Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Characters: Gender and Gender Roles

05: Genders and Gender Roles

Gender and gender roles can be a hot-topic issue and its one I have very strong opinions on. I will try and keep the tone of this post both light and focused on writing. However I am not going to shy away from forthrightness and some of you may find the issues I am raising confronting. Particularly if you are a traditionalist.

If you think you are superior to anyone else because of what you have in your underwear, you're probably going to disagree with what I have to say here.

And if you do suffer that sort of bias, in my opinion, you shouldn't be writing. Take up stamp collecting or something. We don't want you.

Female population percentages

Women make up more than 50% of the population on the planet. However when you look at non primary characters on TV shows, books and movies, you will see they are not 50% female. Most of us are conditioned to default to 'male'. Which is ironic when you consider that all human foetuses start female.

I make a conscious effort to make half of my minor characters female in gender neutral situations (EG: not monasteries/convents, gender specific schools, etc). However when I do so, I feel that far too many characters are female. Because none of us are used to seeing 50% of characters as females. Even when I tally the numbers and can see there is a 50/50 split, it still feels like an overwhelming number of women. We all have these biases and in most cases they are unintentional. Which is why I felt it was necessary to dedicate an entire blog post to this topic.

The Bechdel Test

The Bechdel Test was coined in 1985 by Alison Bechdel. To pass the test a book/movie/TV show episode needs to feature two named female characters, who talk to each other about something other than a man.

A little googling on this issue will probably depress you. Many of your favourite shows and books will not pass this seemingly simple test. And once you are aware of it, the repeated failure of entertainment to pass it will make you even more depressed.

That said, there are several flaws with The Bechdel Test. Firstly, it's not exactly the benchmark for equality, as most lesbian porn passes with flying colours. Secondly, it can be really hard to pass the test of you're writing from a male POV only, as it means he needs to witness, but not contribute to, women talking.

However if your title character is a woman and she never talks to another woman except to discuss men, you have a serious problem.

Historical Misrepresentation Of Women

Historians and archaeologists are only human and just like you and me, they are products of their society. Their biases and assumptions coloured their findings. Now some slightly less bias scientists are re-examining a lot of old remains and seeing the roles played by men and women in ancient societies were quite different to what we initially thought.

My point here is don’t assume anything. Research, and make sure you are looking at contemporary papers. Just like now, women have always been capable of the same things as men. They were warriors, leaders, killers, farmers, adventurers and monsters. They were rarely quiet little mothers.

Sexist Society VS Sexist Authors

When you are writing about a sexist society, someone is going to be oppressed. This is human nature and we are all, at the heart of it, trying to explore human nature. However there is a big difference between writing about a sexist society and presenting people in a sexist way.

Maybe in your story, one of the men is a rapist. That's not sexist. However if the overall message f the story is that ALL men are rapists because it's a part of their nature, then you're sexist. You the author, not your characters.

Non Traditional Genders and Sexualities

If you are writing about a gender identity or sexuality that is alien to you, please research appropriately. No one is a stereotype. No minority is a punch line. If your cross-dressers are all flaming and sassy and your lesbians all hate men, you are what’s wrong with society.

Also, sexuality and gender are only a fraction of what makes up a whole person. So if a character’s identity centres on either of these things, you have failed.

If you are researching a different identity, I am going to make three suggestions:

1. Read a variety of blogs/forums/articles written by RANGE of people. Not just one.

2. See if you can find some unbias documentaries. You’ll be surprised how many there are. I’ve collected a few hundred documentaries on human sexuality and gender identity, because it interests me.

3. Try and meet and spend time with some people who identify as what you wish to write about. Not to talk to them about their sexuality or gender—it’s none of your goddamn business—but just to see what they’re like in the other 99% of their lives.

Choosing the Right Gender

Take the time to consider every single character and if they should be male or female. Particularly the minor ones, as they tend to be the ones we default to male. The gender of your main characters will depend on the role you want them to have in society, your target audience and your own vision of them and what story you want to tell, among other things.

