Personalities and Spines – Gender in Fiction

I’m not a world-renowned authority on writing. I am not well-known, I’m not even published yet. But I am passionate about what I do. I read all the time, and when I’m not writing, it’s generally because I’m thinking of how best to handle things at that point in the story. As someone who loves what I do, I spend a lot of time analyzing the works of people I admire, and reading other people’s analyses. A subject that continually crops up is the subject of gender, and how characters reflect either a positive or negative attitude of the author towards one gender or the other.

I feel like in the heated debates this issue causes, a hugely vital component is missed, and even a vital fact of fiction. Characters are fictional beings, in a fictional world, in fictional circumstances used to portray a fictional story. While they can be used to address certain themes and such, I feel that labeling all characters as a symbol of the author’s beliefs on all things to do with that character’s gender as irresponsible and inaccurate. The reason behind this is, characters (even ones that aren’t human) are the embodiment of the world they have grown up in.

Allow me to explain. As humans, we are susceptible (to an extent) to the environment we live in. Depending on our home life, social circles, education and how we react to all this stimuli is how our personality develops. Although fictional, most characters in stories have a backstory of their own, a world that they’ve grown up in, that has shaped and molded them to be who they are at that point in the story. As such, it is logical to conclude that just as many character types will exist as there are human personalities. There will be simple characters, complex characters and everything in between. Whether these characters are male, female or otherwise, I believe, is simply happenstance.

Personally, when I write I don’t pay a lot of attention to the character’s gender. I’ve described my writing process to friends as there’s a retirement home in my head and every now and then, I visit it. The retirement home is full of characters and when I visit, I interview the residents about their lives and write what they tell me, which becomes the story. The point is to me, all of my characters exist in some way, and writing feels more like I’m just regurgitating their lives on paper, and whatever gender they are is simply a fact of their life – not me trying to make a point. While I know the creative process will be vastly different for a lot of writers, I do think that just as many share something with me in that, their character’s gender is just a matter of whatever feeling they got about that character at the time. They don’t mean for a character to end up a specific gender, they just were.

The thing that gets me writing about this is the fact that in recent years there’s been a huge rise in the part strong female characters are playing in media. But I think a lot of people are getting it hugely wrong. When people write strong females, they look at the character of the epitome of those two words and nothing else – “strong” and “female”. The result of which is a badly written “Strong Female” archetype. This involves woman in a mainly male-dominated profession (usually involving violence), who is gutsy, bold, incredibly more skilled and vulgar than her male counterparts and normally has some sort of one-dimensional back story explaining why she don’t need no man. This is a mistake in characterization, because it renders the character a carbon copy of a million other badly-made strong female characters by committing the same error. These archetypes lack personality. While they appear to be strong and witty, they are in fact merely anger in a gun holster, usually wearing some kind of glorified bikini.

Andrew Stanton’s Ted Talk “The Clues to a Great Story” includes the phrase “All characters must have a spine.” Rather than referencing the physical necessity of vertebrae, the phrase simply means that all characters, just like people, have a singular motivating itch they can’t scratch. A desire or goal that must be fulfilled and guides their role within the story. As long as a character has this spine, then everything else about the character is circumstantial, making the character realistic, believable and most importantly relatable. For example, everyone can sympathize with Woody’s feelings of abandonment in Toy Story, and the character’s struggle to get home with his new friend during the final half of the film feels real and genuine. This because it was all fueled by a desire which everyone can understand. Woody being top-dog was his spine, and when the arrival of Buzz stripped that away from him is, when the story of Toy Story came into play.

It is no different for Strong Female characters. Their strength has to come from somewhere. What has made them so determined to be strong? Was it to be the best? To get vengeance? For a good example, let’s look at one of Disney’s most recent contributions, Zootopia. Have you ever wondered why Disney has a knack for writing strong women? It’s because they don’t treat them as strong women, they treat them as women who are strong. What I mean that the emphasis on the strength in their female characters, is not based purely on the physical. In Zootopia, Judy Hopp’s reason to be strong is that she wants to make the world a better place by being a police officer. Instead of sleeping she does crunches, she learns to use her small size to her advantage in hand-to-hand combat, and she studies endlessly. As a result, she is better than her male counterparts, being faster, smarter and endlessly enthusiastic, which means she can keep up with and surpass with her physically stronger colleagues, simply because of her strength of character. But her strength doesn’t stop her seeking out friendship in Nicholas Wild, who, although he is a fox and their relationship starts out as much less than friendly, the two form a bond of trust that leads to one of cinema’s best make-up scenes after their conflict. Judy cries, she apologizes, and she pushes her head into his chest, silently asking for him to hug her. This act does not subtract from her strength as a character, it just means she’s not afraid to be vulnerable with someone she trusts – which is something that takes a huge amount of strength for anyone. Bearing your soul and admitting weakness or defeat means you’re risking getting hurt, and trusting someone who much takes courage.

Something else that a lot of writers get wrong with Strong Female characters is that somehow, they believe that romantic love is a weakness. As a result many characters are made to suffer when their strong love rejects them because they’re too bitter and shallow to reciprocate. Romance is not weakness, rather its a state of admiration of mutually complimentary qualities in another person. Strength of character doesn’t negate this, it just means that a certain quality has to be found in a partner before they can be considered romantically. If the strong female in question, finds someone who makes her feel comfortable being vulnerable, and respects or even mirrors her strength, there is absolutely no reason why she shouldn’t find romance with that character, especially if its been set up in the story.

Characters need to have equal parts of their spine, and its opposing aspect. Humans can’t be defined by a singular aspect of their character, so why should fictional beings? There is no one facet of our personality that defines us. We all have driven, we all have goals but somewhere inside all of us is the antithesis to who we are as well. The same is accurate for characters in fiction, and is true despite whatever gender they are, just like it is for us in the real world.

The point of this article is that in the grand scheme of things, a character’s gender is 9 times out of 10, the result of a spur-of-the-moment decision in the conception of a story. A character is merely the sum of what their world has made them, combined with the personality we, as writers, imbue on them. But if you are going to write a character, don’t let their gender influence who they are. Don’t write an archetype, write a personality.

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