Women characters – to use or not?

Women characters – to use or not?

Women characters are a bit of a tricky area in m/m romance. By definition they aren’t part of the romance. Since a good romance focuses on the people actually having the romance then all other characters are relegated to support roles.

Okay, so it’s to be expected that women characters won’t have the limelight in these stories, that isn’t a problem. And it can be useful to have a character who’s close to the heroes but can’t be seen as a rival. But there are some problems. The support roles they play can often be clichéd, or even worse misogynistic, especially the evil stalker bitch who wants one of the guys and will stop at nothing to get him. Don’t get me started on that one, I could rant all day. A woman character can be used as the villain of course, but some more interesting motivations would be good to see. Other than Evil Stalker Bitch Who Will Stop at Nothing, there’s homophobic mother, bitter ex-wife and of course “girlfriend” in the non-sexual sense, but rather in the Eating Ice Cream and Bemoaning Our Love Lives sense. She at least is a sympathetic character.

Of course women characters have been badly written for many years and in every genre available and not only by bad writers. And they’re also judged more harshly by readers. It’s amazing how much hatred I can see for a female character who’s maybe no worse than the male characters in the same story. (I’m looking at you, Twilight haters.) Is that a reflection of society as a whole? People are harsher on women who transgress or are deemed too pushy than men who act the same.

I see many readers say one of the reasons they like m/m romance is because of the lack of women characters. They say they’ve never read a woman character they liked or could relate to. But is invisibility the answer? Aside from in certain specific settings and situations society is made up of men and women. People encounter and have to deal with that on a daily basis. Even if a man chooses to mix only with men he’ll still encounter women. If he apparently can’t deal with them he can come across as either a misogynist or emotionally stunted – generally neither of those are very attractive.

They can work if they fit the character and his background – say Orlando Coppersmith in Charlie Cochrane’s Cambridge Mysteries. He is kind of emotionally stunted, at least at first and women are a mystery to him because of his sheltered life and the time period. In that case it works, but try it in a contemporary and it could come over as rather creepy.

One book that sets up a situation where there are virtually no women around at all is J.L. Langley’s My Fair Captain. Now don’t get me wrong, I like this book – a m/m Regency Romance in Space, how could I not? But the way their society works means that while there were women on the planet they were only in the lower classes, not the nobility, the people in charge. Women were entirely excluded from having any power. They don’t even have the unofficial means women have had for centuries of influencing or even manipulating their husbands and sons. It’s an enjoyable story, but that aspect niggles at me, even though it’s of little relevance to the story – I mean, it’s a m/m Regency Romance in space, I may be reading too much into its socio-political ramifications when I should be watching the guys taking their clothes off.

I like to use women characters. To me they give a more natural feel to the story. In Liar’s Waltz I have Karl’s friend Deb, a police officer. I deliberately avoided any Eating Ice Cream and Bemoaning Our Love Lives scenes, since a) they wouldn’t fit Karl, b) a cop with a bad love life is a cliché all by itself and c) Deb probably has a perfectly good love life on a space station where the ratio of men to women is around 3:1! In Stowaway – querying soon! – there are women characters around. One of them becomes a close friend to one of the heroes. But one of the heroes does fall into the category of men who are bit unsure around women. I try to convey this as being from his background in the military rather than him thinking girls have cooties.

But am I shooting myself in the foot by including women characters in important supporting roles in my books, since lots of m/m readers claim to hate all women characters? I’m certainly not going to start writing them only as Evil Stalker Bitches Who Will Stop at Nothing (though I will write them as villains sometimes) I’d hate myself for that. But should I have fewer of them around, or have women been invisible long enough?

Misogyny in a character is okay – I mean I won’t like them for it, but characters will sometimes have attitudes and ideas I don’t like. That’s fine. But when the book itself seems to support those ideas it’s got a good chance of becoming a wall banger for me.

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28 thoughts on “Women characters – to use or not?

  1. I do have a problem with the way many writers do females, whether they’re supporting characters or MCs. They keep mistaking “strong” for “bitchy”, as you’ve noticed. Same on television – writers can’t seem to understand the difference. I often hesitate to pick up a book with a female MC, simply because I don’t want to read about such a character. But when I do find a “real woman”, that author will forever be on my favorites list.

