The Portrayal of Female Characters

MithLuin

Administrator
Staff member
Numerically, there are more named male characters than female characters in the Silmarillion. When we get to the Hobbit, there's only Bilbo's late mother, the fabulous Belladonna Took, getting a name drop, and no actual named female characters at all. So, naturally, we will be inventing our own and fleshing out characters who are only names on a family tree from time to time. And we're fairly comfortable having this story be mostly about guys, the way it's also mostly about elves.

But I ran across this great image today, and thought I'd share:

2457
With this addendum added by a friend of mine:
"Just Friends":
The central male and female characters work together as equals, and there is no forced/contrived romance, they are just good friends.


Basically, these are all different ways of looking at the strength of writing applied to female characters in a story (especially a story in which most of the main characters are male). You have to work harder when you have fewer characters to work with ;).

Not every episode is going to pass the Bechdel test; we'd have to go out of our way to make that happen, as many of our female characters are geographically scattered. But if we go an entire season without having women talk to one another (about something other than a male character), then we would be dropping the ball. So far, I think we're doing well with this, but the point of having that criteria to refer to is to make sure we're continuing to make use of our female characters as women who are relevant to the plot, not just on the periphery or only interacting with male characters. In Season 4, our best opportunity is with Melian, Lúthien, and Galadriel in Doriath, but of course we also have Díriel and Edhellos in Angband. Aredhel and Idril will continue to interact in the isolation of Gondolin.

For the Mako Mori criteria, we have been pinning our hopes on Galadriel. She is the character with the longest arc among our current elven cast, and we are trying to develop and show her growth as an independent storyline, not 'simply' as part of the overall story of the Noldor. Haleth will likely be a mini-example of this next season, but she's not likely to live for more than 3 episodes.

I doubt we're in danger of writing any Sexy Lamp characters. We are trying to counter a lot of expectations about how love/sex/marriage are going to be handled in this story.... Silm Film isn't going to have any Bond Girls (and even Bond girls can be written as more interesting characters than simply window dressing at times). Our intent is to portray relationships as being lifelong marriages with families and such. So, you know, very wholesome and the opposite of a girl running around in skimpy clothes to be ogled at in most cases.

Anti-Freeze is going to be tough. We're in a position to kill off and torture a *lot* of female characters. And, oh look, we don't have very many female characters, so...it's a fairly high percentage of the ones we have. So, if we're committed to the deaths we've already plotted out (and we are), then I think what we have an obligation to do is to write those women as real characters, so that the audience knows them. It's not going to be 'fridging' when we get to Aredhel's death scene...even though her death will most certainly have an impact on Maeglin. And the reason it won't be fridging is that we've known Aredhel for 3 seasons at that point, and we have a much better handle on her character than Maeglin's. Her death is the end of her story, but it isn't the only part of her story we're telling. I think we are handling Edhellos fairly well, even if most of the 'getting to know you' scenes are torture leading to death. Earwen and Elenwë both had scenes prior to their death scenes, but it's fair to say we didn't spend a lot of screen time developing their characters. So, yeah, accusations of fridging are more likely to 'stick' there than with, say Míriel, who was a main character throughout the season leading up to her demise.

"Strength is Relative" is so important to understand, and the entire reason I chose to post this, actually. Sometimes, people think that writing a 'strong' female character means writing a badass female warrior type. She has to be able to fight to be strong! But, really, what people are looking for here is strong characterization. We want to know this woman and have her be a well-written character who seems alive and real. Her strengths and weaknesses can be whatever they need to be in the story we are telling. It's fine to have flawed female characters. It's more disappointing to have flat one-dimensional characters. And it's super simplistic to think that fighting is the only thing of importance happening in the story ;). Writing characters who aren't passive but aren't fighters either takes a bit of creativity, but it can certainly be done. I think we're off to a good start with introducing the herald role as a non-fighter military position. And we're introducing besain in Season 4 as well, which shows another important role in elven society unrelated to who is king or who is leading the army. But obviously this is something we will have to continue to work on.