However it is always worth considering how the story and characters would be different if their genders were reversed. I often watch movies or TV shows and wish certain roles had been cast with the other gender, without changing anything else. Sometimes, switching a gender takes a character that would be cliché and unappealing and makes them innovative and interesting.

Reconsider your love interests, your sidekicks, your grizzled old veterans at bars. Reconsider the roles you think genders play. Write them as one gender, then change it in editing. Pass the Bechdel test.

Responsibility As An Author

I think people who create entertainment have a responsibility not to be assholes. Art reflects society and society reflects art. If you tell someone to be ashamed, they will be. If you show them heroes doing the right thing, they will want to do the right thing too.

Make your rapists villains. Make your women worthy of respect. Make your heroes compassionate and open minded. No character has to be perfect and not every word on the page is a war against bigotry—just make sure you are giving the young men and women today the message you want them to have.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Characters: Designing Characters

04: Designing Characters
Tips on designing awesome, balls-to-the-wall, memorable characters. Then some tips for making those awesome characters actually fit in to the setting you created for them.


Character names need to fit the setting, be easy to remember and easy to differentiate from other characters. I try to give characters names that start with different letters of the alphabet, so the reader only has to see the first letter to know who I am referring to.


If you are writing for people under 25, your character ages are probably going to be dictated by your target audience. There are plenty of exceptions to this rule. However, generally speaking, children and teenagers like to read about people their age or a little older. Reading and watching TV shows is how we gauge our own lives. We are learning about life from entertainment.

Which is where the whole ‘life imitating art, or art imitating life’ argument comes from.

If you are not writing for new/young adults, teens or children, you need to ask yourself what experience your character needs to have and what physical capabilities. A twenty year old is not going to have a vast knowledge and world-weary attitude. If your plot and conflict calls for that, your main character is going to need to be in her forties, or even fifties. On the other hand, a fifty year old is not likely to act like a teenager—fifty years is a lot of experience. So if you need a ditz, you probably need someone in their twenties. Or a hippy.


I am going to expand on gender considerably in the next post. However I will say this: You should be able to switch most of your characters genders without it affecting them as a person. Sometimes there may be society limits on gender (EG: females not being allowed to serve in the military), however if the character’s personality, interests and behaviour are central to their gender, you haven’t created a character, you’ve created a stereotype. Also, you’re sexist.


Character appearance may be important to you, but the reader is usually only interested in how it impacts the story. Impact on the story is what you should pay attention to when planning this and that will often revolve around cultural bias and bigotry. Sexism, racism, ageism, fat shaming, the perks of being attractive, the shame we experience being crippled.

While you need to make a note of hair colour and height so it remains consistent, in the text you should focus on two or three defining features (round glasses, black hair, a lightning bolt-shaped scar) and let the readers build the rest themselves.

Strengths and Weaknesses:

I’ll let you in on a secret. Every trait a person can have can be good or bad. Any strength you think you have can also be a weakness. Any weakness you have can also be a strength. Sometimes they are both and that’s critical to writing good characters.

What is leadership in one is bossiness in another. What is loud and brash to one is enthusiasm to another. What is compassionate to one is soft-hearted and weak to another.

So when you are giving your character strengths and weaknesses, make them the same thing. Fun loving, but irresponsible. A good leader, but bossy. A skilled fighter, but aggressive. Intelligent, but impractical. (Yes, I did just list the traits of the teenage mutant ninja turtles.)

Interests, hobbies and skills:

Character interests can fall into three categories: relevant to the plot, relevant to the subplot, used to give the character depth. When you are developing their character sheet and considering this options, try and keep those three things in mind. Don’t just give them hobbies and skills you wish you had, consider how it will affect the plot and sub-plot and what it the reader will think of those skills—how they will affect their perception of the character.

A nice little quirk that is the opposite to the rest of their character can be nice. EG: A hardened soldier who has also learned to sew or a reckless, drunken mercenary who has a natural talent for cooking. Maybe even a shy, bespeckled boy who is aggressively competitive at tennis.

