I have a good buddy who often talks writing, reading, and movie-watching with me. Recently, my buddy asked me, “Hey, Katie, have you ever thought about publishing a post on how to write women characters?”
I had not thought about it, but I was immediately intrigued. I’m a woman who loves writing women, after all. I don’t claim to be any kind of expert, but I definitely have opinions about “best practices” for female characters. I make a point of analyzing female characters in the stories I consume, breaking down what worked or didn’t work.
So I promised my buddy I would write the post someday, and … well, that day has come!
Everything below is strictly my own opinion. You may not agree with all my tips, and as a fellow writer, you certainly shouldn’t feel you have to follow my advice. But I have been asked to Speak, and thus, I have Spoken. xD
I especially intend this post to be useful to anybody for whom writing women “comes hard.” Whether because you’re a guy, because you’re a woman feels you don’t relate well to other girls, because your media consumption hasn’t given you enough examples of well-written women … or any other reason! There’s no shame in struggling or looking to improve!! I suck at worldbuilding and Practical Plot Things, so believe me, I need writing tips as much as the next fella. 😛
Without further ado, then … Katie’s Rules for Writing Women Well!
#1: Please Pass the Bechdel Test.
Yep, that Bechdel test. You know the one. xD If you aim to pass the Bechdel test, your story should include at least two women, and those women should have at least one conversation with each other about something other than a man.
How will this help me write women well, you ask? Isn’t quality more important than quantity? Shouldn’t I focus more on strong characterization for my INDIVIDUAL heroine, rather than making sure my heroine has a gal pal?
Well, yes and no. Yes, individual characterization is super important–we’ll talk about that in a minute! Absolutely, your story can have only one woman and she can still be well-written.
We live in a patriarchal culture with a strong bias towards male-centric stories. Think about the oodles of famous, classic books & movies with an all-male main cast … and the oodles MORE with a bunch of men and just one woman. This pattern is self-reinforcing. Isolating women by its very nature tends to produce flat, dull female characters whom nobody particularly remembers or wants to see more of. Characters whose entire personality is The Love Interest or The Only Girl On the Team. There are exceptions, of course (the well-written lone woman), but I’m talking broad strokes.
Cliches like these clog our mental landscapes. They stifle our creativity. Blunt our imagination. They’re a big reason why so many of us struggle writing three-dimensional women in the first place.
So, demolish the cliches! Don’t write The Love Interest. Don’t write The Only Girl On the Team. And please, don’t write the Female Chosen One Who Can’t Be Bothered to Befriend Other Women. *shudders deeply* Challenge yourself to incorporate multiple women into the fabric of your story, and explore the complex connections between them through rich conversations about so much more than, “hey, I think Steve likes me … do you think he likes me?”
You see, forging relationships between your female characters independent of romance will push you to think about who they are apart from romance. It also encourages you to give them diverse, contrasting personalities, so you’re not writing the same woman twice.
Even though I already enjoy writing female characters, I still find the Bechdel test incredibly helpful. Yes, really! Because my plots can get so action-packed and sprawling, the Bechdel test reminds me to get my girls in a room together and simply let them TALK. Which always strengthens my stories … always. I’ve never regretted using the Bechdel test, and I highly recommend it.
When it comes to creating strong characters, say it with me, y’all: AGENCY IS KEY.
Agency is the power to make choices which shape the plot. Agency means a character makes her own decisions, rather than simply reacting to the decisions of others.
Agency is especially vital for your female characters, because agency is something which traditional storytelling patterns tend to deny women. A lot of well-known, well-worn tropes for female characters (the beautiful sweetheart, the patient mom, the faithful wife, even the loyal tomboy sidekick) involve responding to–and ultimately supporting–a man’s decisions. And thus, facilitating a man’s character growth. Because characters who get to make choices, especially surprising or unexpected choices, are characters who GROW. Characters who don’t make choices, meanwhile, remain STATIC.
It’s easy to get “lulled” into writing a female character who doesn’t have agency, because these traditional patterns so saturate our culture. But once you become aware of it, you can better guard against it. Let’s take Infinity War and Endgame for two popular examples.
- In Infinity War, Gamora has no agency in her own death.
- In Endgame, by contrast, Black Widow has a tremendous amount of agency in her own death.
What do I mean by this? Well, Thanos sacrifices Gamora. That’s his decision, right? Gamora has no choice: not even the choice to stand up and fight. Thanos tosses her over the cliff with no warning, and boom, Gamora is dead.
Is it an emotionally impactful moment? Yes, absolutely. Am I saying the writers were wrong to include it? No, not necessarily. But Gamora’s death is entirely in the service of developing Thanos’ character, not hers. What do we learn about Gamora in that moment? Nothing, except she doesn’t want to die. What do we learn about Thanos, on the other hand? EVERYTHING. He’s an abusive psychopath who enjoys crying fake crocodile tears after literally throwing his own daughter over a cliff. All for the sake of power. That’s a lot of information packed into a single choice, huh?
