I’ve been going back and forth on whether or not to make this post. It’s a button pushing topic, but I’ve read so many writers talking about struggling with writing female characters and worrying if they need a “quota” or some other stuff, so I’m gonna talk about it.
Don’t throw female characters into your narrative because you feel like you have to have “X amount of women” in order to appeal to your audience. The reason for this is that inserting characters who don’t fit, don’t belong, were afterthoughts, don’t do anything, etc. will yield bad story telling, bad characters, and will hurt the work.
As a woman, I’d much rather read a good story with less women in it (if it has to be so) than one where ladies were thrown in there and forced into the story for no reason. It’s very easy to see, and it makes me roll my eyes.
Write People, Not Genders
No matter what you’re writing and why, you are always writing people before you’re writing anything else. If your character is a blacksmith, they are a person before they are just a blacksmith.
In the same vein women are people. I don’t mean that to be condescending or anything, I’m just saying to keep in mind. If you have problem writing female characters just remember that women’s goals, obstacles, personalities, backgrounds, etc. are just as diverse and rich as anyone else’s. If you have trouble writing women, think of the women in your life (mothers, sisters, family members, friends, SOs, etc.) and think of how deep and complex they are themselves.
The gender isn’t going to be as important (unless it’s plot relevant). Remember that no matter the gender, you are writing a person.
The Realism Argument Sucks
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: Having institutional sexism in your fantasy novel because it’s “realistic” is a bad reason to have it there.
This is fantasy. This is not Earth, not Earth history, this is a world that developed on its own accord in its own way. That argument is dumb. If you want to write realism, write historical fiction.
Now can you have institutional sexism in your work? Absolutely. Should you do it because it’s “realistic?” No.
Too many times I’ve seen fantasy stories that very few women in them or the women don’t really do anything because “women can’t do things because oppression.” Um…okay. It becomes too easy to focus on male characters almost exclusively. If anything having institutional oppression means you have to show the impact on the women in the world, how they live their lives, how they overcome it.
It also becomes way too easy for “Good Guy Protagonist” to save “Generic Damsel” all the time from the horrors of male dominated society. He saves her from rape or helps her overcome the trauma, she gets kidnapped, this happens that happens. It’s boring, it’s tired. Unless you’re twisting it around and doing something really cool with it or it has to be there, I don’t see the point.
The second part of this is that if you’re writing about female characters in an oppressive society there is always at least one female character who wants to be in a male role (within the world) and that’s her goal/obstacle. Don’t get me wrong, I like Mulan type stories as much as the next person, but aren’t there more interesting ways that a woman can have a goal/obstacle other than “I want to be a warrior! I hate dresses!”
Writers can do better than that. There are so many routes to go and the possibilities are awesome and endless.
“Strong Woman” Does Not Equal “Man With Female Features”
A lot of writers I’ve seen felt the need to overcompensate by making women more “masculine” where the female characters are badass warriors who see anything “feminine” (dresses, long hair, certain colors, etc.) as weak.
Instead lets throw the “feminine” vs. “masculine” out the window. If your male characters do “feminine” things does that make them weak? Of course not. That’s just dumb. Strength and weakness don’t have to be related to gender.
I’d consider myself a strong woman. I like dresses, cooking, sewing, doing my hair, etc. There is more to individual “strength” than categories of activities and habits.
I want to see more characters regardless of gender have strength from within. I want to see super feminine characters who are strong in their own right. I want to see male characters care about their appearance without looking “flamboyant”, “girly”, or “weak/cowardly”. Show me characters (male or female) that can go for a weak without showering or fight in a war, and the next week get cleaned up and dress nice without thinking too much about it.
The “strong woman” stereotype is so boring because that’s all that character is. She doesn’t do anything other than “I’m a warrior and I’m gonna beat every body up!” She often becomes super overpowered and can do no wrong, which brings me to:
Real People Means Real Flaws
Again, I think it’s an overcompensation when the female characters can do no wrong, are always the expert at whatever is being talked about, smartest person in the room, toughest person in the room, etc.
The character is overpowered and no one disagrees with her except for the bad guy, who is obviously just an evil jerk.
Give them flaws! Give them people who dislike them or disagree with them and not just because “You’re a woman and because I am a generic sexist character, I therefore do not respect you.” There are so many other interesting ways to go! Maybe she doesn’t know anything about battle strategy, maybe she has really bad ideas once in a while, maybe she’s shy, or obnoxious, or on and on.
Don’t spare anyone when it comes to flaws.
How Much Does Gender Matter?
When I’m creating characters, the gender is never what I start with. I usually just pick whatever feels right without any long contemplation on the matter. In my opinion, the internal things like goals, obstacles, background, plot stuff, and so on is so much more important than the physical matters.
So see how much gender really matters. If you can switch them around, try it. If that doesn’t work, that’s cool too. My main point is: Consider it not so deeply.
Not necessarily romantic ones. Friends, family, even enemies. If your female characters don’t interact with anyone except “Good Guy Male Character” who they are in a romantic relationship with, I’m gonna be bored (This is part of why Arwen bothers me in Lord of the Rings, but that’s a whole other thing.)
People’s friendships and relationships to other people are much deeper and complicated than that so let’s show it.
Romance is Fine, But…
But it shouldn’t compromise the characters’ goals, it shouldn’t overshadow the story. If this is a story about saving the world, choosing which Handsome Hunk to be with isn’t going to be your female character’s greatest concern. *Cough* KATNISS *Cough*
I’ve heard it said that romance often kills a female character’s most interesting aspects. That’s wrong. Romance done wrong does.
If I read one more story about a woman who never wants children only to give that up because Handsome Love Interest wants babies, I will throw the book across the room.
The reason this sucks is because if you’ve never given the reader any indication that this opinion might change, then it feels weird, out of place, and like a cheat.
As well don’t use female characters as a reward for another character, or to create drama. There are plenty of ways to do it without that. If the story can be told fine without the love interest, then the love interest probably doesn’t need to be there.
These are independent people, they are more than their love interests. If it doesn’t need to be there, don’t write it at all.
Don’t Make Them All the Same
Sounds obvious, but ugh. So many female characters are carbon copies of each other and it’s so boring. Have your female character have different interests, professions, goals, personalities, likes/dislikes, etc.
I also tend to see one female character overshadow all the other ones. Again, no. Don’t have one “awesome” character and then the best friend is just generic. We can do better than that. Group dynamics are much more interesting and complicated.
Not knowing how to write women, is an excuse for not writing women. It’s the same thing as writing any character. You don’t have to be a woman to write compelling women. Consider it not too deeply and write what is begging to be written.