Tag Archives: writing female characters

Q&A: Breasts and Breastplates

I’ve read your posts on female armor, and it really helped me with designing armor for my female superhero, but I have a concern: would wearing a flat breastplate inhibit a well-endowed woman? It almost seems like it would make it hard for her to breathe, especially if she’s bigger and taller than average (my character stands at 6′ 2″)

That… is an anime gag.

There are medical conditions which can cause this, but if there’s breathing issues then that’s a clothing issue and if the armor is causing you to be short of breath then… the armor is useless and not doing its job.

Corsets and any sort of binding that doesn’t allow the lungs/chest cavity/ribs/diaphragm to expand will cause shortness of breath in… either gender. It is historically more common in women because of, well, fashion. You didn’t need to be well-endowed to fall prey to the whale-bone corsets of the 18th century. (Which also led to miscarriages.)

The argument you’re referring to is one common among fanboys, primarily as a justification for boobplate and the fetishistic armor choices for female superheroes. For all it’s claims to realism, it has zero bearing on reality.

The weight of your boobs doesn’t make you short of breath or hamper your ability to breathe. It can, in some cases, be painful during high energy activities when they’re bouncing around but the solution is called a sports bra. (Besides, big boobs can disappear fast depending on the type of activity. You ever seen runners or professional female athletes in almost… well, anything? Muscle burns fat, and your chest muscles will start with your chest. No fat, they shrink.)

The Most Common Superpower joke is that women get to keep theirs and stay conventionally attractive when engaging in highly aerobic activity.

If we want to start with the issue in the presentation of female action heroes it begins here. (And that men, and some women, usually don’t understand how breasts work.) Or have this idea the issue has never been addressed because women don’t participate in sport activity anyway.

Breasts. Are. Just. There.

She’s a superhero. Her armor is custom designed. If whoever made her armor didn’t take into account the size of her chest or provide support then they are crappy at their job and armor design in general.

The issues we run into with armor is when it is either:

A) Not yours. Or..

B) One size fits all, but you’d still be able to function in it.

If you can’t move in the armor then that’s an issue that needs to be addressed at a design level but it’s not insurmountable. This is why armorers and tailors exist.

Besides, if the other option you’re considering is boob plate then that wouldn’t solve the issue. I guarantee boob plate is more uncomfortable, and will guide weapon points straight to your heart. This is an argument I’ve seen brought up a lot (by men) to justify the existence of boobplate or going without armor for “realism”. It is not only BS, it’s annoying. It ignores both reality (female combatants of history) and human ingenuity to prop up outdated sexism. It’s like they think female athletes never address the issues of their chest size. Well, I’m here to tell you: we already solved this one and it’s called a sports bra. In the real world, we get a bras that are designed to support the weight of our boobage during athletic activities.

Women can, however, STILL RUN without problems with a regular bra or even no support at all.

You, however, may want to address the underlying sexism nipping at your approach to this character. If you genuinely believe cramming big breasts into a tactical vest is going to cause breathing issues then you’ve got a lot of your own to work out. That is also the problem with sexism. The misinformation is so baked into every bit of common knowledge meant to justify a certain sexist approach then held up as realistic that most people never think about it.

Again, the kind of breathing issues we’re talking about come from corsets and not armor. A corset tightens your waist, and will result in issues because of the diaphram/stomach can’t expand. When performing aerobic exercise, you need your diaphragm (thus expanding your ribs) to breathe. The diaphragm allows more air to pass through your body, which means more oxygen in your blood being carried to your muscles. Without them, you’re stuck breathing entirely with your upper chest, and that will be a problem when engaging in athletic activity. If the expansion of the chest is also cut off, then… you’re really up a creek. This is what causes the fainting fits of the 18th century. Women wearing clothing that doesn’t allow them to draw enough oxygen into their bodies to keep their brains cognizant.

It’s also why you never want to bind your breasts with anything like Ace bandages because Ace bandages are designed to continually constrict around an injury and create pressure to halt the blood flow. They can tighten so much that they crack the breastbone or the ribcage, and that is what causes shortness of breath rather than the breasts themselves being bound.

You don’t get this problem if you bind with just cloth, but it’s also shit for support.

Breathing issues are a problem for men when they wear clothing styles that ensure their diaphragms can’t expand or just don’t breathe with their diaphragm when fighting.

If her armor causing shortness of breath then that’s not armor, it’s fetish gear. It may be great for a bondage session but it’s not meant to be worn combat. (And if what she’s wearing is causing shortness of breath anyway, then she just needs to stop wearing it. That’s still the fault of her clothing and not her breasts.)

Besides, a woman with large breasts would have issues finding bras that fit her anyway and would probably be specially ordering them. Most malls and sports stores have bras for A, B, C, and some D but not a lot. DD’s can have trouble finding comfortable breastwear, especially ones in the six foot range.

-Michi

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Is it possible to make a strong female protagonist but still make her mega insecure?

Yes.

You also never need to ask permission. You want to do something? Just go.