When you give a woman the power to make her own choices, like Black Widow does on that very same cliff in Endgame … you’d be surprised how much you can learn.
Because nobody pushes Nat off that cliff. Natasha Romanoff chooses to lay down her life for the greater good. She is every bit as much a warrior, a defender, and a hero as Tony Stark (who makes his climactic sacrifice in the final battle). In that free choice, we see Natasha’s heart: her love for Clint. Her love for her whole messy, motley family of superheroes. Her belief in in second chances, and her stubborn refusal to let Clint Barton throw his broken life away out of guilt.
Agency matters, you guys.
#3: It Doesn’t Take a Supermodel …
Real talk, especially for the dudes in my audience:
You’re not doing yourself any favors when you make your female characters, um, Extremely Attractive According to Conventional Standards.
Look, supermodels are VALID. Classically beautiful women are valid. Tall, blonde, willowy–these are perfectly fine physical traits for any woman to have!!! But can you see a problem, mayhap, with endowing your fictional ladies with the trappings of conventional sexual desirability?
It’s right there in the name, fellas. “Conventional.”
If she fits within the narrow boundaries of elite Western beauty standards, I guarantee you, she looks pretty much exactly like 99,999 beautiful heroines who have come before her.
And as you write her … you will automatically begin to draw from the personality traits of her thousands of look-alikes, instead of letting her cast her own unique aura.
You don’t want this woman to fit in. You want her to STAND OUT.
Start from the outside, then, and work your way inward.
Don’t go for the obvious–tall, slender, perfectly shampooed hair, perfectly proportioned bust. Try something like this:
plump build, frizzy dark curls, honey-colored glasses, a snub nose that wrinkles when she smiles.
See?!?! You saw that. I guarantee you did. Oh, and psssssssssst: that character I just created? She doesn’t have to be white! Diversity, peeps. D-i-v-e-r-s-i-t-y.
And look, I’m not saying your heroines shouldn’t be attractive or pretty in their own way. Just, in their own way!!! The vibe I recommend is “moderately nice-looking with a few unusual traits which speak to her inner personality.” Believe me, that’s more than enough for any potential romantic partners to go crazy over. You can start wars and burn ships without being Helen of Troy, y’know. 😉
Folks do complain about the trope of the plain-looking YA protagonist with at least one hot guy after her … I personally don’t see much wrong with this, since we have only the female narrator’s word for it that she’s “plain.” Most women see themselves as relatively average in terms of beauty, and struggle to believe anybody would be attracted to “little old me.” So if you wanna give your heroine a nondescript appearance and self-esteem issues, and have her register surprise or disbelief when men pursue her romantically, eh, go for it.
However, these characters have their own look-alike issue going on, after several decades worth of YA. Maybe mix it up a little! Instead of giving her a slight, boyish figure, brown braids, and hazel eyes, try … oh … SCRAWNY and PALE with BURNING GREY EYES and WILD RED HAIR, which will be her LIFELONG SORROW.
Anne Shirley, ladies and gentlemen. Plain or not, nobody ever forgets Anne Shirley. 😛 Because Lucy Maud Montgomery did her homework, and wrote a character whose outer appearance truly expressed her inner spirit.
A couple final reminders. First, don’t be afraid to deviate from the norm in terms of body type, as well as skin color or hairstyle. Second, your character’s body type should stem logically from her backstory, occupation, and role in society. For example: a woman who’s a professional fighter should not look like a twig. Nor should she look like a starving orphan waif, nor an Art Deco lady from the 1920s. She should have muscles. Thick muscles. Gina-Carano-in-The-Mandalorian muscles. She should have broad shoulders and firm upper arms and a thick-set neck, even if she’s on the petite side overall. Let her have those things, okay?
#4: Street Smarts!
That was the corniest heading possible, I’m sorry. xD
I don’t want to talk about street smarts, exactly, but I do want to talk about skill sets. Your female character has a skill set. What is it?
No, your heroine doesn’t have to be good at everything she tries just because she’s a girl … but she shouldn’t be a useless pretty face, either. She’s got talents. Everyone does. How did she come by these talents, and how did she develop them? What part of her backstory made her proficient in these specific areas? How will her strengths contribute to the plot?
Twitter trolls notwithstanding (“she’s a Mary Sue!! wahhhhhhhh!!”), Rey from Star Wars is actually a great example of a female character with a believable skill set. Rey’s talents are beating up bad guys and fixing broken things. Where did she learn this stuff, you ask? Well,
- she survived on a dystopian desert planet for fifteen years
- her weapon of choice, her staff, strongly resembles a lightsaber
- she’s a scavenger by trade, adept at coaxing new life from junk technology.
It’s as easy as that. Figure out what you need your female characters to be good at, then figure out how to get them the training or experience they need. (The same should go for your male characters, if you want their triumphs and victories to be realistic.)
