If you’ve spent any amount of time in online reading or writing circles, you’ve probably come across posts like this titled ‘X Times Men Didn’t Know How to Write Female Book Characters,’ each featuring screenshots of tragically sexist prose. Or maybe you, like me, were forged in the unforgiving fires of 2012-era Tumblr and have seen loads of posts like this or this.
My point is, it’s not exactly news that badly-written women are an unfortunate feature in our media. While men often write the most egregiously poorly-written women, it’s not just men at fault here—people across the gender spectrum seem to struggle with writing compelling, three-dimensional women.
If you don’t want your novel to end up screenshotted and added to the next article compiling grave, mildly-to-severely sexist authorial mistakes for the purpose of public shaming (which I do, in case it’s unclear, support), you’ll want to learn how to write women well. And luckily for you, that’s what we’re here to do today.
In this article, we’ll talk about how to write compelling women, we’ll take a look at some common mistakes authors make when writing women, and we’ll look at some examples of well-written and not-so-well written women in movies, T.V., and books.
How to write compelling women
First things first, let’s talk about how to write female characters well.
1. Women are people
I’m going to get into detail about specific problems I see, but the bottom line and main takeaway is this: women are people, and female characters are characters. Writing a good female character means writing a good character.
Female characters should be just as deep, interesting, and complex as male characters, and they shouldn’t be defined solely by being a woman (much in the way you wouldn’t define a male character by their identification as male).
2. Give them complex motives
What does your female character want, and why?
You want to avoid ‘because she’s a woman, and women want that/behave like that/expect that’ as an answer.
Consider their upbringing and perspective. If this is a fantasy world, consider whether sexism plays a role in the way they interact with the world and how that character deals with it. How does this character see things? Once you have a solid idea of this, you can more accurately get at what this character wants and how they, as a person, will react to any given situation.
3. Flesh out their interests and hobbies
What’s your female character’s favorite movie, and why? What kind of food does she like? Where does she work, and does she like her job? Let her be a real person, and let her be a little weird. She should have anxieties, fears, dreams, and interests, and they should not all have to do with what men think of them.
4. Honestly consider their relationships to other characters
When writing relationships between any two characters, you’re looking at character A through the eyes of character B (and vice versa). You’re the author, so you already know what’s going to happen, and sometimes this makes it tricky to really piece out what information is literally there, in the text, and what you’ve got in your head.
If you flesh out your female character like we talked about earlier, this is easier to do. You can tell, based on what kind of person she is, how she’s going to respond to other people. For example, if most people are at work, they won’t be flattered by strangers approaching them and hitting on them—they’ll feel uncomfortable, maybe even frightened.
5. If the anatomy isn’t your own, research it
This isn’t advice for female characters, strictly speaking, but it does often come up with specifically cis men writing cis women. If you’re writing about an anatomy that isn’t your own, research it a bit. It’ll be very silly if your book comes out and you let the whole world know that you have no idea what a tampon is or how it works—Google could have saved you.
6. If the experience isn’t your own, get a second opinion
Similarly, if you’re writing a perspective that isn’t your own, get a second opinion from that perspective. If you’re writing a trans woman, you’ll want to have trans women beta read your story and critique it so you can be sure that you’re offering a realistic, appropriate representation of a character in that demographic.
Common mistakes when writing women
So, what are some things to avoid when you’re writing women? I’ve compiled a list of tips, as well as some tropes to look out for as signs that you might need to rehash your approach to female characters.
1. The lamp trope
If you could replace the woman (or women) in your story with a lamp or sack of jewels without the story changing much, this suggests that the woman serves no purpose except to be rescued by the protagonist. This is objectification, and this woman is probably exceedingly one-dimensional.
2. One-dimensional women
Writing women as vapid, vain harpies who care only about men and who hate every other woman is pretty overdone and generally insulting. Some women are vain, just like some men are vain, and some women are overly fixated on the opinions of men, just as men can fixate on the opinions of women, but as a character type, it’s often shallow, mean, and does more to point to the author’s internal sexism than to that specific character’s flaws.
‘Fridging’ is when a female character is introduced only to serve as a tragic backstory for the male protagonist. It’s usually his wife, and she almost always dies in some horribly brutal way which fuels his need for revenge. We get no sense of what the wife was like as a person, or she’s just vaguely perfectly feminine and lovely.
