A writing exercise

Reader Nyree recently suggested I write an article on how to write better female characters – maybe a sort of checklist for authors/fictioneers who are looking to do just that. It’s a great idea, but the question is overwhelming. I’m not sure there’s any one set of answers that will work for everybody. I thought instead I would offer up a few of my thoughts, and then you guys could share some of yours, and then I’ll distill it all into another article later.

Jenn’s suggestions on writing better female characters

  • For the most part, write women like you write men. When I actually break down my day, the only times I’m particularly aware of my gender are when I take precautions a man might not take against predators that don’t target men. Surprisingly, even sexual situations don’t typically remind us of our gender – it’s more of a one on one experience, or something, if that makes sense.
  • Start from the assumption that the differences between men and women are mere cultural constructs. When you find yourself thinking, “But women like/do/think[whatever]” tell yourself, “No: women are conditioned to like/do/think [whatever], and men are conditioned the opposite way. If the conditioning wasn’t present, there would be as many men into [whatever] as women, and as many women who can’t stand [whatever] as men.” I’m not saying that’s absolutely true in life – who can say? – but it works for me as a checkpoint to get creative instead of relying on stereotypes.
  • Include women who aren’t beautiful. OMGWTFBBQ, I was twenty-something when I started reading Barbara Hambly’s novels and realized, “Holy shit, did she just describe her leading lady as kinda gawky-looking?” Then I realized why I was so stunned and confused, and having to re-read the passage several times – I’d never before come across a fictional woman who wasn’t beautiful. Remember: every single time you include a beautiful woman in your fiction, because they are so overused while ordinary women are largely absent – you are reinforcing the idea that non-beautiful women need not bother existing. I’m not saying you should never include a beautiful woman, but if you simply must, at least include one breath-taking ridiculously gorgeous man for every beautiful woman.

Starting from this basis, you are seeing your female characters as equally human to your male ones (and even for women, this can be a challenge because of all that cultural baggage). Now you’re ready to look at the inequities in the world that might affect how characters of one gender or the other behave. Women face some challenges men don’t face – and vice versa. For example, women are expected to take certain precautions if they go out alone at night, lest a rapist jump out of the bushes and get them. Women face gender discrimination in many milieus. Very few women escape internalizing some degree of unrealistic appearance expectations. And on a happier note, women can gestate and give birth. Women spies can do inordinate damage because everyone’s so busy underestimating women. But writing these “differences” is where most authors get into trouble.

  • If you’ve never experienced the Special Woman Situation you want to put your character in, talk to someone who has. Even if you are a woman yourself! I’ve never been harassed on a job without getting immediate support from management, so if I wanted to write about a character being subjected to an ongoing harassment campaign with no support, I’d reach out to women I know until I got a few to tell me their stories. Believe me, sadly, it’s not rare.
  • Women come in quite a variety. If you want to write a female character you’re afraid will come across as a stereotype, writing others who are quite different shows us that at least you don’t think all women are like your potential stereotype woman. Three women who have very little in common is a great starting point for any work of fiction.
  • Remember not all women are white. That racial default follows us even after we’ve left the gender default behind. Also: not all women are middle class or wealthier, heterosexual, able-bodied, etc.
  • While we’re on that topic, don’t dump all your Others into one tokenish character.
  • If you’re only interested in writing about men, do so. Better you leave women out entirely than write a “token” woman.

What do you think? Agree, disagree, have other ideas?


  1. Vee says

    All of these are good points! The only one I would disagree with is that it’s better to only write men if you’re just interested in men–because that’s the world we’re so often presented with, in movies and books and such, I mean. The world is peopled with more than (white) men. You can make both your leads white dudes if that is where your interest lies (and sometimes that’s what I do too), but make some of the other people something else, or we’re perpetuating this idea that the world consists of white men. Because it really doesn’t, and I’m really tired of that being considered an interesting story to tell.