I’m tempted to just leave it there, but we should probably talk about character traits, flaws, and development. The issue with the term “Strong Female Character” is that it’s misleading and often misinterpreted. Very often, in certain circles, it’s presented that strong = flawless. Combined with the whole pressure cabin of worries surrounding the “Mary Sue”, it can lead to some interesting places. Usually into either too much or not enough territory.

When someone says “Strong Female Character” what they usually mean is “Well-written Female Character” which is, I admit, almost as intimidating. However, it’s not just that the well-written female character has flaws, it’s a matter of how those flaws interact with their narrative.

You want to write a female protagonist with insecurities? That’s great! There’s plenty in this world for a woman to be insecure about. However, the development doesn’t stop there.

The next questions are the most important ones when working with any flaw and all flaws. Ask yourself:

What is my character insecure about? How does that affect how they view and interact with the world around them?

One of the biggest issues with the ways that flaws get handled in some fiction, especially with younger writers, is that they assume the key way to escape the dreaded Mary Sue moniker is to  give a character flaws. The problem often being that those flaws often don’t affect anything. The difference between a well-written character and one that isn’t (but may still be compelling to some like wish fulfillment characters) is that their flaws directly affect how they engage with other characters and the surrounding story. They influence their judgement, cause them to make choices which may be dubious, build tension, and are often a direct source of character conflict.

The flaws serve a purpose rather than just existing in an effort to deflect criticism or to make the character seem more human. It’s important to remember though that the more deep seated the insecurity then the more difficult it will be to overcome. The same is true of any other kind of flaw and, really, any other kind of story. The bigger it is then the bigger the impact will be. The more powerful the characters then the bigger the narrative must be to accommodate them. (Or we go in the reverse and have human drama be the focus as it often is with characters like Superman.)

So, the deeper seated the flaw then the less easy a fix will be. They are the only one who can really decide whether or not their insecurities matter and no matter how many times someone else tells them that they’re amazing, confident, powerful, or strong, it might not take until they start to believe it themselves.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:

Sara has been training at the military academy since her parents sent her when she was six, she’s now 17 and approaching graduation. Though she ranks in the top or near the top of her class, and is constantly complimented on her fighting prowess, she worries about how well her skills will translate into the field. Being near the top, she’s been trained to take charge of other cadets but the thought of possibly having to decide about her friends makes her feel a little sick. She works hard and doesn’t have time a for relationship with boys or girls, but every so often she stops and stares in the mirror as she’s getting ready. The face staring back at her looks nothing like the girls she’s seen crossing the street from the Prepatory, the ones all the boys and some of the girls sigh over, or the ones on the movie posters. The clothes at the mall never fit quite right.

Whenever she looks at herself a nagging feeling slips underneath the surface, is this a face anyone could love?

Jenna’s been scraping the bottom of the barrel since her parents pulled strings with the General to get her in. She never wanted a military life and she’s tried her best to washout. Blew off her training sessions. Skipped class. Flunked gym. Maybe she can put together her rifle in a few minutes, but it’s not the rigid coordinated thirty seconds of her classmates. Still, graduation’s approaching and the bottom is still a direct line straight into the army. She doesn’t want to be a jarhead, shaved is just not a good look for her. Maybe her family’s from a long line of career military, but she never wanted this. Sure, knocking a few good looking guys and girls around the training floor is fun but put a gun in her hands and ask her to shoot? That’s another question entirely.

The question here is how these insecurities present themselves and often our fears lead to deeper seated fears at the bottom of that deep, dark internal well. Then, there’s the question of how they deal with those insecurities in their day to day existence. Do they avoid them? Do they ignore them? Do they repress them? Do they try to find some other way out of these entanglements? A character labeled as lazy might be actually be trying to find a way out that doesn’t involve admitting they’ve quit.

However, the passage of thought often leads to more questions which allow you to explore the character and those surrounding them more fully.

If Jenna is so determined to drop out then why doesn’t the Academy let her quit or toss her out?

Are Sara’s insecurities a result of the fact she’s dedicated herself to an ideal and cause but never really stopped to evaluate herself and what she wants? Or is she just insecure about her looks? Either way, it’s lonely at the top.

Whatever you do, try to think about how it affects their personality, their interactions, and the way they behave in the world around them. Character flaws inform a lot about a person and their journey in overcoming those fears and adversity is what defines a character as “strong”.

That said, there’s nothing wrong with a character being weak, either.

It’s mostly just a question of the kind of story that you want to tell.

-Michi

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Is there some way that a female OC can kill a guy (for the first time) and maybe not really understand how or what she just did? I’m thinking somewhere along the lines of adrenaline or something? Or is it just not realistic?

It’s certainly within the realm of possibility. There are plenty of ways to do it, but it’s unlikely to happen with just their bare hands. More likely to happen with a weapon, probably an improvised one in this situation like a liquor bottle, a pan, a piece of metal pipe. And then, she just gets lucky. Maybe she clocks him across the head. Once, twice, three times, maybe she loses count.

She’s scared, maybe she’s angry. It really depends on the scene and how you want the other character to die. She does, probably, need to come at him with something but she also probably didn’t mean for him to die. Maybe she wanted him to in the moment, but didn’t expect it to happen and didn’t really want to anyway.