As for 'Just Friends' - do we have any examples of a male and female close friendship? We sure do - Daeron and Lúthien (though, oops, he falls in love with her, so it becomes a love triangle later). And Aredhel and Celegorm. We don't necessarily need a ton of these (I'm fine with most good friendships being male-male or female-female), but it's good to have this from time to time, too. I think we'll have elf-dwarf and elf-human friendships that will fulfill the spirit of this rule as well - that they work together as friends.
 

Rhiannon

Well-Known Member
Don’t forget, we also have female villains, such as Thuringwethil, Ungoliant, and Shelob, who could fall into those categories.
 

Ange1e4e5

Well-Known Member
Well, we don’t really have any female characters in Fingolfin or Fingon’s vicinity for most of the First Age in the books, with the exception of Aredhel before she left for Gondolin, until the House of Hador arrives (maybe one in the published Silmarillion because Fingon is Gil-galad’s father) before we have our besain.

In the case of anti-freeze, there’s going to be worse things than death that happen to the female characters. For example, Aerin will be forcibly taken to wife by Brodda and Nienor will have her mind wiped and commit incest with her brother. And there will be attempts at rape; Celegorm tries to force Luthien to marry him and Maeglin tries to rape Idril in The Fall of Gondolin.

Don’t forget, we also have female villains, such as Thuringwethil, Ungoliant, and Shelob, who could fall into those categories.
Well, Shelob is going to survive the main events of the Silmarillion. I’ve suggested that Luthien and Huan take Thuringwethil out during Beren and Luthien on their way to Tol-en-Gaurhoth and she is definitely killed since Luthien takes her form. No idea what to do with Ungoliant.
 

Rhiannon

Well-Known Member
Well, we don’t really have any female characters in Fingolfin or Fingon’s vicinity for most of the First Age in the books, with the exception of Aredhel before she left for Gondolin, until the House of Hador arrives (maybe one in the published Silmarillion because Fingon is Gil-galad’s father) before we have our besain.

In the case of anti-freeze, there’s going to be worse things than death that happen to the female characters. For example, Aerin will be forcibly taken to wife by Brodda and Nienor will have her mind wiped and commit incest with her brother. And there will be attempts at rape; Celegorm tries to force Luthien to marry him and Maeglin tries to rape Idril in The Fall of Gondolin.


Well, Shelob is going to survive the main events of the Silmarillion. I’ve suggested that Luthien and Huan take Thuringwethil out during Beren and Luthien on their way to Tol-en-Gaurhoth and she is definitely killed since Luthien takes her form. No idea what to do with Ungoliant.
From Episodes 10-13 of this season, Fingon has a female lieutenant. There is also Annael’s wife, who may play a larger role in the story depending on what happen with Annael.
 

Ange1e4e5

Well-Known Member
From Episodes 10-13 of this season, Fingon has a female lieutenant. There is also Annael’s wife, who may play a larger role in the story depending on what happen with Annael.
I forgot about them.

Also later on in our run, Meril will be killed by F.A. 495 in all likelihood in the Fall of Nargothrond and Finduilas will be killed in a prisoner massacre in Brethil shortly afterward. Geez, there's a lot of people stuffed in the fridge in The Children of Hurin.
 

MithLuin

Administrator
Staff member
True, we can put Thuringwethil / Sauron in the 'Just Friends' category. I don't think we are really giving Thuringwethil a narrative arc, and her story is very much about aiding and supporting Sauron.

'Antifreeze' is more about why bad things happen to characters. So, sure, what Glaurung does to Nienor is pretty awful. But are we going to tell that story as Nienor's story, or is it just going to be a way Glaurung messes with Túrin? Tolkien is careful to separate the reveal, so we get Nienor's reaction to the news first while Túrin isn't conscious. I think we will likely choose to show Nienor as a character in her own right, apart from Túrin, well before she meets Glaurung. The point here isn't that you can't put your female characters through horrific experiences. It's that if you do so just so the men in their lives can get mad about it, you are glossing over them as people and lose points for lack of robust characterization ;) .

