Q: Does a hero’s gender matter in fiction? What do you try to do when you write female characters and/or a female hero? What are they like and why? How much physical description do you include and why? What do male authors miss when they write female characters and vice versa?
A: Good question. As a female writer, I had to answer that same question except for male characters. I had no idea how a male mind functioned other than what I’d read in books, seen in movies, and observed in my world. Even with all that input, I still had no clue. Please note that the gender issue while limited here to male vs female is similarly applied to any character that is not a duplicate of you with respect to gender identity, skin color, religion, culture, language, love choice, etc.
In Seduction, the male characters have very little self-examination. On the occasion when I foray into what a man is thinking, it is rarely about feelings and mostly about the job at hand. Having said that, I have male expression through conversation and body language. Perception explores the male antagonists through female eyes. I show the killer’s softer side through his art and love for Chinese tea and his tougher side through actions and body language.
After I wrote Perception, I became a writer and active participant in The Good Men Project which encourages men to look beyond the toxic male box to find and live their authentic selves. Through this group, I learned about the social conditioning society imposes on men and women that leads them down diverse paths and closes down their emotional development.
Boys and girls are born with similar capacities for love, self-expression, empathy, cooperation, competition, leadership, assertiveness, awareness, art, sports, and all things that stimulate brains and life. However, societal norms as formed by the patriarchy expect boys to act one way and girls to act anoxther. If either stray, social pressure tries to put them back in their place.
In summary, boys/men compete – winning at any cost, rejecting empathy and emotional constraints, losers be damned. On the other hand, girls/women cooperate – everybody wins and feels good because feelings and empathy are important. Men characters traditionally “swallow” emotional pain or it’s the understood motivation. It is not a therapy moment. In the Netflix series, Lucifer, the “hero” is in therapy so we, the audience, can understand his motivation. His enlightenment is always a self-serving twist on advice.
This societal box education has been enlightening in developing characters in mind, action, and reaction. For characters that have chosen to live outside the box or expanded the box, the very problems they must face to reach their goal embody what they’ve learned and how they’ve processed it, and in some cases, how they escape it.
This brings me to the “hero” gender. I don’t see a difference in the male vs female hero, in that they both are struggling to reach a goal, and need to negotiate setbacks, bad luck, lack of support, danger, and cunning adversaries. In short, they must earn their hero crown. It doesn’t matter what they look like, it matters what they bring to the table. A character can be the hero of their own story or a hero that makes a difference, or a hero that makes the world a little better for having achieved their goal.
The hero character, and there may be more than one, pursues their goal according to their personal view of themselves, penchant for trouble, strength, vulnerability, cunning, physical and mental abilities, relationships, and any other abilities and traits the writer assigns. For example, a smart detail-oriented hero often has a hot-headed muscled character or the other way around.
I think the main thing that comes into play when considering the hero gender, is how do they react to violence. If the hero, regardless of gender, practices self-protection, no problem. And that only matters in relation to the goal/adversary.
Personally, I’m not a boxing fan – so far, so I don’t get into bar fights or slug fests, although I have a detective survey the damage of one. I find other ways to hurt, injure, and kill. It may because I write from a female perspective which tends more to arsenic poisoning than ripping someone’s guts out.
Consider these chess movies about self-discovery and winning. In The Queen’s Gambit, the hero is female. In Searching for Bobby Fisher, the hero is a ten-year-old boy. In Brooklyn Castle, the heroes are a middle school chess club and its teacher.
As we writers explore the psyches of our characters, we often get to places in our brain that makes us uncomfortable or screams taboo. Our job is to go there anyway to expand our understanding and broaden our perspective so that we can offer our readers a believable and satisfying journey to an end that may surprise.