Reading · Writing

“Smile,” They Said.

Warning: Rant Ahead

Related: NOT political

…except for starting with the story about at least one male journalist’s commentary about Secretary Clinton’s primary wins last week. I liked Valenti’s article in The Guardian about this as she helped accentuate the principal irritation with the journalist’s “Smile. You just had a big night.” tweet. Valenti says:

“Of all the things women hear from men – whether street harassers or pundits – there is special disdain for “smile” because of its particular condescension, and the tired trope that women should be forever chipper even as they’re walking down the street or, you know, running for president of the United States.”

Would the male journalist have tweeted this same comment had it been Senator Sanders with the big night?


Now, the issue I’m going to link this to in writing is more nuanced because it gets complicated with the broad audience involved and what is expected in a genre of writing. It’s related to this whole idea that a protagonist must be sympathetic – oh wait, no, not all protagonists. Just the female ones.

Here are comments I see with not only some of my openings with female characters, but with others, too:

She’s kind of cold. Is there a way to make her seem more warm and sympathetic?

I’m having a hard time relating to her. 

She’s pretty hard on people – do you think you can make her nicer or kinder? Can you soften her?

Where is her hope? She seems too anxious.

Too stressed.

Too depressed.

Too indifferent.

Too angry.

A female protagonist is/can be “strong” and “kick-ass”, but if she doesn’t also seem nurturing or understanding? Well.

Or how about how a female protagonist is supposed to feel? Death is supposed to make her feel sad. Illness is supposed to make her feel scared. Children are supposed to make her feel complete. At some point she should really want romantic love. If she doesn’t appear to feel these things, then she is cold and angry. Or someone we wouldn’t want to be friends with. A few years ago, Publisher’s Weekly interviewed Claire Messud about her character, Nora, in The Woman Upstairs:

Interviewer: I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.

Messud: For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao?”


Or what of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye? Would we want to be friends with him? (I thought I’d throw that one in there because there were several names Messud mentioned that I had no idea who they were…)

She goes on to say that no, in fact, Nora’s outlook is not grim, that most of the novel occurs during times of joy for Nora.


A book that starts with a male protagonist who is cold and angry is interesting and compelling.

I want to be clear that A) this is not at all an argument about male vs female audience (Messud’s interviewer above was female and a huge number of agents, editors, and reviewers are female) and B) a warm character can obviously be a good thing, and sometimes preferred in certain genres.

Obviously I’ve already run into personal experience with this and though I’m tenacious (the preferred term for those of us in the stubborn population), I’m not immoveable. I’ve certainly listened to crit partners and beta readers and made adjustments based upon this whole “make her more sympathetic” stuff (and let me tell you, in at least one case I worked very hard to not give up who my character was while adjusting to this expectation).

What frustrates me is the double standard and that these “make her softer” seem to almost exclusively refer to “her” not “him”.

I decided to do a little research. I found some opening pages of popular books with male protagonists. What if they were female?

Case #1: Killing Floor (Jack Reacher #1) – Lee Child

I haven’t ever read any of these books, but I imagine I might like them. I enjoy this opener with Reacher’s methodical and matter-of-fact assessment of his situation.

My take on if this opening were changed out as a female narrative: She’s wet and tired – tell us more about how she feels. Why is she tired? When all the cops get there, we have this line “I just sat and watched them.” (bottom of page 1) < — she seems a bit detached. Doesn’t she care at all? Isn’t she scared??

Case #2: Storm Front (Book 1 of the Dresden Files) – Jim Butcher

I’ve heard many good things about this series. Opening pages show humor and hey, the protagonist is a wizard. He’s a little crabby, but the mail carrier is pushing his luck. I’d be totally irritated with him.

My take on if this opening were changed out as female protagonist: Actually, it seems like this would work. It’s possible the “I sighed, not in the mood to get mocked again” would come across as the woman being bitchy, but maybe not? The problem is, that I think it would work, but then, I think my character who isn’t initially in grief over losing her estranged brother is just fine.

Case #3: Lamb – Christopher Moore

This is the only book of Moore’s that I’ve read, and I really enjoyed it. For some, I’m sure it’s too sacrilegious, but even when I read it back when I was more Catholic/Christian than not, I still found it funny.

My take on if this opening were changed out as female narrative: Reading the opening pages now – I’m not sure “Biff” or Jesus are sympathetic as they are, but surely they’d get a pass for being male. Female narrator? That “Unclean! Unclean!” line would have been the death of her. Cold. No empathy.

Case #4: A Game of Thrones – George R.R. Martin

This book? I did not like. This series is insanely popular, but I have so many issues with it that even with the “passes” it might get as male characters dominate both opening pages in the Prologue and Chapter 1, it still doesn’t pass muster with me as a whole. Just looking at it on the surface of the Prologue: crude writing. Chapter 1? Definitely better.

My take on if this opening were changed out as female narrative: The prologue would never make it out of the gate. Not even if it were a female author. Chapter 1 might have potential except, well, second sentence would already be problematic if it were a girl instead of a boy: “They set forth at daybreak to see a man beheaded, twenty in all, and Bran rode among them, nervous with excitement.” For shame – excited about a beheading? No way could a girl feel this way. Hard to say much more about what follows, as there is an interruption in the Google Books format of the shared pages.

Case #5: One for the Money (Stephanie Plum #1) – Janet Evanovich

Ah! Look at me, slipping in an example where the narrator is already female. I include this one because here is an example of a character who is considered “kick-ass” and part of a very popular series. This one passed the test. I’ve only ever read this first of the series and wanted to like it more, but not liking it had nothing to do with whether or not Plum came across as sympathetic enough in the opening pages. If I remember correctly, I wasn’t very keen on the relationship/interactions between Plum and Morelli later on. I feel like I could give it another go, though.

I guess what I want to point out in these opening pages, however, is that they are centered around the assholery (yes, it is too a word – I just made it one) of Morelli and sure, at the end of the first section Plum runs him over with her car, but until then, she’s under his spell and we already get a sense that she will be drawn in by him in some ways again.

In other words: these pages might have gotten a pass because of the male character. Hard to say, of course, but I wouldn’t rule it out.

Conclusion: I believe in Cases 1-3, especially, that I would like the characters equally well if they were gender-switched. Calm and analytical? I’ve got a lot of that in me, so I can relate. Snarky and impatient? Yep, got some of that, too – and what I don’t have, I can get behind in another woman in similar situations. However, calm and analytical = detached and cold for women. Snarky and impatient = bitchy and pushy.

There isn’t a thing wrong with wanting a warm, kind, patient, sensitive, and nurturing character, male or female. In some genres it’s a natural expectation (romance, inspirational, maybe even “southern”), but I’d love to see an increased acceptance for female characters who experience life in the same way we think is completely natural and “reasonable” for male characters, too.

Thoughts? Do you have different expectations for male and female behavior in fiction?

For my video, I’m going with Orianthi’s “According to You” which isn’t an exact fit, but I like the negative/positive contrast perspective.

What do you think? I'd love to discuss!

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