One of the primary difficulties I had in writing the first novel in my series, Division of the Marked, was this: the drama and tension for the middle third of the book did not come from an outside source, but rather through the butting-heads of my two protagonists. The inherent difficulty in this is something I had not considered in the planning stages, but became incredibly evident in revisions: for there to be tension, some of my characters were going to have to act like real asshats. In one of my early drafts I resisted this—everyone was likable and far too chummy, and while this draft included a number of humorous, fun scenes that were minor tragedies to cut, it utterly lacked tension. It also squandered the entire premise of my world building, the themes of prejudice and distrust between dissimilar groups (the book is called Division for a reason).
So, I knew someone was going to have to be the source of the tension. The choice of who should be the overly-prickly toolbag in question was a no-brainer. It was Bray—she was always a hot-head, as a Chiona she is stubborn and direct, she’s the leader of their party, and ten years of chasing rapists and murderers has rendered her, naturally, on the cold and distrusting side. I felt a slight pang at the necessity of this, but moved forward with purpose—the result was that, as the character who has the biggest chip on her shoulder, and therefore the most to overcome, she ends up being the character with the most significant development. The fact that she was the female character didn’t really enter into the equation, as I never defined her by her gender.
And so I revised. Gone were those fluffy, good-time scenes. The new version, on a plot level, worked much, much better. It had a lot more drama and the characters were given better opportunities to grow as a group. But…Bray had become something of an asshole. I hoped that the opening third would have warmed people to her enough that they would forgive her slight mania from chapters 12-14. I knew that some readers would find her rather unlikable for a while and that was fine with me. I care more about having a cast of interesting, dynamic characters than universally likable ones. I was braced for some pushback.
So when, as I anticipated, readers did find Bray unlikable from chapters 12-14, I was not surprised. I was, however, taken aback by the choice of language. Because while I kept thinking to myself in the writing of these scenes, “man, Bray, you’re being a real asshole here,” every single one of my readers who offered such feedback chose a different descriptor: Bitch. Bray is such a bitch. She was so nice before, why did you turn her into a bitch!?” One of the glories of Wattpad (actually my very favorite thing about having my book on the site) is getting real time feedback chapter by chapter. This gives me a truly interesting insight into readers reactions to specific sections of the book. The section in question, that hairy chapter 12-14…I got, well, bitch. One reader even said she felt ashamed of Bray as a woman.
All of this pulled me up sharp. Every time someone calls Bray a bitch I experience a bit of a jolt. Not because I am offended that people don’t like my character—as I’ve explained, I knew full well that her behavior was unreasonable and very id. Nor did I write Bray to be myself under a different name. She and I are not terribly alike, so no problems there. No, my reaction is due to the gendered language. No one said she was a jerk-wad or a sky crane (you know, world’s largest tool). No, she was always a bitch (except for one friend of mine who, while reading chapters 12-14, texted me that she was being a real c-word). It seemed that her irrational behavior, for my readers, was absolutely tied to her gender. That her bad behavior was somehow vagina-having-specific. Which, for me, was a bit of a surprise.
I suppose I should have seen all the bitch-slinging coming. It was pretty obvious, in retrospect. I didn’t because I never really viewed Bray as my ‘female character.’ She is female, but neither I nor any character in the book defines her by her gender. Both she and Yarrow walked more-or-less fully formed into my head, so it was not as if I ever sat down and thought, ‘hm, which characteristics should I give the girl and which should I give the boy?’
I wonder, had I swapped their genders, had I made the more dominant, forceful character the man and the bookish, introspective character the woman, what kind of reaction would man-Bray have elicited during chapters 12-14? Would the readers have felt that his irrationality and distrust were informed by his gender? Would he have received gender-neutral names—jerk, butt-head (am I the only adult who still says butted?), jag? Would he have been a ‘dick?’ (For the record, I do not think these words should be viewed as equivalent, as the possession of a dick has, historically, been a boon, while being a bitch never is).
I must say that I don’t much like the word bitch (though, like most words, it depends on context and intent). It’s a harsh sounding word—starting with the lip-popping ‘b’ and terminating in the harsh, clenched-teeth ‘tch.’ But mostly I don’t like it because it is generally used to describe women who are out-spoken and tough, who break the typical (or stereotypical) mold of femininity, and is thereby a way for our culture to perpetuate out-dated gender norms. A man who is direct, forceful, and doesn’t take bull-shit is just being a man’s man. A woman is a bitch. Possibly because I just read Tina Fey’s Bossypants, this blog post has me in mind of that great Weekend Update in ’08 about Hillary Clinton being called a bitch:
“Maybe what bothers me the most is that people say that Hillary is a bitch. Let me say something about that: Yeah, she is… You know what, bitches get stuff done. That’s why Catholic schools use nuns as teachers and not priests. Those nuns are mean old clams and they sleep on cots and they’re allowed to hit you. And at the end of the school year you hated those bitches but you knew the capital of Vermont.” – Tina Fey, SNL
But my readers who call Bray a bitch don’t mean it in this way. It isn’t a we’re-taking-bitch-back, you-go-bitch kind of reaction. Rightly so, she isn’t acting cool and in charge in these scenes, she’s acting unjustifiably irritable. But her irritability isn’t because she’s (ugh) PMSing or succumbing to her feminine-oversensitivity. It’s because life has gotten her back up and she’s endeavoring to appear hard in order to maintain an illusion of control. It doesn’t have to do with her being a girl at all.
So, I guess my point is that I’d love it if we stopped genderizing negative behavior just because the behavior is being perpetrated by a person who happens to have a gender. I don’t mind if you hate my character. I don’t even mind if you tell me about it—I love feedback, good and bad (and, for the record, I don’t think of this as negative feedback—characters need to be compelling, not necessarily lovable). I just wish we could insult a fictional individual as…well, an individual, rather than as a member of a certain sex.
So, yes, in chapters 12-14, Bray is a real douche-canoe. Bray is a scruffy-looking nerf herder. Bray is a ego-wielding wackjob. She’s…well, other things. I’m drawing a blank (feel free to leave further gender-neutral, inoffensive invectives in the comments) But, please, I’d love it if we stopped with the bitch-calling. While I’m all for free-expression and would never dream of telling someone they can’t say something (nor do I have any problem with profanity by and large), I do believe that language is a powerful thing. The words we choose to use and the connotations they carry have meaning, they say something about who we are and what we care about. Bitch is far from the worst word, but if you’re a lady it doesn’t do women any good. If you’re a dude, I’d recommend you just go ahead and cut that word out of your spoken vocabulary, for your own good really.Nicole Honeywill