The Problem of “Relating,” Part 1

One thing I can’t help noticing as I browse websites like Reddit Fantasy or Fantasy Faction: when the sites’ users are asked to name their very favorite characters from fantasy novels, male characters will dominate the lists. On lists of ten, maybe two female characters will sneak in. Lists of five, say, one out of three may name a female character. Most lists of three won’t name any women at all. Nor does the gender of the poster make much difference; both male and female posters tend to prefer male characters. Just why is this? It’s tempting to cry, “Sexism!” and leave it at that. But I’m afraid the problem is more complicated.

More evidence of the same problem can be found in the number of Reddit posters who claim, in the tone of confession, that they don’t enjoy reading about female protagonists because they “can’t relate” to them. These same posters have no problem identifying with protagonists from imaginary kingdoms with alien customs and beliefs. They can identify just fine with characters whose race is different from their own, or who may not even be human. But female, somehow, is a deal-breaker. Female authors are all right as long as they’re writing about male leads, as Robin Hobb does in her “FitzChivalry” novels and Naomi Novik does in her Temeraire series.

Why do so many (too many) readers find it such a struggle to relate to female characters, to enjoy walking in their shoes? Some of it, I admit, may boil down to good old-fashioned sexism, the idea that a girl or woman, real or fictional, just isn’t as good (as brave, as clever, as capable) as a boy or man, and training and experience can never make her so. This sexism manifests itself in the persistent notion that stories about girls are for a specifically female audience while stories about boys are for everyone, a notion that influences which books our youngest readers are directed toward. Too many boys, and a fair number of girls, are trained to think female characters and their stories are “lame.” We see plenty of discussions of the lack of teen boy readers and the strategies needed to encourage boys to read. The number of female leads in YA fiction is nearly always blamed, and the same solution is nearly always proposed — not that more boys should be encouraged to see that stories about girls can be fun and rewarding, but that more YA authors should write books about boys. And so the problem goes merrily on.

But does the problem lie just with the readers? I’m one of those YA authors, and I want to create stories with something to offer as many different readers as possible. Yet I am my first audience, and I write the kinds of stories my thirteen-year-old self would have been thrilled to read. That means female characters occupy central or at least significant roles. One day I may write a story with a male protagonist, but even in that one, girls and women will feature prominently. I will not and will never push female characters into the background to please any reader (boy or girl) who thinks “girls have cooties.” What I can do, what we can all do, is work to create the kinds of female leads that both girls and boys will enjoy identifying with. And I need to think about what that means.

How can we be part of the solution?

Step 1: Abandon the Smurfette Principle.

I’m far from the only one who feels the practice of including a token female character in a cast full of menfolk severely undercuts said female character’s chances of being memorable in any good way. (“I Hate Strong Female Characters” by Sophia McDougall, for instance, offers insight into its effects.) Consider the show the trope name comes from. The male Smurfs are identified by position within the community (Papa), a personality trait (e.g. Vanity), or a special skill or interest (e.g. Poet, Painter, Handy). These features distinguish them from each other. Then there’s Smurfette. What does she bring to the table? What sets her apart? That little “ette” — her gender. The others are special because of something they do. She is special because she’s a girl. Why would any boy, or girl for that matter, latch onto such a character or name her as a favorite?

The spirit of tokenism pervades this trope. The person whose distinguishing characteristic is gender (and who, as such, is called upon to represent the entire gender) gets thrown into an all-male mix often solely to appeal to an imagined demographic, rather than because the author really wants her there. Authors may feel they have to add a girl, and if they’re not genuinely invested in her, they take as little time and trouble with her characterization as they can get away with. The inclusion of such sketchily drawn girl characters does readers no favors, and once again, those characters aren’t likely to turn up on anyone’s Favorites list.

We need to stop expecting a single female to stand in for Womanhood in total and stop imagining that a character whose central defining feature is her gender has any hope of being the sort of complex and intriguing individual that readers will want to engage with. Maybe we should try taking a couple or three supporting characters whose gender is not dictated by the plot and writing them as female, and see what happens.

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