are willing to accept her.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Matapam,

Kesler did a post about the way intelligent females behave so that men don't feel threatened.

I saw this happen on the train while going to work. Some high school kids (17ish) were together. One boy had complained about his maths homework and showed the others the physics question. One of the girls looked at it. She didn't do physics. The conversation moved on.
Then I heard her say 'Oh, you need to do blah blah blah.' And the boy just grabbed the text book from her and shoved it in his bag and didn't even comment.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Sarah,

'FEMALE LEADS ARE THE NORM IN ALMOST EVERYTHING. IN FACT, THIS IS DRIVING BOYS FROM READING IN DROVES.'

Especially in YA and children's books. A small press publisher over here started a line specifically for boys aged 11 - 14 to get them reading.

My sons have no trouble reading or watching something with a female lead. Look at how popular Buffy was. BUT most movies are about the male character, and the females are in adjunct to him.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Linda,

Kesler analyses the female leads in those movies you talk about.

I think since I began I'm teaching story in film, I've become more aware of the inconsistency between the genres.

And what scares me is that females (18-30) don't want to bring up female roles and inequity. They feel that feminism is old hat and boring and it will put everyone off. Besides, the battle has been fought and won (in first world countries).

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Sarah,

Families and partners are a safe commonality. Having said that:

When I get together with my friends (who are writers) we talk about writing. If our families come into it, it is how they interfere with our writing. LOL.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Something came up the other day.

Movies have only about as much story as a short story. There isn't the time to develop character, as there is in a TV series.

My DH and I have been watching lots of HBO series. Deadwood, the Wire, OZ, Boardwalk Empire.

Much more time to develop characters. Much less white bread and safe, because the producers don't have to worry about offending advertisers.

If I hadn't found these HBO series, I would have had a very different impression of US TV (and movies).

twittertales said...

*hanging out for Rowena's next trilogy*

One of the odd things about reading the King Rolen's Kin trilogy was that I felt like the author was male - which, when the main character is male, is a pretty impressive trick. The female characters (with one exception in book 1, who seemed to be a plot-mover rather than a person in her own right) were all just as interesting as the men.

Louise Curtis

Kate Paulk said...

Okay. The levels or wrong in the post and the comments are just so mind-boggling that I'm going to have to put all the sharp objects away, and hide the sarcasm shovel, bulldozer, and nuclear weaponry. Unfortunately, I can't turn my mind off, so I can't be completely disarmed.

That said, WTF? Seriously, WTF? Reality checks here, people (Sarah, you're excluded. You're actually making sense even when you froth at the mouth).

A: Movies are not TV series are not books. You can NOT generalize characterization in movies to characterization in TV series to characterization in books. The techniques used in movies and TV might be similar, but they're employed in different ways. In books, totally different.

B. When established fact is a sign of stupidity, something is seriously, dangerously wrong. It is established fact that most women will establish common ground with other women by talking about children, babies, and the bad behavior of the men in their lives. Why? Because EVERY woman, ever, has at least some experience with any/all of these things, and because at an evolutionary level, being friendly with other women means that there's a better chance they'll help watch your kids.

C: Those 18-30 year olds? They've never in their LIVES encountered actual discrimination because they're female. They know peer-group pressure, they know the guys prefer it when they don't outdo them (both of which are normal biological pressures), but they have not seen the kind of "Women have to quit their job when they marry", "Girls can't do math or science" systemic discrimination - nor are they likely to unless they move to anywhere non-Western. The generational gap is hitting, and hitting hard, there. What was the norm is no longer - there is a NEW norm, and it's the dream of the boomer generation (not all of them, but the loudest ones - who for the most part haven't worked out that the guard has changed and they ARE the "Establishment" and "The Man", and their prejudices are now warping Western society in a different direction.)

