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Friday, March 22, 2013

Weepy Female Characters


Besides being the author of several mystery novels, I also review books for Mystery Scene Magazine and teach creative writing, so you could say that books comprise a large section of my life. When a character trend emerges – or disappears – I notice. Yet in my thirty years of professional writing, teaching, and critiquing, I am continually plagued by one character stereotype that just won’t go away.
The weepy female.
The novel’s genre doesn’t seem to  matter: literary, mainstream, mystery, thriller, sci-fi, Western, or (of course) romance. Regardless of the book’s genre, the cast list usually includes at least one female character who bursts into tears on a regular basis, whether from joy, sadness, fear, shock, or frustration at missing the last pair of Tommy Choo knock-offs at Macy’s Spring Shoe Sale.

Why, for God’s sake?
In an age where women have been cleared for combat, and are coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan minus arms and/or legs, why this continuing insistence on weepy female characters?

When one of my students recently turned in a suspense novel where the female protagonist fainted twice and cried eight times (I counted), I took her to task for creating such a stereotypical character.
“But everybody knows women cry a lot,” my student answered.

Intrigued, I asked her when was the last time she’d cried, but after several moments, she said she couldn’t remember. She wasn’t much of a “crier,” she admitted.
“I’m not, either,” I said. “Nor are any of the other women I know. Maybe we tear up while watching a sad movie, but we don’t have time do that in real life. When a real life problem come along, we deal with the situation, we don't cry about it.”

I told her to rewrite each crying scene so that her protagonist never shed a single tear, regardless of what was going on in the scene. And to take out the fainting. While not happy about this, she finally agreed to do it. A few weeks later, she handed in the rewrite.

Guess what?

When all the facile blubbering had been removed, my student had been forced to write more deeply, to delve more completely into her character’s psyche -- to actually deal with her heroine’s emotional and intellectual complications instead of avoiding them. Gone were the dull, knee-jerk tears, gone was the cheap and easy sexist stereotyping. The result was a complex, many-layered heroine who dealt much more realistically with her internal demons while grappling with the book’s already complex, many-layered male villain.
The heroine had transitioned from a shallow, cardboard character into someone memorable. Someone real.

The world has changed and our female characters must change with it. We are no longer living in the Victorian age, where -- because of too-tight corsets -- women actually did weep and faint, although I’m sure it happened much less often than writers of the time would have us believe. We are now living in the 21st century, where real-life women shoulder their assault rifles and head off into combat.
And they’re not crying about it.  

6 comments:

Karen Casey Fitzjerrell said...

Absolutely agree, Betty. Fewer women than ever see themselves as victims. We should take that into account when we structure our novels. Great post.
Karen Casey Fitzjerrell
Author of:
The Dividing Season
2013 Epic Award Winner

Ron Scheer said...

Good post. The women in early westerns that I've been reading rarely break into tears either. I'm talking 1880-1915, half of that period being Victorian era. They ride horses astride, are free and independent spirits; some are even good with ropes and guns. They are often contrasted with the fragile products of "civilization" back East, which is where westerners would expect to find the crying and fainting.

Betty Webb said...

Ron, that was the thing about ranch women as portrayed in most Westerns. They were tough as nails and didn't bother to hide it. Unfortunately, when romance novels discovered the "Western" woman, she was sometimes written more Victorian. Hopefully, that's beginning to change.

Pat Brown said...

I totally agree, Betty. I also detest the screaming female -- you know the one, she's facing certain death, she knows it, but all she does is curl up and scream. She does nothing to fight her killer, which goes totally against natural instinct, which wants to survive above all else. I want to see females who show some backbone and go down fighting.

Betty Webb said...

Pat & Karen -- so right! Times have changed, and for writers to ignore how women have changed with them is just plain silly. Besides women soldiers, we have women firefighters, women cops, and women everything else. Yet some sloppy writers keep having their female protagonists act like hysterical Victorians. Ugh.

BPL Ref said...

And sometimes it's just lazy writing. It's not just weepy females, but a range of stereotypical behavior, like the manly man who stares out over the landscape repeatedly in order to hide his feelings or people who sign every other paragraph. I totally agree with the approach to make someone really examine what they want the character to be and write accordingly instead of resorting to behavioral cliches.

Very interesting blog!