During my occasional net trawling adventures, I’ve come across articles and writing discussions on the topic of ‘How to Write a Female Character’. It’s often linked up with it’s equally popular cousin, ‘How to Write a Strong Female Character’, most often talked about in the science fiction and fantasy communities, where gun-toting, sword-wielding, karate-chopping ladies with flowing hair, rocking bods, and impractical armor are commonplace.
Not that there’s anything wrong with gun-toting or sword-wielding female characters. Hell, my own written ladies often kick ass and take names, but the majority of female characters in the jungles of literature and pop culture are seldom anything more than that.
Sure, they’re cool. They’re rad as hell. (I just said rad. Does anyone say rad anymore?) These women are professional ass-kickers, ladies who stand on their own, never need support, don’t show any weakness, are most often under thirty, and never get grey hairs or cellulite. And when you squint at the narratives, most of the time, they don’t do anything that doesn’t support the male lead’s stories.
Something like this.
These characters are offshoots of same power fantasies that created definitions of male characters, as most clearly illustrated in comic books. The men are strong, intelligent, faced with challenges, moral dilemmas, and life-changing decisions, and the women are there to support them. They’re the svelte, sexy sidekicks in spandex and perfect hair, and when the narratives require it, they’re there to get captured or die so that the leads have some goal or reason for their stories.
Even if we steer away from Women in Refrigerators or Sexy Lamps or Wyldstyle from the Lego Movie, there are still things like the Bechdel Test, the Mako Mori Test, etc, and labeled tropes that sit around like bear traps. Stereotypes are easy to fall into. It’s easy to name the women in your stories as The Virgin, The Mother, The Bitch, The Hooker, The Princess, The Damsel In Distress, and so on and so forth, but human complexity doesn’t allow for people to be so easily categorized.
Notice I said people. Because that’s what women are: people. The mind of a male character is not fundamentally different from a female character’s. They’re both wonderfully, delightfully, horrifyingly human, with all the muddle and mess and wonders and dilemmas that come with it.
What ends up being the difference between them is the way the character’s societies expect them to act, and how they combat that. Not too different from real life.
Now, I’m a woman and I’m a writer. I like writing women and I like writing men. They’re both the same and they’re both so very different, but they’re not different species, so it’s not as hard as it seems.
So, how do you write a good female character?
You write an interesting character with emotional depth and realistic challenges, and let them happen to be a woman. She could be a leather-wearing warrior, kicking ass and taking names. She could be shy and socially anxious, with a secret love for goth metal music. She could be a genius computer hacker with a water gun, bubblegum pink nailpolish, and a desperate need for validation. She could be anyone at all.
She’s more than a woman. She’s a person.
And how do you write a strong female character?
Give said interesting character a difficult challenge, be it physical or emotional or whatever else, and watch her overcome it and come out the other side.
And that’s about it. Poof, you have a great female character to work with. Now, go write her story and make it great.