October 23, 2012

On the challenges of a guy writing “strong” female characters

I read this extremely interesting article yesterday courtesy of Erin Robinson. It is helping me to work through a particular issue I’ve been facing in writing the story for Telepath Tactics.

So here’s the thing.Women are traditionally underrepresented in RPGs (and when represented, are represented in stereotypical roles where they nearly always avoid front-line fighting, such as healer, archer or mage). I don’t want to just hold a fig leaf over this issue–I want to really subvert it. I did some of this in Telepath RPG: Servants of God, but I know that I can do better.

Thus, I made a decision early on to go whole-hog with female representation in the Telepath Tactics single player campaign. At the start of the campaign, two of your three toughest melee brawlers are women. In fact, women currently comprise the clear majority of the playable characters in the game. (And rest assured, not one of them wears boob plate!)

The wealth of female protagonists in Telepath Tactics has presented me with an interesting challenge in writing the game’s dialog, however, one which I failed to properly anticipate. As in any game I make, I want my characters to be interesting; I want to give them motives that drive interesting conflicts in the story. Doing that well means giving them convincing relationships with one another.

Here’s the problem. Because so many of the characters are women, I have to write convincing relationships between them. However, I’m not really privy to the intimate details of woman-woman relationships in my life. Women behave differently without men around; I’ve heard this roughly a million times from a million different women whom I trust. I have no reason to disbelieve them. But this poses a conundrum: how do I write female-female relationships without real-life experiences of those relationships to draw upon?

Someone on Twitter suggested that I could write women characters just by treating them as if they were men. I don’t think this is the solution. As an author, I always try to place myself in the shoes of my characters. Women and men are similar in a lot of really significant ways, but I’d have to be naive to think that there is no difference between the two in terms of how they interact with members of the same gender. I want the women in Telepath Tactics to feel like real people, not just like men with boobs. That means writing the characters in an authentic way.

Without life experience to draw upon, it can be awfully easy to slip into stereotypes. Or, if you’re like me and are excessively concerned about avoiding stereotypes, it can be easy to go too far out of your way to subvert them! I may have done this in my last game. Rahel was something of a “strong woman.” There, I admit it. She had many facets to her that made her much more interesting than your standard-issue Marcia Fenix–but even so, a lot of her personality sprang from a pervasive sense of I-must-subvert-the-stereotypes.

Moving forward, I am trying my best to chart a course between the Scylla of stereotypical women and the Charybdis of women who swing so far in the other direction that they have become their own stereotype. How does one navigate these waters?

This issue actually came up during a Q&A at the conclusion of a feminism panel at Indiecade. The actual question may have been phrased with regard to gay or transgender characters, but the basic issue was the same: how does someone write characters of other backgrounds convincingly? Anna Anthropy offered a concise solution: hire someone with the required background to write the story.

This is a good solution for large studios, to be sure, ones that have the resources to hire an outside writer. Currently, I do not. And besides: I personally want to grow as a writer, not simply run off and hire someone else the moment I have to stretch my abilities!

So I’m giving this my best shot. And in so doing, I’ve found this article quite helpful in fashioning a better approach to portraying relationships among women. Here is my favorite part of the piece:

“Strong women characters” are a canard. They refer to the old-fashioned “strong, silent type,” a type that tolerates very little blubbering, dithering, neuroticism, anxiety, melancholy or any other character flaw or weakness that makes a character unpredictable and human.

The absurdity of the strong-female-character expectation becomes apparent if you reverse it: Not only does calling for “strong male characters” sound ridiculous and kind of reactionary, but who really wants to watch them? They sound boring. In fact, traditional “strong male characters” have been almost entirely abandoned in favor of male characters who are blubbery, dithering, neurotic, anxious, melancholic or otherwise “weak,” because this weakness is precisely what makes characters interesting, relatable and funny.

Women do not merely exist along a continuum of “weak” to “strong”; I’ve always known that, of course, but Ms. Chocano’s article has helped me give myself permission to stop obsessing about it and start thinking about the weird little quirks that make the women I know in real life so unique. I still don’t know if I’ll succeed in portraying relationships among women well, but I’m giving it my best efforts. We’ll see how it all pans out.

  • I think a lot of the problem in both cases comes from trying to write a character to a role: whether a Strong Woman or a Stereotypical Woman or, for that matter, a Convincing Woman. It’s a top down approach, so it’s not going to adapt well to varying situations.

    I would think about it like this: what are the pressures and expectations on women in your world, as they differ from pressures on men? How and to what extent have they affected each individual character? How would that in turn affect how she relates to men and women?

  • Fool

    The fact that you’re taking this issue so seriously means that, no matter what, you’re going to be miles ahead of most other writers out there. It’s important to ask questions like this and to portray all groups realistically, and I look forward to seeing the end result. 🙂

  • Anonymous

    Then again, book blates do help games sell

  • Anonymous

    Then again, boob blates do help games sell

  • Anonymous


  • CraigStern

    Possibly–but I’m not interested in sacrificing the integrity of my games for the sake of extra sales.

  • SmartyPants

    The women (who’s name I can’t remember) in the last Lord of the Rings was assumed to be a man untill she removed her helmet. If she was wearing boob blates, then everyone would have known she was a women. The point of this anecdote is to show that normal armor makes characters’ genders look ambiguous. This will help with story telling and modding, because one can use the same sprites for both genders as long as those characters’ classes wear armor.

