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?