On Writing Women

Literature, media, and the presentation of female characters has been a running theme on this blog for a while now…but it’s only recently, as I’ve come to think about how I write female characters myself, that I realize I haven’t talked at all about the actual creation of these characters, only the need for them.  I’m not going to pretend to you that I am a writing expert, but I wanted to talk about the basics of good female characters based on things I’ve read and common mistakes, because if any of you are writers, or editors, these might be things to keep in mind.

In writing this post, I consulted a variety of other opinions, looking for the kinds of things that stand out.  I’ll start with the same issue that Impish Idea’s Kitty lists first in “How Not to Write a Female Character”: she should be a character first, and female second.   This means that she can’t just be a  hodge-podge of traditionally-feminine characteristics, featuring Eurocentric beauty standards (thin, busty, luscious hair, clear skin, etc.), a love of cooking, and a “sweet” demeanor or just a defining “sexiness”.  She has to have actual character traits, actual depth, for example:

GOALS AND MOTIVATION: Ask yourself, what does this character want?  It is okay if she wants to find her true love or impress her mother-in-law or win a bake-off, but is that all she wants in life?  Ask yourself also, WHY does she want those things?  Is marriage important to her?  Why?  Does she view it as a sacred partnership, a cultural rite of passage, or a way to make sure someone is paying the bills?  Maybe she wants something else completely: glory, recognition, a solid career, revenge.  Why does she want these things?

Example: Colette from “Ratatouille”, voiced by Janeane Garafolo

INTERESTS: She should care about something.  Whether it’s hand-to-hand combat, spending time with her friends, collecting stamps, or volunteering at a pet shelter, she should do more than just blindly chase after her main goal in the story.  Real people may want to get into college, but they also like to jog or are in drama club.  Real people may want to find their true love, but they also like to read novels or spend time with their families.  This helps make your character real.

FLAWS: Flaws, like goals, motivations, and interests, are an important part of all characters.  Real people have flaws, which means for your characters to be believable and relatable, they need them as well.  A woman who is physically perfect isn’t someone that any woman can relate to, because no one is physically perfect.  Does she feel self-conscious?  Does she have acne?  Is she flat-chested?  Is her hair unruly?  How about the rest of her life?  Is she clumsy, afraid of spiders, or perpetually fighting with her mother?  Is she academically brilliant but socially awkward?

RELATIONSHIPS: No man is an island, and neither is any woman.  What kinds of relationships does your character have?  Does she have mentors, or maybe mentees?  Does she have siblings or parents who factor into the story?  What kinds of friends does she have, and how did she meet them?  These, again, are factors that make your character seem real.  Female friendships also need to be more than petty gossiping and trying on shoes if you want them to be meaningful in the story (unless, of course, your point is to have your character realize that her friendships lack any real meaning).  Romantic relationships matter too-~-and it’s worth noting that they don’t all have to be heterosexual, or monogamous.  Maybe your character is exploring her sexuality.  Maybe she has multiple partners.  Maybe she is asexual trying to navigate a predominantly sexual society.  It’s up to you.  Make sure that your character, especially if she is a supporting character, isn’t just a trophy for your protagonist to win: she has to be able to stand on her own.

Example: Juno in “Juno”, played by Ellen Page

These things all impact the key elements that Daniel Swenson talks about on SurlyMuse in discussing well-written female characters: agency, relatability (remember, a character doesn’t necessarily have to be likeable to seem real), and integrity (in Swenson’s words, if your one-sentence description of any character includes the words “love interest”, the character needs more depth).

Another major thing to consider?  Make sure you don’t fall into any tropes or stereotypes.  When I looked at the National Novel Writing Month thread for writing female characters, and the OP noted that he knew women were more emotional than men…this is a stereotype.  Women aren’t inherently more emotional than men, they just aren’t socialized to approach emotion the same way…though they may be socially punished for emotional displays anyway.  On Healing from Capitalism, Ela Thier outlines five major sexist cliches that are particularly apparent in film: the femme-fatale (who is inherently sexy and uses sex to get her way), the nurturing mother, the damsel in distress, the manic pixie dream girl, and the tight-leather-wearing “liberated” woman.  Like Thier, I take issue with the last one because it seems to imply that more “traditional” women can’t be or aren’t liberated, capable of agency or having diverse goals, and that’s simply not true.  I’ll add to this the common tropes of “the woman who transcends femininity” and the “too-perfect woman” for bad ways to write women, and refer you to this post where I discuss them.

While we’re on the subject, make sure your characters don’t fall into any racist or other tropes as well.  Stingy Jewish lawyer?  That’s potentially offensive.  All your African-American characters are hypersexualized or thugs?  Problematic.  All your Asian parents are incredibly strict and their children are all math geniuses who are Harvard-bound and they all play violin together (on that note, are they all “Asian” as opposed to Korean, Chinese, Japanese, etc.?)?  Think a little harder.  I’m not saying that there are no Jews who are cautious with money, or no Korean parents who have high expectations of their children, but make sure you’re writing reasonable characters who aren’t just a collection of stereotypes.  I’ll refer you to the blog Writing with Color for more on this.

Good Example: Carmen in “The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants” (1 and 2), played by America Ferrera

Many of Thier’s tips parallel the ones I’ve already discussed, but I’ll mention a few here: give your character something to want besides a man, even if your character does care about romance; give your character a flaw, other than nagging or betraying others; and give your character bodily functions (like sweating when nervous, or feeling sick).  These are good suggestions, and her post is worth looking at, but all of the advice in this post gets to one major concept: write a person, not a stereotype.  Write a character who is reflective of actual lived realities, someone with interests and fears, who has a society which she has to navigate, who has a multifaceted personality.  Female characters need to be characters, not just icing flowers on a cake of male-centric plot.  What kind of women they are, what they want, and how they try to get it…that’s all up to you.

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~ by Randi Saunders on August 24, 2014.

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