  2. I always try to include female characters (which can sometimes be hard when your story is set on a naval frigate at sea.) I found the set-up of My Fair Captain deeply creepy, since it had so obviously been engineered deliberately to get rid of women. It would be nice to think that we could be for gay love without having to be against women, particularly as so many of us are women ourselves.

    So, attempting to practice what I preach, I do try quite hard to make sure I write female friends, workmates, landladies, lodgers, neighbours, mothers, grandmothers, sisters, wives, Queens, maids, washerwomen and passing spectators with pots of goat curry balanced on their heads. It’s not that hard to do, and it prevents the fictional world from becoming some creepy gynophobic wasteland.

    1. Yeah, with My Fair Captain it would have been one thing if the whole planet was all men, but it was the way it was only the ruling classes who had eliminated women that got to me. I just wondered who was standing up for all those working class women!

      You get a special dispensation for stories set on naval ships. 😀

  3. Oh, interesting post! Personally, I hate cliched women characters in m/m. I’d rather have none at all than see them portrayed unrealistically. That said, if we can write men as fully rounded characters, then why not women? Like you, I think they make a story seem more natural and set in the real world.

    In my own fiction, particularly the longer stuff, I write women characters a lot. My forthcoming novel Camwolf has two very prominent women characters. One of them is a middle-aged lesbian, the other a girl in her late teens (and she’s actually a POV character – I hope I haven’t put off a lot of my audience there!) 😉

    1. —That said, if we can write men as fully rounded characters, then why not women?

      There do seem to be some writers who just can’t do it. They can be good writers, write men well, but women? The best illustration I always cite for that is the writers of the Red Dwarf TV show. The male characters are great! But any time they write a woman she’s ridiculous. In their case I’d rather they just didn’t even try.

      Good to hear you have a middle-aged woman in yours. Now there’s a group that’s especially invisible except as a hero’s mother.

  4. I agree with disliking the cliched characters – can I add “super Mom” – the all American woman who bakes and sews and doesn’t have a homophobic bone in her body – I’ve read a few of them lately and I’m afraid they’re starting to get on my nerves a bit.

    I’m happy to have female characters in gay romances – why the hell not? They’re meant to be set in the real world (usually). You’d think female writers should be able to write convincing, non-cliched women seeing as how that’s what they’re living…

    And yes, Kochanski was rubbish. Red Dwarf went sadly downhill at that point.

    1. (Remarks from a buttinsky on a side comment, sorry …)

      I could never decide if Naylor was a Lister/Kochanski or Lister/Rimmer fanboy. I don’t think he can, either – which would be fine if he wasn’t using Kochanski and Rimmer pretty much interchangeably, both in Season 7 and in his book. (I actually kind of liked Season 8 because both of them were there and were able to represent themselves and she wasn’t having to stand in for him. I like both; I’d rather not have to choose that much.)

      1. I have a soft spot for season 8 too, especially any scenes that are just Rimmer and Lister alone in their cell. Felt like sort of distilled Red Dwarf. But then my favourite episode of all is Marooned. Put Rimmer and Lister in a room together and I’ll watch all day.

      2. Season 3 is just great, because of the introduction of Kryten… however, I’ve always loved the one with the ‘Despair Squid’ which I think is Back To Reality.

        Holly was female for a bit. And she was funny.

  5. i think it’s important to have the female character happen organically, as it were, to prevent the whole “omg i haven’t got any wimmin in this *insert*” kind of thing. I was guilty of that in Mere Mortals where right at the beginning I introduced a housekeeper -she’s mentioned once and you never see or hear about her again, so I excised her entirely on the rewrite. Apart from one scene with a woman in it towards the end, there’s no women in it at all–but it does make sense, considering what’s going on.

    Historicals are fun to do, because of the more formal interraction with women, and they are less likey to be cliched stalkers!

    1. Yes, I agree on them arising organically. It’s jarring when they are some place they just wouldn’t be, as much as it would be the other way around.