    • says

      *nods* I anticipated controversy there. It’s my feeling that the worst women characters I’ve ever seen are the ones written by people who’d rather be writing an all-male cast. I’d personally rather see no women than some cardboard cutout that makes me want to tear my hair out. But your point is correct too.

      • Vee says

        I feel like that is addressed by your first two points, no? Women are people, writers ought to write them like people, and if they don’t, that’s their problem. I actually don’t think universes that write women out completely are interesting, which I recognize is reflective of my likes and not necessarily everyone else’s, but I do think writers have a responsibility to think about how they write the world-as-a-whole, not just the inner life of their protagonist. If that makes sense. A responsibility to make their storyverse a world that reflects the real one (in the sense that it’s diverse, I mean).

        • says

          Yes, but IME people who just aren’t interested in writing women won’t follow the first two rules. Yet the publishing industry and Hollywood will give them contracts anyway.

          In writing the rule you object to, I was thinking of all the female TV and movie characters I wish had never existed, because the writers obviously only through them in there because There Must Be Women, then kept them as useless and backgrounded as possible.

          • Vee says

            Oh, that’s certainly true. Hollywood is Hollywood, and that is infuriating. I just have trouble seeing where less female characters will make anything better–I mean, it’s not like the problem of badly written female characters is limited to, say, action-oriented environments where they are the only woman. Female characters whose lives revolve around men and who appears as a collection of stereotypes? They’re in many movies written FOR women as well. Sometimes the one woman in an otherwise mostly male cast is actually a great character, you know? I mean, I know what you’re saying–Ocean’s 11 drives me crazy every time I rewatch it because hey, GREAT movie but why is the only woman a completely uninteresting character? But the problem wouldn’t be solved by taking Tess out of the movie, the problem would have been solved by making two or three or even four of the eleven women.

            (Also, some of the best fannish reclamations that I’ve seen have been of backgrounded female characters. Which, yeah, we shouldn’t have to, but I’d rather they be there to reclaim.)

  2. megs says

    If you’re only interested in writing about men, do so. Better you leave women out entirely than write a “token” woman.

    THIS. I mean, I’d probably get upset if everyone took your advice, but I get very sick of the token woman who is written badly, as if the writer was referring to a similar checklist as yours, but this guide to writing women only said 1) use all stereotypes and 2) write a women like a men, only inconsistently and only interested in what your male characters are doing.

    But if you are writing a story set in an all-male sort of situation, like a monastery or all-male troop, don’t include one woman just because. And really, really don’t include one just to prove a male character isn’t gay.

    • Anemone says

      And really, really don’t include one just to prove a male character isn’t gay.

      I am so tired of this. It is such a waste of screen time. We really need a successful gay action hero or two, so we can dispense with this trope completely. Then maybe we’d get to see the women do something useful.

  3. lilacsigil says

    If you’re only interested in writing about men, do so… but be creative enough to put them in an all-male environment, rather than what we normally see, which is an environment that should be gender-balanced but in fact contains 9 men and 1 token woman, who is only there to be sexy. Writing the “real world” with token women is just as offensive; especially if you really do live your life ignoring anything about women except their boobs.

    • Hailey says

      Dude, this. I was trying to articulate what I felt should be added to that last point (which I totally agree with), and this is it.

    • Keely says

      Yeah, this is exactly it. If you just leave it to “if you’re only interested in writing about men, do so” then most writers will only write about men. If this stipulation is added (and of course presuming the people who should be following this advice actually do), maybe we’ll see more writers biting the bullet and following your first set of guidelines, thereby introducing more realistic and legit female characters to their stories–I mean, after all, not everyone wants to set their screenplays in monasteries.

  4. Ray says

    This is great. I would just elaborate in the “women are human” section: This means that women (like men) have both faults and virtues, and sometimes it’s not even clear which is which. A trait that may be admirable in some situations can be undesirable in others. But all characters must be complex, neither all good nor all bad. Neither an unflawed character nor a villain without a single redeeming quality holds the interest or depicts a real person.

