On many occasions, I have seen this question asked, or someone has asked me directly: “Do you have any tips for writing female characters?” My answer to this question is simple:
If you want to write a good female character, don’t try to write a female character. Write a good character… who just so happens to be female.
I’m sure I’ve written plenty of bad female characters. Men aren’t the only ones who struggle with this problem. We have all seen women portrayed a certain way in mass media, or through society’s expectations, so we tend to approach female characters as being distinctly female long before we start focusing on them as well-rounded characters.
In one of the first novels I ever wrote, my main character was a pathetic, swooning, boy-crazy snooze-ball. She embodied some of the worst stereotypes that women are typically given in popular entertainment. It didn’t matter that I was female and writing a female character. I didn’t sympathize with her at all. I was just writing a woman as I thought she was supposed to be written.
I didn’t realize my mistake until many years later. Before that, I tried switching over to writing male protagonists. I guess after that first disastrous novel, I thought to myself, “Wow, women are no fun to write about at all.” It wasn’t until many years later that I understood how blinded I was by my own acceptance of a woman’s typical role in mass media. And oddly enough, it was my boyfriend – now husband – who helped me realize my error.
Since then, I have tried to get better at writing strong, interesting female characters. I’m still working on improving. And that doesn’t mean I never write a female character who has lots of weaknesses.
A balance of flaws and strengths remains essential for writing any good character, male or female.
Another mistake I see a lot of writers make when trying to write “strong female characters” is that they make her completely perfect, with barely any weaknesses whatsoever. That is not an interesting character. That is a robot. Just make her human, with a decent balance of strengths and weaknesses that will keep us wondering whether she will overcome each challenge she faces.
If you continue to struggle with writing good female characters, as I do, try to take gender out of the equation completely when you’re first coming up with your characters. Outline their back-story, personality, and circumstances before you slap them with a male or female label. Or try switching the genders after you have fleshed out your general cast, and see if that might make a more interesting combo.
I’m not saying you can’t have any differences between your male and female characters. However…
The only times gender should significantly change your character’s behavior is when romance gets factored into the story, or when your story is set within a society that treats men and women with different standards.
Otherwise, gender simply shouldn’t play a large role in creating your characters. Yes, we may have different bodies, different hormones. But the differences are not black and white, and they fall in a scale from one person to the next. We are all human, and the rest is circumstantial.