Sep 11 2012 11:00am

Sleeps With Monsters: Sometimes There Are Men Who Get It Right

And by “it” I mean, “writing women well.” This is on my mind today, because recently—recently, that is, in the chronology of me writing this, not necessarily recently in the chronology, Gentle Reader, of you reading it—I’ve read a couple of books where the male authors made me more happy in their treatment of gender roles than not.

Since that’s rarer than I’d like, it explains why my bookshelves skew towards female authorship. And it’s also why I’d like to give them a shout-out today, because their existence is proof that men can actually grok the full humanity of le deuxième sexe, and write it into their fictional worlds.

First up, alphabetically at least, Ben Aaronovitch. I like Aaronovitch’s novels (Rivers of London/Midnight Riot, Moon Over Soho, and Whispers Under Ground) for a lot of reasons. They’re smart, sharp, fast, witty books with a real sense of place (the place being London, if you hadn’t guessed). They’re told from the point of view of PC Peter Grant, who gets himself mixed up in some deeply Weird Shit in the opening chapters of Rivers of London—and the icing on the cake is that Peter is surrounded by a variety of women who are more competent than he is in any number of ways. And he’s okay with that.

Don’t get me wrong. Peter is still a guy, and occasionally a right arse. But the women in these books are real and human—even when they’re not. Human, that is.

Chaz Brenchley’s another bloke who gets it right more often than not. He also writes as Daniel Fox and Ben Macallen, and it’s books written under a pseudonym that I want to highlight. The trilogy which begins with Dragon In Chains is very good at getting at women who in a different book might be invisible, or cardboard cut-outs at best. His other books do it too—perhaps not quite as well, but the variety of experience is there, implied.

Steven Brust. Jo Walton has talked quite a bit about the Vlad Taltos series (and also see here). I think he does pretty well with female characters, too.

Samuel R. Delany. Despite its vintage, Babel-17 holds up pretty damn well.

Jim C. Hines. You all know about Jim Hines, I expect? The Stepsister Scheme, The Mermaid’s Madness, Red Hood’s Revenge? (What, is that a no in the audience? I’m shocked, simply shocked.) His novels are fairly feminist and usually a lot of fun, and I’m looking forward to seeing if Libriomancer continues in the same vein.

James H. Schmitz. My token dead white guy. Despite the fact that many of his stories were written in the 1950s and 60s, the women in most of them hold up pretty well to the test of time. (I reread some of the Telzey Amberdon stories just last year.) They’re acres more human than most of his male contemporaries, and—sad to say—at times rather better characterised than several of our modern male science fiction writers.

Charles Stross. In part, it was reading The Apocalypse Codex back-to-back with Whispers Under Ground that sparked the train of thought from which this post originated. (Great subversion of the spy caper, that man.) Stross’s Laundry novels and Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant books are proof positive that male writers can write stories with a straight male narrator in the first person without having the female characters come across as either absent, ciphers, stereotypes, or sex-fantasies. Stross’s worlds are full of women—even when all the humans are dead.

Unlike other writers I could name. But won’t. I suspect you know who you are. There is proof, gentlemen, that you can do this thing! The fact that you aren’t....

It wearies me, it really does. (This is my tired face. See? Tired.)

I’m not going to apologise for only mentioning a handful of names. And I’ve deliberately avoided naming authors who only have one or two books to their name to date: it’s impossible to judge them fairly without seeing at least three books’ worth of form. If you think other male writers get it more right than wrong, show your work in the comments!

(This has been your male-writers intermission. Next time out, we’re back to focusing on feminisms, women, women, and nothing but the women.)


Image from Unwritten #35, illustrated by Yuko Shimizu

Liz Bourke can be found @hawkwing_lb, sighing wearily at the twittersphere.

Scott Silver
2. hihosilver28
My first thought was Neil Gaiman, specifically for his Sandman work. Don't know why I instantly thought of graphic novels, probably because of The Unwritten pic at the top of the post.
Fade Manley
3. fadeaccompli
Aaronovitch is definitely one of my favorites for the Peter Grant example of a straight male viewpoint not meaning all female characters are treated like objects. His protagonist can be attracted to all sorts of different women--some more unwisely than others--and even screw up based on his attraction to them, and still have the narration convey that these are complete people with their own interests and purposes in life outside of their relationships to him.

