Sunday, April 3, 2011

On Female Characters: Obeying the Laws of Physics (also some biology)

Disclaimer: This is mainly written for the dudes, because I'm assuming most females have a pretty good idea of how females work physically.
Okay, so you want to write a female character. Shying away from personality differences for a moment (that's a whole other rant), you're probably going to be including some of the physical differences. If you're into females, you may be thinking about going for fanservice. So for this rant, I'm going to cover the biological and clothing-related aspects of being female. Physical stuff comes first; clothing is after.

Clearly women aren't built in the same way as men. There are several tendencies at work: women tend to be shorter and lighter, have wider hips, and tend to have less muscle mass; it tends to be harder to put on muscle, and easier to hold onto fat. These tendencies are not set in stone, so do not include them in your Grand Unified Theory of Why Men or Women are Better/Stronger/Etc. Women also tend to be more resistant to cold, and have higher pain tolerance and be more dexterous. Again, these are tendencies. There are just as many body types for women as there are for men, and work, eating, and exercise habits have just as much of an effect. A soldier isn't going to have a super-thin waist or thin muscle-less arms. However, just as with men, many different body types can be attractive. Big boobs, tiny waist, and nice hips are not a prerequisite and if you insist that every female character have them I will stab you with pencils.

So I should probably explain some things about breasts, since the people who most need to read this rant don't have them. They obey the laws of physics. They are heavy. They get in the way. Of course, your character's opinion on them will depend on her own body image, but not every girl wants huge ones.

Two more notes on breasts: binding and realism with sizes. Be mindful if your character wants to wrap hers up to pass as male for whatever reason. Wrapping them flat is probably impossible over a certain size, and it's dangerous to try if you don't know what you're doing; wrapping too tightly can cause suffocation. Even if it's not to the point of being dangerous, it can be painful.

Be realistic about how big your character is. If she's young, she's not going to have big breasts, and she may well be uncomfortable about them. If she's underweight, they're not going to be big-- they're globs of fat, guys, that stuff goes away when you starve. If she's very athletic and doesn't have much body fat, they won't be very big either. However, it's not impossible to be well-endowed and athletic; one can be strong and still have a layer of healthy body fat given the right diet. Just be reasonable about it; note that Olympic athletes tend to be pretty flat, so if your character's doing that level of work and eating similar amounts of food she will likely be flat too. Sure, you can defy this for the sake of fanservice if you really want, but keep in mind that someone reading whatever you're doing who actually has breasts will probably stop taking you seriously if you're being blatantly unrealistic about them. (Yes, girls on the internet exist! Oi!)

The other physical aspect that may be relevant depending on what you're writing is menstruation. Hey, get back here, I see you hiding under the desk. It's really not that scary and I'm going to make it as quick and painless as possible. Now, ignoring periods is something I'd consider to be an acceptable break from reality (there will be a rant on acceptable breaks from reality later); it's just fine if you don't do anything at all with them (many would consider ignoring them to be the better option), but if you're going to include them, you'd dang well better do it right-- that's the only reason I'm talking about them. Okay, so it's a cycle. Comes every 28 days or so, sticks around for three to seven. Incidentally, a woman is most fertile on average about 14 days after her period ends (though that estimate won't necessarily save you from unplanned pregnancy). Some women aren't as regular (especially if they're malnourished or hyper-stressed), but in general, after the first one, it's not gonna be a surprise; I don't want to see a character suddenly mystified by the fact that she's bleeding when it's something that happens on a regular base it. As for what happens, we don't really need details here; suffice it to say that yes, it's annoying to deal with, and no, it's not just spontaneously bleeding all over the floor. I shouldn't even have to mention that latter bit but I've seen someone write it and augh what the hell, sir.

The more important part is the symptoms that come with periods, because these are what I see messed up all over and good Lord is it ever irritating. Okay, so there's really two sets: PMS and symptoms of actually being "on the rag". So PMS. The butt of all jokes and proof that women are irrational, emotional weaklings, right? Seriously, guys, grow an imagination and come up with some jokes that are actually funny.

Yes, PMS can cause mood swings. In terms of being "bitchy" or "irrational," though... that's not what it is. I've heard it described as a loss of patience, and experience tells me that this is a pretty good description. Everyone has things that bother them. Most people learn to shove those bothers to the side and not say anything, but there are times when we just can't do that; if we're really tired, or hungry, or in pain, or stressed, then the irritations tend to come out. PMS is just another thing that removes that ability to ignore that which annoys. It's not an excuse to turn a character into a rabid bitch.

People tend to confuse the PMS moods with the symptoms of actually being on one's period. The P stands for "Pre-"; it means before, guys. That means when the messy bit starts, the moods often go away. However, physical symptoms can kick in during either stage: cramps, headache, feeling generally ill. Cramps hit in the midsection and can extend to your legs or a general sort of "everything hurts" if the body is feeling particularly assholish. Yes, a woman may be irritable at this time-- because being in pain tends to do that to people. Pain can range from not even there to "I'm taking today off and staying in bed", and it varies from person to person. Being in good shape helps. Tea helps. Ibuprofen helps. Getting used to it... well it doesn't help, but it means one will learn to keep functioning through it. In short, some pain is expected. I do not expect to see your fighter being reduced to a twitching pile on the floor, though.

There's another rather important physical consideration that I'm leaving out, which is pregnancy. I'm not getting into that because frankly I don't know all that much about it either.

If the periods scared you off, you can come back now, it's time to talk about clothes.

Whether or not your character is concerned with looking good is something for another rant, but there are a few physical realities to women's clothing that you're going to need to consider. In particular: skirts, heels, coverage, and tightness. I might also deal with long hair.