I am not going to suggest that stories that fail to meet these metrics are bad stories. Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus very much relies on his daughter being raped and maimed as a major motivation for his revenge plot. And what it means to her is incidental. Once she finds a way to reveal the names of her attackers (they cut out her tongue and cut off her hands), her part in the story is over, and her father snaps her neck in public while revealing the crime. It's meant to be a ritual honor killing. Whatever - Titus Andronicus is a brutal story. Point being, it's a brilliant play, despite failing the 'Antifreze' test spectacularly.

Almost all of these criteria are born of frustration about stories consistently failing/dropping the ball when it comes to portraying women as characters. Not all stories fail (there are plenty of stories with well-written female protagonists), and some fail in the opposite direction (the male characters of The Color Purple are shadowy caricatures with unclear motivations - they're just...there). As we are setting out to adapt a story with mostly male protagonists, our female characters will typically be minor/supporting roles. So, we have to do a good job with what we're doing, to bring these characters to life and make them seem 'real'. Some traps we will likely avoid with ease (at least, if anyone decides that we need a mid-riff-baring woman walking around at any point, that idea will probably get nixed pretty fast ;) ). I know we aren't actually filming, but I doubt we'd get accused of catering to 'the male gaze' nor will we be writing something that Michael Bay would want to direct. In other words, the ways we will avoid that pitfall is by fundamentally deciding that's not what our story is about. But others of these will take some wrestling with, and we will not avoid 100%. The goal isn't to avoid these cliches, but rather to be mindful of them and intentional in the choices we make, not lazy.
 

Ange1e4e5

Well-Known Member
Another thing to keep in mind is that, while we want to make sure our female characters are strong, we don't want to weaken our male characters just so we can make female characters strong by comparison.
True.

On an existential note, what does it mean to have a strong female character?
 

Halstein

Active Member
True.

On an existential note, what does it mean to have a strong female character?
Here in Norway, Fisherman-Farmer's wives are often considered strong. They were taking care of their dirt poor farms, and children, for long periods, while their husbands were away fishing. The fish was necessary to get enough food, and income, even if the husband didn't always survive. It might not be "action-hero" stuff though.
 

amysrevenge

Well-Known Member
I think Finduilas* is where we will have to watch for the fridge most closely. In the PubSil she's almost the textbook example.

*I was going to clarify that I meant the Elf Finduilas, not the human mother of Boromir and Faramir, but I suppose it applies in both cases.
 

Ange1e4e5

Well-Known Member
I think Finduilas* is where we will have to watch for the fridge most closely. In the PubSil she's almost the textbook example.

*I was going to clarify that I meant the Elf Finduilas, not the human mother of Boromir and Faramir, but I suppose it applies in both cases.
I'd say The Children of Hurin in general is fridgeing territory, since there's also Aerin who is forcibly taken to wife by Brodda and later commits suicide, Rian dies of grief at the Haudh-en-Nirnaeth, and we have Meril who will likely be killed in the Fall of Nargothrond.
 

MithLuin

Administrator
Staff member
I agree that the point isn't to imbalance the story and turn the male characters into shadowy caricatures at the service of the storylines of the female characters, either. I doubt we're in much danger of doing that with the Silmarillion, but definitely, no one wants that, either.

And, exactly, strength of character has nothing to do with being an action hero.

To my mind, a 'strong female character' is a character who is written in a believable enough way that she comes across as a real person. You think, oh, I've met her before. She's someone I know in real life. And we understand what drives her to do the things she does. So, a good example might be Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice - we see the story through her eyes, and learn who she is along the way. Now, I recognize that Elizabeth Bennett is a rather good person, and strong in her convictions. She's meant to be a bit ideal. For an example of a female protagonist who isn't those things...I can offer up Scarlett O'Hara from Gone with the Wind. She's strong, alright - we believe her when she says "I'll never be hungry again." Like, that's an Oath of Fëanor speech if I've ever heard one..... Not very likable, of course, but very motivated. So, obviously, it's easier to achieve these things when you're talking about the protagonist of a story. It's a little harder to see that in supporting characters, but it can still be there.

