Writing Women Wrong

Writing Advice

This week, I had every intention of writing about villains I love… But I got caught up on a tangent elsewhere and haven’t been able to jump off of it. And that topic is the anime, Naruto. Yes, hello, hi. I am a twenty-something-year-old girl who loves Naruto. While we do exist, we are few and far between. That’s actually what I wanted to blog about today. I wanted to point at one of the big reasons I think it is difficult for girls to like the show, and that is because of the girls in the show. 

Two notes: First, I’ll try to keep this fairly surface level so that you can read this post without having watched the show because I think this is important. But we’ll see how that goes. Second, I will be referencing exclusively from cannon episodes of the anime; not the manga, not the filler, and not from Boruto.

So I grew up in the prime of Naruto, watching Part One as it came out dubbed on Cartoon Network, and by many metrics, I fit the target audience. The show is aimed very strongly at boys, but, hey, that’s the kind of media I always preferred. As a kid, I had a limited understanding of time, so I was never the best at scheduling myself to catch every episode. But I saw enough. When Shippuden started up, I remember going over to my friend Jessica’s house to watch the subs as they came out online; I was even less consistent with that, but it was enough to give the series a slot in my memory.

Fast forward almost ten years: my younger brother gets hooked on the show and watches it through in order — something I had yet to do. He loved it so much, he offered to watch it through with me immediately after finishing the thing. So off we went, finishing Part One and Shippuden in a matter of weeks. And, overall, I loved it.

But I’m not going to talk about how it’s great. Not today at least. Today, I want to express the sheer disappointment I felt basically any time a female character was introduced. 

First, I want to look at ratios and power balance. In Part One, we are introduced to a standard: there will always be at least three boys to every one girl. Each four-person squad has a leader and three pupils. Each of those teams except one has the same setup: male sensei ( notable and cool), two male students (often rivals or opposites), and one female who is almost always useless on missions, but exists in at least one love triangle. 

Let me elaborate. Here are our main teams in Part One:

  • Led by Kakashi (male), Naruto is strong and short-tempered, while Sasuke is strong, but cocky, calm and collected. Sakura is said to be smart, but does a total of two smart things in the 220 episodes that make up Part One: she was the best at walking on trees, and she woke herself up. Those two events are as lame and forgettable as I’m making them seem. 
  • Led by Gai (male), Lee is hardworking, loud, and ridiculous, while Neji is naturally-gifted, quiet, and serious. Tenten throws things. Not even super well. There are other characters with other abilities who still throw things better than the ‘specialist.’ I think she won a single battle. It was in Shippuden and it was against a clone of herself. She has a personality, but I struggle to describe it… That says a lot. 
  • Led by Asuma (male), Shikamaru is intelligent, low-energy, and methodical, while Choji is stupid, loud, high-strung, and impulsive. Ino has a potentially cool ability. It’s useful when her dad uses it. But instead, her primary function is to be the petty romantic rival to Sakura. Because girls are only as important as the boys they’re chasing.
  • Led by Kurenai (female, but don’t get too excited), Kiba is loud and aggressive, while Shino is quiet and weird. Hinata had a lot of potential, too. Like Ino, she has a really cool ability, but she’s not known for her fighting ability. She’s known as the quiet, socially awkward girl who loves Naruto. 

Even the team leaders do this three-guys-and-a-girl thing. Kakashi sensei is insanely talented, uses an ability he shouldn’t have, and carries massive emotional baggage. Gai sensei is insanely strong, quirky, and passionate. Asuma sensei is the cool-guy archetype and is at the center of an emotional arc in Shippuden. Kurenai sensei could break the mold by being the only female team leader… but instead, she is best known for trying to use mind control on a mind control master from a clan of mind control masters. After that, she gets pregnant and shows up when we need to be reminded that the baby daddy is dead and we should be sad. What a legacy, right?

Now, it is my pleasure to finally bring up the Sand Siblings, and the closest thing to a useful woman Part One has to offer. Temari. Temari is the eldest and leads the group more prominently than their actual leader whose name I never remember. She’s a competent fighter and a logical mind. And she has interests that don’t involve chasing boys. Her brothers are Gaara and Konkoro — overly serious and antisocial, versus cocky and goofy. While Gaara is the powercell behind their plans in Part One, it’s Temari that leads them. It was the first time I didn’t meet a female character and hate her by the end of the arc. And, let’s be real, Temari is great, but she is nothing compared to the other characters in the show. 