  • Think about it this way: novelists go through this all the time. At least one of them should have some sort of technique for this! Look at it on the other end. Think about what Hepler did with Dragon Age 2. Think what J.K. Rowling did.

  • “Strong male character” only sounds ridiculous because it’s already a societal pressure and perception of men; one that we don’t usually apply to women. In this way, it’s not necessarily absurd to have a strong female character, as long as the strength is not two-dimensional. My biggest problem with strong female characters is that they’re starting to become overused. They’ve become more common, and in this way, the breaking of the stereotype doesn’t catch our attention as readily or question our expectations.

    Using stereotypes can be a powerful tool because it allows us to 1) juxtapose stereotypes with counterstereotypes to make the contrast stronger (e.g. a woman who wears boob plate because she likes to feel attractive, but who also fights because she fears being oppressed) and 2) so that they can be explored or set up then broken down (e.g. a kind and soft-spoken woman who is only like that because she killed someone a long time ago and is trying to repent).

    For me, the most interesting characters are the ones that break my expectations, which usually requires a set-up and then an overturning. For example, you have a “strong female character,” who seems to be strong in order to fit in with the guys, but then you find out it’s because her brother died and she wants to make sure she’s prepared when another loved one comes into danger. The strength in this comes from first setting up the counterstereotype, then setting up an expectation for the explanation for it, then breaking that expectation too. Exploring why stereotypes exist can give you fuel to subvert them.

    Iterate and “playtest” your story the same way you would do with gameplay. Write something, give it to a female friend, and see if it’s believable–then ask why it is or why it’s not.

    Finally, I recommend downloading the Jailbreak the Patriarchy extension for Chrome, if you don’t have it already: https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/jailbreak-the-patriarchy/fiidcfoaaciclafodoficaofidfencgd. It switches all gendered words/pronouns and makes me constantly aware of gender in language (online and off), and the expectations I have regarding it. Like, I can read “In the 19th century, mankind blah blah blah” no problem, but “In the 19th century, womankind blah blab blah” still completely throws me off.

  • lapce

    I highly doubt that most prominent writers of the world think in terms “i must be fair to women and write them convincingly”. They write what they want to write, regardless of how socio-approppriate and politically correct it may be.

  • Mike Ransom

    On one hand I’m glad to see that you’re pursuing an original route! On the other hand it seems like your forcing women into the brawler/melee role just to buck convention without thought into why females are generally relegated to other class roles.

    The obvious answer as to why women are not in melee roles is that the vast majority of women are physically shorter in stature, smaller in frame and their muscles are toned differently so as to be weaker per equal mass than their male counter parts. There is a very valid, non-masochistic, reason why sports requiring even the slightest physical contact do not allow opposite genders to compete.

    Therefore, there must be a good reason why these females are placed into this front-line brawler role, and why, despite their physical handicap, they are just as good/better than male counter-parts. If not, then the player is forced to make a illogical world leap. If not the assumption will be…the creator put women in this role simply to buck trends or appeal to a certain demographic or show girl power etc, without regard to world rules. IMO that comes off as cheesy.

    The question I pose to you then is what makes these females fit in this role?

  • Anon1

    Cool. I hate games where the women are all half naked for no good reason. All it does is make me less likely to show the game to my friends.

  • How women differ from men in group interaction:.
    In the workplace- women do: gossip, primp, bring home into the cubby, like a potluck, cooperate with other women in positive but traditional role ways, and still they are able to get the work completed. Women in the 1800’s making quilts saved scraps for each other and traded, then worked together multi-tasking making one pattern quilt for either the next to marry or someone in need. To complete the quilt they told stories, made meals for family and cooperated in touchy feely ways. How would an army of women soldiers differ from men you ask? Can’t use contemporary GI girls because they would be subject to ridicule if they acted in feminine ways. I imagine a female character being kind to another female – shown in some physical way. Women generally don’t interact by teasing like men, they will tend to say what they think when it all comes bubbling out. To make the characters seem real they need to have flaws and be aware of their weakness, let them accept and overcome. It’s rare to see a group of women with a strong female lead in fiction, I think because it’s tough to write. Make your female lead work harder even at her best skills to become great.

  • Anonymous

    Backer here. For what it’s worth, if TT’s cover art was a big booby
    boobplate sorta deal, very likely I would never have pledged a dime

  • Oh for the love of–I knew getting a Gravatar was a bad idea.

  • stinyk472

    How do you write women so well?

    Melvin Udall:
    I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability.

  • stinky472


    I think the best thing is not to overdo it. Pick someone you know, perhaps, and model the character based on that person.

    When I think of strong, convincing female characters, no one beats Sigourney Weaver in Alien IMO. Aliens made her out to be a bit too heroic IMO, but in Alien she had a very interesting trait: she was a bit of anti-hero — someone who put procedures above comradery. We weren’t quite sure whether to like her or not, and that’s a level of depth that is rarely afforded to female protagonists in these types of roles.

    If you give the woman enough depth and humanity this way to make her as interesting as the male characters without even looking at her outfit, I don’t think you can go wrong. Already you’ve steered clear out of the realm of stereotypes and cliches and symbols into a far more interesting route.

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