How I write female characters

But Marie — aren’t you a woman?

Yes, I am.

Do you really mean to imply that you write female characters in some different, specific way?

No, I don’t. Thank you, Imaginary Questioner, for leading me to the exact point I want to make.

Some years ago, a writer-friend asked me what I thought of his female characters. I told him that honestly, I hadn’t given them much specific thought. But now that I did, it seemed to me that he wrote them first as people, second as whatever kind of people they were (a soldier, a noblewoman, etc), and third as women. And that as far as I was concerned, that was the right way to do it.

That’s how I write characters, be they male, female, or (in the case of one story I’m wrestling with) mystical bilateral hermaphrodites. Female characters aren’t “marked” in my head, but neither are male ones; when I sit down to include a male character in a story, I don’t ask myself “okay, what are things guys do? They belch, they fart, they scratch themselves, they drink lots of beer –” A) That way lies stereotyping and B) I know plenty of women who do those things, too. When Deven gets drunk with his buddies and suffers through a hangover early in Midnight Never Come, he doesn’t do that because I was trying to write Guys, he does it because I was trying to write young Elizabethan gentlemen who had gone to war together welcoming a newcomer into their ranks. Their gender was not their foremost defining characteristic.

Of course, if you follow the path I outlined above, you run the risk of a result aptly described in The History Boys (though they’re discussing Michelangelo’s nudes): “These aren’t women, they’re men with tits. And the tits look like they’ve been put on with an ice-cream scoop.” Except I question the “of course”-ness of that danger; I have a hard time thinking of any stories I’ve read or watched where the women seem like men with a female paint job on top. The reason for that may lie in last month’s post; I’m more likely to process those characters as women who happen to exhibit characteristics usually associated with masculinity, rather than as somehow Not Real Women.

I can, by contrast, think of plenty of examples of Not Real Women generated by authors’ attempts to write Women, instead of female people. Robert Jordan probably leads that pack, both because of the characters themselves, and because his own comments in interviews made it abundantly clear that he thought women were Different From Men (and moreover, we’re apparently all the same). You can see this in action throughout the Wheel of Time, as even the female characters who start out as individuals end up indistiguishable from all the rest. Indistinguishable, and implausible: there may be women out there like that, but I’ve never met one.

There are differences. Based on conversations with my friends of both genders, I’d say the women are far more wary when walking alone at night — and we’re probably more worried about sexual assault, whereas the men are more likely to think about being mugged and losing their wallets. And even in our enlightened modern times, women can suffer much worse consequences for the loss of virtue; if you don’t believe me, try asking a rape counselor how people react when the victim was promiscuous and wore revealing clothes. Endless ink has been spilled over which differences are biological, and which are social; me, I think the safe bet is to treat them all as social. Even if it’s true that men are actually hard-wired better for math — which it may or may not be — they occupy the A-F range of mathematical ability, and women occupy the B-G range, so you’re better off thinking about what kind of education your character got before you worry about their gender. And if it’s a fight scene, the individual strength and training of the participants matters more than the general distribution of upper-body muscle across the human race.

We’re people. We’re individuals. We’re not Women, and we’re not types, either — the Cold But Brilliant Scientist, the Nurturing Mother Who Sacrifices All For Her Children, the Whore With A Heart Of Gold. We may share characteristics with those types, but if you start with the type, or start by asking yourself “what kinds of things do women do?” (or, FSM forbid, “what do women want?”), you’re already headed in the wrong direction. Start with people. Start with people in particular circumstances: their culture, their social class, their profession, their family history. Let those be the foundations for their character and actions.

I don’t speak for all readers. But if you approach it from that angle, then even if you screw it up, I for one am more likely to read it as a failure of characterization, rather than a failure of female characterization. And I’m okay with that.

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  1. 1. Adam Heine

    That’s actually really encouraging, and I think you’re right about how we’re more likely to read into the text rather than out of it. I can’t think of a single male character (written by a woman) that I thought was “wrong” or “written by someone who has never been a man.” They always seemed like people to me.

  2. 2. Nathanael Green

    “First as people …”

    I think this is a very refreshing way to look at it, and I’d suggest that this goes beyond just writing into everyday life. Starting with the individual, rather than the stereotype lets us see the unique characterization first.

    Great way to look at it. Thanks for the post!

    -Nate

  3. 3. Marie Brennan

    Adam — it’s a bit complicated in that direction, because in our culture, “male” gets treated as the “universal” setting. You hear men saying they don’t read books with female protagonists (or female authors), but not the other way around, because supposedly the male experience is applicable and interesting to everybody, whereas the female experience is applicable and interesting only to women and some touchy-feely men. (A similar thing happens with whiteness and middle-class-ness.) So women writers have grown up absorbing lots and lots of representations of the male perspective, and are less likely to view it as something foreign.

    And it isn’t just in the realm of fiction, either. How many relationship-advice books are built on the assumption that men are simple and easily-understood creatures, but women are terra incognita with many pitfalls awaiting the unwary traveler?