  5. unwisely says

    Those are good thoughts.

    The guideline I would like to be taken to heart is: if the only things you can think about happening to your female character are a) being raped or b) getting pregnant, think about it some more. I’m not denying these things happen, but if they’re the only things you can think of happening to a woman, then you need to spend some time with either real or different women. (Watching movie after movie wherein that is the only role for women has nearly driven me from watching movies. And I *love* movies.)

    If you’re having trouble, write it for a man, then at the end change the name and pronouns (apparently this is how Ripley from Alien was written). Voila, a woman.

    • Keely says

      That’s because Ripley was originally meant to be male. Same thing for titular character in the recent Salt movie, by the way, although I didn’t see it and can’t evaluate how well they did with that particular female character: the role was originally supposed to go to Tom Cruise. Sad that that’s seemingly the only way Hollywood can truly end up with a female character whose gender is secondary, isn’t it?

  6. Jaynie says

    I admit I do run into trouble with the not-all-women-are-pretty thing, mostly because I am Very Bad at figuring out what a character looks like (not good with the visual stuff) and often default to some actor or actress. The problem there is that very few actresses are in any way unusual in their appearance.

    IDK, I try to avoid this by only describing characters physically when necessary (who wants to read five goddamn paragraphs on how someone looks, anyway?), or focusing on “peculiar” traits. I’m pretty sure the only time I ever described a character as exceptionally beautiful was when another character with an adorably soppy crush was speaking, so I think that’s OK? I do wish I had some way of actually conceptualizing non-Cosmo-cover female characters, but I guess I’ll work extra hard at your other (all very good) points in compensation.

  7. Lika says

    If you’re only interested in writing about men, do so. Better you leave women out entirely than write a “token” woman.

    YES, THAT! If someone really can’t write a decent female character I rather they just tell the story and not make me snort every time their token women character appear.

    I think all your suggestion are great.

    Here are a few of my own.

    * It’s always nice to have a female character make at least one good decision. More would be even better. And real decisions, not a faux “sacrifice your life or watch your kid die” one. For me, a big difference between a “tag-a-long-with-the-main-protagonist” female character and a female character who gets to be her own person is that the latter will get to make decisions, and I’d like that she’d make some good decisions because “women are too stupid to make decisions” is something I put up with more than I care to and it’s false as fuck.

    (Oh, and the male main character telling her to get X done, and she has to figure out a clever way to come up completing X for him doesn’t count.)

    * I always like it when women are friends with other women and they get to talk about something other than men and babies. I love female solidarity and there’s never enough of that for me, at least not without wiggling asses or endless discussion about sex. Women can discuss politics, finances, employment, etc. with each other.

    * Realization for aspirations that don’t include men and babies would be cool. It bugged me that in Pixar’s Up and the 1970 movie “Love Story” that the young ladies with dreams of travelling and adventure put them aside for marriage, and then died before those dreams could be realized. (But as they both said, the real adventure was being with their husbands *roll eyes*) “Stand by your man and then die” was romantic to me when I was a teen – now it just annoys me how often a woman will have a goal that doesn’t include men and it will not be realized.

    • Lika says

      Okay, the last two are more wish list items than actual suggestions. It is hard trying to come up with suggestions! Now I’m more impressed that you came up with the ones that you did. It’s easier to point out protrayals that bother me.

  8. Sabrina says

    I’d say you pretty much hit the nail on the head. The rule of thumb for writing should be: Think of every *adjective* character as a character first and an *adjective* second.

    For the overall story I’d suggest you (general you) should see if your story passes the Bechdel test. While the test is not necessarily an indicator for quality it certainly can help you to analyse your characters.
    Do you have 2 or more female characters? If not, why? If yes, do they speak to each other? If not, why? If yes, do they talk about something other than a man (or other stereotypical girly stuff)? If not, why? If yes, congratulations! Chances are you might have included a potentially good female character. The important part here is not the test itself but that you are taking your time to think about your female characters and examine your own storytelling.

