Writing Discussion

Writing Female Characters

You’d think, being female, that writing female characters would be easy, but I’ve found myself second guessing. From personal experience, women can be less forgiving of female behavior than men. At least I know I share that vice and it’s an unfortunate double standard. I often wonder: does the character sounds too much like a nagging wife? Does she seem like too much of a bi@$h? Wait, is she too helpless? Does she sound intelligent enough?

Sometimes the treatment of female characters can be done very clumsily, and it becomes the waving red flag in the room when that women is only significant female character in a story (but that’s another problem for another day).

Some female portrayals in fantasy that rankle me:

  • She’s really a man – female body parts were assigned by the author but the character doesn’t really seem believable as a woman.
  • The spoiled princess – She will intimidate men with no consideration for their feelings and get whatever she wants.  It’s all a facade, and you know the princess will quiver in fear when things get grim, demonstrating her vulnerability, and require saving by a man, no less. Either that, or it’s not a facade, and she just bullies everyone into submission.
  • The teenage male fantasy – beautiful, big breasted… you get the idea?
  • She only cares about his looks – She falls in love with the main character because he’s handsome. This may be valid depending on the context, but in most cases it’s just a symptom of poor relationship development within the plot.
  • The jealous one –  the beautiful other woman, whose only preoccupation is getting her man despite the consequences for everyone involved in the story.
  • The remorseless killer – this just goes back to flat character development more than anything.

Lately there’s been a trend towards kick-ass female characters. I do love these kick ass women! Still, there are times I think it’s a bit of cheating on the part of the author: See! I have provided you a physically strong woman, and you cannot blame me for how I treat the other female characters in the book. Really I think badly written female characters are the result of two things: not paying attention to stereotypes, and incomplete  character development.

I recently read this article on Women Who Don’t Kick Ass and I completely agree. Strength can come in many forms, not just physical. If writers focus more on developing well rounded, multi-dimensional characters, most of these pitfalls would be avoided.

Here are memorable female characters from books I’ve read:

  • Morgaine from The Mists of Avalon – She’s flawed, and not conventionally pretty. Though she’s treated as the villain in most stories, here you see her as a woman who’s just trying to do the right thing. At times she fails and other times she succeeds.
  • Claire Beauchamp from Outlander – She swears, she drinks, she’s funny, she’s smart and she cares for people. She keeps her composure despite being lost and confused in a dangerous world.
  • Empress Alixiana from The Sarantine Mosaic – She loves her husband, she is smart, politically savvy, and poised, despite the rumors about where she came from.

Hmm, it’s funny, none of these women I listed fit the kick-ass type, but there’s no denying they’re all strong, complex, women.

Who are some of your favorite female characters?

7 Comments to “Writing Female Characters”

  1. Not books, but scifi tv shows: Max from Dark Angel, and Boomer from the contemporary Battlestar Galactica. They’re strong and beautiful and yet oh-so-flawed.

    I like your point about not forgetting the side female characters just because you’ve got a strong protagonist, though. In my current WIP, I’ve got 1 female protag, and 1 key female side char, and I know I’ll have to watch for the side char to be sure I develop her well too.

    1. I’m ashamed to say, I am guilty of it too. I recently realized I was writing in the “wise old woman” and the “plain talking, good hearted kitchen lady” stereotypes into my story. They were just minor characters so I wasn’t paying attention. I had to step back and rethink it.

  2. An interesting topic. Especially in the worlds of speculative fiction, there is a relative dearth of strong female characters, and sometimes the presence of such characters may seem to stigmatize the work. But I’ve noticed a recent trend toward an increasing number of strong female characters (kick ass and otherwise), so that’s encouraging.

    It’s a topic that I’ve been thinking about a bit from time to time. A few of the novel ideas I’ve recently been mulling over in my head have strong, protagonist-level female characters, and in at least one of them the female character is in the lead role (i.e. is the primary protagonist). I worry, though, because as a non-female, I’m not sure if I can successfully and convincingly write a strong female character. On one level I realize this is just another manifestation of writer’s anxiety on whether I can write anything successfully and convincingly, but in this case there’s the added challenge of not having the relevant background.

    As for favorite female characters… right now I’d go with Egwene and Elayne from Jordan’s Wheel of Time (there’s a bit of recency bias, there, as I’m currently still reading The Gathering Storm). Sure, both are described as very physically attractive (the majority of women in Jordan’s world are above-average in the looks department), but how often are the male hero counterparts ever described as ugly? So, I don’t fault that so much. What they do really have going for them is some pretty good characterization and motivation. Elayne is neither a bully-princess nor a damsel-in-distress; she’s a woman with a kingdom to run and a succession crisis to abate. And Egwene strikes me as a capable female counterpart to the standard male “hero from small town goes out on adventure and becomes king/savior/leader” motif. Even if she is a damsel in distress, she’s one who’s holding her own thanks to her own wits and abilities.

    1. I think the most important thing just to treat them as multi-faceted characters. No one questions when a woman writes a male character as a protagonist. I have no doubt you can write a convincing female character! Besides, if you write a character that doesn’t seem true, your wife could probably point it out. 🙂

      Speaking of beauty… I recently read The Name of the Wind, and laughed when I came upon a part where a character realized that Kvothe’s (the protagonist) described every woman in his past as beautiful. His reply, “it’s my story.” They were all beautiful to him.

      I don’t think there’s anything wrong beautiful characters unless that’s all there is to them.

  3. When you talk about strong women, I would definitely love to see characters, who are strong and yet they do not possess the Buffy lethality factor, which btw has spread like a disease. A strong woman? Oh yeah, my woman is strong. She can run as fast as a lightning, she can best ten ninjas and she is the one dictating the rules in the relationship.

    While I do not mind the idea of the butch, rough female, who adopts a male behavior [switching the gender roles] I see that most authors make them tough and strong, because they are hurt and damaged. Half-something, out on revenge or the Batman story, these women are not strong because they think that physical strength is their favorite attribute, but because they are forced to and usually they loathe it. They have to keep things in check… On the inside they are vulnerable and want affection. The list goes on and sadly, urban fantasy [as much as I love it] continues to spawn such women.

    Being strong & in possession of your destiny is not determined by how many you can kill in a showdown. It can mean, support others and give, even if there is nothing left you can offer. It can simply mean, getting up and continuing even if it seems pointless. It can mean a lot of things.

    1. The “Buffy Lethality Factor” – I like that. I may use that from now on!

      I agree with your definition of strength. I often wish there was more alternate types of strength featured in fantasy fiction – not just in the female characters, but also in the male characters who trend towards the heroic, lethal with a sword, type.

      1. I like how the term popped up.

        I am not sure whether you may get such characters. Art is changing for the worst in some respects as we can see a constant semi-recycle of the same ideas and the mania that comes with sequels. Since movies & television affect the culture, along with music, and such crap is produced and passed as mainstream, it would be hell to shield new authors from not going in for the obvious monkey-see monkey-do attitude.

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