How to write interesting and compelling female characters

Female characters. For whatever reason, they do not get the same page time as their male counterparts. There are no good reason for it aside from perhaps a lack of understanding of how to write a compelling female character.

Following the pattern from before, I’m going to look to game design for some lessons on this.

The problem of too few compelling female characters.

Female characters are not a new topic. I mean, tor.com covered this two years ago, so did Creative Writing Guild at around the same time. Two years before that Alice Leiper explained how to write deep and interesting female characters. I could go on but I don’t want to bore you.

It quite clear to me that there is no mystery to writing strong and interesting female characters so what gives? Why is fiction so lopsided in favour of just one gender?

We’d probably need an entire blog, a team of writers and a lifetime to get into the specifics of why and how we come to find ourselves with so few good female characters (especially in games) and an equal deficiency in the variety of ethnicity.

My suspicion is that the industry is lopsided because it has been lopsided. Publishing houses are notoriously conservative. Seeing books with strong males and unimaginative females selling well, they greenlight more of the same. Rinse and repeat.

We writers may be to blame too.

The writing industry might not be all of the problem. I have no doubt we writers have part of the blame here too. Especially us men. As a man, a white man at that, I tend to write strictly what I know – white males. Specifically, slightly socially dysfunctional geeky white males with a gift for science and long words.

In other words, I write about myself, as we writers usually do.

While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it is hardly helping anyone but far worse it is not exactly expanding any frontiers for my readers or myself. In short, this approach runs the danger of being boring.

One thing I have noticed running writing groups is that we males are pretty clueless when it comes to writing female characters while the ladies are much more confident writing different genders. That may be because there are a lot of sterling examples of male characters in print already or maybe lady writers are just more flexible. Who knows?

But this creates a natural bias towards male characters. The thing about biases is that they are often self-inforcing. That’s not good. Worse, it robs us as readers from an interesting variety of characters.

One of the many signs of a good writer is that they can write from perspectives other than their own. This should be a problem we writers can correct.

The problem of culture.

Cultural ideas of gender have caused all sorts of not quite true ideas. Nowhere is this clearer than in the way men tend to write women in fiction.

“How Genre Stereotypes Limit Games and Players” by Extra Credits looks at this issue for gaming but, like three things games can teach us about writing, there is a lot we can learn from this discussion as writers too.

To help us break out of the cycle of not giving female characters enough “air time” in our stories, we are going to take a look at how to go about writing a believable, interesting and compelling female characters.

What makes a compelling character in the first place?

First, let’s talk about what it takes to write a decent character. Extra Creditz has us covered here too.

The character journey.

It is widely held that a character should take us on a three-stage journey.

  1. Compassion (or pity)
  2. Fear
  3. Catharsis

When I say “widely held”, I mean it has been widely held since about the time of Aristotle in his Poetics.

It is this first stage – compassion (pity) – that causes us to feel positive empathy for a character. Regardless of gender or race, we need to experience a degree if believable sympathy in order to connect with a character. However, those aspects of a character – gender, race, sexuality and so forth – must be presented in a realistic way. Simply falling back on stereotypes, apart from being cheap, will rob your story and character of much-needed depth.

This pity, fear, and catharsis pattern follows the analysis pattern of the three-act structure. Not that I am saying that you should write to the three-act structure – trust me, don’t do that – but it does roughly follow it anyway. Mostly because that is what makes the three-act structure so ubiquitous to start with.

That story pattern applies to film, game, and novel equally. Here’s a better explanation than I can offer.

Real vs stock characters.

Take, for example, the use of child characters. The presence of a child character in a story or game can offer the opportunity for the player or reader to experience the emotions of family and parental relationships. Reach for the stereotypes though, and you will almost certainly create forgettable child characters or worse, deeply annoying child characters.

My “go to” game discussion series Extra Creditz takes a look at an example of this done right in the game of “The Walking Dead”.

Details matter, they are not add on extras.