  9. Cinnabar says

    Time to put in my two bits about “If you’re only interested in writing about men, do so. Better you leave women out entirely than write a “token” woman.” 😛

    I don’t disagree with this. It makes sense and you can’t argue with having less hair-tearingly awful portrayals of characters, women or men or any others. However! I think there’s a certain amount of “privilege” to this (if you can call it that) which we need to keep in mind.

    In a comment on another post, I linked to an article citing numerous studies showing the empowering effects of Indian soap operas on women in some of the remotest, most socially backward villages around India. Among these effects were things like being allowed (*allowed* ha!) to take part in making household decisions and to walk outside the house without supervision, increased rates of enrollment of girl children in schools, a lowered tolerance for domestic violence and abuse as an accepted and expected fact of life – all completely unheard of before the advent of these soaps into their homes.

    Even though the shows themselves sometimes reach toxic levels of stupidity, the mere fact of them starring women as the protagonists and giving them a voice with which to tell stories has introduced the revolutionary concept of women being actual human beings to a society that never considered them anything but chattel. **

    I think you get my point. The reason you can make that statement freely is because in Western, progressive society and media, the fact of women’s humanity is not such an absurdly alien concept anymore. Yes, we still experience the pervasive remnants of a more oppressive culture, and we have a long way to go before things are close to reaching an ideal of equality, justice and acceptance for all. But atleast we’re not at a place where no bad women characters means no women characters at all and we’re reduced to being “not people” once again because we just don’t exist in the popular frame of reference any more.

    Sorry if this got too long or boring or lecture-y or confused. It’s just been niggling at me.

    ** (You might think I am exaggerating. You would be wrong. Yes, these places still exist.)

  10. says

    Re: the “write no women rather than a token woman.” I had originally included an additional sentence in that paragraph, which I edited out because it got pretty complex. Basically, it stated that stories which include no women at all unsettle audiences – think Glengarry Glen Ross, where people expressed some I Dunno What that bothered them about it, and finally, if they thought about it for a few minutes, they realized there were no women in it at all, and that just freaked their lizard brain right out. Stories without women don’t do well. Period. They don’t succeed. Even war movies shot mostly in the foxhole feature women somewhere. You’d have to club Hollywood and steal the money from them to make a movie without women. So with this rule, I was kind of trying to set a trap – but the whole thing got awfully abstract and esoteric. I would make the most awesome fucking spy, y’all. This kind of subterfuge is how I naturally think. Scary, no? 😀

    Anyway, perhaps a better rule would be, “If you really don’t want to write women, stick to fanfiction.”

    • Sabrina says

      I would say though, that if you have a reason for the absence of women people are willing to accept such stories.
      For example: The Shawshank Redemption has no female characters and is still loved by a lot of people. As of now it’s still #1 on imdb with more than 500.000 votes – so I’d say that movies without women can still work. But like in this case you’d better have a reason for it.

      • says

        No, Shawshank has at least a couple of women running around in the fringes. Very small insignificant parts, but since audiences are used to that, it does not trigger them to freak out the way Glengarry does. There is a huge difference between even having a couple of female hookers who never speak but do interact with the male leads and absolutely no women at all.

        Not that I’m arguing my point – like I said, it’s just too esoteric. But it kind of interests me how people ACTUALLY respond to a complete lack of women.

        • Sabrina says

          I thought we were talking about characters here – not background decoration. And with characters I mean more than a dead wife and posters on a wall. 😉

          I haven’t seen Glengarry Glen Ross so I’d assume that they’d have at least occasionally a woman standing around somewhere. So… they have a normal story setting (as in “no secluded men-only environment like prison”) and still manage to include no women at all? Not even in the background? No wonder it’s creeping people out!