For me, the sad part of this all is the fact that Masashi Kishimoto knows how to write compelling characters. Let’s look for a minute at motivations:

Naruto: become the ninja president so the village will love him. Sasuke: avenge his clan in his own self-righteous way. Shikamaru: take a nap… lol, but for real, he just wants safety for those he loves. Kakashi wants to atone for his sins by protecting those around him. Gai wants to train to be the strongest he can be. Lee wants to prove that hard work can rival natural talent. Neji wants recognition for his skill despite his rank in the clan.  Kiba also wants to be ninja president, but for the power it holds. Asuma wants to bring flowers home to his lover. Shino wants to find cool new bugs. Choji wants to eat and marry someone who will feed him lots of food. Konkuro wants to be the best at his skillset. Gaara just wants to feel love.

The specifics aren’t important in this matter. I just want to point out the variety and depth of so many of these male characters. Let’s compare that to the motivations of the women mentioned above. 

Sakura wants Sasuke to love her. Ino wants to beat Sakura — specifically in getting Sasuke to love her. Hinata wants Naruto to love her. Kurenai is very much a background character, but I’d guess she wants to raise her son with Asuma. Tenten is a piece of paper who carries around knives and throws them when she’s told to. I don’t even know what she wants. 

Thank Kishimoto for Temari. She wants to be useful. She wants her brothers to ask for her advice; she wants people to know she is a force to be reckoned with; she wants to beat the crap out of you with her fan. It’s great. She’s stubborn and assertive and feels like a real person. 

And thankfully, in Shippuden, we’re introduced to a handful of other women with motivations. Tsunade loves drinking and gambling because she is a healer who feels responsible for the deaths of those she loved the most. Konan has one of the most creative powers in the show, leads a group of international terrorists on a mission to obtain world peace, and nearly kills one of the biggest villains in the show in a one on one fight. Kushina is terrifying; she comes from a powerful clan and carries a powerful creature inside her. But at her core, she’s silly and awkward and just wants to be treated like someone who matters.

The funny thing about all of these characters is that they each come with a love story that I, personally, find convincing. 

Woah, woah, woah. Did I just contradict everything I’ve been saying? 

No. My point stands. As a girl, I struggled to connect to the flat female characters we are introduced to. Time and time again we’re shown really cool guys and their really cool abilities, while girls spent their time on the sidelines cheering the boys on and trying to steal a kiss. And the backtracking done in Shippuden felt too little too late. 

And that is so sad! I connect so strongly with so many of the characters in Naruto, yet feel like my entire gender is an afterthought. I get angry seeing ways that the early women of the show could have been written to be compelling. I feel sad when I see how little impact even the useful women had on the show. I question why nearly every team has a three-to-one ratio. And why the female team members almost always set up a love triangle.

The anime got better over the years, and I hope Boruto is continuing to advance what women can do in-universe. Maybe one day I’ll share how I would go about changing the female characters to be more relatable. Step one, I think Sakura should have punched the shit out of Sasuke. Just once. That’s the minimum of what I ask. 

Thanks for tuning into my geekiest talk yet. See you next week. 


Stay Safe, 

Rena Grace

Lessons Learned from Characters I Love

Writing Advice

Welcome back to ‘I really, really love these characters and really, really love talking about my really real love for them.’

If you haven’t ingested any of this delightful content, I cannot recommend anything more than these shows, movies, and books. There is also nothing I can do to keep from spoiling these properties.

So let’s jump right into some delightful dudes. 

Remus Lupin [Harry Potter] 

When I think of Remus Lupin, I think of compassion. 

He appears for the first time in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban as the newest installment of the Defense Against the Dark Arts professor. The first notable thing about Lupin is seen through the lens of contrast. Harry’s first year, the class was taught by Quirrel, a nervous man who happened to have the antagonist of the series growing out of the back of his head. Pretty standard. It’s fine. There are limited comments made about his actual class, lessons, or teaching style. Most of his notable interactions happen outside of the classroom. I see him as less of a teacher and more of another side character who is in it just enough to set up his villainy, hidden in the shadow of our goodest-bad-boy, Snape. The next year, Harry is introduced to the self-obsessed egomaniac and notorious best-smiler, Lockhart. In the book and — maybe even more so — the movie, Lockhart is a buffoon, existing as a source of comic relief as he bumbles through skill-related tasks. We see more of his lessons and his role as an instructor in the Dueling Club, but these are used mostly to set up his characterization. Again, the most focus is put on his role outside of class — showing off, talking big, bragging, and interacting with fans. 

Which leads us to Harry’s third year. Enter Lupin. We first meet him on the train to Hogwarts — the only instance I’m aware of a staff member traveling via the Hogwarts express. He’s described as a little unkempt in a way that implies he is poorer than most other wizards we’ve met so far. Despite this, the first action he takes proves him to be a powerful protector, as Harry is attacked by dementors. Throughout the year, Lupin’s classes are shown to be the highlight of student life — contrasted again on a few occasions as Snape steps in as the harsh and relentless substitute teacher. Lupin’s role as a teacher and mentor is highlighted considerably more than his predecessors, from engaging lessons to his mentorship over Harry. He is continuously shown to be intelligent, compassionate, talented, and humble. These four traits are not particularly present in either Quirrel or Lockhart. 

