New Serfdom — Gender, How I Hate Thee

Here’s the problem. Most of my central characters are men. I don’t really understand women all that much, and I’m not interested in the things that women are supposed to be interested in, and that most of them do seem to be interested in. Most of my writing couldn’t pass the Bechdel test, and I really don’t care. Two of the main characters in Gift of the Ancien are women, but one of them is atypical with a capital A.

The New Serfdom includes a family — mother, father, two kids. The mother is the power-holder, and a good deal of the drama that comes out of the family centers on her. Necessarily, she comes across as a not very nice person. Okay. A bitch. But it’s because she’s a protector. An extreme one. Hurt her cubs and you’re going to get slashed by a big set of claws. She’s an extremist in her need to protector her family, so I’m trying to figure out how to make her at least a little sympathetic. So far, nothing doing, and that’s probably because I have no idea how to get into the head of such a person.

I don’t want the only significant female in the book to come off as nearly certifiable, but if I can’t manage to dredge up even a smattering of sympathy for her, then I probably need another woman to offset her, one who’s not just strong, but sane. Nothing doing there, either, but the problem came up so recently that the old subconscious probably doesn’t have a good grasp on it yet.


14 thoughts on “New Serfdom — Gender, How I Hate Thee

  1. I think before you can write a likable woman character, you must be able to like, understand, and appreciate women as a whole. This includes discarding stereotypical gender roles. Not being interested “in the things that women are supposed to be interested in” is continuing the stereotype and a rigid picture of gender roles. Many women today are “power holders” but that does not make them bitches necessarily. That again is perpetuating a stereotype that is better off left behind. If you are going to make someone over protective (no matter the gender), then look at the reasons behind that person’s attitude to find the way to make us empathize with their choice. To do otherwise is to deliver a cardboard character, unable to stand on its own as it lacks a base and support.

    1. You’re pretty much making my point. I should add, in case you’re not aware of it, I’m a woman. My statement about not understanding or being interested is about me, an atypical woman. There’s nothing I can do about that. The point is that I recognize how it limits me in trying to write about a woman whose feelings I can’t share. I can understand the character’s reasons for her attitude, but I can only get into her head on an intellectual level. I don’t want her to be likable. I just want readers to be able to sympathize, or at least not hate her.

  2. If she is an extremist in order to protect her family, I think your reader will understand and respect that. It’s a fairly accurate description of mothers in general. Don’t worry about her coming off as unlikable- she will be believable.

    1. There’s probably nothing I can do to make her likable. She forces her husband into actions that she later has good reason to regret and may even attempt to murder someone for the sake of her son. It’s because she’s so extreme that I don’t want her to be the only representative of the female gender. Of course, the whole story is pretty extreme, so maybe the context will help.

  3. Pet the Dog. A term I leaned from James Scott Bell used in the movies to gained some instant likeability for characters. Have her pet an animal, take care of the cut on a child, help the husband out with something he’s having trouble with. Just little things that might make people like her just a little. It works with villains as well, so why not a bitch protagonist. Just my thought on the matter.

  4. I’m not a fan of the Bechdel Test. It’s too simplistic and too much like “affirmative action.” But it works for some people. To each an own.

    Have you thought about infusing one or two of the traits you like about yourself into your overprotective mother character? Or maybe she secretly slips coins into sleeping bums pockets, or rescues worms from rain puddles, or whatever. Aside from that, if this character stubbornly remains unlikeable, then I’d say let her be unlikeable.

    If you decide to conjure up a female character to offset the mother, write her character as if she were male at first. Then simply switch all the hes to shes, etc. It might fly, it might crash and burn. 🙂

    1. Yeah, I don’t take the test seriously. The people it probably works for are gender bean counters.

      Thanks for the laugh. There’s nothing about me that would make an overprotective mother more likable. Trust me on that. But doing a gender switch on another female. Interesting idea. I’ll make a note of it in case nothing else comes up.

  5. I have always been more sympathetic to extreme characters if there is some justification for their actions, even if I don’t agree with their justification. Maybe something happened to a younger sibling growing up and she blamed herself for not becoming involved. Maybe her mother failed to shelter her. Maybe she watches too many 20/20 specials about child abductions.

    1. My favorite characters are usually the more extreme ones. The rest are boring. She probably isn’t watching 20/20 specials in 2075 or so, but there must be something there, way back in her psyche. I’ll find it sooner or later. This is one of the more interesting parts of developing a novel — figuring out my characters. Sometimes that changes the story in unexpected ways.

  6. Maybe it would help if you think of your character as an individual first and a woman second. Lots of women have no interest in things women are ‘supposed’ to be interested in or also have other interests or outlooks that are not gender-typical.

    I have very little to contribute to discussions on dieting (other than flat, boring advice not to bother) , celebrities, handicrafts or kids so I can sometimes feel bored or out of place among some groups of women but there are plenty of women as well as men with whom I can talk about books, politics, religion and all the other stuff that glossy women’s magazines avoid like the plague.

    I already feel some sympathy and interest for this powerful woman who will do anything to protect her family – extreme situations call for extreme reactions. Maybe she could have a daughter? That could be interesting.

    1. Actually, she does have a daughter, about six, and an eight-year-old son. He’s going to be the center of most of the family conflict when he’s a couple of years older. I’m beginning to think that maybe she had to give up something in the past, maybe her education, or a career. Society has changed drastically, and there might be fewer opportunities for women. So that’s one direction I might go in.

  7. Catana, A variation on the Pet the Dog is the Save the Cat moment, which will often go a surprisingly long way to softening up a reader’s opinion about an unattractive character; it also has the value of providing a nice counterpoint.

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