On Writing Women

It is pointed out to me quite often that I tend to write male characters or use a male point of view. I’m sure Freud would have some sort of interesting and insane hypothesis for why, but I can only look back on my early efforts at writing female protagonists.  They ranged from characters only distinguishable as female by their looks or protagonists that alternated their time between weeping and throwing temper tantrums. After a beta reader (also known as my sister) asked me why my female protagonist was sassy and fiery one minute and a puddle of distressed damsel the next, I think I decided that I was safer just writing men. 

         Now, before you think this is because men are one dimensional drones who have no feelings—that’s not it at all. I just seem to have an easier time keeping my male characters from bleeding their feelings all over the page. I’ve been trying to figure out why exactly this is as I’ve also been working on having more female main characters. Perhaps it is because I read and wrote fantasy for so long and the female main characters were usually divided into three parties. Firstly, the awkward, not overly feminine protagonist who has other talents and saves the land/world/what-have-you (Robin McKinley’s Harry and Aerin). The second possible type was the typical damsel in distress, or distressing damsel–often prevalent in the Dragonlance series. The third is the typical Jezebel, which needs no explanation.

         There are countless articles and blog posts about the lack of female leads in fantasy (Looking at you, Tolkien) but I’m not going to talk about that. The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan finally introduced a huge cast of female characters and several of them have great qualities, but it seems like they end up becoming these cardboard versions of themselves (don’t get me wrong, if I wrote 15 books about the same characters, I’m sure the same would happen to me). George R.R. Martin was the first to create female characters that I like, love, and loathe (sometimes the same feelings for each character).

         Why did Martin succeed (in my opinion) where so many others missed the mark? I believe it is because his characters are so real, I could see myself having a conversation with the characters in the book, hanging out with them, slapping some of them. It doesn’t matter that the character is female because they aren’t “characters.” The fact that Martin can inspire such feelings of both love and hatred for his characters is the strong point in his writing. Hopefully, he will not fall into the trap that so many series writers tumble into and have his characters all become lifeless copies of themselves.

         Every genre has its stereotypes, archetypes, tropes, etc and I don’t necessarily think any of those things are bad. I think tropes and archetypes all have their place, even stereotypical characters and plots can be great—if you turn them on their heads and twist them. For me, writing female characters has always been a challenge in my fantasy stories, one that I am working on remedying.

         The reason I this was on my mind is because one of my female protagonists just grew a backbone. I’ve been plodding away at my latest fantasy venture lately and have a larger cast of female characters than I have ever aspired to write before. There is still massive amount of room for improvement, but one of the protagonists grabbed the reins today and finally put her foot down. It was one of those great moments in writing a piece where the character finally starts to become real. These moments don’t come along every day and it’s nice when they do because they give me a definite kick to keep on writing.

         Are there any characters/character types you struggle with writing?
         Do you have any advice on how to get inside your character’s heads—or let them get into yours?

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21 thoughts on “On Writing Women

  1. I think that you do a very good job with both sexes (at least in the stories I’ve read). As for STRONG ONE MOMENT and WEEPY THE NEXT, well…. uh, that’s every strong woman I’ve ever met. Maybe you just need to find the appropriate setting for your character to fall apart in — maybe what makes a woman strong is her ability to hold it all together when she NEEDS to, and the ability to let it out when she can — it’s weak women who fall apart when they need to be strong, and weak men who bottle up their emotions and then end up exploding or imploding.
    BUT there’s nothing wrong with “weak” characters — and by that, I mean, human, realistic characters. Your Beau series is full of flawed, weak characters. I’m not a terribly big fan of fantasy, as I find the characters wooden more often than not, so I can’t speak as to how to write good fantasy characters — but if I had to guess, I’d say that you write them the same way you would write anything where people have trials thrust upon them — some people handle them with strength, grace and courage, and others crumble.
    But I think you’ll find that at the end of the day, when they’re all alone, even heroes shed tears, or slip into a hot bath and sigh in relief that the day is over.

    • This is so good I can’t even formulate a good reply for it.

      Thank you?

      You’re brilliant?

      You somehow managed to hone in on the parts I struggle with and the parts I’m working on improving and, as usual (and as I said to Ionia), your insight has blown me away yet again.

      Can I frame this or….?