Skills they have been forced to learn, but don’t really enjoy, can also be interesting. Such as characters who have been pushed into sports or academics by overly passionate parents. Remember to make a note of what they are really terrible at too. When I was writing Lifesphere Inc I was constantly forgetting Eli couldn’t read. It’s amazing what you take for granted.

Setting, Rooms and Tools:

A bedroom has a skateboard and posters of rock stars. There are playboy magazines stuffed under the mattress of the single bed and superhero figurines lined up on the window sill.

You open a handbag. You find red lipstick, two flip knives, gum, a black phone, pepper spray, a stack of phone numbers on scraps of paper—most with men’s names. There are recipes from high end restaurants. There is a police ID badge.

You can tell a lot about a character from their room and their possessions. They tell a story all on their own, without the character saying a word—without them even being present. When you are developing a character, make a note of the things they own, the space they’ve claimed, and the clothes they own.

It should all go in their profile somewhere and it can be a powerful character building tool, if applied in the right way.

Upbringing and History/Social Pressures:

What is nature and what is nurture? When we have unlocked mysteries of the human mind entirely, there will probably be no further need for fiction. However for now, you need to consider the effects of both on character development and behaviour.

Imagine for a moment, your character is gay. For the sake of argument, we are considering this a nature trait—one hard coded into the DNA and brain wiring before a baby is born. Now consider how their personality and actions will be affected if they are born into a society where homosexuality is a perversion and a sin—something punishable by death and ostracisation? Now imagine that same character born into a futuristic society where overcrowding is a problem, where homosexuals have equal rights, are old news and are even preferred, as they are less likely to create more babies.

How will living in fear of being exposed for who they love affect your character’s personality? How will they be different in a world where no one notices or even cares who they love?

Every single one of us is put under pressure to confirm to society: who to love, who to marry, how many children to have, what age to have them, what sort of jobs are acceptable, what to eat, what to wear, how to look, how to worship. They’re often so ingrained into our upbringing, we are unaware of most of them. We accept them as ‘normal human behaviour’ without considering the thousands of cultures before us that lived differently.

Sometimes, being a good author comes from being self aware. Then writing the worst parts down.


I covered this extensively in the last post. However keep in mind your motives, conflicts and fears not only need to reflect and propel the plot, but they have to be suitable for the character. A seventeen year old is more likely to be driven by the idea of becoming a famous rock star than they are by leaving a legacy for their grandchildren.

A Cohesive Package:

A character, major or minor, has to be a cohesive whole. Their interests, motives, environment, strengths, weaknesses and the society they come from all need to come together in a logical and coherent way. Just picking traits at random to make a character more interesting (or God forbid, more like how you wish you were) will not result in a memorable and beloved character.

Nor will just cloning the characters you love created by other people.


Write one to two paragraphs with no characters, no names and no dialogue describing the bedrooms of the following:

- A single woman who has lost custody of her children.

- A teenage skater girl.

- A medieval knight.

- A sci fi bounty hunter.

- A creepy child possessed by some sort of ghost/demon/monster.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Characters: Motivation and Conflicts

Character Motivation

Kurt Vonnegut said: ‘Every character should want something, even if it’s only a glass of water.’ Your character’s motivations don’t just drive the plot, they define them as people. Motivation is the core of characterisation.

Big/Primary Wants

Your character's primary want will impact on the plot arc--either acting as a driving force or a critical choice in the story's climax. A classic romance plot may revolve around a woman who seeks to further her career, with promotion being her primary want. At some critical juncture, she will have to choose between her career and the man who has come into her life. In an action novel, perhaps a man's child has been kidnapped and his primary want is returning his family to safety. Here he is less likely to make a choice; rather it is the driving force to keep him moving through the obstacles the plot provides.

Some will tell you this is what separates a character driven plot from an action driven one, suggesting that plots driven by character wants are character driven and plots where characters respond to events are action driven.