  4. 4. Marie Brennan

    Nate — I agree, but kept it to gender so that a) it would fit into a reasonably-sized blog post and b) I could talk about something I have first-hand experience of. (In the sense that I am in the “marked” and therefore stereotyped category.) But yes — it should be common-sense advice that starting with the stereotype instead of the individual is a Bad Idea.

    Now if only common sense were more common . . . .

  5. 5. Alma Alexander

    What you said. In spades.

    Thank you so much for writing this post.

  6. 6. Brian Dolton

    I’m so glad to see someone make the “A-F”, “B-G” remark. All too often peple seem to think that (for example) “men are stronger than women” = “all men are stronger than all women”. The average man IS stronger than the average woman, but since when did we write about average people all the time? There’s a bell curve, and while the strongest men will ALWAYS be stronger than any women, the strongest woman will be stronger than a great many men (I can bench press more than my wife; but there are other machines down the gym where she can beat me on weight. And she can certainly outlast me on stamina).

    And so with other characteristics, too, physical and mental/emotional.

    I write predominantly female MCs. My critique groups have generally tended to have more women than men in them. I have yet to have a single “but women aren’t like that!” comment from a female critiquer. I think I HAVE had it, once or twice, from men.

  7. 7. Marie Brennan

    Brian — I think the only “but men aren’t like that!” comment I’ve ever gotten pertained to my first novel, Doppelganger (later reissued as Warrior): a couple of readers found it impossible to believe Mirage could change clothes in the same room as Eclipse without it being sexualized in some fashion. But, as per my argument above, I didn’t approach that scene as “female character gets nekkid around male character;” it’s Mirage and Eclipse, who consider each other more as siblings than potential sexual partners, and who moreover share a history that has put them in (non-sexual) intimate physical contact a million times. In other words, her body is not some charged object for him.

    It’s about who they are, not what plumbing they come equipped with.

  8. 8. Megaera

    “It’s about who they are, not what plumbing they come equipped with.”

    Or, people are just people, people.

    I don’t know what it says about me, but the only time I end up getting overwhelmed by writing a “not me” gender/ethnicity/etc., character is after I’ve done it. When I’m actually doing it, they’re just who they are.

  9. 9. S. Megan Payne

    I’ve always been chameleon. If I know where a character is coming from, I can slip under their skin, regardless of gender. It’s just a natural consequence of doing it so often. When I’m looking through a character’s eyes, the only thing that really IS different gender to gender is that suddenly when I’m writing a guy, females are interesting to look at instead of males. The first time this happened to me was freaky, but now, I’m hyperaware of the attractive/unattractive qualities of both sexes. And that only matters when I include romance. Of course, I USUALLY include romance… :) What can I say?

  10. 10. Jaws

    One of the snide comments that I’ve used in response to “But men/women aren’t like that!” is more cultural than otherwise: “Really? When’s the last time you observed the men/women at the market in quasimedieval, magic-using Freedonia? Or even in Tehran today?” It doesn’t often win the argument, but it usually shuts up the questioner for long enough to move on and AVOID the argument.

    My suspicion is that most of the time, the “But men/women aren’t like that!” question reflects one or more of three failures:
    * Failure of the author to research and think through his/her characters in their context;
    * Failure of the reader to research and think through his/her reactions to the characters in their context;
    * Bad writing that encourages contextless evaluations
    Most of the time, at least two of these apply… unfortunately; the RJ example often shows all three. FSM forbid that readers ever take responsibility for their own prejudices getting in the way!

    And you’d be shocked — shocked, I say — how often this problem occurs with NONfictional narratives, too; if you want a particularly disturbing example, try actually reading the various opinions in Roe v. Wade!

  11. 11. Marie Brennan

    Jaws — you’ve got a good point re: men and women in other cultural contexts. On the other hand, sometimes the representation still feels wrong somehow, and not in ways that I can trace to cultural context.

    It’s probably more accurate to say certain female characters strike me as Not Real People, rather than Not Real Women. They just don’t resonate believably, in ways that have more to do with characterization in general than gender specifically.

  12. 12. OtterB

    [i]Start with people in particular circumstances: their culture, their social class, their profession, their family history. Let those be the foundations for their character and actions.[/i]

    I would point out that gender roles – what they are, how rigid or flexible they are, how they are changed by technology, how they fit with other pieces of the culture such as attitudes toward religion or inheritance, etc. – are an important piece of culture. So in a way, what you’re saying is not that gender is irrelevant, but that coming to a character with the gender biases of the author’s own culture can interfere with developing a character that rings true in the story’s culture.

  13. 13. Alyc

    Well said for so brief a space.

    I think I may have shared with you my one-minute-litmus test to see if a female character is a character or a caricature. Take the character as described and mentally replace the plumbing to male. If the character suddenly seems ridiculous, annoying, stereotypical, or uncomfortably feminized, then “riting gewd karakters: yer doin it wrong!”.

    This gets back to the positioning of the male category as the unmarked, normative category. Badly written female characters are that way, in part I think, because they get written as departures from (or derivatives of) that norm. Any female character you write should be able to hold her own against any male character, interest-wise.

    BTW, this is why Princess Leia rules, and Amidala makes my soul bleed.

  14. 14. Sabreman

    Running a little late. But {s!} for this article.

