This panel was inspired by a piece comic writer and novel author Greg Rucka wrote for i09 and can be found here. But it seemed like a good topic to address at Geek Girl Con, so he took the stage with Susana Polo to talk about his article, his method of writing believable, realistic women, and answer some questions.
When Polo started reading comics it was for one character. She says it takes a while for you to pay attention to the names of the authors on the comics. And one of the names that kept coming up was Greg Rucka. No Man’s Land, Batman, etc. Rucka is also the author of the Atticus Kodiak series.
Rucka says he wrote the i09 piece in response to being asked how he writes realistic female characters. There are two part to the question: 1) how does he, having a penis, write characters without a penis? And 2) why aren’t more people doing it. “How do we do it?” Rucka asks. “I try to treat all characters with respect…. Characters are never all one thing. That is bad writing.” To assume that is the same thing as saying Harry Potter is a scar. Characterization is a million things. They are built on their history, education, experiences, sexual orientation, etc.
But when it comes to men writing women, we have to acknowledge we live in a sexist society. Rucka says, for example, he can walk down a Seattle street at 3 am, and doing that is a different experience for him than a woman. So it needs to be acknowledged, but that doesn’t mean it’s all you think about. “We ignore gender and characterization at our peril,” he says.
Of course, like any writing advice, Rucka reminds us, “Any writer who tells you this is how you do it, eye with suspicion.” One of the reasons writing works it that it’s an individual voice. There is no one right way.
His fourth Kodiak book is his first told from another character’s POV. That character is Bridgett Logan, Atticus’ ex-girlfriend, and a woman. In first person, everything is character because it is a character voice. Atticus might describe a chair as “sickly green” but Bridgett would call it “a piece of junk.” Bridgett is an Irish catholic girl from the Bronx who is a recovering junkie. Her perspective and narration are affected by those things.
Stories work because of investment in the characters. You don’t have to like them but have to empathize and care or the story fails. The reader needs to believe in it. “When you don’t know what you’re writing about, you are obligated to research it,” Rucka says. So he made a point of talking to the women he knew. And it was so simple. He didn’t do anything revolutionary. Like if he were to write about a fighter pilot, he would talk to pilots about how to fly a plane. It’s common sense to Rucka.
His wife and some friends would play 20questions with him about Bridgett and he would have to answer. They played no holds barred.”Does she get cramps?” one of his friends asked, and he said “What?” The friend explained at that every month for a couple of days she gets these horrible cramps that lay her out, so does Bridgett get cramps? That was an awareness he didn’t have, and it’s probably not referenced at all in the novel, but it’s an element that fed the character and informed her.
Good characterization is like an iceberg: the 1/8 you see is influenced by the 7/8 you don’t. Every superhero will react to a bank robbery differently because it’s character based. The writer has to have respect for the characters. “I write [women] well because I treat them like all my characters,” Rucka explains. “It’s not magical, it’s just hard work….giving the character their due.”
He gets really ticked off at writers who are say things like ‘you’re reading into it,’ when people complain about their work, about how it’s sexist (or really, any complaint). Rucka says, “But you put it there!” If its there in the text it’s there to be found. Once it’s put out in the world, it’s there to be read, and you have to take responsibility.
“I have a nine year daughter and I can’t give her cat woman to read. Period,” he says, because of the way it’s written and drawn, it’s degrading to women.
Rucka also advises that in order to stop those kinds of sexist portrayals, especially in comics, fans need to stop buying books that we hate. “You guys are buying comics and books you don’t like because you hope it will gt better and it won’t because you’re buying them.”
Polo asks, “Do we need characters that subvert stereotypes?” As a writer, she loves complex characters, and in some ways, everyone deserves to be a villain.
Rucka answers that, if you are writing in a modern realistic setting, you are obligated to the realism of that world. It becomes a case by case basis. Cliches are cliches because they’re true. In the mainstream, we don’t have enough portrayals of strong women or strong people of color or strong people disabilities. There is an artistic obligation to present the world. We are obligated to try and reflect the world.
Audience Question: This woman started buying Catwoman and Batgirl to support female leads in comics, but the art is still sexist. How does she tell the comics industry she wants female-led comics without supporting the sexist art work?
There is a public forum but sadly, the public forum can be dangerous when you say you have a problem. “I wish it was black or white, but it’s not,” Rucka tells her. The key is to ask at what point does it become too much for you? When it does, you have to stop. But you buy it til you can’t and then speak out about the problems. It’s got to be talked about. There is a tyrantic minority but they’re really loud and don’t have any manners. They will call you horrible things and won’t feel bad about it. There is no easy solution for that. Write letters to the publishers.
Audience Question. Do you character research first or second?
Both. Anyone who does world building can tell you, research is a rabbit hole. With certain characters, he will know more about them as he writes them. The reason you show, don’t tell is you want to see the reactions. And that kind of character development is organic. Again, anyone who tells you this is how it’s done and there are no other methods is lying. And, Rucka says, we all do things that are out of character and stuff we don’t want to admit to, but none of us are angels, so even fictional people won’t always act “in character.”
Audience Question. Can you talk about some of the common mistakes when guys write females?
“The biggest mistake is that men write men who have breasts. It’s lazy because it implies that the difference is cosmetic.”
Audience Question. How much stock should be put into character names?
Names matter. Rucka puts a lot of thought in it. But you can go too far down the line like Hiro Protagonist.
And with that, the panel ran out of time. Thanks to Greg Rucka and Susana Polo for a fascinating, informative hour.