Men Writing Women

There is a bit of a theme these days in both writers’ and readers’ circles about the inadequacies of male writers when portraying women.

I’ve never given it much thought, except to say that my stories feature both men and women and any character given a name will always have an impact on the plot and, at the very least, reveal some aspect of the main characters’ personalities.

For me that is the essence of meaningful characterisation – have the character, no matter how minor – do something that matters.

So it was with some consternation that I read a review recently that praised my historical fiction story (The Fighting Man) but included this rider:

However, there is an unnecessary focus on sex that detracts from the story, as the few women who were included in the work were mostly there just for the protagonist’s sexual forays or were extremely minimal characters.”

I all but screamed in existential pain when I read that, for numerous reasons, not least as ** spoiler alert ** the main character never gets to properly have sex – though he desperately wants to.

Now, I am the first to say that when a book is published, the author loses control. The book becomes the property of every reader and they are free to make of it what they will. So I’m not complaining about the above review (even though it looks like I am).

What I’m railing against today is that some readers appear to bring their own agenda (should that be a-gender?) to reading a book and perceive it through a lens that distorts the author’s intention.

I believe there is an automatic suspicion in some readers (and they’re not always women) of the female characters created by male writers. In fact, this suspicion is frequently warranted, as anyone who has ever watched a James Bond film might attest. There really are writers who create ciphers – one dimensional female characters whose only purpose is to gratify, decorate or be saved by the male lead.

But if you bring that suspicion to every book you read, then that’s what you’ll find. It is human nature to see the evidence that fits with a hypothesis and not see all the other inconvenient evidence that does not.

I turn now to my treatment of the women characters in The Fighting Man, so let’s start with context.

The setting is C11 Saxon England, plus Norman France and the Viking army. It is a proto-feudal, patriarchal society where no-one had political rights as they are understood today, and no amount of presentist posturing can sanitise that brutal reality. Any historical novelist worth his/her salt will be doing their best to convey a sense of how it really was – not a sense of how C21 moralists might prefer it to have been.

The Fighting Man is very much a retelling/interpretation of the Bayeux Tapestry, in which there are only two females. One is a woman being slapped by a cleric; the other is being forced to flee from a burning building. Both of these women are included in the story – the woman being slapped has a very important (even critical) role in the plot.

Of course, my research led to me to other women who featured in the known history, including Edith Swanneshals, Edith (daughter of Aelfgar) and Mathilda (wife of William the Bastard). All of these women have important roles in the plot of The Fighting Man, but none have as much impact as the main fictional female – Valla, the witch of the wood.

Brand (the main protagonist) is obsessed with Valla from the moment he meets her and their very tragic story – told from each of their separate perspectives – could simply not have happened if Valla’s story was not of approximately equal value to Brand’s.

After Brand, Valla was the most important person in the story. More important than any of the historical characters, including Harold Godwinson and William the Conqueror.

So how does anyone reading The Fighting Man come away with the impression that the female characters were only there for sexual forays (or were just very minor) when, in fact, the main female character never has sex (even though she wants to) and is far more important to the plot than the warring kings of England?

Honestly, I know I said that readers are free to come up with their own interpretations, and even free to spray those interpretations all over the internet, but we authors are sensitive souls and can only take so much. Abuse I can handle, but being misinterpreted drives me bonkers!

Which, some would probably say, is appropriately ironic.

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