Awhile back I mentioned offhand in another post that readers seem to be harder on my female characters than my male characters. This was in the context of analyzing one-star reader reviews culled from Amazon and Goodreads, and a few folks in the comments asked me to explore that topic further. So here’s a (hopefully) interesting exercise. I’m going to compare reviewer comments on two of my protagonists: Oree Shoth from The Broken Kingdoms, and Gatherer Ehiru from The Killing Moon. (For those who haven’t read either book, remember, you can read the first few chapters here and here, respectively. That might be enough for you to get to know each character, a little.)
To keep this simple, I’m going to look only at Goodreads this time. I’m a little hampered by the fact that few of the one-star reviews for both books have text attached, so I’m going to look at one, two, and three-star reviews in this case. And I’m just going to list individual lines from each review, where they seem to reflect the reader’s opinion of each character. You’re welcome to go over to GR and see the actual reviews if you like, but remember — I think reviews are valuable, even the “bad” ones, because they help me understand stuff about how my potential audience thinks. Please don’t be obnoxious to people who are actually helping me out.
Some spoilers hereforth.
Comments About Oree
- “Oree was a dull character”
- “…the heroine was a total Mary Sue…”
- “I simply didn’t like the main character”
- “I couldn’t bring myself to give a damn about Oree”
- “she suffered from many of the same detractors that Yeine did in book one: the self-professed regular ordinary person who nevertheless was irresistably interesting to everyone else around her, lover to (multiple) gods, with a special destiny lurking in her previously unknown heritage.”
- “Unlike most YA writing, where the lead character tends to be highly charismatic, someone you can imagine yourself wanting to be (or *being*, if you ended up being transported into their circumstances), both Yeine and Oree are more like Stephanie Myers’ doldrumy Bella Swann; pretty young girls to whom things happen.”
- “…a rather milk-toast protagonist”
- “Turned a promising series into a chick flick.”
- “Also, the protagonist manages to become unconscious every few chapters so that we have a plethora of chapters that begin with her regaining her senses and taking in her surroundings. Who does she think she is, Philip Marlowe?”
- “There are also several pivotal instances in the book in which Oree’s driven to willingly, fatalistically accept her death, and not because she has no other choice, but because she just seemed to not value her life very much. From what I recall, Yeine has some of the same issues in the first book, but I never noticed them as often and they were never so pronounced. I hope that Jemisin gives her protagonists more agency in the future; it was disheartening see Oree’s character development suffer from victimhood so much.”
- “And despite Oree being blind, I didn’t quite have the same sympathy for her as a character as I did for others. She was much too self-sufficient and independent and stubborn, and though I warmed to her a little by the end, I still wasn’t quite enamoured, so to speak.”
- “Oree-and Yeine in the prior novel for that matter-is cast as a victim by the events.”
- “Her female characters in the 1st and 2nd book are very very similar in character, and SPOILER: they both had to face death, and for reasons unclear to me, accepted it. Passive, much?”
- “She’s definitely a special snow-flake. Most genre MCs are some seriously fucking special magical snowflakes, so that’s not an issue. I just want to point it out.”
Comments About Ehiru
- “the characters felt too clean-cut”
- “I did not care much for Ehiru. He was quite an inhuman character from the beginning (too holy ? idk) and hard to relate to.”
- “I couldn’t really care about the characters, apart from Nijiri they all seemed very flat.”
- “…when you build a book around a man who appears to have molded himself into a religious vessel it’s hard to really catch hold of him as a person.”
- “I got frustrated at times about Ehiru’s naivete, but felt this played true to his depth of faith.”
- “Ehiru was a mental wreck for much of the book so was never going to be a character to love much – feel sympathy for yes, but there wasn’t a lot to like.”
- “I find this naiveté, particularly in Ehiru, one of the main characters and a Gatherer a bit irking: the man is a bit older, meets corruption every day (or actually night) in the course of his duty”
- “However, I take issue with how the menfolk are portrayed here. The author infuses them with an entire magnitude range of emotions more than we men actually possess.”
OK, before I proceed, a couple of observations: notice that some of the comments I listed for Ehiru are actually about all of the characters of the story. This is because there really were very few comments specifically about Ehiru; I kind of had to stretch the definition of “about Ehiru” to get enough for comparison. (There were actually more comments about Sunandi than there were about Ehiru. Most were negative. Make of that what you will.) And you may be wondering why I picked these two characters to compare. Mostly it’s that I think they’re thematically similar — that is, they both play similar roles within their respective stories. Both Ehiru and Oree are victims of fate; Ehiru gradually becomes the target of an ugly conspiracy, as does Oree. Both of them spend their stories struggling against terrible revelations about themselves and the worlds they thought they knew. Both of them are “pretty people”, considered beautiful by nearly everyone else in the story, and desired for that beauty. Both have subplots that revolve around another important character in the story being in love with them, and how they choose to respond to that character’s love. Both face no-win scenarios with dignity, and eventually achieve their goals, albeit with terrible sacrifices along the way.
Which is why I would’ve expected them to face similar criticism… but that isn’t what I see happening in these comments. I see Oree taking a lot of flak for being a victim of fate, but no commentary about Ehiru having a very similar story-role. I see snark about Oree being desirable to others, but none about Ehiru being the same — even though Oree finds her desirability annoying, and Ehiru is literally described as using his to seduce people (to death). Ehiru is very much a “special snowflake”: he is the ultimate Gatherer, born to his role and prophesied (by his mom) to become a servant of Hananja, wielding superhuman powers and becoming more badass (though also more pathetic) by the end of the novel… yet no one complains about his specialness. He angsts and is tortured (literally and figuratively) throughout the novel, and is twisted into a mindless killing machine by the end of it, but Oree takes heat for… passing out too often? Both characters suffer, yet only one suffers in an apparently acceptable way.
I think the double standard inherent in this character comparison is obvious. What might be less obvious is the double standard associated with me being a black woman writer. I do wonder how often non-black writers’ black characters get slapped with thinly-veiled accusations of having a victim mentality (warning for eight flavors of bullshit at that link; it’s a Tea Party site), and I definitely notice how (non-)often male writers’ “special” characters are (not) labeled Marty Stus. I can’t help wondering whether some of those readers who found Oree dull or “didn’t give a damn” about her were experiencing the same “empathy fail” as these readers of the Hunger Games — especially since I made it as clear as possible in the early chapters of the story that Oree is a dark-skinned black woman with kinky hair.
I could say so much more, here. (So. Much.) But I think I’ve made my point about why I say that people are harder on my women characters than my men. Feel free to explore that further, in the comments.