How to Write Women-Approved Female Characters
Updated: Feb 3
Whether you're a woman who wants to know what makes a "strong heroine" or a man wondering where to begin with a female perspective, one thing is certain: characterization is important. You don't want to alienate readers with a flat character, and you definitely don't want to fall into a pit of inaccuracy.
Onward we go, minions, to dive into the female experience.
*Note: These are generalizations to distinguish the inaccuracies I often see in male-written female characters and in flat female-written characters. Essentially, they are building blocks meant to be layered with detailed characterization as you would with any character.
THE DEVIL'S IN THE DETAILS
You know that age-old joke about how a man can search the house up and down for a lost item and the woman magically produces it in five seconds? Or how a husband can call his wife, who hasn't been around him, and she knows where he misplaced something?
For whatever biological or mystical reason, women are observant. This is why a woman can recall the shirt her boyfriend wore on their first date, or a song that was playing in the background during a special moment.
Is it always so specific? It depends on the woman, honestly. If you ask me, I'm usually too off in my head to remember what anybody wears. But, as a female, I am more inclined to notice minute details. We don't just focus on the big picture; we see the wrinkles in clothing, the way a dimple or line flashes in someone's cheek when they smile, the dots of color in someone's eyes (especially if we're attracted).
One pitfall I often see in male-centered narratives is the lack of description. Your male characters may not pay attention to all these fine details, but a woman certainly would.
This is probably the top pet peeve (not peeve: disgust) women have with male narratives: the reduction of a female character to a sex object.
Do some female narratives do this to men? Oh, absolutely, and it's no more acceptable in that regard. Degrading anyone into a sexy sideshow for the main character is tacky and shallow. (For more tips on how to avoid this, check out my post How to Write a Complex Love Interest).
And, guys . . . women do not think about their assets as much as men do. We do not wax poetic on our "full breasts" or "plump rear" in our heads. At most, we get annoyed with them. If you want to be accurate, describe how her hair won't cooperate, or—if you must focus on her figure—how confident she feels in a favorite dress. The moment you make a woman sound like a literary sex doll is the moment we slam the book and ban your name forever. Tread ye carefully.
Like the overly-broody bad boys or Conan-style warriors men and women alike roll their eyes at, these exaggerated female tropes come across as laughable.
1) The pathetic damsel who always needs to be saved. This cardboard character appears in male and female books. Ladies and gents, we are not impressed. A useless character is not someone we want to read about. It is completely fine for the hero to rescue the heroine but, please, balance it with her strong personality—or, hey, let her save him sometimes.
2) On the other end of the spectrum is this scantily-clad, super dominatrix woman who is either meant to tap into a male fetish or overcompensate for the damsel trope. Neither works, I'm afraid. We see right through that; she's still made of cardboard. (Also, please put some damn clothes on her. See above section).
Aside from sexualizing every female character, another issue I notice is the conflation of a bitchy woman with a "strong" woman—a trend that appears in both genders' fiction.
There's a fine line between justified anger and "bitchiness." Women who dare voice their opinion or stand up for themselves are labeled "bitchy" to undermine any chance of being taken seriously. Some women wear the "bitch" status like a badge, because society dictates we're either meek and submissive or we're a bitch—most would rather be the latter.
However, that doesn't mean we enjoy the status or that it's true. I see heroines portrayed as whiney, viciously petty, cold-hearted, disloyal, manipulative, extremely promiscuous . . . but it's okay because she's a "strong" woman.
Do you see the issue here? When sweet-tempered, caring female characters are always submissive and the "independent" ones are given every despicable trait in the book, it reinforces the notion that only submissive women are kind and "bitchy" women are only desirable as sex objects.
You know how annoying it is when abusive fictional "bad boys" are the ones girls swoon over when there's a perfectly likeable "nice guy" at her side? Yeah, that's us not wanting to be these "strong female characters."
(Every woman I've talked to hates how manipulative and spiteful Yennefer is. But she's supposed to be a "strong female character" because all the men want to bang her?)
That's it for today, folks! Join the conversation in the comments below with your own observations: what constitutes a strong female character for you? What makes a female character believable or unbelievable?