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The Garjectionist: Female Characters in Literature

October is drawing to a close, and National Novel Writing Month is upon us. Which means that some members of the Beatdown Brain Trust might be trying their hands at noveling, with the jaunty scarves artfully thrown over the shoulder and the good seat in the coffee shop and the endless Internet browsing loops and the WHAT DO YOU MEAN I HAVE TO WRITE SOMETHING? At some point you may find yourself creating a character who is a Lady.

Once upon a time I tried my hand at creating female characters. I assumed that my female characters would have the infinite variety of actual women, that not desiring them sexually would make me immune to drawing two-dimensional caricatures of femininity. And I failed. I failed abysmally. I failed by assuming that a lifetime spent reading fiction had prepared me to see women in stories as anything other than plot devices. Looking back, I can see how those sections of the work sagged as I created flimsy cardboard cutouts and expected them to do the work of fully-realized people. I worked at it for a long time. I have gotten better.

But luckily for you, The Rejectionist and I are here to school you in the various problems with female characters in the wordpapers of the mindstories, which are many. Enjoy!


GARLAND:  Oh, gee, I don’t know. She should have an internal life, apart from the ways she interacts with The Dudes? She should have her own goals and aspirations?

REJECTIONIST: You make it sound so simple! But clearly, it is not this simple, or else we would not have quite so many books about The Ladies and their endless quests for Shoes, also A Man To Marry!

GARLAND:  Clearly Ladies are only really important and alive in the years after they get breasts and before they get married. After that they just become the mother of the male protagonist, baking pies and giving advice.

REJECTIONIST: Or else, in this modern era, they fight international crimes while looking super sexy all the time, and are defined by their inability to have meaningful relationships with other human beings. Other than lots and lots of hot hot sex, throughout which their hair never gets mussed and they never develop anything so unsightly as emotional attachments. Which is, you know, super feminist. You can tell the feminism of a book by the number of dudes who want to have sex with the hot empowered lady character.

GARLAND: Because no matter how little institutional power women have, they’ve always got that vagina to fall back on. THE VAGINA! IT’S LIKE A BUSINESS MINOR!

REJECTIONIST: THE VAGINA TAKES US PLACES, it truly does. And yet somehow, despite this panoply of fictive options, I feel strangely limited when reading a lot of modern novels that have ladies in them.

GARLAND: I’ve read so many books about Men who live their lives apart from the rest of society, walking the streets at night, staying in their little apartments, FACING THE EXISTENTIAL DESPAIR OF THE HUMAN CONDITION. But I’ve never read a book like that with a female protagonist. It seems like female characters aren’t just limited by the depth of their character, but also by the questions they are allowed to interrogate.

REJECTIONIST: Well, ladies don’t have very deep thoughts. They get so distracted with their baking. But I think even if a novel does have ladies interrogating the existential condition etc., it gets received as being a novel about that lady doing lady-things. If a novel has a man pondering the same questions, it is a great work of transcendent genius. Because ladies have Emotions, whereas men have Insights.

GARLAND: One thing that I utterly hate that reinforces this idea is that scene that crops up quite a lot where the male character realizes that a female character has an internal life of her own, and he’s blown away by this startling revelation, his world is turned upside down, etc. And we, the readers, are supposed to be very proud of the author for having realized that Ladies are people too, even when they aren’t baking or having sex.

REJECTIONIST: Oh yeah, I read that book, too! Male writers do not by any means have a monopoly on producing shallow and poorly drawn female characters. But male writers definitely dominate the field of Critically Acclaimed Literary Masterworks, and so those same tired ideas about the ladies get reiterated to the point where people don’t even notice them anymore. I recently read a Masterwork by one such great man, the title of which I shall not mention here but I’m sure you can guess, and there were points where I was shouting out loud in a rage–like, dude, have you ever even TALKED to a lady? Because it is so clear from reading this book that YOU HATE THEM. This text, it PULSATES with hatred. I wrote a while ago about my complicated relationship with Michel Houellebecq, a profoundly misogynist writer whose work I love. Someone tried to make the point that he was just a misanthrope, and I would counter that by saying it is certainly possible to hate humanity in general and women in particular, and those are two very different kinds of hatreds.

