So yesterday on Twitter I linked to @gaileyfrey‘s Storify about objectification and male gaze in writing female characters. Or her Storify about boob spies, if you prefer. You might want to look at that first, if you haven’t; I’ll wait.
I had some expound-y sorts of thoughts on the matter, which were too much for Twitter, so I’m just gonna put ’em down here. They aren’t any kind of gospel; they’re just my Thoughts About Fictional Boobs.
As writers, we have a finite amount of space, a finite number of words, in which to Make Characters Happen for readers. No reader is going to stick with us indefinitely while we noodle around with minutiae, and no publisher is buying 800,000-word books. So the things you say about a character and the actions your character takes on the page should be salient. Character-relevant or plot-relevant, as you like, but relevant and revelatory in some way. Useful information, no noodling. The reader is trusting you to tell them the important stuff, and trusts that this is going somewhere.
If your female character’s first thoughts about herself, or her thoughts on a regular basis, are “boobs” or “hair” or whatever, you’re telling the reader those are salient character details: your female character is boobs and/or hair. If your female character is something other than boobs and/or hair, then maybe that’s the stuff you want to hit us with, in the limited space that you have.
(It is possible the main point of the female character in question is SHE’S WHOA HECKA SEXY, the end. But in that case, there are probably better and sexier ways to convey that than “BOOBS,” which is kind of like Sexy at an Eighth-Grade Level. Also 97% of the time that is a dumb Main Point for any character.)
Boobless writers take note: as a Boobed Person, I do think about my boobs on occasion. But usually only when they’re being annoying in some way, the same way you probably rarely think about your elbow until it’s itchy or you’ve knocked it into something or you’re dressing for an Elbow Fetishist’s Party. My boob-thoughts are not a salient character detail. I don’t put them in my LinkedIn profile or anything.
If the fact that your female character has boobs is one of the most telling details about her, you probably need to think harder about that character. If it’s not one of the most telling details about her, then think about what you should be telling us about her instead. Readers can fill in the boobs.
Similarly, if the first or most pressing thing your hetero male character thinks or notices regarding your female character(s) is: “BOOBS” — well, again, readers absorb that as a telling detail about him. You, the author, have chosen to use your limited piece of the reader’s attention to share your character’s boob-thoughts, thus they must be insights of some kind.
And again, maybe that is what you want to tell readers about him — he is quite noisily heterosexual, or he finds this lady WHOA HECKA SEXY, or he is a libidinous gentleman, or his brain is in his pants-parts — in which case, cool, you do you. Maybe that is an important thing to note; maybe his pants-brain is about to get him in trouble, for instance, because he is distracted by it. But if that isn’t what you want readers to absorb about the character, then maybe shift focus to stuff that is. I doubt most straight men would rank Thinks a lot about boobs high on a list of their significant character traits. Boob-thoughts, extant or not, aren’t high-priority information.
My husband is a big fan of animated movies, and he explains that it’s because everything you see on the screen, everything in the frame at any given moment, is there on purpose. Someone drew it, someone chose to put it there. Every detail was considered. It helps to think about your writing this way, too. Every choice you make matters, every detail that shows in the finished scene should be there because you considered it before putting it in place. Make your finite number of words do what you mean them to.
I’m not here to tell you DON’T DO THE THING; I’m telling you to think about the thing you’re doing and whether it’s your aim. I’m not saying your characters shouldn’t have and/or think about boobs; boobs are rad. I’m just saying that in this world, in your reader’s brain, your characters get to occupy limited space. Is it your authorial intention to fill that space with boobs?