How to Write Female Characters

When my friends proudly disclose in introductions that “She’s a writer and her stories are great!” I am often promptly asked for either manuscripts or advice. Inevitably, I end up with loads of essays to edit from those who are convinced that writers and editors are the same thing. (To be fair, writers are good readers.) I don’t mind this: it’s something that comes with the identity. Like, I’m certain that as soon as my friends all turn 21, I’m going to be the official designated driver because I’m Muslim and don’t drink.

I also don’t own a car, so I plan to milk this for all it’s worth.

That being said, I haven’t worked on anything serious in the past three months. By “serious” I mean I haven’t been fanatically writing long into the night in a storm of frenzy, or tossing an alarmingly heavy dictionary at anyone who asks for my attention and demanding that they “GET! OUT!”, or crying, or forgetting to eat, or otherwise resembling a creature on the verge of murder. This is important, because it’s kind of weird being called a writer when you’re going through a phase in which you haven’t actually produced anything save a couple of excerpts and an unremarkable sonnet. And that brings me to the disclaimer: I am by no means the ultimate authentic source on How To Do Anything Related to Writing. While I’ve experienced feeling enraptured on the occasions in which I’ve discovered something I’d begun years ago, followed by disappointed (Why didn’t I finish this?), I’ve also violently cringed at my own writing in the same retrospect. I am kind of cringing at this post as I write it, since being in the hurry that I am it is monotonous and lifeless and bland.

The most important thing to remember is the right to write badly.

Because let’s face it: despite literature’s reputation of being all warm and fuzzy and deep and “there are no wrong answers ’cause everyone’s right all the time and rainbows and kittens and cookies!”–you can be wrong. You can be so, so wrong. Not only in interpreting literature, but your writing can suck. Suck, I tell you! There is such a thing as bad writing. But more importantly, there is such a thing as good writing. And it doesn’t only involve knowing how to use semicolons.

Another thing it involves is knowing how to write good characters. And that brings us to knowing how to write good female characters, a question I was asked this morning and consequently–this post. We are all living in this very problematic system, and while female characters are much more realistic–and even awesome–in my area (books) than they may be in others’ (movies) it is understandable (though not excusable) that someone would not know how to write one.

My answer was simple: write her the same way you would write a male character.

“BUT NAHIDA! Men and women are different dammit!”

Not as much as you think they are. If Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird were male, would she have been any more or less of a relatable character? Mary Alice from A Year Down Yonder?

Sex does not tell us anything about a good character. It’s a trait that’s almost disposable, like the character’s eye color or what they prefer having for breakfast. That being said, there are reasons to make a character one sex or the other just as there may be reasons to emphasize a specific trait, but while that may affect the nature of the obstacles placed in the character’s path due to the constraints of society, those differences are exactly that–social. They are not inherent to the character herself. And therein lies the confusion: compared to the differences created by a social construct, genetic differences are very few and very insignificant, and yet it’s these socially shaped differences that are viewed as unchangeable.

And when we view these differences as biological rather than social, we lose a lot of the conflict that drives the story. That’s not to say that genetic and social differences are mutually exclusive or independent of each other, but that we as a society have developed to acknowledge only the extremes of these differences–unrealistic archetypes of masculinity and femininity, when what truly exists is a vast spectrum.

To avoid stereotypes, we’re inclined to stay away from the ends of the spectrum, because they are overwritten and overused and–quite frankly–they are not complex enough to contribute fully to the development of a good character. The ends of the spectrum exist more in theory than in reality: no one is really like this, and that has a lot to do with our flimsy definitions and irresponsible labeling of masculine and feminine. Even a character who is as far into the end of femininity as she could possibly be must betray traits which would otherwise be considered masculine. Anger, for example, is masculine when displayed one way (powerful) but feminine when another (irrational). Mercy is considered a strength in a man and an inherent weakness in a woman. If the character is male, certain traits otherwise viewed as feminine may be viewed as masculine. Stepping away from the extreme of the ends for a minute, this also has a lot to do with the reaction of the audience: if the character is in a sports team and the book is celebrating his masculinity, everyone thinks it’s SO AWESOMEPANTS. But if the character is female and she is giving birth and the story is a celebration of motherhood you’ll hear grumbles of, “I don’t fucking care–she’s not special just ’cause she does what every woman can do.” (That’s not even accurate you douche.) Yes, it’s hugely sexist because men define both masculinity and femininity, and entirely fabricated–and in terms of the reactions of the audience, possibly a result of jealousy. *coughwombenvycough*

And that is why the ends of the spectrum are useless: they’re likely not even real.

And yet they seep into our lives and our writing in dangerously hidden ways. If you notice when you read, men tend to “shout” and women tend to “scream.”

It’s important to remember that a character who defies all socially dictated gender norms is as much of a cliche as one who secures all socially dictated gender norms. This makes the character equally shallow and equally unrelatable. The character becomes an accessory for the plot rather than an element that shapes the plot as much as the plot shapes the character.

A fully developed character will not only possess both “masculine” and “feminine” traits but adapt to respond to the different pressures exerted on him or her by society. A fully developed character will both accept and reject societal norms and expectations based on the person he or she is and the situations in which he or she is placed. And through these decisions, the reader will come to know and understand the character as a whole and complete being–not one defined by her sex, but one becoming fully herself through the struggles she endures because of the conflicts resulting from societal pressures due to her sex barricading her from fully expressing who she truly is. A fully developed character will have both rights and wrongs. From this we extract character growth and development, a crucial element in the joint creation of meaning between the character and the reader.

14 thoughts on “How to Write Female Characters

  1. A lot of things here. First, it's intriguing that creating characters forces us to examine the similarities and differences between men and women and indeed confirms that the differences are not at all noteworthy.Second, I wish movies were as good as books at realizing this.Third, you have friends?

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  2. a couple of excerpts and an unremarkable sonnetI would so like to read at least 1 excerpt and definitely the sonnet, please! Don't be insecure, nowadays many people publish their writing on Internet. I read fanfiction from several fandoms and some of it is very good. F.e. one fanfic writer I loved – one could clearly see how writing, getting feedback and writing more proved "practice makes perfect" statement in her case. Yes, I am selfish to want to read your writing, but the ideas of feedback & gradual improvement with its' and more writing's help are true.

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  3. I don't think you're selfish, I can understand the curiosity and I'm flattered you want to read it. =) I've posted an excerpt here before but took it down. I might post another (and maybe even the sonnet)–we'll see! =)

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  4. You make a great point, Nahida.In my own writing, I try to cultivate that. In my Vaguely Good Novel, I have only one character who has to be female– a feminist dealing with her guilt over needing an abortion, and her guilt about feeling guilty. Everyone else– the snarky alcoholic/drug-addicted musician with writer's block, the music-loving slacker with a horrific family background– could as easily be male as female. In fact, there's at least one character I switched from male to female for gender-balance purposes, and literally nothing about his/her character (socially anxious self-absorbed writer of angsty poetry) changed except his/her name.

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