A couple of days ago a girl called Maddie contacted me because she’s writing a research project on the topic of whether female characters in books are perceived more negatively than male characters. She wanted an author’s opinion and had a few questions for me, questions which I thought were really interesting to think about and answer, which is why I’ve decided to dedicate a whole blog post to this topic.
A lot of what she asked me isn’t something I’ve ever deliberately thought about before, but it’s interesting because I’ve had so many people contact me to say how much they love the fact that my main character, Alex, is so strong but also realistically flawed. It’s almost like there’s a craving in readers to experience ‘girl power’ like never before, but with characters they can also relate to.
Because of this, my publishers have been jumping on the #LikeAGirl hashtag this year, starting back on International Women’s Day (2015) with the following banner:
I have to say, I absolutely love the whole message of the #LikeAGirl campaign. For anyone who hasn’t seen the promo ad that was so popular it ended up with air time during America’s Super Bowl, I highly recommend you take the 2:44 mins to have a quick look:
I love the whole concept behind this, particularly the message about not putting limitations on ourselves or others. We are, after all, unstoppable—if only we allow ourselves to be so.
I also thought it was tremendously heartbreaking when that one girl said, “I can’t really, like, rescue anybody. It’s always the boys who rescue the girls in the stories.” I mean, I’m all for a good handsome-prince-to-the-rescue story, but it sucks if girls are growing up believing that they have to sit back and wait for someone to save them when they have the ability within themselves to make their own splash on the world—and kick some serious behind while doing it.
But bringing it back to books, if there’s one thing I love, it’s a strong female character—like the Katniss Everdeens and Tris Priors of the YA literary world. It’s so encouraging to read a story where the leading female character makes you feel strong, makes you feel powerful, makes you feel like you could take on—or take over—the world. It’s even better when we can keep hold of those feelings once the last page is turned and bring them to life for ourselves. Because we are strong, we are powerful, and no matter what happens, we can take on the world. (Though, perhaps not take over it… Boundaries, people!)
Anyway, I’m going to move on to the answers I gave Maddie for her research project because I’m in the middle of drafting up a blurb for RAELIA (book two in The Medoran Chronicles) and I really need to get back to that. But for anyone interested, there’s also the original #LikeAGirl ad (which is different but perhaps even more powerful) and it can be found HERE.
Do you feel people perceive female characters more negatively than male characters? Why/why not?
I think that, like most things in life, reading is extremely subjective. It’s not like a movie where everyone sees the same thing. In books, our minds have a way of filling in the gaps with our own imaginations. As such, perceptions from reader to reader change—which is why one person may love a character while another hates them (male or female).
As for me personally, while I read books where the main characters are of either gender, I tend to gravitate more towards a female lead if only because, when written well, I can often relate to them more, thus connecting with them on a deeper level. That means I actually prefer reading from a female POV more than a male one—but I also know many readers who prefer their main characters to be male if only because they sometimes offer less ‘emotional baggage’ to the story.
Really, this is almost an impossible question because it’s so subjective—and also (perhaps mostly) because some female characters can be strong and independent and heroic (like Katniss Everdeen and Tris Prior), while others are more of the pushover variety who need protecting by others (like Bella Swan). The pushovers tend to get most of the negative stigma, but again, a lot of readers still love them.
Do you feel that you personally perceive female characters more negatively than male characters, even if it’s not on purpose? Why/why not?
I like to give every character a chance, and as previously mentioned, I will often choose a female character over a male character as the leading voice of the story when possible. But that said, it’s all about the writing. There are a disappointing amount of female characters who have so much potential but are written in a way that I just don’t like their personality, which ultimately pulls me from the story and has me giving up on the book part way through. I have to be able to connect and relate to the characters I’m reading about. If there’s nothing compelling me to find out what happens next, I won’t invest my time into their lives and story. This is the same for both male and female characters for me.
If you do think that this happens at all, do you have any examples?
The only example that comes to mind is a pet peeve of mine, that being when I actually really like the main (female) character but as soon as the male love interest comes in, it’s like she has a personality transplant. Suddenly the whole story becomes all about whether or not he looked at her that day, what he said to her, whether his crooked smile means that he’s attracted to her, if his witty comment should be taken as flirting or not, etc. You get what I mean? Suddenly the entire plot has dissolved (What happened to the treasure she was supposed to be hunting? What are those people who attacked her earlier? Why is her family still missing?) and everything becomes about the love interest—or lack thereof. This absolutely drives me crazy when it happens, and I end up really annoyed at the main female character because of it. Case in point, I felt like this a little bit in the fourth book of Cassandra Clare’s ‘The Mortal Instruments’ series (City of Fallen Angels) with the female lead, Clary, worrying over what was going on with Jace. I felt as if there was so much less action in that book because Clary was so focused on her relationship with her boyfriend. Fortunately the plot picked up again at the end, and the final two books were awesome—but I was definitely worried for a little bit in the middle there!
Do you think that this is a good/bad thing that people perceive female and male characters differently if you believe that people do perceive them differently?
I don’t think it’s either good or bad—I think it’s only natural in the sense that, as human beings, we all have opinions and make judgements based on what we like and dislike. I do personally love that, especially in the YA genre, there are a number of really strong female leads coming to the fore (again, like Katniss and Tris), and I think it’s really important for readers to embrace the ‘girl power’ these characters are bringing with their stories. But I think it’s equally important that we have a vast array of personalities to read about, since that’s true for the real people we meet in life.
Do you think this occurs with your readers when they have read your stories?
From the feedback I’ve received for Akarnae, one of the main things readers comment on is how much they actually love my characters. This makes me so happy because I deliberately wrote characters who are flawed, who are real. But I also wanted them to have an inner strength and a sense of loyalty to each other. I like to think that my main character, Alex, has the same kind of ‘girl power’ vibe as Katniss and Tris, while her two male best friends, Jordan and Bear, offer a level of friendship that is inspirational to readers. So to answer, from the responses I’ve been given so far, all I’ve heard is how much people enjoy reading about the adventures of my characters (and how much they wish they were real people). Having a female lead hasn’t brought any kind of negativity at all—that I’m aware of. Perhaps it helps that Alex’s closest friends are male, but who knows?
And there you have it! If you have a few spare moments, it’d be great if you could help Maddie out with her research project by answering some similar questions through an online form she’s developed, which you can find by clicking HERE.
Until next time… Go out and live #LikeAGirl! (Or, you know, #LikeABoy to all the guys reading this. *Smiley face*.)