And just because a story is written about women by a woman doesn't mean that the characters will all be well-developed or fleshed out or believable. Beth from Little Women is very much...simply a caricature. She's pure and good and perfect and not long for this world. I'm not saying that there aren't real people like that - I'm just saying that it's difficult to write St. Therese of Lisieux convincingly! CLAMP, an all-female team that writes a bunch of manga, wrote Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicles, where the main female protagonist is literally asleep through many of their early adventures, and cluelessly without her memory when she does wake up. Sakura has her moments, but she's clearly the weakest character in the ensemble as written. And she's not weak because she's not useful to the story or doesn't speak her mind, but because she's merely the premise/vehicle for the adventures. Syaoran needs to travel to all the different worlds collecting the feathers of her scattered soul so that she will get her memories back (but she'll never remember him). She's a device, barely a character at all. I think that Charles de Lint is a fantasy writer who is brilliant at writing female characters. Even just in a short story, I believe him when he describes who they are. I might not like them or understand them from my own point of view...but I believe that that is who they are. His characters (particularly his female characters) are fully realized.

In my mind a 'weak female character' is one who can be summed up by her appearance - 'hot blond chick in a {describe outfit}' is not a characterization. If her whole reason for existing is to trade snarky comebacks with a male protagonist until they finally just kiss, she's probably not written very well. If she's passively hanging around waiting for the guy to save her so she can fall into his arms, she's probably not a character at all. Does she have a story? Do we know why she's doing what she's doing? If she's simply beautiful and mysterious, she's eye candy or window dressing, not a character. If she stands on the sidelines and shouts the name of the main character but does little else, she's incidental to the story. If her back story can be summed up in a single line, she's lightly sketched at best. I don't want to pick on James Bond movies (I don't like them and haven't seen most of them), but I think Bond girls are stereotypically lightly sketched caricatures. But here's an easy contrast to see from a franchise I am familiar with: Willie in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom isn't much of a character. I get that she's a side kick (like Short Round) and the love interest, but there's really not much to her back story or reason for being there. She's just...there. Apparently, to scream a lot.
Contrast this with Marion in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. She has a reason to be involved in this story. She and Indy have a back story, she's involved in her father's work, she has her own motivations and the actions she takes fit them. Also, she acts independently of Indy. After Indy refuses to rescue her (getting her out would raise the alarm), she takes the first opportunity to rescue herself.

Willie is a weak female character not simply because she screams and can't handle the rigors of the journey or figure out the foreign culture she's in -- she's weak because she's superfluous to the story. Would the story play out any differently if she weren't there? I don't recall a scene where her actions were particularly crucial (though it's been a long time since I watched the opening with the poison and the antidote, so I don't recall how that played out). She needs to be babied and taken care of, and is a hindrance and liability. Marion takes care of herself, though she certainly benefits from assistance from Indy at times. She doesn't have to be strong enough to fight off the four armed Nazis who come for her - but she is resourceful enough to be helpful and survive the ensuing firefight and get the medallion they're all fighting over. When she declares herself his partner, we expect her to be taking an active part in this team-up and contributing something to the effort.
She's a strong character because...she is a character. You can describe her and she has character traits and a story and a personality. Granted, some of that characterization is that she smokes and drinks 'like a man' and that she uses her feminine whiles. There's a lot of action hero cliches in her story. This is Indiana Jones, not exactly a franchise known for its nuanced character development ('Snakes! I hate snakes!' 'Nazis; I hate these guys.') Still, it's clear that the writing of Marion is significantly better than the writing of Willie, whose character can be summed up as 'useless blond girl who screams a lot'. At no point in that film am I convinced that the writers know anything about Willie except that she was a showgirl who can sing.
 