I have no issues with anyone's right to wear or prefer a skirt. However, the reality of skirts is that they are not generally practical for someone doing any amount of adventuring.

Short skirts do not go well with activity. Unless your character doesn't care that she's flashing everyone (hint: most women actually do) when she runs or kicks, a short skirt with nothing under it is right out. Some form of pants under the skirt can easily remedy this. This isn't a complete skirt veto.

Tight skirts go even worse with activity. Tighter skirts restrict the amount one's legs can open. Yes, that sounded dirty, but seriously: try running without moving your knees more than a foot apart. Doesn't work too great, does it?

Long skirts do not go well with activity. Maybe it's loose enough to run in, well that's a bonus. However, fabric obeys the laws of physics too; fabric has weight. Fabric bunches and tangles and gets caught in things and gets grabbed and gets stepped on and suddenly it isn't loose enough to run in. If a character in a long skirt needs to run (really run, not just sort of do the girly jog thing) I expect to see her kilting it up to make things easier.

Skirts do not go well with horseback riding, or riding astride whatever fantastic mount. I'm looking at you, fliers from Fire Emblem. If the skirt isn't too long or tight, this can again be very easily remedied with the addition of pants or leggings under them. But getting into the saddle without something on her legs is something I don't really see any woman with sense doing. Having done a fair amount of both horseback riding and skirt-wearing (obviously not at the same time) I can assure you that in order to be comfortable, the two activities are mutually exclusive. Of course, there exists the sidesaddle, which admittedly I have no experience with, and you can still be pretty badass in a sidesaddle (I know there are women who jumped sidesaddle) but you're not going to be fighting sidesaddle. Fleeing, maybe. Fighting, no.

Heels. For the purpose of this discussion, a heel is anything over about an inch and a half; below that you can still be screwing everything up, but riding boots and the like also tend to have reasonable heels. Okay, so I know people who can run in stilettos. If it works for you, good for you. However the medical reality is that heels aren't very good for your knees. More immediately, heels break, and heels are not good with terrain. If you're running around a city where everything's nice and flat, heels might maybe work. Out in the wilderness, no. Really tall heels are also not going to work well with riding any sort of animal. My advice: unless you really know what you're doing, ditch the heels on your action girl, it just makes it easier to avoid all the plausibility issues.

Coverage. This is mostly for girls who are going outside or getting into fights. If you've got armor, for cryin' out loud make it more than the chainmail bikini. I will stab your chainmail bikini chick in the boob and watch her bleed out. Armor exists to cover the vitals so they don't get stabbed, not to be metal lingerie. As for going outside, there's this thing, it's called climate. Not wearing much in a tropical climate, okay, that might work. In temperate climates you're going to get a little chilly. Not wearing much in winter in a cold climate? What the hell are you doing? Oh that's right, you're freezing to death. I suppose the lack of clothing will make it that much easier for the wolves to strip the flesh from your bones. In the desert you might think it would make sense to not cover up but mostly you're just making it easier for the vultures to pick your sun-poisoned, dessicated corpse clean; the sun and the dry air are cruel mistresses. Clothes exist for a reason. Your female characters need to wear them just as much as the male ones do. Also a quick note: riding astride isn't particularly fun without long pants-- saddles aren't always that kind to bare skin.

If your character isn't fighting or braving climate extremes, still make sure that what she's wearing won't get her mistaken for a prostitute in her culture, unless she actually is one. (And given how many mistakes people tend to make in portraying those, I kind of hope she isn't.)

Tightness. Skintight clothing often, but not always, has practicality issues. I already covered tight skirts; tight pants can also be an issue depending on material. Skintight jeans are not good for doing high kicks. Spandex leggings are, if she's comfortable with the lack of things left to the imagination. Tightness also has the advantage of not being easy to grab, but again, pay attention to whether the material can stretch and accomodate for motion.

Long hair: Okay, I really don't think there's anything wrong with long hair. I actually like long hair. It's just that past a certain length, you have to be actively doing things to keep it growing. Butt-length hair, waist-length hair, okay, that can be natural... floor-length hair better have a reason. Also for those of you who haven't dealt with long hair: Hair has weight. Hair has volume. Hair gets in your face. Hair can get in the way of movement much like clothing can. Hair can be grabbed. The easiest way to deal with this is to pull it back, braid it, put it in a bun for the fighting and the running and so on. If she's a real badass, maybe she even braids something spiky into it to keep people from grabbing it. Just be mindful, as always, of the laws of physics.

TL;DR Females' anatomy and clothing are subject to the laws of physics just as much as males'. Also, no spontaneous bleeding on the floor or PMS jokes.

Sometime soon, I will do a rant on the personality aspects of writing female characters. No way could I neglect that.


Writing rant disclaimer:
Some of you may have read some of my fiction or participate in an RP I am part of. If you notice that something in my writing has something I have labeled as a problem in my rant, go ahead and tell me so! I may not have noticed that I'm doing whatever it is, so that can help me! However, I do want to keep this place polite, so please no unnecessary bashing of my characters, or, for that matter, anyone else's, be it a fellow commenter or a fellow RP'er. 


  1. Well that was an interesting read. Thanks for covering some of those issues. Idiots would be threatened by something like this but if you think about it, an article like this when taken to heart should make guys feel a lot more comfortable rping females. I am at least.

  2. Glad it was useful! I was mostly aiming to avoid glaring realism failures because I was under the impression that more of the comfort issues came from the personality aspects than the physical ones, but maybe I was mistaken on that count. At any rate, stay tuned~


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