D: There is a difference between a "strong female" and a "violent bitch". US gatekeepers don't seem to have worked this out. The same gatekeepers seem to think that "strong male" means either "pussy-whipped and likes it" or "evil bastard". The UK and Oz are a bit better than this, but they may blindly follow the US trend despite the imminent implosion.

E: Curiously enough, there is a difference between "education" and "credentials". Education should require such tools as reasoning, observation, and logic. Credentials will get you a PhD from a top-name university, if you have the money, and you'll still be an ignorant twit. You'll just be an ignorant twit with a PhD. Any school, college or university that turns out graduates who can't make observations, form a hypothesis and test said hypothesis is nothing more than a diploma mill, IMO. If the students choose not to use those skills, it was a waste of time and money to go there, but the failure was not on the institution's head. If someone with a PhD says that the moon is a large plate of cheese, they are just as wrong as someone with a 6th grade education saying the moon is a large plate of cheese. (Stilton, doncha know? Lasts forever and looks and feels just like rock after the first thousand years).

T.M. Lunsford said...

After seconding everything Sarah and Kate said, I'll go ahead and jump in for the 18-30 crowd you speak of and say: huh? People don't want to watch/read strong female leads or vice versa? Since when?

Maybe it's my female bias, but I can't think of a high grossing movie recently, action or rom com that didn't have a "strong female lead." Yes, some of them have also been "the love interest" or interested in falling in love with the male lead but they're also able to hold their own (sometimes better than the male). If this weren't the case, why are they making the Stephanie Plum novels into movies. And have you looked at the awards list for Best Actress lately? Also, having just finished watching Buffy and looking at new shows like Covert Affairs, I'm thinkin' Hollywood is officially over being afraid of placing the weight of millions of dollars on "strong female leads."

Secondly, as a reader, I don't necessarily care anymore if the main character is male or female. I care more about the writing. As a kid, one of my favorite series was the Mr. Tucket books by Gary Paulsen (which I would highly recommend for those boys being driven away from reading), a first person POV with a male lead. I also have a weak spot for the works of Larry McMurtry.

Finally, I must confess that I read/write primarily romance novels. However, even there, there's more shift to include male POV and not just men who fall on either ends of the sensitivity spectrum. After a lot of years of things having to be one way the other in the world of media, IMO everything is sort of settling in a middle ground (and I like it). Things don't have to be one way or the other. There's room for all sorts of lead characters out there in the world of our imaginations.

Anonymous said...

Kate,

I'm confused. Is the scorn in your first paragraph directed to this post and these comments or to the posts and comments to which Rowena links? I'm suspecting this post and these comments, but I'm hoping I'm wrong.

Of course, in the second paragraph, it's pretty clear. Scorn received.

Linda

Kate Paulk said...

Actually, Linda, it's more that... when I see anyone just accepting Received Wisdom without checking it against what they see around them and recorded data, I get pissy. When I get pissy, there's usually splatter, and I didn't want to go naming names and telling specific people to engage brain before opening mouth.

It appears my setting for "robust debate" is a little more "robust" than the US norm.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Taylor,

Weirdly this is one of the reasons that, in my forties, I find myself reading romance. For those of you who don't -- romance writers are the only ones in genre not treating males as disposable characters. (This is grosso modo, of course some individual writers don't do this. But as a whole SF/F is the worst for male as either sex object or dunce or wimp, mystery is a close second.) Except for the one fantasy-romance imprint that took its woman-centric idea to its last conclusion and threw all its money behind lesbian romance, (yes, expecting it to sell mainstream) I guess falling in love requires a guy who is AT LEAST your equal. Hence, they give a very fair view of both genders. (And nowadays, for the better ones, usually also mystery or science.)

Chris L said...

Sidestepping earlier commentary, I think that many authors do take their leads from movies and tv, when it comes to their female characters.

On-screen, women are thin and beautiful. They can kick ass physically and it's visually entertaining. We all know that reality is different but tv producers will argue that there isn't enough time to portray 'inner-beauty' and besides, who wants to look at ugly people?

