How to Write Women Characters

This article was originally posted on the “Dragons, Zombies & Aliens” blog in December 2017.

Female characters have a bit of a bad rep. For most of Western literature in the last two thousand years or so, we’ve been cast as either vicious villains or virginal damsels. Recently we’ve gotten a third option: the “Strong Female Character” (SFC). But as I’ve explained in an earlier installment of “The Bitch Shelf”, the SFC tends to be two-dimensional, sexualized, and ends up as the damsel in distress more often than not.

Let’s be honest here: most women authors don’t have this problem. It must be said. For some reason, male authors throughout the centuries seem to think that our lives revolve around their dicks, and it shows through their poor storytelling.

The Two-Step Process

Generally speaking, this problem can be solved by a simple two-step process. Many of you have already heard this bit of advice when it comes to writing women:

  1. Make a character.
  2. Make him a woman.

Four out of five times, it really is as simple as that. Is there any reason Iron Man can’t be Iron Woman, or Harry Potter Harriet? Why not make the president in your novel a woman? Why not make the main character a woman?

This is great for those writing contemporary novels, sci-fi flicks, or any setting where gender is not an issue. But what about historical or history-inspired pieces?

Steps Three and Four

While it’s never explicitly stated, Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings is a very clear patriarchy. Eowyn’s gender–or rather, her people’s attitude toward her gender–is a major hurdle between her and her dream of fighting for her country.

If we were to rewrite the series in the exact same world with the exact same rules, but turn one of the main nine characters into a woman, how would that affect their character? If Aragorn had been female, how many soldiers would have dutifully followed her orders even though she just turned up on their doorstep a few days ago, and how would that affect her confidence? If Frodo had been a girl Hobbit, would she have faced more resistance and have to put up more of a fight to take the Ring to Mordor?

With writing women characters in patriarchal societies, you still end up following the two-step process above. You just have to ask yourself some extra questions to fully flesh out her personality. The biggest questions are these:

3) Assuming the setting is patriarchal, how did she (or how will she) overcome the systemic hurdles designed to destroy her? How do these decisions affect her personality?

4) How does her upbringing (patriarchal, matriarchal, gender-neutral, whatever) influence her relationship with the other characters?

Something that failed to do this was The Hobbit movies. As we said earlier, Middle Earth is a male-dominated society. And yet Tauriel managed to become one of the finest warriors in the elven ranks. Not only is she a woman, but it’s also implied that she comes from a lower class of elves, which is the main reason King Thranduil doesn’t want Legolas marrying her. That doesn’t stop her from giving orders and challenging authority. She’s confident, she breaks rules, and she’s a hell of a shot.

So how did she get there?

Why does she want to fight in the front lines when the other women are content to stay out of sight? What are her dreams? Aspirations? Pet peeves?

We don’t know. The Hobbit never goes into her backstory, instead focusing on the shoddy romance between her and Kili. This is one of the biggest mistakes authors make when writing women characters. Tauriel is a token. Take her out, and the story is virtually unchanged. Worse, her narrative revolves around a man. She’s not her own person. She’s defined as “Legolas and Kili’s crush.”

This is shitty writing. Don’t do it.

Step Five

So, your girl(s) have reached the point where she’s actually contributing to the story. Now it’s time for the stereotype check.

5) Do any of your girls…

-exist only to act as the love interest or motivator for the men?

-act as a Damsel in Distress without getting the chance to rescue the man at least once elsewhere in the story?

-get killed as “punishment” for acting outside the feminine norm (like every interesting woman in Supernatural)?

-have a bitter, unpleasant personality, but only because her poor heart was broken by a man sometime in her past, and only the love of a new man can fix her?

-portray any other stereotype that you can find in a quick Google search?

A successful case study would be Avatar: The Last Airbender. Yes, it’s a kids’ show. That doesn’t make it any less of a masterpiece. For the most part, gender is not an issue in the world of the Avatar. When it does come up, it’s primarily used to change the attitude of the men: Sokka and Master Pakku both have to learn that women are their equals, and they should stop acting like sexist pigs.

There’s a wide variety of girls in this show: Toph, Azula, Ty Lee, Mai, Suki, and of course, Katara. They are a mix of good, bad, and those in between. While there is romance involved, it is not their main motivation. Few to none portray any of the aforementioned stereotypes. They’re not tokens. Each plays a key role in the story that goes beyond “motivate the main (male) character” and “fall in love with the boy.”

Write characters, not tokens or stereotypes, and your story will be much better for it.

Fail safe

If all else fails, try this:

Get yourself some women beta readers.