On writing characters

Have been meaning to post something along these lines for a long time.

Often I have heard that “male writers don’t write female characters well”. However, I cannot recall anyone ever giving an example of a female character that was written particularly well, by any author. So, my first question is, can anyone give me an example of a really well written female character, by any author, male or female?

Musing further, however, there seems to be some kind of implicit corollary assumption that male characters *are* being written well by male authors (and presumably female authors). From a fairly extensive amount of reading that seems really unwarranted to me. Most characters are by necessity shallow and service a plot. They reflect the limitations in awareness and insight of their authors.

I have long had severe reservations about the ability of anyone to write any character convincingly – and certainly of my own ability to do so. And here, by convincingly I am meaning to write a character of the depth and complexity that I experience in myself and people I know. I don’t think we are particularly unusual specimens of humanity, but personally, I think that if I were going to write a character of that depth, it would take a very long novel, and that would be *all* the novel would be doing. (Notwithstanding that we are creatures of habit, that patterns recur, and much of our nature and disposition can be represented well and discerned by those who know us… but each perception is only a fragment of the whole, and it is the whole that is the character.)

An entire field of writing – namely, biography – sets out to examine the character of an individual human in depth. Yet two biographies of the same person can paint radically different pictures of their character.

I think it is entirely possible to write characters that ring true, that are emotionally resonant, that act believably, even that we feel as though we are inside the skin of. Further, it is the duty of the writer to ensure that all their characters achieve this.

My second question, then, is what is the most completely realised character you have ever read?

8 Responses to “On writing characters”

  1. February 26th, 2008 | 5:11 pm

    Princess Leia was a great female character. But that’s just because she was an arse-kicking female in an era where there didn’t seem to be many arse kicking females on tv.

    I like Wally Lamb’s female character in “I’ve come undone”. Can’t remember her name, but much of her character rang true for me.

  2.   Pearce
    February 26th, 2008 | 9:55 pm

    I’ve got to say, it seems to me like you’re just getting hung up on the word “convincing”, and that you’ve defined it a little strangely.

    To me a convincing character is one whose words and actions seem realistic to me in context (basically so that if a person spoke and behaved that exact way I wouldn’t think “Are you a robot, an alien, or just putting me on?”) An interesting and convincing character might be one whose words and actions are surprising to me in context, but still seem realistic in terms of the way the character has been presented.

    The way you describe it, it sounds like for a character to be convincing you need to know everything from the reason they don’t like lima beans to what they think about when they’re taking a dump and why.

    I like the characters to drive the story rather than the other way around. For me, a story is about the consequences of action. The story is not just something that happens to the characters, and the characters are not just the people the story happens to.

    I know a lot more about my characters than I put on the page. It’s one of the reasons writing takes me so long.

    Now, to answer the actual questions.

    I’m going with my definition of “convincing” rather than yours. I’m going for verisimilitude rather than a complete psychiatric history. 😉

    Really convincing female characters: Katje in The Vampire Tapestry by Suzy McKee Charnas, Lit in Black Light by Elizabeth Hand; Seria in Light by M. John Harrison.

    I reckon that “most men can’t write convincing female characters” is often a euphonism for “most men write female characters either as idealised sex/love fantasies or as vehicles for revenge on ex girlfriends.” I’m simplifying, but it’s often seemed to me that most women characters are defined entirely in relation to male characters rather than described as people in their own right.

    I have no idea what the most completely realised character I’ve ever read is. Possibly Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, in that the book deals with his inner life non-stop – every quirk, tic, prejudice and obsession intensely laboured – for almost 400 pages. It was aiight.

  3.   bekitty
    February 27th, 2008 | 2:34 am

    I think that Lois McMaster Bujold writes amazingly good female characters. Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan and Ekaterin Vorvayne Vorkosigan spring immediately to mind. And as far as “completely realised” characters go, what about Leopold Bloom from Ulysses? Or Stephen Daedalus? There’s a LOT of detail there.

  4.   Maire Smith
    February 28th, 2008 | 8:37 pm

    I think I’d modify the original statement to ‘Some men write male characters well but don’t bother with anything beyond obvious stereotypes for women; some women do the same; a few people write books with well-realised female characters and male stereotypes, too. Some authors don’t really seem to have this problem for me.

    Let’s see…. Can I think of some examples?

    Dorothy Sayers’ self-insertion ‘Harriet Vane’ never rings false for me, although her lover, Peter Wimsey is often obviously fiction.

    Steven Donaldson’s ‘Thomas Covenant’, while a rather unpleasant person, is another character I can’t remember seeing do anything uncharacteristic. I can’t think of a female character he’s written who wasn’t obviously fictional.

    Diana Wynne Jones writes remarkably believable people of both genders, in some of her books, although more often the boys. The children in ‘Time of the Ghost’, ‘Thomas Lynn’ in ‘Fire and Hemlock’, I think all the characters in ‘The Ogre Downstairs’…. Not every character she writes works perfectly, but many do.

    I’m having real trouble thinking of adult books at all, here actually. I keep straying off into considering how well-realised characters like ‘Duck’ from ‘Duck in the Truck are (not very).

    My experience of real humans is that they don’t always ring true, though. Some seem quite sketchy and inconsistent with themselves to me (and I don’t mean inconsistent with what they’ve said; I mean implausible to a degree that would have be losing my suspension of disbelief in a novel).

  5.   morgue
    February 29th, 2008 | 10:55 am

    I’ve been pondering on this. Female characters well-realised – Marya in Joyce Carol Oates’ book of the same name, for sure. Not sure beyond that. Buffy 😛

    I get where you’re coming from with your concern about “convincing”. We, as the saying goes, contain multitudes. But I think, as Pearce gets at, in fiction you don’t *need* to depict that stuff, the depth and complexities and contradictions and layers. As long as you present a character that “feels” right, then the reader will interpret them as being fully real.

    If you want to go that route, of trying to depict (convincingly) a whole person – well, Leopold Bloom does come to mind, although that’s not really what Joyce was doing. Perhaps Proust’s remembrances of things past? Never read it so can’t comment.

  6.   Pearce
    February 29th, 2008 | 7:12 pm

    Joyce Carol Oates is a serial convincing-female-character writer. It’s like she can’t stop herself.

    She has also written essays that convincingly praise Mike Tyson’s ability to hit people in the head really, really hard.

  7.   Andrew
    March 1st, 2008 | 8:33 pm

    Read Proust, can comment, maybe… I’d argue the depiction of the narrator is that of a “whole person”. I’m not sure about using the word “character”, it’s probably a terrible depiction of a character, loose and inconsistent etc etc. I’ve never been convinced that real people are “characters” though. But maybe that’s like Aristotle’s distinction: real life deals with the possible, fiction only deals with the probable. And some people have a very narrow view of what’s (psychologically) probable.

    I think there’s slippage here between writing characters well (or not), convincingly (or not) and in depth (or not). They’re not mutually exclusive, but you can still have one without the other.

    Beyond this, I agree with Pearce’s point: “not writing female characters well” is usually a euphemism for (or just a compression of) unable to write (or, one may assume, think) women undefined by men.

    Extreme examples will be anything using Virgin/Whore symbolism, anything talking about Eternal Womanhead (eg Goethe), or Woman as Muse. I’m sure a fair few writers “fall in love” with their characters, but with a subset within that you almost feel that the character is being stifled by the writer’s love…

  8.   Administrator
    March 2nd, 2008 | 8:45 pm

    Interesting. My response to all these may appear in another post rather than a comment.