Text of a talk I gave to a Harry Potter themed writing workshop on writing women characters as well as ponderings on Hermione Granger.
What do we mean when we say we like a character? For the most part, we're talking about “likeability,” how much we engage with the person on the page, how much we identify with them and how much we'd like to be their friend or even be them.
If you look at your favourite character closely, take a minute to consider your favourite character—man or woman, boy or girl---you'll notice the ones you want to read about the most—because ultimately, the act of reading is what is important here—are the ones who are fully fleshed out. You can see their faces, you can think their thoughts, you know where they're coming from and you kind of eventually know where they're going.
There's a problem with making female characters relatable. Often, people confuse this with “likeable” but that's just one of the huge myths patriarchy is forcing you to buy into. That in order to write a book with a woman as a lead, you've got to make this woman some sort of best-friend-heart-of-gold-confidante person, that all women want from their books is someone they can relate to. Newsflash: they don't. You have enough friends, you need your book to tell a story not be your BFF. Not that I'm saying solidarity even with your female character is a bad thing. Quite the opposite. It's a great thing, if it actually matches your story. But if it doesn't, it sounds forced.
Take for example, Lisbeth Salander from the Millenium Trilogy. She's ass-kicking, she's strong, she's fierce, but she's not exactly the warmest, kindest person you'd run into. Interestingly, her character was based on kid's book heroine Pippi Longstocking. Anyone here read that? Pippi was my favourite character as a kid, she was so cool and so wise, and so independent that you wished she lived down the lane from you. Lisbeth, not so much.
So, as a reader, what do I look for when I'm reading a book featuring a woman's voice? 1) That she be believable—i.e, I don't want any paper cut-outs of women. “Chick lit” notoriously does this, they give you this woman who is perfect in every way, and then make her clumsy or something, thinking that one flaw will make up for the fact that she's beautiful, smart, sassy and virginal to boot. Do we really know women like this in real life? 2) That she has some sort of character development—you want your female lead to move from point a to point c with lots of stuff happening in between so you see how she comes out of the other end. Take Elizabeth Bennet. In the beginning, she's just the second of five sisters, the smart one, sort of out of place in her family. Then you see her meet Darcy, and she's taken a dislike to him based on what she overhears him saying about her. Then you see her on her high horse, but also sort of flirting with Wickham. You know then that she's not perfect, because as the book moves on, you see Darcy can be a bit of a douchebag and also a nice guy, similarly you see Elizabeth is amazing but also is being sort of narrow minded when it comes to her impressions of other people. That's why Pride And Prejudice endures—the female character is strong and she is also flawed. There's writing tip part one: remember no one is perfect.
Let's get into Hermione for a bit, since that's the reason we're all here. Can we all agree to universally like Hermione? Yes? I'm talking about the book Hermione here, not the movie one, which was passable, but I disliked the way she got more and more “girly” as the movies went on. Also the casting choice of Emma Watson. Hermione was this bookish girl with loads of frizzy hair (which I can relate to) and buck teeth.
By all standards, the books should have really been about her saving the day, instead of Harry, who basically stepped in at the last minute thanks to chance and his parentage. Hermione did all the research, was the smartest witch in school and helped Harry and Ron with all their work, all the while managing to think of other species as well as her own. (Remember SPEW?) Harry was drawn to Ron because they both sat in the same compartment on the first day, and also because he was rescuing Ron from Draco Malfoy—Harry has a bit of a hero complex, but even though he rescued Hermione as well (from the troll in the dungeon), remember he only goes after her because he's guilty for hurting her feelings. Hermione's friendship is that rare, true one—while Ron is often jealous of Harry and his fame, Hermione is steadily there, in the background, giving him life and girl advice, even sticking with Harry after Ron takes off in a fit of sulks.
My only complaint is that we don't see much of her own private life. We know her parents are dentists—but Harry never goes to stay with them during the summer holidays. We know she has a short lived romance with Viktor Krum, a man who knew her value way before Ron did, but we don't learn how it came about. In the end, I was actually a little disappointed that she wound up married to Ron, a man who would never intellectually stimulate her or challenge her in the way she needed. At times it felt like Hermione only existed as a smart wise girl to step in and save the day in the end, sort of how in Hollywood they use the older black person to be wise and point out something obvious. Which is fair enough: the books weren't called Hermione Granger and The Chamber of Secrets, and JK Rowling is the sort of author who seemed like she knew all about her character's back stories even if she didn't tell the reader everything. Which leads me to writing tip part two: you should know everything about the people you're creating, because that makes you sound more informed on the page. Even if you don't spell it all out, it all shows in the final manuscript.
We've been seeing a recent rise in mythological fiction lately here in India—I'm presently working on a series with a similar theme myself—and I think one of the reasons those are doing so well is because the female leads are so strong. Take Draupadi. There are so many interpretations of her out there in Indian literature, but the one that's stayed with me the most is Chitra Bannerjee's Palace Of Illusions. The thing about Indian myths is the way they were structured—you know Draupadi's parents, you know her origin story, you know about her marriage and so on, and so when you're retelling that kind of myth, you work with that knowledge already. One of the first pieces of writing advice I got was from my mother, when I was working on my first book, she said, “Your characters didn't just fall from the sky, where did they come from?” I found that very useful, and to this day, I make notes before I begin a new book—who is my character? What does she like and dislike? Who are her parents? What is her upbringing? Because all of this will lead me to write a real person, not just some shadowy figure with a tagline: Token Female Character.
Okay, so before I end and take questions, a few points of note to write better women:
1) Don't write her to make a point. Like, if you want to tell a story about sexism in India for instance. Don't make your character sound like she's the lead in some moral science class. Every human being has loads of facets, and it's your job as a writer to explore all of those.
2) It really does help to makes notes about your character backgrounds beforehand. I usually fill these up with details about my character's family—only child, oldest of many siblings, bad relationship with parents and so on and so forth. Again, you don't have to necessarily bring all these things into your book, but it will help create realistic dialogue.
3) Your characters don't have to be likeable. They just have to tell the story in an effective way. Remember, these are all tools to make your book a better read. If your lead character is the kind of woman you wouldn't be able to stand in real life, then think about things from her point of view and how you can take the story forward through her voice.
4) Be consistent. Why would a shy woman suddenly break out into song and dance in public? Why would a woman you've written as emotionally distant make a declaration of love? You need to be able to explain all that or else put yourself so thoroughly in her head that you know exactly what she would say.