      I think the formal, rules-ridden interaction between men and women is why I like historical romance. It gives a kind of tension. Everyone is on their guard at all times.

  6. Interesting post – and great comments, too. Orlando’s very much a child of his time (I read EM Forsters biog after I’d created him and was amazed at some of the similarities).

    Agree with all you say about female characters (unfortunately some of the gay males can be a bit cliched/unbelievable. too!)

    1. Yes, it fits a man of his time very well and that makes it more forgiveable. I definitely love Orlando though, don’t think I don’t. Especially when he he gets all mad and thinks about punching people, or even madder and darker and thinks about murdering them!

  7. I like female characters, done well. I’ve been guilty of the Jilted Fiancee Who Will Do ANYTHING to Have the Hero. Although, in fairness, she doesn’t want him, just his title. (And since she’s hired on Jilted Boyfriend WWDA, it’s all of a piece)

    There are a lot of roles for women in m/m novels that don’t have to be cliche. The grocery clerk. The waitress. The nurse or doctor. The lesbian minister and her wife/secretary. The local coven priestess. Mom, who can be okay with him being gay, but not like the guy he picked (“His name was Walks-Softly-Two-Moons. Everyone called him Walker. Mom called him Walks-with-Cellphone.”). Sisters. Cousins. Household staff. A cop. Co-workers, passerby, all the people who make up their lives when they aren’t alone in their house.

    Some of my guys are even bisexual and have a wife or girlfriend. And some of my guys ARE the girls (Maid Marion as a bastard prince, who doesn’t know she’s male).

    I had this discussion in fandom years ago. We had to decide what to do with the canon female character and the deuterocanonical female love interest, and where to put original female characters in our primary slash pairing.

    1. When I’m thinking up the more minor supporting characters who at that point are generally just a job/role of some kind I do usually ask myself, any reason this character can’t be a woman? Especially if they’re in some kind of authority position where it’s so easy to go with the default of a man.

  8. I agree with everyone above who says we need the female characters, just as I think we need a scattering of gay, lesbian, bi and trans characters in het stories (two of favourite het romance and het romance-ish detective series both have gay supporting characters).

    I do sort of worry that in my women’s fiction I don’t have many men who are definite good guys, but maybe that’s just me redressing the balance for everyone else.

    1. I think I did some redressing the balance that way in my 2007 NaNoWriMo novel. There were some men in it, but given that it’s silly working title was “Kick Ass Chicks in Space” that’s an indication of what sex most of the main characters were. 😀 Then the next year I could barely shoehorn a single woman character in there. Weird how it works.

  9. You can’t comment on Twilight until you’ve read it 😉

    Bella is just awful in places – it was like, gosh, girl, make an effort, your dating the hottest guy in town, AND he’s a vampire. I had to keep reminding myself it’s written for teenagers, and maybe teenagers would like her – or would want to read this stuff. Jacob and Edward were fine-ish – I’m an easy going reader, and they didn’t get on my nerves really (only I couldn’t understand the stupid attraction to Bella). Book 4 (Breaking Dawn) ruined it for me though. The first three weren’t bad, just a bit predictable. But 4 was just wrong!

    Not really the discussion but hey, as I’d read Twilight, I thought I’d share!

  10. Thinking about the over-supportive mother cliche, I’ve written two characters who’ve taken forever to come out to close relatives. In one case the charater’s gran said she’d always known, but not wanted to push him. Also she misses his phase when much younger of him bringing a different totally unsuitable girl to tea every week (he’s bi) and would like him to bring more people to visit generally.

    In the other case, my character is horrified that his elderly mother wants to meet his new bf, because he’s out of practice at both steady relationships and living in the country rather than London (also there are class issues going on).

    I love my older Upper Class female characters…

    1. I love using older women characters – mothers or whatever. They seem to get more of a pass from readers who are suspicious of young women characters. They can get away with more!

      1. I got as far as Kate’s first scene in my edits today, and felt she could do with a few more lines. As could Elaine, who comes across as much older than Edward since she’s been in service, married, a mother and widowed while he’s just been faffing around.

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