GARLAND: Hating people may or may not be acceptable, based on your belief in their capacity for kindness. Hating women, specifically, ignores all the ways in which Dudes can really and truly suck. OH THAT BOOK. Well can you blame him, really? I mean, women are either flat, boring emotional wrecks or unknowable mysteries. Because men are interesting and important, and women certainly must be complicated enigmas for men to be so interested in them. And the dudes! They are not ashamed to admit the power that women have over them! So sultry and seductive and unknowable. And they never once pause to consider that making women out to be mythic sex goddesses is just as reductive as making them fainting waifs. It is still about the male author and his obsession, and so totally not about who she is as a person in the real world. This whole series by Kate Beaton is perfect, but the fifth comic really needs to be read by every dude who wants to write about women.

REJECTIONIST: Oh I LOVE her. And yes, exactly. This umbrella of the removed, cynical, astutely misanthropic Novelist serves as a cover for a whole bunch of pernicious shit. Such as: it’s fine to promulgate sexist/racist/homophobic caricatures in the Novel, because the Novelist doesn’t hate women/people of color/queers, he just hates Humanity. And of course lots of ladies really are harpies or quasi-underage sexy exotic (read: brown) nymphos who die conveniently in a car crash so the forgiving male character can reunite with his stupid, cheating wife. So the Novelist has free license to people the Novel with those caricatures, since the Novelist is writing about how much humanity sucks. Any kind of critique trying to point out specific apparatuses of hatred gets met with OH YOU PC BITCHES AND YOUR COMPLAINING! He’s just writing about Human Nature!

GARLAND: And this has created a cultural milieu where these ideas have become so deeply entrenched that any writer who doesn’t subscribe to them is “The Other” and we are led to believe that misogynistic horseshit is the default and that anything that deviates from it lacks verisimilitude. And since all of these rules about what is true to life and what isn’t were laid down decades ago by older, white male authors of a certain generation, it is called “the literary tradition” instead of “white male author fantasyland” and anyone who doesn’t participate in the fantasy is an outsider.

REJECTIONIST: Outsider? Oh, you mean a Vagina! So, by default, within those critical parameters men are always going to be writing about Humanity and women are always going to be writing about Ladies and Their Tiny Concerns. And you know, a person just gets so tired! I would honestly like to stop HAVING this conversation, it is a conversation that EXHAUSTS me. I do not wake up every morning thinking OH YES UNIVERSE ANOTHER DAY IN WHICH I WILL BE CONTINUALLY REQUIRED TO ASSERT MY PERSONHOOD INCLUDING IN THE REALM OF THE IMAGINATION HUZZAH! And then I finish yet another Great Novel where by the end I feel like the Novelist has basically taken a doody of lady-hate on my head, and ask myself, Self, have we gotten ANYWHERE? This is a conversation about literature the ladies have been having publicly since Christine de Pizan smacked down the Romance of the Rose in the year fourteen hundred. CAN WE MOVE FORWARD PLEASE I DON’T LIKE THIS VIEW.

GARLAND: And one way to move that conversation forward is to talk about Ladies and Dudes who write well-developed, interesting female characters. SO! Send us the titles of books like that so that we may praise them, in a semi-regular, if-we-get-around-to-it, you’re-not-the-boss-of-us fashion! IF WE FEEL LIKE IT. And maybe we can start having a different conversation.


  1. Elise wrote:

    . . . I LOVE Tamora Pierce. I know her novels are technically “Young Adult” fiction, but they have awesome female characters I can sympathize with, plus lots of horses (because the world is medieval-esque) and her books are definitely half the reason I’ve become the person I am. I like the original quartet Pierce wrote, but my favorite is the Protector of the Small quartet – it’s about a girl training to be a knight in the midst of the fallout of . . . well, a lot of things, including the revelation that Alanna was a female.

    In the field of Fantasy, I’ve actually found that strong, developed female characters (to me, at least) are more common than general fiction. There’s Tamora Pierce’s Tortall books in YA, and Mercedes Lackey and her Heralds of Valdemar series (also completely fun and awesome, but very horse-centered) and . . . a whole slew of others, all with their flaws but also all featuring pretty well-rounded female protagonists. If you want a completely female-centered series by Mercedes Lackey, I’d recommend the Vows & Honor trilogy.

    Sorry for the random babbling of happiness, but I do *LOVE* Tamora Pierce and Mercedes Lackey. I’m sure they have their flaws, of course. But I’d recommend them to anyone looking for a fun, light read (Mercedes Lackey is less so, and I’d note that there are certain scenes that can be triggering in her books, especially the Vows & Honor trilogy and the book, “Arrow’s Fall”).

    Wednesday, October 27, 2010 at 9:11 am | Permalink
  2. ritchey wrote:

    what about Scarlett O’Hara? I’m conflicted about that book for obvious reasons…but damn, what an amazing main character.