Lupin’s character is given more context and depth than any other professor this early in the story. We discover that he was friends with Harry’s father, the assumed villain (Sirius Black), and the real villain (Peter Petigrew); the three called themselves Marauders and were some of the brightest and most talented wizards of their time. Snape hates him, not out of a bad gut instinct or a disdain for false arrogance, but for Lupin’s association with Snape’s childhood bullies. And, the icing on the cake, we discover that Lupin is a werewolf while also learning how poorly werewolves are treated in the wizarding world. With this thorough understanding of Lupin, we get a clearer glimpse of his motivations, fears, beliefs, regrets. He sees himself as the last Marauder standing, and that is tragic. The Marauders are some of the only people in the world who ever accepted him. He feels alone in the world, outcast because of something he never asked for nor could he help. Lupin elicits a deep empathy that neither of his predecessors nor any of his successors. 

Let’s go over that lineup again. Quirrel was a snivelling puppet for Voldemort; he was killed. Lockhart was a pompous prick; his memory was wiped, landing him permanently in the psych ward of St Mungo’s Hospital. Mad-Eye Moody was kidnapped, ‘drugged,’ and portrayed by a Death Eater. Umbridge was a monster of a woman sent to oppress the truth of Voldemort’s return; she was abducted by centaurs before scurrying back to hide within the Ministry. Snape was a double-double agent who, though base intentions were good, tormented Harry for his father’s sins and murdered the Headmaster. Then last, we’re given glimpses of the sadistic Death Eater siblings whose names I never cared to retain. 

It’s safe to say Lupin stands out. Lupin comes in as a favor to Dumbledore and leaves because he is unjustly (more or less, as he takes multiple precautions for the safety of the school) labeled as a threat. Lupin is kind to his students, respectful to his staff — aside from Snape and his grudge — and one of the most relatable characters of the series. He feels abandoned and shunned. He feels betrayed. He is scared of himself. And because of all this, he displays a compassion that outshines almost any other character. Lupin is Harry’s first true father figure. It’s a truly fitting title. His return in the later books is one worth celebrating, and his death defending those he loves is one that broke me. But what good would Lupin be without the full context? Because of other adults around him, because of his history with Harry’s dad, because of the parallels with the main cast, and because of his roles in society, Lupin is a powerful character that stands out among a vast, seven-book-spanning cast. 

Shikamaru Nara [Naruto] 

I could write an entire post on Shikamaru alone. This sweet boy is a delight. But not at all in a way you’d expect. Shikamaru is shown early on to be intelligent and skilled. He is not particularly strong; instead his strength lies in his incredible ability to outthink his opponents. He will let you think that you have him cornered until it’s absolutely too late. But you know one of the greatest things about Shikamaru? When we first meet him in the series, he is one of the laziest characters in fiction. 

In the first major arc, we watch invaders attack an arena and put most everyone to sleep. Those who stayed awake were the people fast enough to ‘release’ themselves before going completely under. So we’re following a few of the conscious characters, one of which is going through to ‘release’ others to help. She makes it to my sweet boy, Shikamaru, at which point we find out that he was asleep, but not because of the attack. No. No, of course not. Instead of joining in the fight around him, Shikamaru opted to take a quick nap. As annoying as that sounds, the stakes are fairly low at this moment and it’s early enough in the series that comedy is still a primary focus. And the narrative timing makes this a very funny scene. 

This scene sets up his arc. We’re given time for this kid — maybe 13 years old — to grow up. And it’s wonderful. 

After the attack is handled, we discover that Shikamaru is the first and only member of his class to be promoted that year. This is because of his carefully planned and logical assessment during his examination shown earlier in the show. Because of this promotion, he is called on to lead a rescue mission, where things go wrong. It’s at this point the writers show his fear of failure. After the mission, we’re led to the hospital where he has completely shut down emotionally. His father challenges him, asking him if he’s going to abandon his rank and to squander his abilities or if he’s going to push forward and grow into a leader that their village can rely on. Of course, he’d be a pretty terrible character if he’d chosen to give up. Over the next million-or-so episodes, he is given ample time to grow. We watch his teacher, Asuma, introducing him to a logic game. Shikamaru reads the handbook and immediately destroys Asuma in their first game, commenting on how Asuma ‘didn’t have to go easy,’ though that’s obviously not the case. We’re also shown more of Shikamaru’s father — an older, more mature version of essentially the same character — and imagine how Shikamaru might grow up. We watch him hide a strong love for his comrades behind a can’t-be-bothered facade. 

