Girls are People Too, ya dingus! — or, How Buffy the Vampire Slayer taught me Empathy

As an early twenties male who has been writing fantasy and sci-fi since my early teenage years, I identified strongly with this blog post by Robert Jackson Bennett which I recently encountered through Twitter. The basic gist of it is that many male fantasy and sci-fi writers have a hard time writing female characters because it is possible for a young man to go through life without interacting with women as other human beings due to some serious flaws in our society, and how this hurts male writers by hemming them in and depriving them of opportunities to develop empathy.

(If you’re interested in reading an exploration of the problems inherent to the fact that young men can get through life without meaningful interactions with women, go ahead and read Robert Jackson Bennett’s post. I don’t think I could do a better job on that front than he has done. Instead, this post is more an examination of my personal writing journey as a young man who once had a really hard time writing female characters)

Growing up home-schooled with two brothers and no sisters, the only women with whom I regularly interacted for the first ten years of my life were my mother, my friends’ mothers, and Sunday school teachers. Unsurprisingly, the casting of my first stories was similarly male-dominated. Looking back, I don’t think writing stories with all-male casts was a conscious decision on my part. My life was dominated by boys, so my characters were mostly boys. The girls in my life existed in ancillary roles–mothers, sisters, teachers–while the central players were my friends, my brothers and I.

Only later, when I decided to take writing more seriously and started trying to create stories that were more than elaborate fan-fiction or wish fulfillment fantasies did I begin trying to write women. And, much as Robert Jackson Bennett describes in his post, I hit a wall. Writing women and girls didn’t come naturally to me. Where it was easy for me to come up with motivations and personalities for my male characters distilled from the motivations and personalities of my brothers and my friends, my well of experience with women was much more shallow.

(Bear in mind, I’m referring to when I was fourteen or fifteen years old, just entering the public school system, just starting to have female friends, and still over a year out from my first girlfriend)

And, as I struggled to figure out how to write female characters, I kept getting hung up on thoughts like “but is that something GIRLS care about?” or “shouldn’t she be thinking about her period every once in a while? I know nothing about that…will that make this character feel unrealistic?” or “does this girl character read too much like a boy?” Because I had so little experience with girls (and because hormones made me at once endlessly fascinated with them, utterly confused by them, and terrified of acting like a weirdo when talking with them) I psyched myself out trying to imagine my way across what I assumed to be a vast rift between the sexes.

When writing male characters, their maleness hardly factored into their character. Granted, as a male writer, any gender-specific or sex-specific attributes that male characters might have had probably came through intuitively without my having to consciously impart them. But the point is that those characters didn’t start from a baseline of “maleness,” rather they started from a basic desire, an idea for a backstory, or, more often than I’d like to admit a badass drawing of a dude in armor. In contrast, the first thing I ever knew about my female characters was that they were female, and their development would get stuck there, because I found myself unable to imagine my way into what I at the time believed to be the “alien female mind.”

The Average Female: as envisioned by thirteen year old Jeremy A. TeGrotenhuis. via this google image search result.
The Average Female: as envisioned by thirteen year old Jeremy A. TeGrotenhuis. via this google image search result.

I finally got past this hurdle, not through any profound and powerfully honest introspection, but through watching “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” (Is that shameful? I dunno… a lot of my important realizations have come through fiction–“The Brothers Karamazov,” “A Wizard of Earthsea,” “Moby Dick,” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) “Buffy” is absolutely brimming with excellent female characters, and I distinctly remember realizing that I had been obsessing over exactly the wrong questions when writing female characters while watching the episode “Grave.” Rather than asking gender-specific questions of my female characters, I should have been interrogating them in exactly the same way I was my male characters–what do you want? how has your past affected you? what about yourself do you hate? what about yourself do you love? if you could do anything, what would it be?

It’s these kinds of questions that make strong characters, not questions like “would a girl really be this focused on a single task, or should she be multitasking more, or thinking about a hundred things at once because y’know that old stereotype about men’s minds and women’s minds?”

Because, as that episode of “Buffy” made me realize, at some basic level, people are just people. We all operate on similar basic drives. We want to be loved, we want to be challenged, we want to achieve our goals, we want to like ourselves, and so on. The expression of those motivations might change from person to person, and where gender or sexual orientation or race intersects with culture the focus of those drives might change along with the means of pursuing them, but the basic motivations are not dissimilar. Even people with whom you disagree share the same set of basic drives. Even people who do horrible things are at some level driven by the same set of motivations as everyone else, only expressed in some twisted and horrible way.

Someone who did horrible things, for a very understandable reason. via yet another gis result.
Someone who did some horrible things, for a very understandable reason. via yet another gis result.

That realization is the basis of empathy, which is the lifeblood of good characterization. And, you know, a handy tool for living life as a decent human being…

Right now I’m developing a novel spearheaded by a female protagonist, and while I still sometimes wonder whether I’m writing her “realistically” as a woman, I don’t worry about whether she’s an interesting or compelling character, at least any more than I worry about any of my male characters. And the swell folks in my writing group, many of whom are women, haven’t raised any objections to her on the grounds that she’s not believable as a female. Does that mean I have achieved my ninth-degree black belt in empathizing? No. But it does mean that, when I don’t let myself get hung up on the female-ness of my female characters and just let them be people, I do a decent enough job of writing them.

It’s almost too obvious to say, so I’ll let Dr. Steve Brule summarize and leave a reminder to myself and any other men who make women the Other when they over-think writing their female characters:

via memegenerator
via memegenerator

-JeremyTeG

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