How To Write A Damn Good Woman - A male writer images a female protagonist.

How To Write A Damn Good Woman

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This is a companion piece to How To Write A Damn Good Man, and takes a similar approach to considering gender in characterization.

Perhaps the most succinct piece of advice I’ve ever heard for writing female characters came from comedy writer Erin Gibson.

Just write a dude and slap a skirt on him.

I’d love to just leave you with that pithy, single answer, but it isn’t exactly the whole story. Ideally, it shouldn’t be hard to write characters of either gender because – despite certain physical differences – we’re all human beings, which is what the advice above is really getting at. But, less ideally, we all know that men and women behave and react to things in different ways.

In fiction, we often make the mistake of exaggerating these differences to create and perpetuate false stereotypes, when in reality, the differences between men and women are far more subtly nuanced, and have very little to do with our physiological disparities.

One thing to bear in mind before we get started is that, while I’ll try to cover as much as possible, this is a subject on which entire books could and have been written. In this article, I’ll be providing a 101 class, specifically designed to help you write complex, engaging characters.

A traditional woman

Let’s start by identifying the way the traditional idea of a woman might be described. These traditional qualities represent a feminine ideal that your character will be judged by. They’re qualities she may strive to achieve or try to escape from, whether consciously or unconsciously. An idealized character of either gender represents a fantasy – a symbol of wish-fulfillment on the narrator or author’s part.

  • Delicate
  • Empathetic
  • Vulnerable
  • Responsible
  • Nurturing
  • Passive
  • Social

You’ll notice a lot of these adjectives allude to a kind of weakness, mainly in opposition to the quality of ‘strength’ we traditionally associate with men. The truth is, the ‘Strong Female Character’ archetype exists because strength is still considered a rarity in women – a ‘quirk’ that singles them out. Although it is an idealized quality for both genders, strength is an expected norm in men.

Often, we conflate female ‘strength’ with physical strength – heroines like Wonder Woman or Katniss Everdeen. But usually, when we talk about a female character being ‘strong’, we’re talking about her agency. Characters like Matilda, Hermione Granger, Jane Eyre and Lisbeth Salander are considered to be good examples of female characters that are complex, compelling and actively drive the narrative. They’re also all examples of canny, feisty outsiders struggling against societal stigma – particularly Lisbeth Salander, the avenging feminist angel.

Strong female characters don’t have to be warriors – but they do need depth.Click To Tweet

That said, it’s important to bear in mind that a ‘strong’ female character doesn’t always have to be aspirational or sympathetic. Daisy Buchanan, Lady Macbeth, Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary are infamous examples of wayward women who command our interest.

An ideal woman

From the Virgin Mary, to Odysseus’ wife Penelope, to Queen Victoria, the concept of the ‘ideal woman’ broadly describes a woman who is graceful, nurturing, obedient, intelligent, mysterious and sexually passive. These ideals have been criticized because they have been dictated, for the most part, by male writers, artists, and philosophers, such as in this example from Shakespeare.

Who is Silvia? What is she,
That all our swains commend her?
Holy, fair, and wise is she;
The heaven such grace did lend her,
That she might admirèd be.

Is she kind as she is fair?
For beauty lives with kindness.
Love doth to her eyes repair,
To help him of his blindness;
And, being helped, inhabits there.

Then to Silvia let us sing,
That Silvia is excelling;
She excels each mortal thing
Upon the dull earth dwelling;
To her let us garlands bring.

– William Shakespeare, The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Despite the limitations they’ve traditionally enforced, it is possible to purposefully use and play with these ideals. In (500) Days Of Summer, protagonist Tom meets and falls in love his dream woman, Summer. However, things start to go awry when Tom ignores her desire for a more casual relationship, and when she dumps him and gets engaged to another man, he sinks into a depression. At the time of release, audiences seemed to empathize with Tom and vilify Summer, but actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who played Tom) argues that they were missing the point.

I would encourage anyone who has a crush on my character to watch it again and examine how selfish he is… He develops a mildly delusional obsession over a girl onto whom he projects all these fantasies. He thinks she’ll give his life meaning because he doesn’t care about much else going on in his life… That’s not healthy. That’s falling in love with the idea of a person, not the actual person.

– Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Playboy, 2012

A ‘good’ female character has her own agenda, opinions, and perspective.Click To Tweet

The construct of the ideal woman remains a powerful one that any woman – real or fictional – will be aware of. In a simplified sense, it’s something that your female character will either try to emulate or rebel against, whether consciously or unconsciously, and her comfort in her own skin will be marked against how close to or far away from the ideal she gets. One of the best examples of a female character who epitomizes this struggle is undoubtedly Bridget Jones, whose brutally honest brand of tragicomedy struck a familiar chord with readers.

Tom has a theory that homosexuals and single women in their thirties have natural bonding: both being accustomed to disappointing their parents and being treated as freaks by society.

– Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones’s Diary

A gossiping woman

The Bechdel-Wallace Test (better known as just the Bechdel Test) began life as a joke, and as such, really just sets the bare minimum requirements for a story’s handling of female characters. The incredible simplicity of the test really emphasizes how shocking it is that so many films fail to pass it, and the same is often true of books. There are just three basic things a story has to do to pass the test.

  1. It must have at least two women in it,
  2. who talk to each other
  3. about something other than a man.

The fact is, women of all ages talk to each other, a lot. Commonly, all-female circles of chatter are thought of negatively as ‘gossiping’, with the implication that their discussion lacks value. Interestingly, back in medieval Europe, the term originally described the exchange of useful information by midwives and godparents during childbirth – an event that men were absent from. It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that substantial, significant conversation between different female characters is so often absent from the work of male writers – conversations that they may have little working knowledge of or think of as important enough to include.

Historical and fantasy stories set in more oppressively patriarchal worlds might seem like narratives where less empowered women would have less opportunity to talk, but real life suggests the opposite would be true. A sense of camaraderie is always stronger during tougher times, and women would be more likely to want to seek each other out for companionship and support when made to feel alienated by their male counterparts.

Assigning enough roles to female characters in your story shouldn’t feel like meeting the demands of a quota. Women make up over half of the world’s population; representing and getting them talking to one another is an accurate reflection of a familiar reality.

A clichéd woman

The easiest way to avoid clichés and tropes is simply to write an individual person, not a type of person. Gender alone doesn’t define us, but external forces generate an acute awareness of it. Society, politics, and culture involve gender in myriad ways, meaning it’s far from a singular influence.

That being said, making a conscious decision to create a character means making a conscious decision about their gender, and as soon as you decide to make a character female, it’s hard to stop preconceptions from flooding into your head – especially if you’re writing from the perspective of another gender. If you’re feeling stuck, reaching for those familiar clichés is all too easy. You might not even be aware that you’re doing it.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with playing into stereotypes if you want – as long as that choice is deliberate and inoffensive. Comedy writing, for instance, usually relies on recognizable caricatures, though these can still be problematic for some people. One trick you could try to test how much your female character’s gender has shaped her personality is to imagine her as a man, and then examine how much of an impact that switch has on her personality, her behaviour, and the role she plays in the story.

If you subscribe to the idea of gender as a behavioral modifier constructed by society, another trick you can try is to define the society your female character inhabits to help you define who she is. Ask yourself questions like these:

  • What are the expectations of women in that society?
  • Is there a hierarchy for women?
  • Is it patriarchal or matriarchal?
  • Is your character a conformist or a non-conformist?
  • Who would her nearest, available female confidantes be?
  • Is she happy or unhappy with her assigned role?

These kinds of questions are applicable to any world – real or fantastical, period or modern day.

A real woman

Because being male is still a presumed default, a male character’s gender is far less likely to play as significant a role in their characterization as with female characters.  Being female is confused with being a ‘trait’, on a par with being cowardly, clever, or confident. This makes women seem like an ‘other’ – the addition of an ‘ab’ to a male ‘normal’. This troubling idea of ‘otherness’ is pervasive, and lies at the root of nearly every negative feminine stereotype. Some believe that gender is not a black and white binary, and so authors can’t write a believable woman by simply reversing a man, or vice versa.

Writing a woman doesn’t mean finding some theoretical antithesis of a man.Click To Tweet

A ‘good’ female character should have her own agenda, opinions, female confidantes and be capable of making decisions and having a life that is independent from any other character, even if she is in a role of servitude, or serving as a secondary or tertiary character.

So how do you write a damn good woman? First, throw out the idea of the male character as default. Next, consider her agenda, opinions, female confidantes, and the world she lives in, specifically from the point of view of her role in it. Compelling characters have goals, even if they’re not the focus of the story, so make sure she has something to want. Having considered how gender influences these factors, but considering other influences too, turn your attention to how her idea of gender expectations influences her behavior and opinions.

Do all this and you’ll have started writing a believable, engaging female character, but it shouldn’t stop there. Since this article was published, multiple readers have contributed important insights in our comments section; we strongly suggest you keep reading and see what they have to say.

You can also try What Makes a Strong Female Character – It’s Not What You Think and How To Avoid Writing A Mary Sue Protagonist for more great advice, or check out Get To Know Your Characters Better With This Novel Device with those female confidantes in mind. What are your tips for writing great female characters? Join the conversation in our comments.