  11. says

    I’ve got a couple of additions to this list, after watching just ONE episode of Alias:

    –Do not think that having a female character have sex will clue us in that she’s gone to the dark side. I mean, yeah, we know that’s what you think, but just for the hell of it, from now on we’re going to blink innocently and say you were horribly unclear and we didn’t realize she was evil, so your ending where she did something awful made no fucking sense, and you need to go back to kindergarten. Or would you prefer we assume anytime your male characters have sex with someone other than their One Twu Wuv/Wife, they have gone evil? We can work it that way too.

    –Pregnant women are not wacky-crazy. If you portray them as unreasonable and unprofessional and then cry, “But it was her Crazy Hormones(tm)! My wife was all Crazy like that, too!” we may have to conduct an experiment in which I kick you several times in the crotch during one of the documented times of the month that my hormones could be in flux and chuckle at your silly overreaction. You see, women may feel a little more moody during pregnancy (many don’t, but it can happen), but our “craziness” is actually a delusion that comes from examining women’s behavior through the lens of male experience. Just as I can’t comprehend the pain a guy feels when getting crotch-kicked, men have no fucking idea what it’s like to be pregnant, so they assume women are overreacting. But we’re all carefully conditioned to believe a crotch-kick really hurts THAT bad and not laugh, even though – honestly, guys? It’s pretty hilarious to see a great big manly man downed by one little kick if you actually cannot comprehend the pain he’s in because your body is designed differently. Think about that the next time you think Wow, Women Are So Silly!

    • says

      It’s pretty hilarious to see a great big manly man downed by one little kick if you actually cannot comprehend the pain he’s in because your body is designed differently.

      Not entirely. I had a friend who was hit so hard between the legs in a martial arts accident that one of the glands in her vulva burst. I think that’s pretty comparable to getting kicked in the balls. It’s just a little harder to do.

      • Casey says

        Yeah, that’s a part of why that episode of King of the Hill where Bobby learns women’s self defense and kicked Peggy in the crotch but it (apparently) didn’t hurt because she didn’t have testicles seriously bothered me…granted after their fight she was limping slightly afterward, but I still think it’s bullshit…I’ve been punched in the crotch before/landed hard on things and it fucking HURT! I got the wind knocked out of me!

        • says

          I got kicked there once by accident, also in martial arts, and I didn’t suffer any permanent damage, but I thought I was going to throw up, it hurt so bad. And last time I checked, I don’t have balls.

          • says

            That’s because it’s not the ‘balls’ that hurt, but the nerves that are present in the penis/clitoris. It’s easier to hurt a man with a blow there only because it’s a bigger target and easier to render a crushing strike.

            Same things that make sex feel good also hurt badly when injured.

          • says

            Well, this still demonstrates my point that if one is ignorant, it’s easy to assume other people are over-dramatizing their complaints – easy, but not acceptable. 😀

            I was trying to find something comparable to men wondering sincerely why women are so bothered by rape, when they should just try to lie back and enjoy it. Yes, I still hear this one once every couple of years – from men recounting to me the ignorance of their buddies.

  12. says

    Goddess I love this blog. Every time I’ve watched a Guy Ritchie movie I’ve wondered what it would look like if half of the characters had been female… Doing all the same things, saying pretty much the same things, but women.

    Also, if 51% of the population are women, and women typically live longer than men, what’s with all the dead mothers/wives? Are Hollywood screeenwriters *that* misogynist that they have to kill us rather than try to write us????

    On another note, started watching “story” movies because I got sick and tired of boys-own (only?) tales about explosions. Anything by Bruckheimer, for instance, is like reading a comic drawn by a twelve year old. Not only the surreal violence, but the immaturity, dreadful communication and lack of insight shown by his characters is pathetic. The contrast between Bad Boys and films like ‘Fried green tomatoes at the whistle stop cafe’ or the Australian ‘Samson and Delilah’ made it pretty clear to me the sort of characters and stories I prefer. Warning for S&D though, it’s very honest…. Actually I’d really appreciate hearing the opinions of this site’s readers about that one. It’s the story of two Aboriginal kids in the outback.

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