#5: A Piece of the Action.
Your female character deserves a piece of the action.
In other words, your female character should play a hands-on role in the central conflict of your story. In doing so, she should get plenty of screentime.
Now, I see some of you scratching your heads a bit. You’re thinking, “Why would I go to the trouble of creating a female character who doesn’t play a role in my main plot, or who only shows up in a few scenes?” The reality is, though, traditional storytelling patterns conspire to keep women out of the main business of the plot, and/or keep them offscreen … without anybody realizing it. Authors can be “lulled” into repeating these traditional patterns and sidelining women without intending to. Just as they can be “lulled” into undermining women’s agency.
These patterns creep into our adventure sagas: into sci-fi, fantasy, historical fiction, thrillers, war dramas, and basically any story which takes place in the “dangerous” outer world beyond the confines of the home. Deep down, we are STILL conditioned to think of that world (and these stories) as “no place for a woman” … no matter how many real-life women survive and thrive there.
Thx, Victorian cult of domesticity. 😛
Stories centered on romance, marriage, and the family don’t have this problem. They don’t push their female characters aside. Because if they got rid of women, they, um, wouldn’t have a story anymore. xD But if you find writing female characters difficult, you probably don’t write traditional women’s fiction. You’re probably not aspiring to be the next Jane Austen. You probably write in the historically male-dominated, action & adventure-y vein.
Great!! I love those stories too!!! So, the question is: how do you operate in those genres while resisting the pressure to sideline women?
Ultimately, you need to be aware of–and reject–the underlying assumption that women are not essential players.
Y’know how I said romances and domestic dramas aren’t saddled with the curse of ignoring their female characters? That’s because without women, no romance or family drama would succeed. In these storyworlds, women are recognized as essential players. But in the realm of action & adventure, women have never had the luxury of “essential” status. Even today, we still don’t. At best, there is a grudging acceptance when women are “allowed” to take center stage … and at worst, there’s a distinct sense that any and all female characters could disappear over the horizon tomorrow, and the men would keep right on fighting and transacting business and what-not with very little interruption, because It’s a Man’s World and We Never Really Needed Girls Anyway, Did We, Lads.
Don’t let that attitude creep into your writing. Don’t give your readers any reason to suspect your female characters don’t truly matter. Say to yourself, “My female character is going to be an essential player.” And then? Make her one.
Give her whatever skills and aptitudes she needs to be an integral piece of the action, just as you would your male heroes. (See Point #4.)
As an aside: I love me some non-traditionally feminine, tomboyish, gender-nonconforming women. I love them!! But I feel it incumbent on me to point out: you don’t have to write a masculine-coded heroine in order to directly involve her in the dangerous, messy business of your plot. Feminine women are perfectly capable of getting their hands dirty.
One of my favorite examples would be Sophie Devereaux from the show Leverage. An unapologetically feminine woman who will buy shoes and drink tea with the best of ’em, Sophie still plays a central role in all the team’s missions, no matter how risky. As a grifter, she uses a very feminine-coded talent–emotional intelligence–to manipulate her opponents. She doesn’t often get into physical fights, true. But when she does, Sophie cleverly, creatively seizes the available tools of her environment, taking advantage of people’s tendency to underestimate such a “soft”-looking woman. I once saw her take out an armed guard by yeeting a champagne cork into the dude’s EYE … in a pink dress and high heels. ‘Twas epic.
And last but not least …
#6: No. Love. Triangles.
Please. I am begging you. Do not attempt the dreaded love triangle. Do. not. attempt.
If you struggle with female characterization, the love triangle is the very worst choice you can make.
(Slight exaggeration. But really. I’m dead serious here. I have been asked for my advice and SO HELP ME, I AM GIVING IT.)
Do you want to discover who your heroine truly is? Do you want to know what matters to her, what she loves and what she hates?
Then for Pete’s sake, invest your authorial energies into developing one romance thread with one other character, whom this girl is actually, y’know, strongly attracted to, for reasons of Clear Personality Compatibility and not reasons of “I’m bored and I haven’t had my quota of drama for this Tuesday.”
If she doesn’t know who she likes, it’s because YOU don’t know WHAT she likes. If she doesn’t know which guy suits her better, it’s because YOU don’t know who these guys really ARE.
(Or maybe you do know, but you’re not communicating it effectively to the audience. Either way, not a good sign.)
And there you have it, my dudes! Katie’s Rules for Writing Women Well!
Quick recap, cuz I know this post got pretty long:
- Include multiple women. Let them talk to each other.
- Let women make important choices.
- Don’t go overboard on the attractiveness meter. “Quirky & unusual” is better than “suuuuuuper hot.”
- Figure out what skills she needs. Then figure out how she got them.
- Give her a piece of the action. Don’t let her be non-essential.
- NO. FREAKIN’ LOVE. TRIANGLES.
I hope this helps!
Do you find writing women easy? Hard?
Let me know in the comments!