Another one who comes to mind? Scott Westerfeld. He can write teenage girls who are jocks or rebels or party butterflies or kid reporters or government enforcers, and make them all work. Exactly how someone could for teenage boys taking on any of those roles. His characters are all clearly complete people, male or female. (That said, I think he writes female characters much better from their own PoV than from the PoV of his male characters. Some of that may just be that his male characters who get PoV are from sexist societies, but even so.)
4. cheesegan
William Gibson, not so bad.
Jacob Horn
5. Potemkin78
This is a really fascinating topic to me, and I'd love to hear more. As a male reader of genre fiction, I sometimes feel like I have no really strong sense of whether a writer is particularly good at writing female characters. I've got the Bechdel test as a crutch, but it's mostly a basic requirement and not a gauge of quality. I feel like I can recognize particularly bad examples of writing women, though I'm always a little nervous when making claims of "well-written women" for any writer.

For instance, a writer like Garth Ennis is often stereotyped as a kind of masculine fantasist, but two of my favorite stories he ever wrote involved the women in his long-running series (Hellblazer 70, about Kit's return to Belfast, and Preacher 52, about Tulip's relationship with Amy and her first meeting with Jesse). Does this mean he's a good writer of women? Am I misreading these issues badly?

Or perhaps Joe Hill, whose female characters in both Locke & Key and his novels seem well-constructed and interesting--almost never one-dimensional. Is that what we mean here? I feel like complex characterization is the central goal for any character, so perhaps that might be the basic requirement for effective writing of any character of any gender. If a male writer can do that for his female characters, does that make him a good writer of women?

It's a question I should probably have devoted more time to understanding--and I thank you for the article, Ms. Bourke.
Liz Bourke
6. hawkwing-lb
Potemkin78 @4:

Complex characterisation, yes. But also complex in the right ways: women who are complex and human in their own right, not merely in reference to the men around them; women who have friendships, relationships, interactions, with other women, and who have ownership of their own sexual desire. That's what I mean when I talk about men writing women well, or getting it right - they pay attention to the ways in which women's experience may not be like men's.
Amal El-Mohtar
7. amalmohtar
I've had Aaronovitch recommended to me very strongly, and look forward to reading his stuff.

I'd recommend Greg Rucka's work (in graphic novel form) in general -- Queen & Country and the first 4 issues of Whiteout in particular.
8. Cmm
If we are talking graphic novels also, I have to mention Terry Moore's Strangers in Paradise.
Shelly wb
9. shellywb
Charles de Lint is always the first name I think of when it comes to writing women right.
10. Cool Bev
James Tiptree, Jr.


I always thought John Varley did well for women; in fact I thought he might be another Tiptree, a woman writing as a man.

But I'm a guy, what do I know?
Christopher Johnstone
11. CPJ
My pick for a man who (seems to*) writes women well would be Tolstoy, though others may disagree of course. War and Peace and Anna Karenina changed my ideas about how to get inside a person's head, male or female, inside a narrative.

A man who is surprisingly poor at it is Dickens. His male characters are wonderful, his female ones wander from the cliche to the contrived to the ordinary with only a few bright spots of real genuine humaness among the lot.

It seems worthwhile lauding women who do this well too. For a woman who writes male and (I think*) female characters with a powerful genuiness, my pick is Virginia Woolf. Frankly, she seemed to have a magical tunnel into other people's brains. Le Guin wrote her essay about us needing more Mrs Browns in SFF so long ago now, and yet we still do. We really still do.

As a matter of curiosity, I wonder (and have no particular feeling for) which is worse, writing women badly or *knowing* that you're likely to write women badly, and thus leaving them out altogther as POV characters. I've always suspected that Tolkien did the latter. I've never been sure whether I think that was admirable for its self-examination and honesty, or shoud be frowned upon for him having simply given up and gotten lazy about trying to depict the other sex in a realistic way.