Yes, people’s wives do die, and sure, I get that you want your male protagonist to have a compelling reason to be so brooding and tough. But inventing a woman to brutalize solely to enhance a male character’s Edge Factor isn’t the way to do it.
4. Needless sexualization
When men are described, we rarely get passages about how their jeans stretch over their butts or how their nipples show through their shirts. The purpose of introducing them isn’t to tell us how hot they are—it’s to tell us what they look like. However, it’s very normalized to introduce women in a way that clearly intends to show off how sexy the author wants us to think she is.
Sometimes people argue that this is done because the male protagonist sees her that way. But the thing is, if the male protagonist is seeing her primarily as a sex object, that’s a serious character flaw which needs to be addressed, challenged, or otherwise explored unless you want your readers to think he’s deeply sexist. And it never is addressed! Weird.
Examples of great (and not so great) women in fiction
1. Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Katniss is a wonderfully written teenager, at least in my opinion. Her relationships with her family are hugely important, her role as her family’s provider is instrumental to her character, and her motives are strong, complex, and not at all male-centric—she volunteers for the Hunger Games in the first place to save her sister, Prue.
When it comes to romance, at least in the books, we never shake the lens of the Capitol. This is extremely deliberate, and it means that Katniss isn’t just a lovestruck teenager helplessly torn between two boys. She’s a kid fighting for her life while also being pressured to perform love for her family’s survival. Her feelings are being messed with, and this is incredibly compelling as a conflict.
2. Shiv from Succession
Women do not have to be good people to be good characters! Shiv from Succession is a solid example. She’s seriously abusive to her partner, Tom, she’s incredibly calculating, and she’s willing to throw anyone and anything under the bus in the name of getting in her father’s good graces.
But this doesn’t come from her womanhood—it comes from her upbringing. All of the Roy siblings are impacted by their father’s abuse in their own way, and while hers is definitely influenced by her womanhood and by navigating the intense sexism of an ultra-conservative environment, they’re not just ‘because she’s a girl.’
3. Amy from Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Even if you haven’t read Gone Girl, you’ve probably heard of the ‘Cool Girl’ monologue. In Gone Girl, Amy’s playing with everyone’s expectations of who she is because of her womanhood—she’s able to deceive her husband, for example, because she knows how he perceives her based on his sexism and she knows how to use that against him. This makes her incredibly complicated as a character, and her manipulation adds a ton of nuance to her very strong choices.
Again, not a perfect character—she’s not the pinnacle of feminism or divine femininity or anything. But she’s a woman written holistically, and that makes her interesting.
1. Mikaela Banes in Transformers (dir. Michael Bay)
This is maybe a tired example, but Mikaela Banes as played by Megan Fox is an example of the ‘Cool Girl’ ideal Amy rails against in Gone Girl. Mikaela’s versed in mechanics, a male-approved skill, but she owes all of her knowledge to her father. Thanks to a man, she knows about boy stuff. And she isn’t exactly presented by the camera as a respected auto mechanics expert—instead, we get leering shots of her bent over the hood of a car, encouraging the audience to stare at her body instead of listen to what she’s saying. She’s a character with the potential to be interesting—the bones are there—but the writing isn’t interested in exploring her character beyond how she serves as a love interest for our male protagonist.
2. Anastasia Steele from Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James
Anastasia Steele is the protagonist of Fifty Shades, and she’s written by a woman, but neither fact makes her a well-written female character. She’s incredibly naive—even by the end of the Fifty Shades trilogy, after she’s been exposed to tons of kink-related stuff (badly represented and explained kink, but still), she reacts like she’s never heard of sex before. It’s not a problem that she starts the series insecure, cloying, and naive, but it is a problem that she never grows, develops, or gains any agency in her relationship with Christian Grey.
3. Christina from The Book of Henry
In his essay “The Art of Storytelling and the Book of Henry,” Dan Olson explains how Christina functions as an example of the lamp trope. Christina is the step-daughter of the police commissioner Glenn, and they’re neighbors to the film’s protagonist, Henry. Henry sees Christina being abused by Glenn, and this is the impetus for his plan (and the film’s central plot) to kill Glenn. Olson explains that the film is, in concept, about a plan to save Christina, but in fact, Christina is really just an excuse—because the film isn’t interested with Christina as a character, she’s just a flat, one-dimensional excuse for Henry to make a plan to kill Glenn.
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