Developing strong female characters: one author responds to negative reviews by writing a better book


Those of you who write book reviews, and who care about reading fiction with well-developed female characters, may find this article in Literary Hub as fascinating as I did.  Science fiction author Daniel Price writes about the response his book The Flight of the Silvers received on Goodreads.

I’d braced myself for the worst with The Flight of the Silvers, my 600-page opus about two sisters and four strangers who are saved from apocalypse by mysterious forces and brought to an alternate Earth. It was the first book of a trilogy, my first title with Penguin, and my first foray into science fiction, a genre known for its gruff and fickle readers. If anything, I’d thought I’d get pummeled over the technical aspects of the story. I didn’t go crazy explaining the science behind my concepts. This is a tale of six unique people in an impossible situation. In my mind, it’s all about the characters.

Price was dismayed to find many negative reviews on exactly what he thought was his strength: his character development, especially that of his two female main characters.  Women reading his book found the two twenty-year-old sisters stereotypical, annoying and whiny.  Readers also complained that he referred way too much to their physical characteristics, especially their breasts.

He was hurt, and then he realized that the consistency across these negative reviews (although there were also many positive reviews) should be telling him something.  So he did the unexpected.  He gave the criticism a lot of thought, and tried to figure out what he was doing that bothered so many women.

Jesus, a male acquaintance wrote me. The PC police are coming after you hard.

Oh, bullshit. I wasn’t being “policed,” just criticized. This wasn’t an act of personal oppression, just a handful of readers who were expressing their opinions, as they have every right to do. I may have my flaws and my stubborn blind spots, but I never went ballistic because a feminist objected to something I liked. I’m not too fragile for discourse.

The timing of this article was interesting, because I had recently put down a novel sent to me by an author for a very similar reason.  Of course male authors can write meaningful, multi-dimensional female characters.  But when they don’t, I notice it.  In the book I was reading, I immediately felt the author described his female protagonist in the way a man looks at a woman, not how a woman thinks about herself.  That’s a pretty big difference, and I put the book down without reading further. To me that’s just the first sign that a male writer isn’t developing a thoughtful female character.  (Men: no woman thinks about her own breasts the way you do.  It’s not that we don’t think about our bodies – we do, and sometimes too much – but it’s not who we are.)

Last year I explained to my husband why I think Leviathan Wakes, an otherwise excellent book, suffers from a lack of realistic female characters.  My husband was a bit surprised because the women in the book are really positive.  True, but positive doesn’t mean multi-dimensional or realistic – it means the opposite.  It means idealized, and men are just as guilty of idealizing women as they are of tearing them down.  Of the two women in Leviathan Wakes, one is a fantasy and the other, Naomi, is the perfect woman: wise, tough, loving, and always there for our protagonist.  Happily, the authors have developed much more interesting women in the next few books in the series, and I’m still hanging in there to find out what Naomi’s real story is.

Creating strong characters of either gender, especially your main characters, requires that they be human – which to me means both flawed and well-rounded.  If you can describe them with a few words, you haven’t gotten there.  And if those few words are bitchy, whiny, or sexy, you’ve settled for an easy gender stereotype instead of creating a real character.

But I’m not a writer, and Price is.  I can talk about character development but I’ve never done it — and I respect authors enough to think this can’t be simple.  What I appreciate about Price’s story is that clearly it wasn’t easy for him to stop, listen, and reevaluate his work.  It took a really thoughtful critic to make him take notice.  And it took him having the nerve to ask her for more.

That weekend, I grabbed a paperback copy of The Flight of the Silvers and, for the first time in two years, read it cover to cover. I was already carrying a hundred little regrets about the story: word choices, scene choices, a ridiculous metaphor here and there. But now I could see everything Erin was talking about—all the niggling bits of ignorance that were invisible to some and infuriating to others. The mistakes I’d made weren’t huge, but they weren’t new either. Most female readers have already seen them a thousand times before in a thousand other books.

And therein lies the anger.

Now maybe you’ll read this article as Price touting his own new book and his sensitivity to women.  But as someone who writes reviews and who takes care to provide thoughtful criticism, the idea of an author reading those reviews and taking them into account is rather exciting.  Even more exciting is the idea that a male writer might listen and even understand what we’re talking about when we say we don’t want to be stereotyped.women in scifi

I’ll admit that in the last year I’ve gotten choked up when I think of girls today growing up with characters like Rey in Star Wars or Diana in Wonder Woman or the 13th Doctor in Doctor Who.  It makes a difference.  As a child I distinctly remember the feeling that science fiction and fantasy wasn’t aimed at me.  I could count on one hand the number of strong female heroines I could admire.  Recently I visited the science fiction museum in Seattle, which is pretty great, except that in the main exhibit, the only time a female character is shown, she seems to be more about her clothes (or lack thereof) than her accomplishments.

