Five thoughts on how to write strong female characters

We hear it all the time, the lament “Where are all the strong female characters?” It can feel like a problem that plagues our culture: books, TV shows, movies… too often we are given female characters who are flimsy foils to the male protagonist, who lack the complexity of a cereal box. And yet why should this be? Think about some of the most popular books of the last 5 years. Think Katniss in The Hunger Games. Or Lisbeth Salander in the Millenium series. Or think of Game of Thrones: Cersei, Arya, Sansa, Brienne of Tarth, Daenerys, Catelyn… There’s a series that is chock full of complicated women, who are radically different from one another.

 Not to be able to write an entire gender? To me, the question isn’t how do you do it? It’s how can you possibly avoid doing it?” 

 Joss Whedon

The fact of the matter is, no matter your genre, writing strong female characters makes sense. Firstly, because (duh!) writing strong characters in general is at the heart of your craft as a writer. You want all your characters, whether male, female or genderqueer robot (hey, I’d read that story), to stand out on the page. But secondly, carefully crafting your female characters will allow you to connect with your audience – research has shown that women are more avid readers than men. Readers – especially readers who happen to be women – respond to strong female characters, and they’re hungry for more of them.

In honour of International Women’s Day, I want to offer some tips from my own experience of trying to make my female characters a bit more like the women I know – that is: amazing, frustrating, funny, smart, silly, serious, shy, loud, diverse, complicated and always interesting.

1: Write strong characters, not characters who are nothing but strengths

This is a pitfall that comes from misunderstanding what is meant by a “strong female character.” As Shana Mlawski puts it, the goal is “[Strong Characters], Female.”

Imagine writing a character who is overwhelmingly attractive, physically strong and skilled, and practically a genius to boot. Their only goal is to do the right thing and take care of their family and friends. Does this feel like a compelling character – in any gender?

The key to writing a strong character, female, is to treat your female characters like you would any other character. Spend time with them. Figure out what makes them tick. What do they say they want, and what do they actually want? What’s their most annoying habit? What is the one thing in their life they’re most ashamed of having done? Every writing book or guide worth its salt will give you advice on how to create more complex characters – I’m a big fan of this guide from author Emma Darwin (her writing site in general is a treasure trove!), but whether you use someone else’s guide or develop a process that feels natural to you, it’s important that you take the time to fully develop your characters. Find their flaws, as well as their strengths, discover what makes them a complex, contradictory human being.

 2: Female characters don’t have to be saints – or devils

Ever heard of the Madonna/Whore complex? It’s the idea that women get categorized as a saintly, virginal Madonna or a wicked, slutty whore – or we can use the saint/devil poles if the sexual politics doesn’t really apply. This point is really an extension of my last, but it’s important to note that there is a cultural tendency to say that women have to be either one thing or the other: all good, or all bad, while men more often get to inhabit the complicated “grey zone.”

And yet think about how interesting it is when female characters are portrayed as morally ambiguous. Take Gillian Flynn’s hugely successful Gone Girl: both Nick and Amy are complicated, dubious, and untrustworthy characters. There are things that many readers admire about Amy; she also does things that other readers find completely despicable. It’s this complexity that drives the plot and conflict in the novel, and that keeps readers debating the rights and wrongs on the Dunne’s relationship long after they’ve put the book down.


3: What are your character’s goals? Or: how to avoid writing a manic pixie dream girl.

So you’ve done a lot of work on your female love interest, and you’re feeling pretty good about her complicated nature. She’s an artist by night, legal clerk by day, and she has a passion for collecting stamps that started when she inherited her grandmother’s collection. She’s nobody’s woman and fiercely independent. She makes witty jokes, and is deeply knowledgeable about medieval pottery. She’s clutzy to the point that she’s going to end up in the ER more than once in the book in comic circumstances (…to meet your earnest med student hero, maybe?). You’ve spent hours working on crafting this person, and darn it, if she isn’t the character-iest character that ever wandered on to a page?

Right – now – what is she going to do? And what does she want?

If the answer is just show up and opportune times to reveal deep truths to your main character, and eventually fall in love with him, you might have written yourself into the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” trope. Most often talked about in the context of films, it happens enough in books too: female characters who at first glance seem like they’re fully realized appear in the plot… only to do nothing except help the hero on his journey. They want nothing, have no motivation outside the male character’s plot, and go nowhere.

Now this is a slightly tricky one, because obviously your story is primarily about your main character – and no one is remotely suggesting that you can’t have a man as your protagonist. But if your male main character has a love interest, it’s worth thinking about what their goals and actions are too. Think about it this way: you’ve heard over and over again that conflict is what drives a plot forward, right? But if your female supporting characters have no meaningful goals or motivations of their own, there will never be any sense of struggle or urgency in their interactions.

4: Consider applying the Bechdel test to your work

The Bechdel test is a concept that was developed to act as a litmus test for films. The rule states that a movie should:

1: Feature at least two women

2: Who speak to each other…

3: …About something other than a man.

While the test is most commonly applied for cultural critiques of movies, it can be a useful tool for thinking about books too (see a HuffPo article on the subject here, or a GoodReads generated list of Bechdel-passed books here).

Here’s what I think is useful about the Bechdel test when applying it to your own work: it can seriously help you avoid falling into the “manic pixie dreamgirl” trap outlined above. If two female characters are having a conversation doesn’t just revolve around men, we can reasonably assume that they might have some additional goals or interests they are pursuing in life. It’s fine if your one of your female characters goals is to find love; it’s fine if some conversations in your story are women talking about men. But think about the women in your life and ask yourself how believable is it for all conversations to revolve around men?

5: Don’t assume you’re exempt

Maybe you’re a woman. Maybe you self-identify as a feminist. Maybe you think you’d never ever write a flat stereotypical female character. Maybe you think you’re exempt from this whole conversation.

And, you know, who am I to say – maybe you’re at that stage in your career where you’ve just cracked writing characters of all types and genders. In which case – awesome!

But I’d be willing to bet that most of us – men, women, old, young – are heavily influenced by the books we read and the pop culture we consume. Stereotypes are insidious, and they will sneak your way into your writing if your not keeping an eye out for them.

The key to writing strong female characters is to consciously decide to do so. Be aware while you’re crafting your female characters. Ask yourself critical questions about your characters. And when you go back to edit your piece – ask some more.

I approach writing female characters the same way I approach writing male characters. I never think I’m writing about women, I think I’m writing about one woman, one person. And I try to imagine what she is like, and endow her with a lot of my own thoughts and history”

Jeffrey Eugenides

So, in honour of International Women’s Day and women’s history month, why not pledge to write one seriously strong female character this month? And once you find her, I encourage you to share your strong female character with the world – we need more of them!


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