Image: Matthew Loffhagen
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.
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.
A ‘good’ female character has her own agenda, opinions, and perspective.Click To Tweet
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
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.
- It must have at least two women in it,
- who talk to each other
- 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 the opposite 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 behaviour and opinions.
Do all this and you’ll have started writing a believable, engaging female character, and it doesn’t have to stop there. Try What Makes a Strong Female Character – It’s Not What You Think 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? Let me know in the comments.