There are already a lot of articles around on how to write female characters. That’s all well and good, but I think it’s a lot less restrictive to have an itemized list of things you shouldn’t do. It also might be easier to digest than lengthy essays.
Also, this list is intended for people with more testosterone, but since I’ve seen young female authors screw up their own young female protagonists, estrogenites are perfectly allowed to read this too.
Like all my advice, this is subjective, in no particular order, and should be taken with a small pile of grains of salt. I know very little about good writing and am not qualified in the slightest to give pointers on it, but being female I think I’m qualified to give pointers on writing characters who share my gender.
I’m going to assume you’re taking your work seriously and expect your readers to do the same. Obviously if you’re making pornography none of these tips are going to apply.
- Female characters should be characters first and female second. The fact that they’re women shouldn’t get in the way of their other traits.
- Don’t have all your female characters be sexy when the physical appearance of your male characters can vary wildly. Especially egregious in visual media. Keep your ratio of pretty to average at least mostly even across the sexes.
- The vast majority of women are not wispy heroin waifs or excessively stacked lingerie models. Believe it or not, it’s possible for a woman to be attractive and not fit into the standard brick house mold.
- That said, having a woman’s worth riding entirely on her attractiveness is a great way to get your female readers to hate you.
- While it’s true sometimes women think about their breasts, it’s never with any depth (in my experience). Mentioning this at all will probably come across as unnecessary at best and downright creepy at worst. Most obnoxious of all is when the author specifies bra sizes. It makes my face go ಠ_ಠ
- Having “good” female characters be cute and “evil” female characters be sexy is kind of lazy.
- Also lazy: making the “evil” female character hideously ugly while the “good” female characters are pretty.
- A woman can be very competent without being a Mary Sue. A woman who can catch on to any skill or masters something very quickly is in danger of falling into the bottomless pit of Sueness.
- Making a female character good at stereotypical “boy things” is, if you’ll pardon my french, a bullshit way to characterize. It’s distressingly common in TV shows that think they’re clever and subversive. I think the best way to handle female auto mechanics or professional ass-kickers or whatever is to give a reason for her to have that skill (like any other skill, you know, don’t make her an awesome musician for no reason) and to not make a big deal about it, in-universe or out.
- A female viewpoint character describing herself in poetic terms (“chocolate eyes”) is going to come across as self-aggrandizing. Unless that’s your intent, find another way to describe her appearance (and not with a mirror scene, dammit).
- A lot of women won’t give very deep regard to other women’s bodies. They’ll probably notice bad skin or frumpy outfits, but beyond that they won’t scrutinize too hard. They’re way more likely to notice a snooty expression or a false smile.
- Particularly shallow women will give very deep regard to other women’s bodies. If you don’t want to have your viewpoint character come across as shallow, it’s best to not start writing a lengthy paragraph on her archenemy Susie Bitchfield’s obesity and poor choice of miniskirt.
- Not all women desire marriage and children. Some want one or the other, some want neither. Not all women want to be testicle-crushing CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, either. Some want to be psychiatrists or artists or teachers or morticians…or whatever else. You know, just like men.
- Female characters should probably not be solely motivated by a need to have the approval or attention of a man. Or all men in general, really. Female characters who do this ought to change by the end of the story, and realize that their happiness shouldn’t depend on the whims of menfolk.
- On that note, actions speak louder than words. Even if you don’t state it directly, a female character who appears motivated only by men is going to be assumed to be motivated only by men.
- Avoid overly “empowered” female characters. Empowerment doesn’t mean she’s terrible to men just for being men—it just means she’s not stepped on for being a woman.
- Probably more of a personal peeve than anything else, but I really, really dislike that one female archetype who is rude and often violent to her spineless male love interest, but they end up together in the end anyway. If the genders were reversed, it would be called an abusive relationship—and even then, there will be some segment of your readers who finds it romantic. Yes, Twilight, I’m looking at you. Glaring.
- The “headstrong” female character who has wacky banter with the similarly headstrong male lead leads me to believe they’d have really excellent (if angry) sex, but probably wouldn’t last in a normal relationship for longer than a couple days unless one or the other grows out of their headstrongness.
- In a romance story, or a story containing elements of romance, please don’t give the female lead stupid reasons for liking the hero. Reasons like “he’s well-endowed” or “she knows his inner depths, despite his blatant jerkoff behavior on display literally all the time”. I’m kind of sick of the hero always getting the girl anyway, like she’s prize at the end of the race—but if you insist on keeping that plot element, at least give both of them good qualities.
- Don’t have a female character for the sake of having a female character, which is something I see happen in video games and comics a lot. Give her something to do that isn’t doting on the hero.
Some examples of good female characters
- Hermione Granger (Harry Potter series). She’s kind of a know-it-all, but this lessens as the story goes on because she grows and changes as a character—like real people do. She strives for academic success because she wants it, not because she’s trying to impress anyone.
- Heather Mason (Silent Hill 3). She is shown to care a lot about her dad, and when he gets murdered, she goes after his killer and the woman who gave the order. While Heather is motivated by a man, I think the fact that he was her sole parental figure is much more important than his being a man. None of her emotional reactions to the freaky stuff around her seem unnatural or unrealistic.
- Alyx Vance (Half Life 2). She usually makes “decent female video game character” lists, and for good reason—she’s competent at a lot of things, but in a believable way. She’s never petty or vindictive, she has a good relationship with her father, and she is voiced by an actress who actually sounds like she knows what she’s doing (that helps a whole lot in video games).
I could keep going, and I could pick more and more nits, but I think the above is sufficient for now.
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