* Obviously unreliable as I do not have a tunnel into other people's brains and so am largely just going off my own feeling about this and things female friends have said about said works and authors. Probably, you could read my comments as, 'Authors who write people well' I guess.
12. Cryptopunk
For those who aren't aware, Ben Aaronovitch also wrote the classic Doctor Who story Remembrance of the Daleks that features a couple of interesting female supporting characters. I also highly recommend checking out the awesome audio drama "Rebel" that he wrote for the new version of Blakes 7 - his depiction of Jenna sparkles with life (helped by a strong portrayal from Carrie Dobro of Babylon 5 fame).

It's worth noting that in the Apocalypse Codex, Charles Stross was imitating the structure and characterisation from Peter O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise novels - there are a number of in-jokes for people familiar with that series.
T S Davis
13. tee+D
I appreciate both the list and the authors in comments - I tend to read women writers in SF *because* I want to see women written about, period, and also because I've run across some male writers who do write women either awkwardly or outright badly. I'm all for people who write people well - whatever their gender.
14. omega_n

Took the words right out of my mouth. I love de Lint's women.
15. PhoenixFalls
Totally seconding Scott Westerfeld -- his adult space opera duology The Risen Empire/The Killing of Worlds is excellent (and filled with complex women) as well.

Surprised not see a mention of Sean Stewart yet -- he writes women fabulously, and they're never solitary, always situated within networks of other women. I think this is mostly because he writes about family more than anything else -- so his female protagonists have sisters and mothers and daughters who all matter to them, who shape who they have been and who they're becoming. It's wonderful to read. I'd particularly recommend Mockingbird, but really everything I've read by him is great.
16. mazarin
Garth Nix,

Lirael, Sabriel, Abhorsen
17. Kroms
Believable females means like women I know, right? So, er, Stephen King. And George RR Martin, actually, because I live in a conservative society and we do have people stuck in the Middle Ages. I know a Sansa and a couple of Aryas. Admittedly, Martin doesn't write a convincing sex scene.

David Benioff's When the Nines Roll Over has some convincing female characters (never read anything else by him). Peter Straub. Michael Chabon. Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials. Jack Ketchum's novels usually have good females, and The Lost was very hard to read because I know girls similar to his characters. Everyone who ever worked on The Wire or Treme (George Pelecanos, Richard Price, Dennis Lehane).

I'm sure there's plenty more.
18. Lizz
Well, you certainly passed _my_ test by including Charles Stross. My introduction to him was actually the Family Trade books, where page after page I was delighted by reading about a woman who seemed like real flesh and blood. He also happens to be an extraordinarily decent guy who treats all of his fans amazingly well. He is also kind to animals.
20. Cmaurat
I'd also add Garth Nix for his Old Kingdom trilogy (Sabriel, Lirael, and Abhorsen). They're great Y.A. novels and feature a strong/intuitive female as the lead.
21. Steve 2
Brandon Sanderson comes to mind, for a guy who sells a lot of books.

(Note: edited by moderator)
Bridget McGovern
22. BMcGovern
@Steve 2 --Thanks for the assist! (But we're not going to feed the troll--now deleted).
23. politeruin
Philip k dick? Seriously though...

Good call on charlie stross - consistently believable female characters that don't fall into the tired old 'whedon tropes'. But i'm very surprised nobody mentioned cory doctorow, just in makers alone he has two great female characters in suzanne and hilda. It's somewhat related but in anything he posts online or talks about i've noticed he'll use the female pronoun as an example of a non-specific person's behaviour instead of the generic male pronoun that everyone seems to use.
24. Salabra
I read Schmitz' work as a girl - I still recommend Telzey as an amazing character.

And Jim Hines!

@CPJ - I agree on Tolstoy and Dickens. And I absolutely totally agree on Tolkien, for whom women are less real than the paintings in an Egyptian tomb.
Jenny Kristine
25. jennygadget
"Believable females means like women I know, right?"