*Major Spoilers for Naruto: Shippuden* After a time skip, Shikamaru is an older teen embracing his role as a successful tactical leader. And again, things go wrong. Shikamaru gets in over his head, at which point, his old mentor, Asuma, swoops in to save the day… and dies. All the playfulness of childhood is gone. The writers masterfully spend the time necessary to let the audience feel the pain and anguish that he’s trying to hide. And he does hide it. He goes for a while before his father — remember, a very stoic, logical figure — sits down with Shikamaru one evening to play that same logic game Asuma taught him. They play in near silence. His father occasionally comments on things like Shikamaru’s uncharacteristically bad gameplay. They really allow this scene time to emphasize the mood. A few minutes in, his father mentions how proud he is. Later, he says that it would be a tragedy to go to his own son’s funeral because of something vengeful and reckless. Finally, full of rage for possibly the first time on screen, Shikamaru flips the game over, and the warm candle light is blown out. The two are left in a solemn blue darkness. His father gets in his face and, in a deadly serious tone, tells him to let it all out. All the anger and sadness. There is an immense understanding in his father’s eyes. A sense that the older man had experienced the same loss and bottled it up the same way. His father leaves him in the room alone, and after the door closes, Shikamaru lets out a soul-rattling sob. *okay, spoilers done*

That is character development. That takes a trope of the ‘smart man who is too logical to have emotions’ and gives it so much room to breathe. Shikamaru feels like someone I could know. He feels like someone I want to meet personally. I’d go get coffee with this person. That way, as we keep following his arc, we celebrate his victories, and we crush under the pain of his losses. 

Ling Yao [Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood]  

If ever there was a character I love as much as I love Shikamaru, it is the heir to Xing himself. Ling is introduced as an absolute goof. He shows up fairly early in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (though excluded from the 2003 series) and, before we know he is royalty, he tricks our protagonist into paying for his meal. Over the next couple episodes, he pops up as what is probably best described as comic relief and a bit of well-timed exposition. He seems likable, but I wrote him off as a throw-away background character. As we get to know him, we find out that he’s on a mission to discover immortality so that he will become the next emperor. It’s introduced as a very neutral action. Political gain is fine, and this motive puts him on the same track as our heroes — they’re looking for a powerful stone, a philosopher’s stone, in hopes that it can solve each man’s problems. 

The longer he’s around, the deeper his character goes. Ling is a beautiful example of a trope called “Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass.” In a nutshell, this is a character who, in one way or another, seems harmless, useless, or just plain silly. However, when the time comes, they are not to be messed with. 

Ling is introduced with two faithful bodyguards who he frequently ditches. While it’s clear they care deeply for Ling, he at first seems a bit dismissive of them. Until we see his first fight. Ling has the great displeasure of battling two very strong homunculi early on and really showcasing his skills. He comments at some point that, as one of fifty heirs vying for the throne, he had to become skilled enough to — well — not get assassinated. He and one of his bodyguards, Lan Fan, hold their own for a while, but when Lan Fan is hit, the prince chooses to retreat. However, he doesn’t just flee, he runs with her on his back. It’s a tense scene, as the two are followed by inhumanly fast creatures skilled at tracking, and Lan Fan is losing blood fast. Despite her protests, Ling adamantly refuses to leave her and save himself. This sets up his most defining belief: a King is a servant to his people. As committed as his bodyguards are to him, he is committed to them, even if he enjoys joking around by running off.

For the sake of simplicity, I’m not going to talk about the character fusion that happens around the midpoint. But even considering that, Ling’s priorities never change. He will become the next emperor because that’s the position from which he can best protect as many of his people as possible. It is that unwavering resolve that makes him so interesting because, unlike our protagonists, Ling does not care about the cost. He sees no moral dilemma using an item made from human sacrifice. I think it’s unlikely he’d make one, but if one exists, he has no qualms about it because it is the means that leads to an end that he is passionate about. That end is something I think we can all empathize with. When Ling loses people close to him, he feels more than sorrow; he feels responsibility. Ling bears the injuries, death, and sacrifices of his friends as his personal burden, as if they’re his fault and his alone. He frequently questions his abilities to rule with the logic ‘what kind of a king am I if I can’t even save one subject?’ It’s flawed logic and puts an immense amount of pressure on him, but it’s a noble cause. It hurts so much more to watch Ling react to the sacrifices of his people because we as the audience have seen how personally he takes these matters.

I could keep going about these characters pretty much indefinitely, but I think it’s better to stop here. Next week, I think I’ll talk about some of my favorite villains! See you then!


Stay Safe

Rena Grace