Writing Female Characters

I’ve now had a few variants on the question, “How do you write such strong female characters?” This always makes me blink a bit, because you know, they don’t ask people “How do you write such strong male characters?”

BUT! It occurred to me that maybe I should actually answer this question in a blog post. Because I’m sure there are many writers out there (guys and otherwise) who would really, honestly like to do right by the fictional women in their writing lives, but aren’t sure how.

So here are some handy, friendly tips to help you!

(Disclaimer: This is by no means definitive, opinions may vary, I’m sure I’m missing stuff, etc. This is only a start, and you don’t have to follow every one of these rules all the time. But I like bullet lists, so here you go!)

The 50% Rule:

  • Make 50% of your characters women. This might sound crazy, but is actually how it works in the real world! (And you may be shocked if you stop and think about the overwhelming proportion of movies and books in which this is not remotely the case.)
  • Carry that 50% through to all levels of narrative importance. Main characters: 50% female. Random passerby: 50% female. Etc.
  • Also carry that 50% through all different roles/jobs/etc. Military and political leaders? 50% female. Caring parents, innocent victims? 50% male. Good guys and bad guys? 50% each. Obviously you don’t need to hit exactly 50% all the time—that would be weird—but shoot for it, roughly speaking. If all your generals are guys and all your hapless murder victims are girls, that kind of perpetuates a really creepy narrative.

Great! Just by following the 50% rule, you are already so, so far ahead of so, so many books out there. (Including, to be clear, many I absolutely love.)

Also, I should add that nonbinary characters are extremely awesome to include, too.

Treat Characters Equally:

  • Make your female characters as competent as your male characters. And make them stay as competent as your male characters. Nothing is more disappointing than doing a character intro where a woman seems to be a badass and then she’s just kidnapping bait for the rest of the story. (Glares bitterly at certain anime and also a certain Robin Hood movie)
  • Avoid sexualizing your female characters more than your male characters. (Sure, if your POV is a horny hetero dude, he’s going to be seeing the world through a certain lens, but think about how your female characters are presenting themselves to the world, and make sure your lens as a writer is more objective than your character’s, if that makes sense.)
  • Make sure you have important female characters who have their own role in the story, besides “Mother figure” or “Love interest.” Don’t always define women by their relationship to men.
  • Make sure most or all of your female characters’ backstories and character arcs would work equally well if they had no reproductive equipment. One grows weary of reading womb-and-vagina-based backstories all the time.
  • Relatedly, avoid including rape or sexual assault as a cheap plot device. Murder works just as well to show how bad your villain is or to give your hero a reason to want vengeance. Maybe they could even murder the hero’s male best friend rather than his childhood sweetheart!
  • Avoid sexy=evil (I mean, let’s face it, evil is sexy, but that’s very different than sexiness being a sign of evil). Also avoid pretty=good (and its nasty corollary, ugly=evil). This is not at all to say you can’t have sexy evil people or pretty good people, but make sure it’s not, like, a hard and fast rule in your universe, and that the relationship between appearance and alignment does not come off as causational.
  • Basically, just write your female characters as people. If you could gender swap the character and the story would still work, you’re probably doing a good job.
  • Remember to let your guys be sensitive and caregivers and fashion-conscious and so forth, too, and to portray “softer” male characters in a positive light!

If you’ve written stuff that breaks some or all of these rules, don’t feel bad. These stereotypes have been around a long time, and it’s hard to weed them out of your own brain. Honestly, MOST SFF breaks these rules, including many of my favorite books. (Though not all SFF! A great example of a recent book written by a male author which is fantastic about following these rules is Stephen Aryan’s MAGEBORN, for instance.)

I would loooooove to see more new books that really treat female (and enby!) characters with the same seriousness they treat male characters. If you would, too, perhaps consider these tips as a non-exhaustive starting point to being part of the solution.

GO FORTH AND WRITE AWESOME LADIES!

About Melissa Caruso

I'm the author of the Swords & Fire trilogy from Orbit Books, including THE TETHERED MAGE and THE DEFIANT HEIR. Book 3 coming in 2019! I write fantasy novels. I love tea, adventure, and the great outdoors. I live in Massachusetts with my husband, two amazing daughters, three cats, and a Labrador. Represented by Naomi Davis of BookEnds. View all posts by Melissa Caruso

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