Of course this isn’t just a gender issue.  When I think about how little women are represented in science fiction, or say, superhero movies, it’s an even bigger issue for people of color and other under-represented groups.  In The Sympathizer, we see one through the filming of one movie the problem that people of color face regarding representation – they are either completely invisible, or characterized in an exaggerated, stereotypical way.

We all deserve to see ourselves represented, and represented thoughtfully.  At the same time, I recognize that it isn’t easy for someone who’s always been seen as “the norm” to know what it feels like to not be represented.

Clearly, we can increase representation by supporting more diverse authors, especially in genres like science fiction.  But we need all writers to create nuanced, non-stereotypical characters.  And maybe, just maybe, we as reviewers can make a difference.

Price says he used the criticism of the first book to rewrite his sequel — which made me want to read it. I just received a copy of Price’s sequel The Song of the Orphans from NetGalley and publisher Penguin/Blue Rider Press, so you’ll be hearing more.

  20 comments for “Developing strong female characters: one author responds to negative reviews by writing a better book

  1. July 17, 2017 at 8:44 pm

    Fascinating subject for a blog post! I have to say, male authors should just refrain from describing breasts. It rarely goes well.

    Do report back!

    • July 18, 2017 at 10:31 pm

      Thanks for the comment and I agree! I hope the book is good, we’ll see.

  2. Amy
    July 18, 2017 at 4:55 am

    Brilliant post! You hit the nail on the head with when you say “Creating strong characters of either gender, especially your main characters, requires that they be human – which to me means both flawed and well-rounded.” I get so, so frustrated when people believe that “strong female characters” means “women who can fight/use a bow and arrow” or even “women who are incredibly resilient”. It’s not physically or emotionally strong characters we need, it’s strong writing – complex, unique, realistic female characters. They can be strong, weak, or anything in between, so long as they are well written.

    • July 18, 2017 at 10:30 pm

      Thanks for the comment! I actually hesitated even to use the word “strong” since I think it’s misused so much. I agree, it’s about strong writing, not physically able characters.

  3. July 18, 2017 at 5:11 am

    What a great article, and thank you for the post!

    • July 18, 2017 at 10:39 pm

      Thanks LouLou, glad you enjoyed it!

  4. July 18, 2017 at 5:11 am

    “positive doesn’t mean multi-dimensional or realistic” – yaaas! Hence my frustration with the Strong Female Character; women who aren’t pushovers or helpless are rarely martial arts whizzes, or machine-gun-toting badasses, and yet that seems to be a default option for (some) male artists representing female strength. Sigh. Good on Price for accepting criticism – it’s hard to do that no matter who you are.

    • July 18, 2017 at 10:33 pm

      Thanks Elle! I do think owning up to the criticism couldn’t have been easy, especially when he had a lot of conflicting/positive reviews.

  5. July 18, 2017 at 5:33 am

    Every time I read a description of a woman’s breasts in a book, it makes me scream. Like, I have literally never looked at mine and considered how to accurately describe their firmness and shape in a simile. I have occasionally found this annoying trope in books by women too, which I find even more annoying! I’m glad this author seems to have taken criticism on board.

    • July 18, 2017 at 10:37 pm

      I agree! If anything, women are probably more likely to be critical of their breasts — as in, there’s not enough of them, or they’re too heavy, saggy, etc. I’ve actually given a lot of thought to how an author describes a character physically. It’s important to provide some detail but an author doesn’t have to paint a physical picture of every character, that’s what the imagination is for! There are ways to describe a character through the action of the book rather than just “here’s what she looks like” which feels really artificial.

  6. July 27, 2017 at 2:32 pm

    Loved your post about this article, and definitely applaud the author Price for not getting defensive and taking the criticism to heart. I wish him well.

  7. August 9, 2017 at 10:36 pm

    As a female writer, I like to think I am creating well-rounded, multidimensional female characters–and also well-rounded, multidimensional male characters. After all, that’s our job as writers. Writers who create characters of a different race or sexual identity than the writer also need to remain extra vigilant not to fall victim to easy stereotypes, and I’ll bet they often find themselves criticized for getting something wrong.

  8. August 30, 2017 at 10:31 am

    I find this fascinating, and I agree that reading that Price took the criticism to heart makes me want to read his books.

  9. September 7, 2017 at 5:01 am

    Wonderful article! Absolutely sharing it on my post next week. And I am touched by the fact that the author would pay so much attention to negative reviews – not a lot of people are willing to do that. I actually have that book, just haven’t read it yet. I usually don’t notice this stuff in books though, cause I’ve “learned” to read sci-fi early, and that comes with letting go of seeing yourself in those roles. But I’m excited that it’s changing, even if it’s changing one step at a time.

  10. September 10, 2017 at 1:53 pm

    Really great piece, I’m glad the author looked at those comments. It is really important for authors to put themselves in the shoes of the characters completely. Perhaps they could do some role playing, otherwise all the character descriptions come only from the author’s one set of eyes. I’ve just read Rayne Hall’s ‘Writing Vivid Characters’ and it made a lot of sense, she talks about how men and women see the same thing from very different perspectives.

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