Last edited:

Rhiannon

Well-Known Member
I'd say The Children of Hurin in general is fridgeing territory, since there's also Aerin who is forcibly taken to wife by Brodda and later commits suicide, Rian dies of grief at the Haudh-en-Nirnaeth, and we have Meril who will likely be killed in the Fall of Nargothrond.
I don't think fridging just means that women die; it's more about women having no purpose but to die and motivate a male character in some way. I don't think Aerin, Rian, or Meril exist and die solely for the purpose of motivating other characters. While their deaths may be factors in decisions other characters make, it's also important to show the reality of war. People die, and some of those people who die are female.
 

MithLuin

Administrator
Staff member
Exactly - Aerin's fate isn't something that needs back story or context. She's living in an occupied land and she has an unhappy life, but...that's just a thing that happens. How we use her as a character will depend on what story we are trying to tell with 'Easterling-occupied Dor-lomin', but I seriously doubt anyone will view her forced marriage as something we did 'just' to motivate Túrin. I do think we'll have to be careful with how we handle fate and free will in the story of Túrin, so naturally fridging will come into it - but much more with Finduilas than with Aerin.

Also, while there are 'fates worse than death' in this story (what the Witch-king threatens Eowyn with, for instance), I don't want to get in the habit of using that as a euphemism for rape. In Aerin's case, if she thought death were preferable, she likely would have killed herself. For whatever reason, she has chosen to live as Brodda's wife rather than do that. We can give her a reason when we get to that story, but the reason Tolkien seemed to give her was a practical choice to submit to the marriage and then use her position to help her people. It's a sacrifice on her part, but it may very well be her own choice. Not that she would have chosen Brodda in other circumstances, but...how 'forced' she is depends very much on how you tell the story - forced by circumstance, or forced by threats of violence, or physically forced... We may decide to write her more like Esther than as a victim of assault. Or we may want to make it very clear that she's a battered woman trapped in a loveless and abusive marriage. We'll have some choices to make when we get to her story.




Part of the problem here is with a really good story, most of the faults called out in the opening post are forgivable. There are plenty of good movies, TV shows, and books that fail nearly all of the criteria above. That doesn't make them any less good for all of that.

The Princess Bride is a great story, genuinely funny and eminently quotable. And Buttercup is a completely useless 'protagonist' - she's very passive, spending a good deal of the story tied up, blindfolded, passed around, and forced into actions by others. Her few redeeming moments in the film aren't even in the book (in the book, she's even ditzier). I love this film, but I do remember watching it again as a family when my baby brother was in college. And it must have been a few years since he'd seen it, because his comment was 'wow, this is really sexist.' He's not wrong. It's a fair criticism. What do we really know about Buttercup, beyond the fact that she is blond and beautiful and not terribly smart? She...likes to ride horses and boss people around? Okay. But again...despite the title character being a poorly developed protagonist, still a great, great film.


Hmmm, which of the three characters on screen is completely incidental to this scene? Can't possibly be the silent blindfolded bound woman. She is an object the two men are fighting over possession of. Do I dislike this scene? No. I think it's brilliant. *helpless shrug*

When a film is less good overall, these flaws are more glaring, and they look like sloppy writing. The death of Frigga in Thor 2 was so obviously plot convenient and pointless that it was very, very frustrating to watch it play out. We know she can project herself to appear in one place while really being in another. Avoiding the bad guys who want to get her on her home turf should be easy enough. And yes, she wants to protect Jane. But to have her fatally stabbed in the moment when Thor crashes through the door....that was obviously meant to be the excuse to make Thor and Loki work together, the reason for Thor to be desperate enough to break his brother out of jail. Her death was 100% about the effect it would have on her sons in the story. Asgard's amazing medical abilities were useless at saving her because no one writing the story wanted her to be saved. It's clunky and infuriating.

