Female Characters — Why God, Why Is It So Hard?

I am a woman.  I have an amazing sister who’s a woman.  My mother was one of my biggest influences.  I believe women can do anything and people are a lot more alike than they are different.


I’ve thought a lot about this question and I believe these are the reasons (for me) —

  • There are still many more examples of great male characters
  • There are more examples of lousy female characters
  • The white male character is the ultimate ‘blank slate’ on which to write your character and their defects without censure or double-guessing yourself

So, in the first of a continuing series, we’ll explore writing women.  Today, we’ll look at my personal experience.

Now, in my early writing years, I had a couple of female characters at the center of stories, but they tended to be either the ‘normal’ person surrounded by more interesting weirdos or the ‘girlfriend’.  I’m pretty sure none passed the Bechdel test, which states a work passes a gender bias test if there are at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man.  Not because they talked about men a lot, but because my one female character would look kind of crazy talking to herself.

At First Glance

The problem wasn’t that I didn’t want to write interesting women characters.  Instead, I tended to think of an exciting situation first, THEN imagine who wound the clock at the end of the world, say.  And I would think of great, complex, charming characters I’d seen and maybe my hero would be a little bit of a lot of characters I’d admired — but most of those amazing roles were men.  So my hero would take form as a man (honestly a John Cusack-type nine times out of ten in the early years).

Break Through

When I started my first novel, Other Gods (and mostly left behind screenplays and short stories), I still didn’t have any female leads.  But I did have a charmer, and a more full and interesting character, in Maurice’s girlfriend Selena.  She hadn’t been intended, she and Maurice just met in one scene and it brought out interesting things in both of them.  And I really didn’t intend the Vengier.  She’s an insane warrior who sees the future.  She’s sort of a spiritual relative to Asajj Ventress from Star Wars: Clone Wars, though she was written many years before I saw that series (and I didn’t know her last name till right now — how interesting is the similarity?).  The Vengier was hardly female, because she was hardly human — she doesn’t have to be great while dealing with a boyfriend, family, or regular desires — but she is a female character and an interesting one, and as such was my first big win in this arena.

A Change is Going to Come

Finally, I started having more interesting female leads.  I think the first time I did this was when I started thinking about a sequel for Other Gods.  There were two young men, mere bit players in the first book, that I sensed would play a larger role in the second.  And then one day I realised  that one of them, the more interesting one who actually became the lead of the book, was a woman.  I wish I could remember the particulars — I think I just had one too many brown-haired boys — but none the less, on that day my first full female character came into being.


Now I have a lot of women running around (both my third and forth novels, which I’m working on simultaneously, have female heroes), but it’s still hard, harder than it should be.  One trick I’ve learned is to, early on in the storytelling process when I’m just thinking about the story and haven’t written anything down, flip the character’s gender.  I know, it goes against my organic take on character development, but I have to do it.  At to least try and see if it works, if it’s better, more true to the character.  Give it a shot yourself.  Because there’s way too few great woman characters out there still, particularly in sci-fi / fantasy.

I believe it’s getting better, both for my own writing and the world at large, but it’s still a damn shame to me that, in my fantasy Spark of Madness, I find it much easier and more interesting to write Roch’s story than his twin sister’s — and she’s the hero.

Let’s all work to add more messed-up, crazy, wonderful female characters to the world so the next generation of writers doesn’t even know what we’re talking about.

Published by katherinecerulean

Novelist, founder of The Athens Writers Association, and enthusiast of all things awesome and magical. Need my help with ANYTHING? Just ask!

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