Your character choices in setting, time period, character, gender, sexuality, race, and so on – all should have profound but subtle influences over your character, their worldview, the way they behave towards others and the way that others behave towards them.

Take, for example, the true life story of Mary Anning. Who she was, her gender, her socioeconomic status, and the time in which she was born all have a profound influence on her story. If Mary Anning’s brother had walked her path in life the story would be different.

Gender and race are not just extras to colour your character.

If you can change hats and have a different gender, race, and setting while the character remains unchanged then you never actually had those things to start with. Racial tensions are, at least for us white males, often difficult to portray and so we can avoid doing so. Yet racial and gender disparity are part of the wider truth of our world that, as writers, we should be shining a light on. The same sorts of insights are needed as writers to handle those sometimes subtle differences.

I’ve never played LA Noire but, according to Extra Creditz, LA Noire, for all its faults, is a good example of using racial tension in a believable and character-defining way. That is despite the character being a white male. Race issues affect us all and, as writers, we need to be ready to show that truth.

Applying this to writing compelling female characters.

Let’s bring this back round to the topic of writing interesting and compelling female characters. There are questions that, as the writer, you need to answer. Those answers need to come in what you show us in the story.

  • How does being female influence the way people react to your character?
  • How does her feminity change the way she reacts to the world?
  • Does her gender limit her options? (Such as for Mary Anning).
  • Does her gender offer options not available to male characters?
  • What is it like being a woman in the world you are showing us?

These answers need not be blatant. There is no particular need to smack us in the face with your research but you need to have considered them enough to flavour the narrative with the answer.

We are going to take a look at some of the more specific questions that we writers might need to consider (especially if we are males).

How does being female influence the way people react to your character?

Nothing happens in a vacuum. Gender, for good or ill, influences the way others react to you.  We’ve looked at this a little already but we will take a further look before we finish.

The feminity of your character will influence the ways (some) others react to her. This is where you can show us that your character is really a female.

It may not be necessary to drum up a token bigot if there is no scope for one in your story but that does not mean that your female character is not going to encounter men that hit on her, men that ignore her, bosses that pay her less, men that get promoted first, men or a man that underestimates her, otherwise reasonable men that make crude comments… There are many ways, often subtle, that being female is not the same as being male. Make use of this in your storytelling.

There are many ways, often subtle, that being female is not the same as being male. Make use of this in your storytelling.

For example, a female kidnapper might be able to walk a child right from the school gates without anyone noticing whereas your hairy ape in a suit character probably would not. Then again, the school might have sensible precautions in place.

If you really don’t know how being female differs from being male – say, on account of being a man – then I would recommend that you talk to sisters, mother, girlfriend, wife, or one of the many females that populate your world. I think you might find it an eye-opener.

How does her feminity change the way she reacts to the world?

This might be obvious but your gender colours the way you see the world. After all, it is part of your identity as a human being.

Again show us how this works for your character.

For example, who are her friends?

I don’t know about you but I tend to make friends with people I have a lot in common with. That tends to mean I have a lot more male than female friends. A lot of my friends are geeky. Many of my friends are open-minded. In short, my friends are great because they are similar to me but different in many more ways.

It is not enough to simply shoehorn in one female character per story and claim to have solved “the gender issue”. I’ve seen that happen, I kid you not. After all, most women have friends that are women. Women talk to their friends just like men do too. Well, not just like men – there are some differences (less toilet humour on the whole). The point is that it is unreasonable to try and jam a single token female into a story. No character exists in isolation.

The point is that it is unreasonable to try and jam a single token female into a story. No character exists in isolation.

Does her gender limit her options?

In some societies, gender can be decisive in determining your options in life. If this is the case – show us.

Today, for example, we have unreasonable pay gaps. We have whole fields where women are rarely found (some parts of IT have a woeful lack of ladies).

We also have jobs (midwifery, for example) that are largely seen as female only jobs.

