By: Jason Evans
When I read fiction written by men I sometimes am surprised by how bad the female characters are written in them. It doesn’t happen most of the time, so when it does, it’s glaring. Today I want to write specifically to men who write female characters on how to make them feel authentic to female readers. This should be paramount to any writer because 2/3rds of all books in the United States are purchased by women.
So let’s get started.
In the west, we expect women to express their emotions more frequently and publicly than men. This is not biological, this is culture. There are emotional men and quiet, stoic women. While culture is important – especially in world-building – ask yourself if the trait, habit, or reaction your female characters show is probably more about culture than biology.
If you remember this, you can write your female characters differently, allowing them to contrast with each other and making them unique. It will also allow a larger range of options for your female characters when they react to the events of your plot.
It can be hard for men to understand this, so let me make this patently clear. Women don’t actively try to entice all men. Yes, many women will dress up, put on makeup, and do their hair to impress one man. Very few women, however, get up every morning and consider whether their blouse will support their plans for world domination. Guys, they aren’t concerned about you. In fact, many women have confided in me that they’re more inclined to dress to impress each other than they are to impress the men around them. (After all, we’re not that hard to impress.)
Therefore, sexy is not a character trait. This does not mean there aren’t women who dress provocatively on a daily basis. But this is usually because they find the provocativeness empowering. Sometimes it can be for deep-seeded reasons that, again, have very little to do with us men.
In older stories, it was common for the female character to be helpless in some way. This allowed the male protagonist to rescue her. While this can be a legitimate story on its own, we forget that women have agency. Your female characters should have full lives outside of your male protagonist. Things like careers, hobbies, families, and colleagues outside of the male protagonist.
Let them react to the story villain in unconventional ways. Better yet, have your female characters make their own contingency plans. I know many women who have created a network of friends and acquaintances that have skill sets and resources they don’t have. They are quick to call upon that network when emergencies occur.
Show your female characters accessing that network! Show the reader your female character turning in markers and horse-trading to get things done. Or, let her be the boss lady threatening underlings and dangling bonuses and promotions to solve a problem. Regardless of the route you take, remember your character is not a dead trout. She can react and solve problems just like men.
We’ve all consumed media with the tough tomboy stereotype. We’ve all seen the fussy, girly-girl who squeals whenever bugs or mud shows up. These are stereotypes. Just because a woman likes to wear make-up or get her hair done, does not make her vapid or weak. Women can like girly things, gentlemen, and still be strong and competent. (See the paragraphs on agency above.) Besides, having a strong supporting female character who wears Jimmy Choo shoes and loves pink lipstick makes the character interesting. Try it, fellas. You’ll see.
Speaking of femininity, there are some women who do get marriage or baby fever. But even in the midst of wedding planning or baby planning, female characters should still have full lives outside the baby bump and the bridal shower. If you have scenes where two or more females are talking alone, please have them talk about something other than babies, weddings, and the guys in their lives. Try passing the Bechtel Test. (Two or more female characters converse and don’t talk about a man.)
Your male protagonist burst in minutes or hours later to find out that the woman he loves has been violated and what is his reaction? Does he comfort her? Does he call for an ambulance or doctor? No. He grinds his teeth and clenches his fists and goes on a murdering spree of backwoods country justice. Can’t you just hear the banjos in this?
This is BAD writing! It is a cliché for a male protagonist to have a dead wife or mother. It is an even bigger cliché for that male protagonist to have a wife/girlfriend/sister/daughter who is the victim of sexual violence and it needs to stop. First of all, some statistics say 2/5 males and 2/3 females in the U.S. have been sexually assaulted. So when you write your big reveal scene with your helpless female victim, your fans are probably putting the book down. How many will ever pick it up again?
But the other reason this is BAD writing is that it reduces your female character into a plot device and personal motivation for your male protagonist. (Remember the agency conversation above?) She has no other purpose than as a McGuffin. If your female characters exist only to be eye candy, damsels to be saved, or plot devices to get through Act Two, then you need to re-think your approach to your female characters. Your female characters should have as much depth as your male characters. They should be interesting in their own right, and not because of their physique.
Find women to read your manuscript. If you have a choice, work with a female editor, too. (I know mine improved my novel immensely.) But get women outside your immediate family to read your story. Old women, young women, women of color, straight women, lesbians, and trans-women, too. They will tell you when your female character is off. LISTEN to what they say.
If we can get out of our own heads and write better women characters, we will evolve into better writers. That alone makes the journey worthwhile.
Jason Henry Evans says that life is funny. In 2004 he moved from Los Angeles to Denver, newly married with a desire to be a great teacher and husband. He dedicated himself to public education and realized his heart was not in it. So he moved on. At the same time he stumbled into a creative world of art and literature he now calls home. It hasn’t always been easy, but it has been worthwhile.
You can catch up with Jason on his Facebook Author Page or on Twitter. You will also find up to date posts on his blog.