No. Especially in spec fic, it means women who act like a real person would in that situation, among other things. Which is very different from who you personally know, what impressions you might have of others and their actions, and whether or not these people and perceptions are reflected in novels.

I don't know that I could say that I know anyone quite like Muire in Elizabeth Bear's All the Windwracked Stars, for example. Even aside from the whole not actually being human thing. But she is more beliveable to me than oh, say, Eddings' Ce'Nedra. Lightyears more believable. Despite the fact that Ce'Nedra is human (as far as I remember) and comes across in a way that I imagaine feels very familiar to some people. And while you could certainly argue "it's all opinion!" I'm pretty confident that few women would disagree with me, which - yes - suggests something about these writers' abilities to write women well.

I think another aspect to writing women well is acknowledging that women will be part of your audience. Which isn't so much about individual female characters, but rather about how all of your characters are presented to the audience. What assumptions you have made about your audience and their gender, and how that affects plot, focus, point of view, and exposition as well as characterization.

(Also "females"? really? On a post about men writing women as full human beings and not the Other? really?)

To everyone praising Nix: I don't really see that his books are notable for how well written his female characters are. It seems more just that he doesn't screw up - much. Which is nothing to sneeze at, sadly, but I rather thought the bar being discussed was a bit higher than that.

As for which men I think do (did) write women well - the best examples I can come up with are Lloyd Alexander,* Avi,** and Scott Westerfeld.

* More for the Westmark series and his Prydain short stories than for the Prydain novels, which I don't remember all that well. (must re-read!)

**This may be nostalgia talking, I haven't read The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle since I was 12.
26. shajara
John Wyndham. For his time, really amazing.
27. MistiS
Harry Connolly does a pretty good job in his Twenty Palaces novels. Women fill many roles, not just stereotypical female roles, and behave convincingly. The whole cast is fairly diverse and multi-dimensional.
28. King of Flames

About the use of the word "females". This is an SFF Column, as such, not every female character will be human.
29. Mairreading
I always thought CS Lewis did a good job in Till We Have Faces. But maybe you're looking for more consistent work.
30. Mya Smith
I would say Philip Pullman does a fantastic job, both in His Dark Materials with Lyra, and also in the Sally Lockheart books. He writes girls who are fully fleshed out, whether they're goodies or badies, or indeed, many things in between. Some of his stories for younger readers likewise feature girl protags, who are believably girls, and also believably young.

In addition, Terry Pratchett leaps to mind, with Sergeant Angua, and a whole coterie of ladies in all walks of life–especially in Monstrous Regiment.
31. JenniferEileen
I tend to find that (on average) male children's and YA authors do a better job of writing female characters than their counterparts who write for adults.
Madelon Wilson
32. madelonw1011
As usual, I'm a day late and a dollar short when it comes to actually reading some email.

I have always thought that Frank Herbert had a particularly good female characters. I was first struck with how well he wrote strong women characters in the Dune series. I realized this most clearly when I read the final Dune book CHAPTERHOUSE DUNE. I was truly sad at his passing and did, eventually, read everything he published.
33. Juanito
I always thought Orson Scott Card had a very true representation of women in his books. And while I realize he's had some controversy with some non-PC views about various issues of the day, his early works (the Homecoming Saga, the original Ender sequels) are festooned with women with fleshed out views of the world. Shedemei, Luet, and Rasa come to mind for the Homecoming series. Their wisdom and strength drive the plot in several places and their inner monologues often place under a microscope the concept of "men's work" versus "women's work" and the roles they have in the leadership of an agrarian society versus a technologically advanced one.

I get that this book was based a lot on the Book of Mormon, but I didn't know it at the time. I don't think that takes anything away from the book's quality.
34. Dendritic Trees
I'm so glad I'm not the only one who loves Charles Stross, I was especially pleased with the way he portrayed women in The Laundry Files, because he's working with spy tropes that aren't very feminism friendly. He also recently said on his blog that one of the planned future Laundry Files novels is going to be from a woman's perspective, so I'm super excited for that.

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