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8 thoughts on “How To Write A Damn Good Woman”

  1. Sounds like you’re describing how to write women as secondary characters, not protagonists. Can’t help wondering if the article might have been framed differently (i.e. less comparative to men) if you’d started with ‘How to Write a Damn Good Woman’.
    Most of the best female characters in literature, TV, films, plays, face a critical struggle and many obstacles to overcome before achieving a passion (a solo art exhibition; winning a gold medal; finding a lost child) or reaching a heartfelt goal – personal love/fulfillment/ a political office/ publishing a novel/ discovering their hidden roots.

    1. Hannah Collins

      Hi Susan,

      Thanks for your comment. It’s always hard to encompass absolutely everything into such a short amount of space about such a broad subject. The article was intended to try and cover as much ground as possible – for any female character, leading or secondary, protagonist or antagonist – as a ‘101’ guide, rather than concentrate on a specific kind.

      Appreciate the feedback and will take it on board, though.

      Thanks,
      Hannah

  2. Hiya, I know you wrote this some time ago but I just found it now. As a transgender person who has switched from one powerful hormone to another I now question whether it is ever possible for a different gendered person to write about another gender? I know I’m limiting it to biological factors (hormones and all that comes with that) and not including socialization factors. But what if male and female (and all in between) brains are different from each other leading to different thinking—far enough even than just saying we are all human? Is it really possible to get into someone else’s head? From my limited experience I say we are farther than we ever imagined.

    1. Hi Blue,

      Thanks for commenting and sharing your insight. I take your point completely, and indeed, there’s been a lot of literary discussion around the idea that our personal experience means that even the very best fiction is still only ever autobiography.

      In terms of conveying ideas and enacting successful emotional communication, I think there’s value in depicting someone of another gender, even if that person can’t be embodied. There’s a perspective on fiction that says it’s a series of tricks strung together to create truth, and I think that’s the case here. It would take a lifetime to truly understand life as someone else, but a great writer can create the sense that they do, however fleetingly, and hopefully do something of note with that illusion.

      Best,
      Rob

  3. Well, fairly disappointed with this article, it lacks the strength of your guys’ article about writing male characters. I think you focused too much on avoiding pitfalls and not enough on the different versions of the feminine ideal and how women relate to it. What is the feminine ideal to a *woman*? Not to a man. I know that a man’s ideal woman might be passive or whatever, but I don’t think most women would consider that their personal ideal. I am a woman living in the 21st century and nobody has ever encouraged me to be vulnerable or passive. Dig a little deeper you will find that the reason the “ideal woman” doesn’t pursue a man is because she considers it beneath her dignity. Dignity is a huge part of the ideal woman and so is moral purity. She is supposed to be desirable enough that she never has to ask for attention. I find the ideal woman doesn’t really act directly as much as she effortlessly influences others and compels them to act on her behalf.

    1. Hi Emily,

      Thanks very much for reading and for your honest critique. I think one of the benefits of catering to a community of artists is that our comments section – even more than others – benefits from thoughtful, well-expressed considerations of the topics we cover.

      Your observations on the ideal woman – and especially the context of the ideal MODERN woman – are really interesting. This is a subject I’d like us to revisit on the blog, and the idea of depictions of gender through time might be a great new angle of approach for us to consider.

      Best,
      Rob

  4. I think you are missing another major thing, which is this: You speak of women gravitating toward an ideal, but you do not reflect that a lot of stereotypical behavior is developed because women live in a world filled with potentially and frequently violent men.

    Many “feminine behaviors” are defensive in nature. I am not coy and indirect because I am emulating an idealized woman; I am coy and indirect because I have experienced men suddenly becoming violent, loud, and threatening at not having their desires met far too many times already, and have from men in every walk of life from childhood on.

    I find having men suddenly flash into combat mode aimed at me to be terrifying and dangerous, and I want that to happen as infrequently as possible. So I give soft and indirect answers that delay and deflect them so that I don’t have to present a moment of opposition that can trigger them puffing up, yelling at me, clenching their fists and looking on the verge of brutal physical violence. I presume things like that aren’t seen as alarmingly when they do it to other men, so it’s seen as completely normal, male heroes and side characters on TV do it to each other and it isn’t seen as anything unusual.

    Threatening behaviors like that happens to every woman in the world on a very regular basis, it is considered socially acceptable for men to do that, it never gets less alarming, and we do a lot of things to prevent those triggers from firing. I’ve gotten down to only dealing with an adrenaline rush of terror once every couple months that way; when I have been more direct, I deal with men looking like they are restraining themselves from hospitalizing me much more regularly. I’ve only actually been attacked once or twice, and those were decades ago, but the jump from ‘threatening man’ to actually having to get medical treatment from being beaten is just a tiny fraction of a second while the first fist flies through the air.

    1. Hi Mercy,

      Thanks very much for sharing your insight. You’re entirely right, and the ideas you raise are an important part of realistic characterization. This is a subject we want to expand on in the future, but for now, thanks for adding your voice. The article has been amended slightly to particularly encourage readers to continue on into the comments.

      Best,
      Rob

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