    Wednesday, October 27, 2010 at 12:09 pm | Permalink
  3. Gnatalby wrote:

    I have to strongly disagree about Tom Robbins. I love reading him, but Manic Pixie Dreamgirl is not an exciting and fully developed female character, and that’s what all his ladies are.

    Plus while I appreciate the sentiment I don’t need so many lengthy descriptions of lengthy pubes and their musky sweat scent or whatever.

    Wednesday, October 27, 2010 at 1:59 pm | Permalink
  4. ritchey wrote:

    I strongly agree with @gnatalby. Although I went through a heavy Robbins phase in my youth, it is true.

    Wednesday, October 27, 2010 at 4:35 pm | Permalink
  5. MonkeyGirl wrote:

    BrontesBrontesBrontes! Especially Jane Eyre and Tenant of Wildfell Hall

    Wednesday, October 27, 2010 at 5:14 pm | Permalink
  6. ritchey wrote:

    I am posting too much but YES TO THE BRONTËS!!!!! Wuthering Heights! Also really reading anything ABOUT Emily Bronté will make you fall in love. She used to walk to the alehouse and single-handedly carry her reprobate drunk brother home at night. When her father died he gave HER his gun (instead of his son), a symbolic gesture of passing on who would protect the family. She said marriage was dumb, she wore men’s clothing, and when she died her dog howled outside her bedroom door for 3 days. What an amazing weirdo.

    Wednesday, October 27, 2010 at 7:38 pm | Permalink
  7. ALEXANDRA wrote:

    Anyone read much of Isabel Allende? I recently read De Amor y De Sombra and loved it, actually ended up writing one of my college application essays about it. Although it has arguable faults, it’s very worth reading. She also has some short stories that are neat, too, some dealing with the whole “machismo” thing of Latin America that’s really intense and interesting to explore.

    Wednesday, October 27, 2010 at 9:48 pm | Permalink
  8. kristinc wrote:

    Ditto on Robin McKinley.

    No one has said Lois McMaster Bujold? Oh, maude. I can’t say enough about Lois McMaster Bujold. If you like science fiction, no scratch that, if you like funny, fairly light pageturner stories with exquisitely real characters, sly social commentary and asskicking women, she is the go-to lady. Read.

    Nancy Kress is great too. I never get tired of recommending “Beggars In Spain” to Ayn Rand types.

    Wednesday, October 27, 2010 at 11:38 pm | Permalink
  9. Maggie wrote:

    Oh man, I can’t believe I didn’t mention Bujold myself, the Vorkosigan series is one of my favourites. Her protagonist’s eventual love interest has a compelling feminist story and his mother, who is herself the protagonist of a couple of prequel novels, is one of my favourite fictional people of all time. I find it endlessly amusing that Bujold and David Weber appear to mirror each other in the Horatio Hornblower In Space genre – each writing an almost-implausibly-gifted commander of the gender opposite their own who rises through the ranks and is embroiled in political intrigue… Bujold is a somewhat more competent writer, but Weber’s Honor Harrington books are definitely good for competent female characters if you can handle the slightly dodgy prose. Also great if you like your French Revolution analogies heavy-handed 😛

    Thursday, October 28, 2010 at 9:00 am | Permalink
  10. ritchey wrote:

    I second Allende. “House of Spirits” is amazing. So weird and good and trippy and sad and funny, and so many cool lady characters.

    Thursday, October 28, 2010 at 11:01 am | Permalink
  11. Jeni wrote:

    I third Atwood! Really liked Handmaid’s Tale.
    I just finished Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery and it just about blew my mind. Has anyone read her other book, Gourmet Rhapsody?

    Thursday, October 28, 2010 at 12:01 pm | Permalink
  12. Helen wrote:

    Then of course Jane Austen, whose books are some of the least romantic works written in the English language: they’re about the bare knuckled struggle for survival of a class of people who can’t properly work for their living, and are always dependent on the men in their lives, who more or less repulsive or unpleasant. The women survive guided by their skills at relationships and interacting in society, which are their only “means of production.”

    I’m not a literary academic, merely an Austen enjoyer, but I reckon that is the best paragraph summing up Austen’s work I’ve ever, ever read.

    Friday, October 29, 2010 at 6:01 am | Permalink
  13. Carol the Long Winde wrote:

    okay, so its poetry but Ted Roethke kicks ass writing about all ages of women. He’s awesome

    Friday, October 29, 2010 at 4:07 pm | Permalink
  14. kristinc wrote:

    “Her protagonist’s eventual love interest has a compelling feminist story and his mother, who is herself the protagonist of a couple of prequel novels, is one of my favourite fictional people of all time.”

