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Writing Strong Characters of Any Gender

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, Aug. 26, 2023

Last time I'd written about gender toxicity and what a trap it can be for creators seeking to write powerful characters. It is not something that only plagues the “strong female character” attempt, but also the “strong male character” and definitely the “strong LGBTQ+ character”.

Too many of these attempts to portray them end up in either very off-putting characters that come across as entitled, aggressive, obnoxious, or just unnatural, or deeply undermine suspension of disbelief with dialogue or behavior that doesn't convince as human: they are too perfect, have plot armor, are too loveable while being abrasive and obnoxious, and so on.

I genuinely believe that unless the author is some kind of misogynistic, misandrist, or anti-LGBTQ+ weirdo crafting a propaganda piece, these are the results of trying too hard, having the wrong approach, and the wrong idea about what a person is.

Don't get me wrong; this is not an issue of creators not being able to grasp what a person is, but rather the dreadful education we get when it comes to who we are as people: what makes people, people. As always, some of the most basic skillsets that should be taught in school are left out- namely, basic psychology principles and some SEL (socio-emotional learning) skills. As a result, we learn about ourselves from all the wrong sources: TV ads, influencers, fashion magazines, and peer pressure.

It doesn't just make some stuff more expensive…

It allows you to sell the same thing twice!

Of course there's a lot more nuance regarding why society is so hell bent in gendering everything, even when it makes no sense or is ridiculous, like the above two examples. My only point right now lest I digress in different types of socio-economic and socio-political rants is that we are raised in a society that wants us to believe that men and women are so different they literally cannot use or understand the same things. Men will become women if they touch pink, women will become men if the spray Old Spice on themselves by accident.

It's not surprising, therefore, that creators struggle with writing Strong Female Characters when women are supposed to be “soft” and “vulnerable” and Sensitive but Strong Men when men are supposed to be “stoic” and “unfeeling”, and don't get me started on “rainbow” queer characters whose entire personality is their sexuality- they literally have no other traits except that.

So how does one overcome this hurdle?

If you're in it for the long haul, I'd strongly suggest to get at least a few seminars and classes on basic psychology principles. Not “life coaching” or “empowerment” stuff. Not new age weird stuff. Just actual, evidence based, straight up psychology. Developmental and social psychology will be your friends. If you're not sure, feel free to PQ me and I'll set you up with free resources.

If you're looking for a shortcut, here are a few steps that are excellent in helping you with biases when character designing:

1. Make a list of all the traits you want your character to have. Your taboo words are “strong” or “powerful” or “nice”. These words are masking words, meaning that they don't explain HOW the character is strong, HOW they are powerful, HOW they are nice. If you keep reverting to these words, follow up with the HOW and write down behaviors that make your character strong and powerful etc. And if you really want to get into the weeds, after you've done that ask yourself WHY this behavior makes them strong.

2. DO NOT focus on gender AT ALL while you're working on step 1. This is tough, because when we come up with main characters especially, we come up with their genders almost immediately. However, try to put that aside by thinking of unisex traits first. Are they industrious or lazy? Are they intelligent or dumb? Do they like sports? Are they allergic to something? Can they run fast? Do they like pizza? That sort of thing. Soon you'll be thinking about their personality without thinking about their gender as much.

3. When you have the battery of traits, there comes the time to actually address their gender. Their gender is going to be the filter through which their battery of traits manifests. This goes for ANY gender. Treat their gender as part of the worldbuilding and setting. Their society's gender expectations are different if they are a woman in Ancient Sparta than if they are a woman in Mao's China than if they're a woman in 1700s France. Study up what those were.

4. Once you have the gender expectations of the society your story will be taking place in (that includes fantasy), now you can start to figure out how your character's traits will be filtered through, and to what extent. What will be repressed, what will be fully expressed? To what extent will they go against the grain if their trait clashes with the gender expectations, and what will be the backlash of that? How will they navigate being who they are in a world that will strive to fit them in a box they don't fit very well?

