The Merry [Wo]man’s Guide to Writing Female Characters

Hello, Internet. My name’s Marion Hood – perhaps more popularly known as “Maid Marian”, except I don’t use that spelling and I’m quite consummately married – and I’ve been most graciously asked by Danielle E. Shipley (a.k.a. my author, notwithstanding that it may be another year or two before the Outlaws of Avalon series she’s written me into hits the market) to tackle a writing topic she’s seen all over the web. That topic is female characters. And I chance to be a female character. (Ah, yes… it’s all coming together for you now, isn’t it?)

It has lately come to Danielle’s attention that writing satisfactory women is challenging for her. She’s not sure why, though I’ve got my suspicions (among them, that women don’t inspire red-hot crushes in her the way fellows do and therefore interest her significantly less, and that she hasn’t the foggiest idea what it’s like to be a half-normal girl anyway). Well, admitting you’ve got a problem is the first step, and she’s been giving increasing thought toward how she might populate her stories with more female characters she actually likes.

She likes me well enough, I’m happy to say. But then, I’ve got an “in”: I’m a Merry Man.

There might be some readers who cry “boo” at this. Why call Robin’s band the Merry Men? Isn’t that terribly sexist? Oughtn’t we to be the Merry People or the Merry Unisexual Outlaws or some such? I could take it up with my husband, if you like, but I warn you now, we’ll only both of us laugh it off and continue on as we have been since the Middle Ages. I take no issue at all with being a Merry Man. If anything, I’ve got the best of it, being a Merry Man and a Merry Woman both. Nothing to get offended about at all, though doubtless somebody will be. Somebody always is.

That’s the first thing to keep in mind when writing female characters: You can’t please everyone, so try not to lose too much hair over it. That goes for any character, any story world, any plot, any prose style, and we lady charries are no exception. …No, I take that back, we may actually spend a disproportionate amount of time under the critical microscope. No matter how we’re written, somebody, somewhere, will think we’re not good enough. Not strong enough. Not flawed enough. Not feminine enough. Not masculine enough. Really, I don’t know that even the readers are entirely certain of what they want, though they’re very good at deciding what they don’t.

Talking of strength, though, that does come up a lot: The Strong Female Character. Unfortunately, there’s no consensus on what exactly is meant by that, and so you end up with a lot of fictional women who – as one Rewan Tremethick (charming bloke, Rewan; look him up) so elegantly put it – “have a left hook that could knock a bison over”, and who feel nothing beyond a cold anger that prompts them to out-swear every male character within a hundred yards. Danielle avoids writing such characters, because she can’t stand them. Her idea of a strong female characters is— well, why should I presume to tell you? Author Girl, tell the good people: Your idea of a strong female character is…?

“Mm?” says Danielle, startled to find herself in a place to be quoted and narrated about as if she were the imaginary person, here. “Oh, well, the way I see it, strength of character is about being multidimensional and a person, not just a name and a role. It’s about the character having her own feelings and motives and self, beyond whatever the story calls for. That’s where I used to go wrong a lot, actually; I didn’t bother about who the girls were apart from what I wanted them to do. Frankly, a lot of the guys weren’t much better, in the beginning. I only improved on them quicker because I wrote more of them.”

Very nice, thank you. There you have one opinion on the issue. A cursory search online can produce countless others, but in the meantime, that’s our premise: Strength is more than muscles. Or superpowers. Or, I don’t know, political clout. And it’s certainly more than slathering the worst sort of male stereotype in lipstick and calling it a heroine. I’m not by any means the physically strongest Merry Man. For pity’s sake, the band includes Little John! Robin and Will are far from feeble themselves, and Allyn-a-Dale’s not even fair, he’s got otherworldly whatsits powering him up. I’ll never win an arm-wrestling match with this crowd, never mind a stave match with Little John, a sword fight with Will Scarlet, or a shoot-off with one of the best archers legend’s ever seen. But with a lot of practice on my end, I don’t slow them down, and none of them yet can throw a knife like I do.

I mean, honestly, look at the size of these people! If strength of character were measured in body mass, I’d be bloody out of luck.
I mean, honestly, look at the size of these people! If strength of character were measured in body mass, I’d be bloody out of luck.

More importantly, though, I do more in the books than just poke my head in from time to time and say, “Oh, by the way, I’m a woman. Hear me roar. Carry on, lads.” I talk among them. I fight alongside them. I’m off living my own life, when adventure permits. I’m certainly not sitting about analyzing every action, wondering, Was what I just did girly enough? Or was it perchance too girly? Phooey, how do I balance this? I don’t worry about balance, I’m just me. I don’t even have to take on the role of the sex symbol. (According to Will Scarlet, that’s what he’s there for.) I act and I react – not the way a man would, not the way a woman would, but the way Marion Hood would. Is Marion Hood a strong character? I would jolly well like to think so! Some will say yes, some may say no. Some won’t be satisfied until I yank the longbow from Robin and bark, “All right, gentlemen, enough’s enough. It’s my band, now, and things are going to change around here…”

Don’t hold your breath for that plot twist, readers. You ask me, real strength isn’t too intimidated to acknowledge the (occasionally superior) strengths of others. I’m quite happy to let Robin Hood be Robin Hood, with me as his staunch supporter slash lover. Because, let’s be honest about it, Danielle can write red-hot-crush-worthy male characters rather well.

That’s where the authoress and I stand on the matter. If you’ve got aught to add – agreements, disagreements, mini-rants, links to other posts on fictional females, requests for my autograph or something – prithee do weigh in. Ta-ta, and thanks to the women of Luna Station Quarterly for the guest spot. Cheers, all!