    I still want a rubber bracelet that says WWCNVD? (What Would Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan Do?)

    I really enjoyed “The Gate To Women’s Country” by Sheri Tepper, but when I sought out other books by her I was unpleasantly surprised. It was as if someone completely different and vastly more competent had written just that one book, which is thoughtful and moving and well-written. The other books by Tepper that I read seem to have been slapped together with a “sure, why not” ethos. So, you know, fair warning, but Women’s Country was very good.

    Saturday, October 30, 2010 at 12:15 am | Permalink
  15. ourlipsbend wrote:

    Best book recs list ever on my favourite blog ever! THANK YOU. I work at a bookstore, so I’m totally going to be distracted during my shift tomorrow, looking up all of these books.

    And, okay, I had to delurk, even just to say: yes yes yes to Suzanne Collins. Her series has so much going for it, not the least of which is a resilient & realistically flawed young female protagonist, who takes incredible action even in a society that is specifically structured to not allow anyone to have agency.

    As for Roddy Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked into Doors, I don’t really know much about the original critical responses to it, but personally I read it last month and LOVED it to a degree that is truly ridiculous. I’m currently being an inarticulate insomniac about why, but I’d love to hear what anybody else here thought about it.

    OH ALSO: Derby Girl by Shauna Cross. More YA lit with a young lady protagonist who is singularly sassy, strong, and true-to-life. (Plus, it’s one of those few cases in which the movie adaptation — Whip It — is just as fantastic as the book. Actually, it’s even better in some bits, like the way she handles her relationship with Dude-in-a-band.)

    One more: if you read rom-coms, please please please be reading Jennifer Crusie (especially Bet Me).

    Monday, November 1, 2010 at 4:39 am | Permalink
  16. Catherine wrote:

    To the couple people who liked The Woman Who Walked into Doors: Be sure to read the sequel, Paula Spencer! Lots and lots of books feature characters “with a past,” but not many are about the daily uphill trudge of recovery.

    Also, I just remembered Hilary Mantel. I can’t think of any of her female characters that are really feel-good types, but they are well-written and interesting.

    Monday, November 1, 2010 at 5:31 pm | Permalink
  17. firefoot wrote:

    this post is awesome because I HAVE SO MANY BOOKS TO READ NOW *___________*

    um! well, I quite like Terry Pratchett. His portrayal of his female characters has never skeeved me, though Angua’s bond to Carrot has always annoyed me. Um.

    Monday, November 1, 2010 at 6:43 pm | Permalink
  18. Val wrote:

    Denise Mina’s books…all of them. Wonderful, occasionally horrifying, fully developed characters written with empathy and amazing humour. These are mysteries with serious subjects: child abuse, domestic violence, addiction, and mental health issues. Not for everyone, to be sure, but I have found them very rewarding. The female protagonists in the Garnethill and Paddy Meehan series are amazing.

    Tuesday, November 2, 2010 at 12:27 pm | Permalink
  19. Yukie wrote:

    Throwing in some Canuck material (though it’s YA) – Monica Hughes’s The Dream Catcher is bloody awesome. Ditto Suzanne Martel for Canadian awesome.

    More awesome YA stuff = Lois Lowry.

    The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova has some epic women in it, too. I love the narrator to little bits, and Helen is just an all-round badass.

    Tuesday, November 2, 2010 at 7:58 pm | Permalink
  20. strato wrote:

    Would like to try something a bit more exotic? Spanish literature, for instance? “El amigo Manso” Benito Pérez Galdós.

    Sunday, November 7, 2010 at 7:07 am | Permalink
  21. nunki wrote:

    Val McDermid writes wonderfully three-dimensional lady characters. They kick ass, work, eat, get grumpy, get happy, think about their lives/the world, etc. They’re real people!

    Monday, November 8, 2010 at 7:40 am | Permalink
  22. Rose Petersky wrote:

    When you said:
    “I’ve read so many books about Men who live their lives apart from the rest of society, walking the streets at night, staying in their little apartments, FACING THE EXISTENTIAL DESPAIR OF THE HUMAN CONDITION. But I’ve never read a book like that with a female protagonist. It seems like female characters aren’t just limited by the depth of their character, but also by the questions they are allowed to interrogate.”

    That made me think about Subnormality by Winston Rowntree. His comics are all about the human condition, almost universally from the perspectives and experiences of recurring female characters.

    Found here:

    Wednesday, November 24, 2010 at 3:10 am | Permalink