    JRP

  15. 15. Steven Egan

    I’m a guy who has trouble writing girls, so this was great (and encouraging!) to read. I would like to say though that to treat all differences between men and women as cultural is entirely and exactly wrong. There are numerous biological differences between men and women beyond sex organs, musculature and facial hair. A quick google search will reveal that the differences are as large as the functioning of our brains and as small as the number of capillaries in our fingers and toes. Naturally an exactly average person exists only in theory, but its important to understand this theory so that you can understand the ways in which your own characters deviate from it.

    In other words, biology precedes and supersedes culture.

  16. 16. Marie Brennan

    Hi Steve,

    I hear you, but I stand by my original point. Number of capillaries isn’t likely to affect characterization, and I have yet to hear of a behavioral difference that isn’t complicated by a bunch of exceptions and caveats, to the point where I’m dubious of the value of using it as a starting point. If you approach it as a matter of “here’s the average, and here’s how my character deviates from it,” that strikes me as likely to produce the kind of characterization that bothers me: female characters treated *as* deviations from the norm. “Oh, she’s tough and aggressive for a woman,” or (to flip it around) “he’s awfully caring and nice, for a man,” or something else in that vein.

    I honestly believe that writers who start off by thinking about how the character was raised, and in what kind of society, will generally get better results than the ones who start with a notion of biological absolutes.

  17. 17. Jonathan Green

    What a great post, Marie. And what a relief.

    I’ve just finished a novella with a femal protagonist and didn’t actively set out to write ‘a woman’. I hope, instead, to have created an interesting character.

  18. 18. Scott Andrews

    Fabulous post, and I agree 100%. My second novel is half narrated by a female character and I was a bit wary at first, unsure if I could pull it off. But the moment I sat down to write in her voice I found that there was nothing to worry about. She was a person who had her own fears, backstory, objectives and so forth, but when it came to writing her chapters the only major difference I found was the way the male characters reacted to her.

    The only area I shied away from was writing her reactions to a rape she suffered in a previous book. I agonised about how to approach it. I felt that anything I tried to write would feel false and glib. But again, when I came to approach that section I immediately realised, while typing, that I didn’t need to address it at all – because her character as I’d established it was such that she wouldn’t dwell on it, and certainly wouldn’t write about it. So I’d unwittingly let myself off the hook, kind off.

    But that aside, it seems to me that person first, role second, gender third is exactly the way to approach writing a character of opposite gender to yourself, be you male or female.

  19. 19. Marie Brennan

    But again, when I came to approach that section I immediately realised, while typing, that I didn’t need to address it at all – because her character as I’d established it was such that she wouldn’t dwell on it, and certainly wouldn’t write about it.

    Wellllll, that one’s complicated. First of all, the way rape gets used for female characters is really problematic — this is off-topic, so I won’t go into detail here, but it starts with the fact that male characters can have all kinds of trauma, but women in fiction are extremely likely (relatively speaking) to be rape victims.

    More to the point of characterization — even if she doesn’t dwell on it or talk about it, that experience will still shape her behavior in lots of unspoken ways. If it doesn’t, then that’s one of the other problems with rape in fiction, which is that the consequences don’t get represented accurately.

    I haven’t read the story, obviously, so I have no idea how you handled it. But if I can temporarily interrupt my own thread for a PSA: if you’re going to put that trope into a story, please please *please* do your research. Talk to rape counselors, find out how different kinds of people react, make sure you do justice to the crime (as it were).

    (Sorry if that came off as lecturing, Scott — I don’t mean it to be. More taking the chance to say these things so anybody else reading the thread can think about them.)

  20. 20. Jennifer

    You know what I’ve always wanted to say about this topic?

    “I think of a woman, and then I take away reason and accountability.”

    Heh, but seriously now, people are people. Just that some have some different concerns than other ones.

  21. 21. Yasiru

    A very good point and very definitely worth making. People first, attributes, even ones as intrinsic as gender, second.
    However, I do contest the claim about Robert Jordan’s female characters being interchangeable as well as any vices in his clear separation of male and female. The circumstances of the series, specifically the ‘Breaking’ provide reason enough for more cohesion among women as well as their claims to greater power, however unjust their attitude towards men. The situation may well have been reversed or related to an attribute other than gender (though gender is a particularly strong one, and a prominent one in science fiction since Frank Herbert’s Dune), resulting perhaps in the same sort of cohesion in whoever did not blunder. So really, the difference only emphasises that ‘sameness’. But this is not to say a whole group of people are colourless and bland, female characters do see development, albeit more slowly than their male counterparts and while strong changes in their uniform characteristics are resisted, they do creep through now and then. In light of this context then, his female characters are actually quite good, as people foremost.

    For these reasons I think Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series is more counterexample or nuance to the view advocated in your post, so that we may appreciate that sometimes circumstances can determine characters more strongly than an unbiased portrayal demands they be determined.

  22. 22. Alex

    thanks a lot…i’ve been wondering for months how to get inside the head of a woman but i’ve just realised how sexist i was being. in my book the woman is a villain…so i will write her like a villain.

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Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.

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