On writing female characters from an amateur's perspective

Writing female characters has become a pretty hot topic in the writing community. It's sometimes brushed off with "I write characters, female or male, it doesn't matter" and it seems rather taboo for anyone to even admit that they struggle with it. But the fact is, it's an issue. The overwhelming majority of books that are not typically targetted at women (ie. romance) are a male-only club.

I wanted to share my view on the topic. And the first thing that comes to mind is that it's hard. It's definitely difficult and out-of-comfort-zone. But the second thing is that it's not that hard and it can be done easily with some training.

Why is it difficult in the first place?

A couple of reasons. I'd like to blame it on the fact that the writers who struggle to write female characters are predominately male (which makes sense) but honestly, that's a cop-out. As someone said on the internet (and I have no sources): "Are you a magician? No? But you write about wizards. Are you thief then? Or a cop? Or a starship captain? No? Then how do you write these characters but struggle with a female character?"

I think the biggest and easiest pointer for blame is the fact that the lack of (multi-dimensional) female characters in popular media is what makes it difficult to get them in there in the first place. Basically, the majority of books that we read have shallow female characters, throwaways, plot twists but not characters of themselves. They're just shadows. Reading is where we learn to write. And the best-sellers on the market want us to keep perpetuating what's already out there.

The fact that the majority of the big sci-fi movies, tv shows, and books have male leads with no females (other than romantic interests and passing fillers) is what concerns me. Reading a lack of diversity leads to writing a lack of diversity. Since most of the books I read have male leads who are "coming of age", it makes sense that my own "coming of age" book will have a male lead character that fits the mold. My own writing suffers.

What makes even more sense is that many of us, hobbyist or semi-professional writers, don't write for our work to become a long-standing piece of literature to be one day discussed in high school classrooms. More often than not, books are reflections of our lives, ideas, and ourselves personally. So male authors end up with male heroes.

Here's my confession: every time I write, I fall into tropes and cliches. I'm sure we all do. And it's very apparent in my characters. Not only are the female characters bland but my male suffer from the same ailment unbeknownst to me.

Why is it not so difficult?

Because there are plenty of characters to model from. You're not writing in a vacuum and things aren't as dire as they seem. A great way to "cheat" and get yourself used to writing female characters is by basing them off the very famous ones. And there are plenty to choose from:

  1. Any number of characters from Star Trek: Beverly Crusher, Katherine Janeway, Seven of Nine, Kira, Dax, and others
  2. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  3. witches from Charmed
  4. Agent Scully from X-Files
  5. Korra from Legends of Korra (and Avatar: The Airbender as well)
  6. Any number of chracters from Orange Is The New Black
  7. Orphan Black
  8. Katniss Everdeen from Hunger Games
  9. Hermione Granger from Harry Potter
  10. Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica
  11. Any number of characters from Game of Thrones.

With minimal effort, you can find a basic structure for your character from any of these shows or books and model them for your own story. Just like we already model our male characters on other stories we've read.

It's kind of a cheat but it gets you started. And once you get started, you'll find yourself including these characters left and right because it'll only feel natural. I know that's how it felt for me.

Common pitfalls

Let's say you wanted to stray away from reusing someone else's writing. Good choice. Here are some common pitfalls to watch out for with female characters:

  1. Authors often sexualize a female character's description. With a man, they might say, "A strong tall guy with black hair" while with a woman, they might write, "A tall woman with small breasts and a butt you just want to slap" or "A petite woman whose breasts weighed down heavily".
  2. Authors put female characters into one of three category: the mother character, the sexualized attractive character (which leads the MC down the wrong path), and the hardcore badass who's written as a male character.
  3. A big problem many authors have is not writing a romantic interest for a female character. If your female character exists solely to be pursued by another male character, you're missing the point.
  4. Female characters that don't interact (or do but only about male characters). Ever seen a show where the only time two women talk is when they discuss a man? Avoid that.
  5. The "she gets saved by the man in the end anyways" character. This is when you have a female MC (or secondary character) which through the entire is strong and independent but in the end, she somehow has to be saved by the guy and becomes utterly useless. Watch "How to train a dragon 2" to see what I mean -.-
  6. The know-it-all or know-nothing-at-all. Many authors write female characters where they're either superhuman in order to prove a point that a woman can do this. Or they write women that suddenly lose all knowledge and have to be helped. If you've ever watched Royal Pains and wondered by a female MD had to have a male MD explain to her simple medical procedures, this is it.
  7. The male female where you write a male character, change the pronouns and pat yourself on the back.
  8. Ignoring the female aspect of a woman.

If you can think of any others, shoot me a message.

Things to keep in mind

I've mentioned all of these pitfalls so you're thinking, "Alright, so wtf do I do?" and that's how I felt at first. It felt like, "Don't write a woman like a stereotypical woman, write her more like a male character but not too much". And I was just all Urgghhh about it.

I'm not an expert on any of this which is why I suggested pretty much copying what already works. One of the examples I provided, using Game of Thrones characters, should be a study in itself because George R. R. Martin created a plethora of female characters all having some female aspect to them but not falling into the common pitfalls.

For instance:

  1. Arrya Stark - the girl who wants to do traditionally "manly" things like fight. She has her motivations, she has her personality, but she faces the downsides of being a female of her time. Her struggle is a huge part of her personality. Can you see any of the pitffals in her?
  2. Brienne of Tarth - Brienne is pretty much the "male female" except in the story, people still see her as a female. Her struggle is similar to Arrya's except unlike Arrya, she struggles to accept any feminime part of her and tends to act out with very much traditional masculinity in order to compensate and "prove" to others that she's not a woman at heart.
  3. Cersei Lannister - Cersei is a politician so to speak. But she's also a mother and there's that part of her. Unlike the motherly archetype, she's vicious, brutal, and doesn't let anything stand in her way. She doesn't use sex as a weapon (as it often happens), she uses her standing as a queen as a weapon.
  4. Sansa Stark - Sansa is an interesting case because she's written as a traditional "lady" at the beginning, fitting every bratty stereotype. As the story progresses, she experiences horrors and terrors of the world and loses her innocense. As a woman, she experiences some specific aspects of a journey that a man wouldn't: forced to marry a tyrrant, stripped naked in public, expected to sleep with a stranger she doesn't want to sleep with, shamelessly beaten, and being subject to rape.
  5. Daenerys Targareyan

If you haven't, I'd dive into the series and really analyze these characters. In fact, I feel like these books should be mandatory