Writing Female Characters

I have over the years read too many books with shocking badly written female characters in them. I suspect I am not alone. Indeed I can give you a list of far too many ‘great’ writers who write awful female characters, and as a genre science fiction is worst than most for this. Lovecraft stands out as an obvious culprit, Wells struggled with them, Verne had none, Tolkien’s novels with perhaps a couple of notable exceptions was virtually devoid of them. But they are far from alone, as a genre science fiction was for a long time a desert when it came to strong female characters, and often times still is. though it is not a problem for science fiction alone, but one that runs through all fiction. Too often the female character is the damsel  in distress, the victim and needs to be ‘saved’ by the male characters. Whats more this is not an issue that resides purely with male writers, I have read plenty of female writers novels which fall into the same trap.

This is not to say a female character can’t get in trouble and need saving, I have no problem with a plot which does that. I only have a problem if that is the case purely because the character is female. Its also not to say a female character can’t be weak, foolish, and get themselves into situations they can’t get out of, again the issue is if the reason for all those things is simply because the character is female.

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Ditsy damsel in distress is a trope long past its time, its lazy writing, even if its written, as I have seen some writers claim, in irony. If there is an exception, then spoof fiction making fun of the trope is perhaps it, but even then it has to be done well, and all too often it isn’t, and frankly I’m not sure who is reading it if it is, because here is an adage for you…

‘Treat your audience like idiots, and you’ll find yourself without one.’

Amazing as some writers may find this, a lot of readers are female. In some genre’s a majority of them in fact. So if your going to write down to women, do so at your peril. Not that this alone is a reason to write good female characters, in fact of all the reasons I could spout it probably should be way down the list of reasons to write strong capable female characters. The main reason should simply be because women are just as capable as men of being heroic, striving against adversity, or conversely just as capable of been villainous, devious and utter shits… Simply put the important word here is characters, and they should be as well rounded as their male counterparts. So here is another adage for you…

Never think of your characters as male, female, black, white, gay, straight, just because these are definitions, they should not define them.

I have read some truly awful examples of failing to do this. I had a politics lecturer once who, when he found out I wrote, sent me the first few chapters of his WIP novel. As this was the man marking my essays I had to be very tactful when I talked to him about it… To be clear, his writing was very good for the most part. He crafted a good story, had a great sense of place and time (this was a novel about WWI veterans and there experience both due in and after the war) His novel was incredibly well researched, indeed there was no end of good things I could say about it. But his female character were not only flat two dimensional nothings with no life to them, but everything about the female characters was written with so much misogyny I found it hard to credit that this writer was actually an intelligent man. For example: Nurses fawned over male doctors and did all they could to please them so they could land themselves a husband. And don’t get me started on the dialogue between these characters… This ruined everything that was good about his writing for me. I just couldn’t read it. 

The point here is that  for a character to come to life for a reader they have to be real and real women are just as full of contradictions, just as capable of being heroic, or cowardly, having shades of grey, intelligence and stupidity or anything else, as men. So why write them differently? Yes there are differences, but beyond biology they are differences of life experience. Women in modern western societies are still not treated in equal fashion to men, though they clearly should be. Women in some other socialites around the world are very much second class citizens. Men do not experience sexism on a daily basis, any more than white men experience racism on a daily basis, or face the pervasive threat of sexual violence in the same way women do. If you’re writing in the modern world and you ignore these things when writing female characters then they are not going to be believable. The same applies in any genre of fiction. But again while life experience is different, at their core for a female character to be ‘real’ they have to be just as ‘real’ as there male counterparts. Which puts me in mind of one of my favorite quotes on the subject of female characters, from Josh Weldon.


Which is the point in many ways. I try to write strong female characters because, I try to write strong characters, its as simple as that.

Perhaps you think I worry on these things too much, but I try to write characters that people can identify with on some level, and if my female readers can not identify with my female characters I will have failed in that. The Hannibal novels are full of strong capable women, generally stronger willed and more capable than Hannibal. But as the Hannibal stories are told by him the female characters, like everyone in them but Hannibal, are shown through the lens of his vision. So while I may worry just how much my readers can connect with these characters they’re are observed second hand to a degree like everyone other than Hannibal.

With my new novel Maybe on the other hand I don’t have the filter of Hannibal’s personality between me and the reader. I can’t point to Hannibal and say ‘yes well that is just how Hannibal sees the world‘ Also, unlike the Hannibal novels Maybe is not written first person form a single characters perspective, the two main characters who share the majority of the POV screen time are Benjamin West and Eliza ‘Maybe’ Tu-Pa-Ka. If the books are to work therefore my readers have to identify with both of them. I had, in short, to get Eliza right. Which, while I was certain I had done so, was going to cause me a degree of trepidation when I sent the book to my beta readers (who would have no qualms about telling me if the heroine was not written well). Asking two female friends to beta read was a deliberate choice on my part because if I had not got Eliza ‘right’ then, as I say, they would tell me and if Eliza didn’t work them, then the novel didn’t work. However, if anyone plays the part of the ‘damsel’ in Maybe its the male protagonist Benjamin West…

Thankfully for me my beta readers love the book and more importantly love Eliza.

One Beta reader, who noted that Maybe is set in the same universe as the Hannibal novels, though before Hannibal time, said she would love it if Eliza and Hannibal met as:

‘Eliza would eat Hannibal alive’.

Which is a reasonable correct assessment, and made me smile. For in many ways Eliza is everything Hannibal himself isn’t, ie. strong willed, capable, determined, brave and down right heroic at times.

Meanwhile the other beta reader, when asked by someone else what they thought of Eliza said

‘She fantastic, I want to be her when I grow up.’

So, if I pulled off nothing else with Maybe, I am reasonably certain I wrote my heroine well. With luck other readers will think so as well, because as I say Maybe only works if readers ‘Miss Maybe’ works. She is a central character, and if she wasn’t the whole series would not work, but more importantly she wouldn’t be ‘real’ and no one would care about her. Which is what it comes down to, I want readers to care about my characters, be they men, women, or for that matter a reanimated corpse…


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