Oh, come *on*! This is so pointless. Pretty funeral, but still - so frustrating.

I would argue (strenuously) that the Pilot of the TV show Supernatural is well-written. It's a good story, and does a great job of introducing the characters and premise to the audience. If there's a scene that could have benefited from some more finesse in writing it, it's the scene where Sam and Dean 'review' their backstory/childhood for the audience's benefit. It works, but it could be better, I think (and the guy who wrote it thinks the same). But overall, it's a really solid pilot and a great indication of what that show was going to be about. Hard to miss that they fridged the only two female characters they bothered introducing, though, and very much use these deaths as motivations for the main characters. The genre is horror - killing people in violent and horrific ways is a staple.

This character is pinned to the ceiling, stabbed in the gut, and set on fire within the first five minutes of the show's pilot. She's the only female member of her immediate family (who all survive this incident). Surprisingly, the actress appears in 37 more episodes after this.

So, what of it? Being the show Supernatural, both of the characters killed in the pilot appear again in later episodes. One even gets fully fleshed out character development (eventually). But - and here's the key thing - the show didn't have a recurring female character who wasn't a literal demon until Season 2. And almost every single female character who has appeared on this show has been killed off for the dramatic effect that would have on the protagonists (of course, the same is true of the male supporting cast, but...) The recurring characters who stuck around longest tended to be the male co-stars - Bobby (a hunter and father-figure for the boys, seasons 1-7), Castiel (an angel, seasons 4-15, but compare that to Anna 4-5), and the demon Crowley (seasons 5-12).

Hmmm, what's missing in this picture? Oh, I know, the car! This is from the opening of Season 9, so they had plenty of time to make other choices here. The final season poster includes the car...and four male characters.

The short lifespan of Sam's love interests is a running joke (as is Dean's short attention span when it comes to the women he hooks up with). And the writers initially struggled to introduce female characters who weren't love interests of the male leads. So, in that sense, the pilot very much did set the precedent for the next 15 years of this TV show, and I think it's a fair criticism to make that little effort was being made to write recurring female characters...and the ones they did have were always available for being killed off to motivate the brothers in some way or another. 'Death-of-beloved-character-leads-to-revenge-spree' is a plot device that appears over and over in this show. Even in cases when it's obviously unnecessary. Eventually, they learned how to write female characters who didn't need to be killed off in horror movie ways almost immediately. Sheriff Jody Mills (a friend/fellow hunter), Claire Novak (Castiel's vessel's daughter), Rowena (a powerful witch and Crowley's mother), and even the character who was fridged in the opening scene of the pilot (sorta). It's a TV show about two brothers who hunt monsters; I'm not expecting their third main character to be a woman. But I do think that by calling out what they did with the female characters in the Pilot, it sheds some light on the approach to writing the rest of this story. And I get it, they chose Bobby over Ellen, and Castiel over Anna. There were reasons for those choices and they weren't necessarily mistakes. But they are part of a pattern. The deaths of Charlie (which led to Mark-of-Cain!Dean massacring the Stynes) and Eileen (which was part of the lead up to the attack on the British Men of Letters by Sam) definitely look like fridging. Cause they are. [Unrelated to this thread, but how many of the black characters cast on this show are villains/antagonists/monsters? Almost all of them. The exceptions are Rufus, Cassie, and Missouri (and later Missouri's granddaughter Patience.) But to their credit, two of those exceptions appear in the first season, and there's even an exception in the pilot (too minor to be counted), so this trend didn't start in the very beginning.]


What happens to people who try to get between these brothers....


We're also writing a story about a majority male cast, with almost all male protagonists. It's only natural that our 'posters' will have mostly dudes on them. And, yes, the handful of women will mostly be wives and daughters and mothers. They'll be love interests, or relatives of main characters. Which is fine. I just want to make sure we make good use of them and give them the opportunities to be real characters, not shadowy background people who are just there, hanging out, doing nothing - until they die horribly.
 
Last edited:
Top