Not so long ago we had male-only clubs.

The answer to this question changes with time and culture. In a male-dominated culture where women are just possession, being a female will be very different than it is today.

This experience is what we readers want you, the writer, to show us. History is a great teacher here.

Remember what I said before, about taking examples from history? Looking at famous women of the past can help you form a well-rounded idea of what a well-rounded female character might be like.

I would advise that you look at examples in fiction but, as we said earlier, there is a paucity of good examples there.

We’ve got you covered if you don’t know where to start. Here are a few women that you would do well to Google.

  • Ida B. Wells
  • Harriet Chalmers Adams
  • Jeanne Manford
  • Nellie Bly
  • Harriet Tubman
  • Elizabeth Kenny
  • Kathrine Switzer

You are missing out, as writers, if you do not let yourself learn at least a little bit about each of these women. Knowing your history gives you a context for what it is like to be a woman today.

Does her gender offer options not available to male characters?

Often times, the reverse is true but when and if gender-specific opportunities exist they are worth noting. If only because they say something about the world.

Opportunities and insights that set your character apart from others are what make your character interesting to read about. Show us these differences.

I’m not just talking about the opportunity for motherhood. As a writer, I am sure you can do better than that. Or maybe you can’t. In some settings, men had all the options. It might not be fair but it is a truth we writers should be exploring.

Which leads us on to…

What is it like being a woman in the world you are showing us?

As you might have guessed by now, my advice is to show us the world from a female perspective.

As a reader, I want to live through your characters. I want to feel what they feel. With compelling female characters, I want to come away from your story having experienced life as a woman, if only for a moment.

Let us take a look at what it is like being a woman today.

Being a woman today.

If you happen to be a boy that is far too shy to actually talk to girls (honestly, they don’t bite) I’ve compiled a few videos that should get you started.

Boys, notice that there are a bunch of different ladies in these videos. And. They. Are. All. Different.

Some insight that, as a writer, you might want to pay attention to. What it is like to be a girl

Our next video is a look at what it might be like to be an attractive female. Warning, you could use this limited information wholesale but only if you want to end up with flat generic characters.

Show us women, not men in dresses.

The takeaway here is that just as all these women are different, your characters can be different and unique too. In fact, if your female characters are interchangeable or worse, men in dresses, you have failed as a writer.

Wait, what? Men in dresses?

Men in dresses are “female characters” that if renamed to Bob or John would instantly be male characters. That’s just a “man in a dress” character. Don’t do that.

If you have tried to answer the five questions then you are unlikely to have written a man in a dress.

  • Show us how her gender influences the way people react to her.
  • Let us see how her feminity changes the way she reacts to the world.
  • Make us feel the frustration of gender limiting her options.
  • Explore the few options not available to male characters.
  • Show us what it is like being a woman.

Just don’t write a man in a dress for goodness sake.

The secret of writing authentic, interesting, and compelling female characters.

Wait, you waited until now to get to the secret?

Why, yes I did. I waited because if I put the secret at the top, there is no way in heck that you would believe me. So, are you ready for the secret of writing interesting and compelling female characters?

The secret, lads, is this: Listen to women, try to understand the perspective you are given when you listen, try to imagine what it is like to be that woman. If you can do that then you will not only be a better, more interesting writer but a better more interesting person.

Like almost everything in writing, the secret is research and empathy. Now you know everything you need to know about developing characters that are not you with a different hat on. Go and write amazing stories.

Fun fact for shy boys – listening to and understand women enough to write about women authentically will make talking to girls much easier and, if that’s your thing, will make you a better boyfriend or husband. It will also make you a better son and/or brother too.

You can never have enough research material. So here is yet another video of what it is like to be a woman online. Hashtag, not all men suck (we promise).

Over to you.

What advice would you add on crafting compelling female characters?

Can you recommend any stories with a truly compelling female character?

Are you, yourself, female? Who are your female remodels and what can we, as writers, learn from them?

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