      • Ha! This is probably the best thing I’ve written in a while, so yeah, publish it, send it to Cosmo, etc…
        I’ve been working on a music project with Oloriel and hoping to recruit Jennie Saia (she wrote that Luna poem) so it’s not like I’m doing nothing, but I wish I could get over this writer’s block. Maybe I need to beat up John some, that always feels good.

      • I had the worst case of writer’s block back in November until about January…it was a time of life-upheaval though, so that could have been it. I finally had to listen to everyone’s advice and just WRITE (and most of it was/is garbage). Working with Oloriel and Jennie must be great—I’m sure whatever you three come up with will be great. It may even bust through the writer’s block.
        Good luck with it! And I wouldn’t mind reading some more of John’s misery!

  2. I struggle with female characters aswell. I find it so much easier to make a complete, solid male character then I do a female one. You can say my females are aswell like that, one second shooting fireballs, other second crying or being mooshy. I do not know why this happens, it is I guess because I expect my own female characters to in some way survive more emotionaly then my male characters do (not that they are completely frigid, but I can handle writing their emotional rollercoasters a lot better).
    I agree on the Wheel of Time, by book 9 I think all of his female characters were simply like a loss of taste, tasting like cardboard a bit if you get what I mean, I like Martin’s females, but I think also he goes way over the top at times in my opinion, so much that his writting had become predictable for me.
    I remember reading a fantasy thing of yours and I liked the female character a lot, I could see her as a character – apart from her gender and I think this is what makes a good character. The less I can predict about your character, the more I will enjoy your writing 🙂

    • You’re so right—my women end up being basket cases while my men take their emotional upheaval and DO something with it—which is silly because the women could channel their emotions into action just as well. I think I confused femininity with weakness in my early writings. Most of this was probably due to my youth—both in actual age and as a writer.
      I think writing is like anything else, you have to crawl before you walk and certainly before you start climbing crazy character mountains. I can think of some instances where Martin does go overboard and where his characters seem to act in ways that make no sense—but maybe the sense is to be seen later.
      I like that none of his characters are “safe.”
      Thank you! That was the point I clumsily tried to make—a good character is good regardless of gender. I’m working on being less predictable–so thank you again for that. I hope to keep you on your toes in the future!

  3. I struggle with female characters sometimes and I think that is because my mother died when I was so young I had no real female role model. I also tease my husband that I am a gay man trapped in a female’s body because I am most comfortable writing in the person of a gay male in my most creative short stories which I have not yet dared to publish on wordpress or anywhere else. He does not quite know how to take that.

    • That’s so funny! I like to think it is because I was a determined “tom boy” for half of my life and I liked running around and getting dirty and hanging out with the boys.

      I can see how that could throw your husband off! You should publish one of your stories—no better place than wordpress to try new things.

      • I understand the Tom Boy thing, when my sisters and female cousins were playing with dolls and learning to knit and sew, I was out fishing or hunting with my male cousins, climbing tress and catching frogs too. Yet I have this flaming bodaciously feminine sexuality. Even my therapist once told me that all of the words that come out of my mouth are sensual, even when i don’t mean them to be. I think it is just the lilting southern accent. Might get up the courage to do that one day, post a short story. One of my works in progress has a gay guy point of view. I posted an exerpt, but it wasn’t really a telling one.

      • Well, I didn’t have quite as many adventures as you seem to have had! But my dad had two daughters and indoctrinated us in the best movies–Braveheart, Patriot, Blackhawk Down, etc. and always made us wooden swords to fight each other—and trees!

        I’ll need to check it out and see if I can find it!

  4. *Luna waves at Ken, and swoons over his general brilliance at life*

    Anyway: I love this topic! I have exactly the same problem and find it maddening. I’m able to sustain a believable female character for the length of a poem or a vignette, where there’s just not enough time to really get into more than one aspect of her personality. Longer than that, though, and she goes all… wonky.

    I think, at least in my case, the problem is related to my own insecurity. Not to get on a soapbox, but women do constantly hear conflicting messages about what’s desirable: being pulled-together and gorgeous/not caring about appearances and being a “natural” beauty; being brave and capable/being soft and yielding; being brash, funny, and one of the guys/being feminine and a bit mysterious; being a virgin/being sexually liberated; etc. etc. etc.