Shock comes next. Disbelief.

“I killed him. But… I don’t understand. I did? How could I? How could I kill him? He can’t be dead!”

If you want to play up the whole, ‘But I’m just a girl’ angle then this would be a good time. It’s pretty important to play up the sense of desperation, the fear, the terror about the consequences.

She could also push him down a flight of stairs, or he falls in a struggle. Hits his head. Doesn’t get up. There are a lot of ways for someone to die accidentally. Head bashed into corner of table is a good one, actually. Where it connects with the temple.

It’ll be a scary scrabble, though.

If you’re asking can she suddenly become a martial arts master and kill him with her bare hands in the midst of an “instinctual response” due to adrenaline? Then, no. That’s not real.

Killing someone accidentally in an altercation? That happens and more often than you might think.

Suddenly developing high level martial arts skills in the manner of suddenly going, ‘I know kung fu’ like so many novels? No, not so much.

Your body does not instinctually know how to fight or defend itself because combat training is actually about subverting those instincts. Introductory level hand to hand combat is about exploiting your natural instincts through extensive training. You’re not going to just develop those skills because ‘crisis’.

If you’ve never experienced a flood of adrenaline before, then understand that adrenaline in this situation is going to be counterproductive for her. It will transform you into a shaking, jittery mess. It’s going to be just one more thing for her to overcome, unfortunately.

Rage is the same way. Anger will become more helpful when she’s losing track of how many times she’s pounded a metal re-bar into his face. It’s not so helpful leading up to that because of the way it blinds.

Controlled anger can act as motivation and the same is true with adrenaline, but she has no training. Her body’s natural instincts are far, far more likely to become debilitating and/or result in her death.

She’ll have to fight through that.

What your character has is her brains, her guts, her ability to keep her fear from paralyzing her, maybe the ability to utilize it, and her own ingenuity. She’ll probably be terrified, shaking from the adrenaline, maybe crying, her heart pounding so hard in her chest that she feels like she’s about to faint, and acts to save her life. Then, her actions have unintended consequences as in his death.

If she’s bought into cultural bullshit, then she may not know it’s possible for a woman to kill a man. Or even overcome a man. She may believe on some level, like so many ‘good’ people, that it’s not possible because you must intend to kill someone. The disbelief, terror, shock, and horror may all combine into her not understanding what the hell just happened even though the simple answer is, “What do you mean how? You beat him over the head until he died.”

This doesn’t mean that she’s stupid because, honestly, this is pretty common.

To recap: does she mystically know how to kill someone? No. Can she kill someone accidentally without understanding what just happened and without it being premeditated? Yes. It’s called manslaughter. It’s difficult. It may require an improvised weapon of some kind and that weapon will have to be pulled from whatever environment she finds herself in. It can happen though, it’s not even all that unusual. Media spends so much time painting women as victims, often automatically, that it’s easy to forget that they can and do fight back. They can and do kill, whether its accidental or premeditated. And you can do a lot of crazy, damaging, stupid, and often irresponsible shit when you’re scared. I knew a girl once who hit a kid, a ten year old, on her way to school and just kept driving. Not because she was a terrible or evil person, but because she freaked out, didn’t know what to do, and just kept pretending the problem didn’t exist. We found out about it because the cops came to arrest her at school for a hit and run. She was a normal teen, and one accident was all it took to go from that to being a murderer and a child-killer.

It isn’t nearly as cut and dry as some people would have you believe.

Honestly, if you build into the part where she’s terrified but acting anyway while trying to think her way out the situation a la a great many thrillers/horror movies and not suddenly transformed into a badass via “natural instinct” then she will be that much more compelling as a character.

You do more to establish her courage, her ingenuity, her willingness to overcome obstacles and fight for her survival that way. This will ultimately humanize her more for the reader and give them a point of connection.

It feels more earned, provides a solid foundation on which to build her as a character. It’s also much, much more badass.

I’d spend some time looking at horror or thriller for this sequence, actually. The scenes where female characters are creeping around their house, trying to avoid their attacker, trying to find a way to get back the upper hand or manages to take it.

Remember, real courage comes not from being fearless but in overcoming your fear. In acting when there are no guarantees of success. To get into the fight when there is no safety net and the odds are stacked against you. It’s not defined by victory, but by standing up when every other instinct says stay down.

We treat this as weakness for women a lot of the time. That a female character, more so than a male character, is somehow weak if they admit that they don’t know what they’re doing. They have to somehow be exceptional or magically prepared by their own bodies and rescued by it rather than them being the driving force behind their own actions. There’s a nasty trend with female characters which denies them the consequences of their own actions, whether its the narrative choosing not to blame them or them being excused or it being pawned off on something else like their body suddenly acting on its own or them blacking out.

Try to avoid that easy way out.

We all start out as small and scared. Sometimes scary stuff happens and we don’t quite know how it ended up working that way. It’s confusing, and it feels like it couldn’t possibly have happened to us.

Remember, while her killing him is probably an act of desperation, it’s not an excuse. Whether he deserved it or not, she still kills him.

Gnaw on how she deals with that.

-Michi

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