In novels, women can be any cup-size or colour. If they're good people, hard done by, the reader will empathize. They can kick ass in all sorts of ways, much more realistically than taking out a guy three times their size with a rather unconvincing roundhouse to somewhere left of his chin.

Yet writers still go for size eights with porcelain skin and mad karate skills. Kind of disappointing in my view.

Male action leads have had their day. They'll be back in five years or so -- remade harder and grittier, like Bond.

Stephen Simmons said...

"Don't accept or believe anything you read, or anything you hear, no matter the source -- even if you hear it from me -- unless it is consistent with your own inner wisdom and common sense." - Siddhartha Gautama (also known as Buddha)

"Boys won't read female leads" -- The most memorable beating I received throughout my entire childhood came from climbing my sister's shelves (and getting caught due to a predictable, and catastrophic, gravity-induced mishap) to reach the Nancy Drew books I was forbidden to touch because at age 7 I was "too young for them". I preferred them to the Hardy Boys books (which I also wasn't allowed to touch), because I guessed the ending of the Hardy Boys books too easily. Moral? The story is the thing, not some small-brained idiocy about genders.

Chris, try the Bechdel Test on any of the "chick flicks" out there, with the opposite genders in the questions. Most fail, for the same reasons ... none of which has much to do with what we're writing. I happen to have a "kick-butt female lead" in the SF series I've finished volume one of, but not for any of the reasons discussed here. I was blissfully ignorant of all this guff when she stomped into my head and unceremoniously elbowed aside the fantasy series I was working on at the time (and have now returned to, with volume one still less than half done, now that she's safely in an agent's inbox). She's a female lead (first-person, no less) because that's what the Muse specified.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Stephen,

well, yeah... I'm not saying boys don't read girls. BUT when that's ALL and at a certain age as it were, boys will not read girls.

Also, depends on what the girls are doing. A lot of what gets pushed at my boys seems to be "sensitive female emotes" :-) I don't read that either.

Would they devour MHI with a female lead? Why... in a heartbeat.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Louise,

Thanks for the vote of confidence.

I do have 4 sons. In fact my house is Testosterone City!

Stephen Simmons said...

"... sensitive female emotes."
Blech.

Well, yes, you're right. (No surprise there ...) My two favorite leads when I was 7-8 were Nancy Drew and Alice (the Lewis Carroll one). But when I was 10-12, my favorites were Robin Hood, Encyclopedia Brown, Tom Swift, and a series of teen-sports books featuring a character named "Bronc Burnett". Geez, I haven't thought about the Burnett books in thirty-five years ... the stuff that sticks with us ...

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Kate,

One of the women I lecture with is mid-twenties. She doesn't want to bring up lack of interesting female roles in movies and games, when we teach because it will put off the male students.

There is a definite feeling in her age group that feminism is old hat.

While they haven't encountered the kind of repression that my mother encountered, or that I encountered, it is still out there.

And there is also repression of males when my sons feel they don't fit in because they are sensitive and intelligent and don't fit the perceived male mold.

Kate Paulk said...

Rowena,

I'm not entirely sure that's discrimination so much as the intersection of a particularly aggressive phase of male development, Aussie culture (at least, the subset of it I grew up in, the first commandment was "Thou shalt not whinge"), and the biological and cultural differences between male and female - I'm posting more on that on Thursday.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Kate,

I'm fairly sure it's NOT discrimination. You want to see discrimination? Identify yourself at a party in the US -- if you're in the college-degreed class -- as a stay at home mom. Half the people assume you're retarded.

mvictoria said...

Hey Rowena,

I just tuned into this conversation from your pingback. Good call... I noticed they're having another on female leads over on FantasyLiterature, too, sparked by a post by NK Jemesin. :)

Anyway... come and join us on my blog and leave a comment or three! I'd love to hear you talk about your characters (I haven't read your books yet and am looking forward to it.)

The saga continues at: http://maryvictoria.net/?page_id=462