However even plots that are driven by events and environment are strengthened by strong driving forces (primary wants) behind the characters. Your character’s wants are what give the story urgency, so look at your plot and how your main character's (and your primary villain's) wants reflect and compliment the arc of the plot.

Take for example a man lost in the wilderness after plane crash. If he is driven by the need to stay alive and nothing else, it could be a good story. However if the plane was carrying medicine his daughter needed to survive and he is not just trying to stay alive, but trying to get home in time to save her life, the tension instantly shoots up.

Little Wants

Little or temporary wants are what drive individual scenes. Maybe your character’s primary want is to save their boyfriend from a mutant slug-beast. However in order to do that, she needs to steal her father’s car keys. Stealing the car keys becomes her want and driving force for that scene. Every single character in your story should want something at all times, just as every living thing around you wants something at all times. They may not always act on those wants, but you should be aware of them and have them act accordingly.

This is not limited to main characters and villains, but minor characters, the crowd—if you want to make your setting seem real, they all have to be real, complete people. Every single character with a name or even a passing description in my books has a short profile. It lists any information about them in the text, and at least one thing they want—be it in that scene, or in their life. Consider doing the same.

Internal Conflicts

Aside from what they want, what are your characters afraid of? I don’t mean spiders and snakes. Who are they afraid they will disappoint? What are they afraid to die without completing? Who do they desperately want love from? What are they terrified they will fail at?

Sometimes these can be scary things to explore, particularly if you are repressing your own internal conflicts day to day. The truth is, a lot of us spend much of our time terrified. Terrified to talk in front of a group. Terrified to admit what we want, in case people laugh at us. Terrified of rejection or success or responsibility.

Personally? I’m scared to wear really red lipstick. I have friends who wear the cat eye and deep red lips and they look amazing. I think ‘I want to do that’ and I don’t, because I think I’ll look silly. Why? I don’t know.

Readers want to empathise. Once you realise that everyone has insecurity and shame and anxiety sometimes, it makes it easier to write characters that people identify with. They bond with them, because they can share that secret fear. The fear people will laugh when you say you’re writing a novel. The fear that sexy guy will reject you. The fear that people are noticing that massive pimple you shouldn’t have picked at that morning.

Internal conflicts should not all be petty things. One or two occasional petty things are nice and make a character human, after that they become whiny and self centred. But there are big internal conflicts—recovering from trauma, fear or success or failure, fear of losing love and being rejected. These we want to see in spades. And we want to see characters that break through their fear and forge on, despite the risks.

Because that’s why we read.

External Conflicts

External conflicts are primarily tension between characters and events. You need both in equal measure to create a book that really resonates with readers. However different genres tend to tilt in favour of different sorts of conflict. Romances rely heavily on tension between characters, however adventure tends to be more focused on events. I feel this is a bad rule in general and if you feel one of these is your weakness; you should focus on that area for a while.

Your external conflicts are generally the things your character can not control—other people, bombs, hurricanes, slug monsters, etc. However how they react to them defines them as a character. The harder the decisions they have to make, the more we get to see of what they’re really made of inside.

The Right Tool For The Job

Hopefully now you are already thinking about wants, internal conflicts and external conflicts—not just of your main character, but of your supporting cast too. Remember to make notes in your character profile and chapter synopsis too—so these things remain consistent throughout your story.

One thing I want you to ask yourself though, is why your character? Why are they different from all the other people who want the same thing? Why does their want and story surpass the wants and stories of the people around them?

You need to have a reasonable answer for that—particularly if they are taking action no one else is taking. Recently a friend had done all the right things and given his characters wants and conflicts and woven them all into the plot. However one character’s driving force was to protect her children. But all mothers want that. Her children were in the same danger as many others and the character was timid and unskilled. Why was she the only one going on a quest to save them? What about the two hundred other more capable, brave and intelligent women in the city?

This is why you have to think of the minor characters as real people too. The crowd. The inn-keepers and apple-sellers of your world.

When you come to sell your story, editors are going to be asking the same thing. Why this book? Why this character? Give them the best damn answer you have.

More on this next week, when we cover Designing Characters.