And here I have to point out something important: no matter how much it might seem the opposite, nobody fully fits society's gender norms and gender standards. The girliest girl and the manliest man will have some traits and behaviors that DO NOT conform to their gender expectations. And even the most rebellious of characters that buck the system when it comes to conformity (especially in genders), WILL have some traits that DO conform to society's gender expectations. You can consider this an unbreakable rule and give your characters the capacity to do or be things that wouldn't be expected of them by subverting such stereotypes in accordance with the traits you picked for them.

Like the only girls have cats stereotype

Or that wearing a tutu means you aren't dangerous

All in all, don't be afraid to have fun. People are unique. No matter what society they are raised in, they will remain unique and they will find ways to express this uniqueness through the ages, even if their gender forbids them.

But okay. You have managed to create a character that is a full fledged person, that happens to be a certain gender and have a certain sexuality.

How do you write them interacting with the opposite gender(s) and still keep them strong/powerful as characters, without needing to nerf the other characters? How do you have a full cast of strong/powerful characters that the audience will engage with, remember, and want to see succeed or fail?

I'm tackling that next, starting by finally defining what a Strong, Powerful Character is.

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PaulEberhardt at 2:57AM, Aug. 27, 2023

My tip for writing strong characters: the thing to remember about tough people is that they usually don't show off with it. They simply don't feel the need to prove anything, because they know what they're capable of. Many of those I know are generally very relaxed, polite, straightforward and fun to be with - because they know they can afford to. It's the difference between talkers and doers, the one that becomes most visible when some faecal matter is actually hitting the fan. - Of course there are exceptions to this rule of thumb. There always are.

PaulEberhardt at 2:45AM, Aug. 27, 2023

Great article again! Your suggestions about character design are just about identical to what I would say. The individual comes first, because it defines the way he/she/it plays out their social roles (Btw. my general suggestion for the issue of appropriate pronouns is to use any which one that looks nice, as it will be wrong no matter what 😁): what behaviour do people around this character expect of him? How does she herself think how she should behave? With which clichés will hilarity ensue if you either act like taking the it 1000% serious, pushing it to its logical end where it is sure to fall apart in some deconstructive way, or turn it completely upside down? I think the most important message here is "Don't be afraid to have fun." It's what all these categorizations, stereotypes and expectations are really for, if you ask me, because (while acknowledging that for some people they still are) I really can't take them very serious any more.

J_Scarbrough at 10:11AM, Aug. 26, 2023

Whenever I write for characters, I generally try to avoid writing them too set into societal expectations when it comes to preconceived gender norms, and that is mainly because I like to try to make the characters feel as though that anybody can relate to them in some way or another, regardless of sex and/or gender. There are some exceptions to this however, and I can use Steve D'Monster as an example for those of you here who enjoy his antics: being the little pint-sized horndog that he is was something that was conceived when I performed the character for our local PBS pledge drives, back when he was still new and had no personality. Some of the studio crew saw something potentially funny in him flirting with girls who worked as phone operators and such, and it ended up being cemented as a facet of his character to this day.

Tantz_Aerine at 5:54AM, Aug. 26, 2023

There's no One True Way to do character design :) These are just some suggestions when you need them to help answer questions, if they come up, when you're doing character design. Not a law. XD

Andreas_Helixfinger at 5:29AM, Aug. 26, 2023

Actually, to be honest I haven't put all that much calculation into gender roles in the society my comics takes place in, what makes them or what breaks them. I kind of just roll with whatever seems to fit the comic at the time and hopefully we'll see how it all comes together at the finnish line:P

bravo1102 at 3:40AM, Aug. 26, 2023

I've lost count of how many times I've seen this theme repeated in essays on writing. However, it needs to be repeated again and again. Create a good character first and then worry about gender and such. I can't, but then for the stuff I write it really isn't necessary. That said, I've often started with the gender and sexual norms of the culture and then define how the character does or doesn't fit in but I'm really not very good at characters. I'm a plot driven writer.

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