    I have a bit of all these things inside myself, but it is absolutely convoluted and hard to put into words, and which side comes out in any given moment often depends on who I’m with and how much I want them to like me. And when I write a female character, I similarly want everyone to like her, except I don’t know what the audience will prefer… so how can I make her be everything at once without having a personality disorder?

    It’s a mess, I admit, and I supposed that (both in life and writing) I just need to let the women be who they *primarily* are and not worry about being ALL THE THINGS.

    • You all have given me enough in these comments to write a whole other post! You’re so right. You and Ken both did such a good job of articulating what I couldn’t! It’s so true that women are expected to be “everything”—I’m visualizing the scene with Gerard Butler and Katherine Heigl in The Ugly Truth where he says what you just did.

      I think that’s why stereotypical “romance novel females” annoy me so much–they’re not believable as real people.

      I sometimes think that I need a blog for every one of my personalities/whims, so I know exactly what you mean. It’s hard for me to write female characters without interjecting some of myself in there—which is maybe why they’re all over the place.

      I also think that my early stories were “plot driven” rather than character driven and the characters that were appearing organically on their own happened to be the secondary male characters and they were SO much better and more interesting.

      Since then, as I’ve become more focused on PEOPLE rather than PLOT, I guess the male characters just catch my attention and I end up sticking a female in there—usually as the love interest.

  5. Very interesting post and timely for my own writing experiences. I recently wrote a story for a writing competition with the only rule being a 1,000 word cap. From the onset, I had every intention of writing a story with a female protagonist/main character. The reason I had such an inclination first and foremost was the challenge and embarking on something wholly new for me, as I’d never before written a female character at the forefront of a story. Writing is about challenging yourself and seeing how far you can push your creativity. Of course, there’s still the thin line between challenging and forcing yourself into writing something sub-par.

    That said, oddly enough, or maybe not so oddly? It felt very natural to me. I don’t know if it’s my own experience wherein I grew up with a twin sister and spent much of my childhood hanging out with her and her girl friends, or what, but it seemed to work well. The contest I submitted it too was initially a situation where the authors were anonymous and people voted on who had the best story. After the voting process, the authors were revealed. A voter remarked that they thought I was a female because of how authentic my female character was, so that was flattering.

    But enough about me. If I could offer some advice, I would just write a character that stays true to what that character would do. In other words, I wouldn’t go in with any preconceived notions of “this is how a girl would act versus how a guy would act.” Just do what feels organic and natural. Manifest from that, sure, some traits, acts, bits of dialogue may fall into those preconceived pigeon holes we designated for the sexes, but the character will be true to herself and for the purposes of the story, as well as to the reader. Best of luck! I look forward to more of your work!

    • Thank you so much for your comment—it really made me think! And you’re so very right about pushing out of the writing comfort zone. I’ve done it with genre, but I’m still working on the gender for some reason. I said to Jennie (below? above?) in the comments that I think when I started realizing that better characters develop organically, they happened to just be male. It was easy for me to visualize the characters and their motivations and somehow the female main characters suddenly seemed boring to me (say it ain’t so!)

      Your advice is great–definitely something I’ve been working on and to which I have been trying to pay closer attention. I think in my current fantasy piece, the girls are just taking a little longer to develop since I’ve been so focused on the male character’s POV. I’m writing this one differently than how I usually write longer works—I think blogging has taught me that it’s okay to write a solid chunk even if it’s out of order (as long as you fill in the missing pieces).

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting—I appreciate the feedback!

  6. I think perhaps the answer is, as it often is, in the writing itself. There’s that rule that the readers should see rather than be told how things are. Writing your characters in a way that shows they are strong – naturally – instead of saying that the character is strong is very difficult. Readers will intuitively pick up on the traits of your characters by their actions, the way they respond to certain situations, which is much like how we read other people in real life. I’m not too sure how you have written female characters before, but perhaps this has something to do with it?
    There’s also the assumption that most men are naturally stronger. . . Which might make it easier to write?

    • A great point on showing rather than telling—I think most people (myself included) tend to think of that more as it relates to plot/setting, but it definitely goes for characters, too.

      I think my main problem was/is that my female characters sort of began as afterthoughts, so, rather than letting them develop organically (even if that was slower than the other characters) I tried to force them into the role I thought the story needed.

  7. Pingback: Growing a Character | Adventures in Fantasy

  8. Pingback: An interesting article | Writing = Passion

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