Occasionally a forlorn male writer posts somewhere on the internet that he struggles with female characters – he just can’t get into their heads, he doesn’t understand women. And occasionally I read a book by a published author for whom this is clearly a problem. You know the type: where the sole female character with more than a line of dialogue is described as sexy and sexual, and sure enough eventually sleeps with the male hero.
But, to be honest, it’s very simple:
You write her like any other character.
Now, if that was all I had to say, this’d be a very short blog post. So I will expand by describing a few ways in which you can write a believable female character, with some tips on how to avoid attracting criticism of female characters.
Give her a goal and a reason for having that goal
All characters should have something they want, from the protagonist down to the street urchin that picks his (or her) pocket in chapter 3. How deep you go into that depends on how much you use the character. Every person does what they do for a reason. It might not be a big reason or a noble reason or a moral reason, but there’s always a reason. The same should be true of characters. You don’t always have to state your character’s reason in the story, but you should know it.
Note: as far as I understand it, a goal is what someone wants; a motivation is why they want it.
The character’s goal doesn’t have to be something “feminine”, but it can be. Presenting a variety of different women characters gives your work depth, so while it’s perfectly fine to have female characters choose goals which fit it with traditional femininity in patriarchal societies, it’s also fine to have female characters whose goals are considered to be masculine or without a gender bias. A female character can be strong while keeping within traditional womanly roles within a patriarchal society; breaking free of those roles also doesn’t necessarily make her a good character.
One piece of advice I will add – try to keep her goal unconnected to the protagonist if she is not the protagonist. That doesn’t mean her goal can’t align with the protagonist’s goal, for example if they have a similar goal, or goals which necessitate travelling to the same location or working together, but her goal should not, most of the time, be centred on the protagonist himself. That way leads to making her part in the story entirely dependent on the protagonist and takes away her agency – more on which later. An independent goal makes her more independent.
Giving her more than one goal makes her more complex. Consider what you want, right now. A pay rise at work, perhaps? A larger house. A third child. To finish your novel. To visit Cyprus. To build bridges with a friend you’ve argued with. There’s usually more than one thing you want at any given time, at different levels and for different reasons. The same can be true of your characters. Give her two goals, and see how things pan out. Give her three, and when she has to drop one to preserve the others, consider how that will unfold.
Give her flaws
All characters should have flaws. Flaws are part of what make us human; perfection is unobtainable. A flaw is a character trait which has negative implications. A flaw is not the same as a disadvantage – having a horrible disfiguring scar on her face is not a flaw. Being impatient, lazy, selfish, cowardly or vindictive is a flaw. But there are other flaws that can sometimes be positive traits too. A character who is patient, for example, might benefit from that patience when calm and understanding is needed, but miss their chance when decisiveness is required.
Avoid the trap of thinking “what’s a feminine flaw?” and picking from that list. Flaws are not unique to men or women. Flaws are universal. Some might be, on average or in your experience, more inclined to appear in one gender or another, but you’re not writing an average woman, you’re writing a unique character. Treat her as such.
Let her change
For any character that sticks around for a sizable portion of your book, or appears early in the story and reappears later, there should be a character arc, even if it is fairly minor. The experiences that your characters have over the course of the story are going the have an effect upon more than just the protagonist. Even within a short period of time, people can change and as such characters can too. Bigger events have greater impacts.
The best part is that you can use goals and flaws to drive that change. Character conflict generally stems directly from goals and flaws. Simply have these interact – one goal with another, a flaw with a goal – and decide which comes out on top and what the after effects are. And there – your character has changed.
Have her act under her own initiative
The most interesting characters are those who have the initiative, who take the lead. The characters who follow along, who let things happen to them and react predictably, are boring to read about. Characters who come up with ideas, who make decisions that aren’t necessarily a good idea or what someone else thinks they should do are interesting. Even if the character isn’t the leader of the group, having her make snap decisions and use her initiative makes her a lot more interesting than one who just follows instructions. This is called agency.
The protagonist certainly should have agency, or else they’re not worthy of being the protagonist. But side characters, including the protagonist’s followers, can have agency too. It boils down to doing things because she decides to do it, not because she is told or expected to do it. And the reasons she decides to do it goes back to her goals – what she wants. So give her opportunities to act with agency, and she will be more interesting and believable to the reader.
Avoiding hated portrayals of women
If you want to avoid being lambasted for having sexist portrayals of female characters, and you’ve already covered the above, there are a few things you might want to avoid. As described above, some female characters, even in published books, are there solely for sexual entertainment. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with including female characters you consider to be sexy, but don’t make that their primary character trait, as it relegates the female character to a sexual object, not an independent character.
Remember that there are a lot of different attractive body types, even if what you’re attracted to is only one type. So if you want to describe a female character as sexy, don’t just say she’s sexy, describe what makes her sexy – and to whom. Value judgements should always have perspective, or you are interrupting the narrative to give your own opinions and that can break immersion.
If you are writing from a female point of view, never describe her as sexy – why would she be attracted to herself? Don’t describe her breasts – why would she start doing that, unless she’s looking in the mirror trying to work out why she was turned down for a job as a model? If you’re describing a woman from her own point of view, consider what she would be aware of about herself, and what she would think of.
Consider this – if you were to suggest to a stranger on the internet that she describe herself, what do you think she’d say? Most of the time, they’ll give you something like, “well, I’m a writer, I’m British, I like fantasy.”* If you ask her to describe her appearance she’ll give you approximate or relative height, possibly weight, hair colour and possibly its length, depending on the context racial information, and that would be about it, maybe with a distinguishing facial feature. Unless she’s trying to attract you, like on a dating website, she’s probably not going to come out with “well, I’ve got huge round firm breasts, dark piercing eyes and curves to die for.”** People don’t think of themselves in those terms.
A female character can be portrayed as sexy. But don’t make a recurring female character a sex object. Give her a goal, give her agency, show her change in reaction to her experiences; justify her presence in the story.
How else can we ensure female characters are portrayed as rounded, varied individuals? Which female characters in popular fiction are particularly good examples? Which male writers do you think are best at female characters? What advice would you give regarding creating good female characters?*This is me. **This is not me.