On Writing Female Characters.

So how do you write a female character that everyone will love? Easy – you can’t. There will always be someone who will hate your female main character. Your main female character will be judged and harshly, if she is not deemed strong enough there is no hope for her. And this saddens me deeply.
I hate that there is post upon post upon post on the internet about the “strong” female character, that this is a thing at all.
It feels like a female MC has to be basically inhuman to be loved, which sucks because to me, the best type of characters are the ones that feel real to me, that are so human they leap of the page, faults and tears and all.
I love a strong heroine. I love a girl who is brave and strong and the one who saves the day and all that. But if my lovely kick ass heroine shows, I don’t know, human traits, or worse, female traits, I’m not going to hate her. If she cries I’m not going to label her weak.
Teenage girls cry. Heck, women cry. Crying doesn’t make you weak. As a writer and reader of YA fiction it infuriates me that a female protagonist isn’t allowed to cry without being labelled weak. I think people expect her to be too tough!
But to me, strength is not the only thing that makes female character strong. It’s endurance and self-sacrifice and perseverance. When a female protagonist cries, I don’t see her as weak, I see her as human and women are human too!
Don’t you remember your teenage years? I certainly do, and there were a lot of tears.
What is wrong with crying? Sometimes all you need is a good cry so you can keep going. Sometimes crying is the answer to the question. Some of these heroines have to go through an awful lot of crap and they deserve a good cry. You can’t expect a female character to be real if she never cries.

All this stems from a post I read by YA writer Victoria Scott titled, Addressing Femininity in Young Adult Literature. She wrote this post after a handful of people reviewing her latest book didn’t like the main character, Tella Holloway, because she was too feminine.
She says, “Female characters are not allowed to act, for lack of a better word, female. Otherwise, they are weak. How do we change our way of thinking? How do we separate small acts of femininity (painting your nails, shopping with friends, baking cupcakes) from weakness? First, I think we admit there’s a problem. And we discuss it.”

I do not have a problem with a heroine liking fashion as well as sword fighting.

Women are people too so lets write them as such.

I found some great posts on writing female characters and I agree with Lori from tumblr when she says:
“A female character does not have to be “strong” (whatever your definition of that is) to be a good character.
Women can be strong, or wussy, or emotional, or stoic, or needy, or independent, and still be legitimate people and interesting characters.
In our totally understandable desire to see portrayals of strong women (in reaction to decades of damsels in distress and women as appendages), we’ve somehow backed ourselves into this corner where the only acceptable portrayal of a woman in the media is a strong, kick-ass woman. That is not doing women any favors. It just leads to the attitude that you have to be ONE WAY ONLY to be legit as a woman.
Screw writing “strong” women. Write interesting women. Write well-rounded women. Write complicated women. Write a woman who kicks ass, write a woman who cowers in a corner. Write a woman who’s desperate for a husband. Write a woman who doesn’t need a man. Write women who cry, women who rant, women who are shy, women who don’t take no shit, women who need validation and women who don’t care what anybody thinks. THEY ARE ALL OKAY, and all those things could exist in THE SAME WOMAN. Women shouldn’t be valued because we are strong, or kick-ass, but because we are people. So don’t focus on writing characters who are strong. Write characters who are people.”

And I also agree with Sophia McDougall, when she says in her very interesting article on the NewStatesman website:

“What do I want instead of a Strong Female Character? I want a male:female character ratio of 1:1 instead of 3:1 on our screens. I want a wealth of complex female protagonists who can be either strong or weak or both or neither, because they are more than strength or weakness. Badass gunslingers and martial artists sure, but also interesting women who are shy and quiet and do, sometimes, put up with others’ shit because in real life there’s often no practical alternative. And besides heroines, I want to see women in as many and varied secondary and character roles as men: female sidekicks, mentors, comic relief, rivals, villains. I want not to be asked, when I try to sell a book about two girls, two boys and a genderless robot, if we couldn’t change one of those girls to a boy.

Finally, when I think of what I want for female characters, I find myself thinking of what the performance poet Guante wants for himself, in this poem where he rejects the limitations of the insulting commandment “Man Up”. So if he’ll forgive me for borrowing and paraphrasing …

I want her to be free to express herself

I want her to have meaningful, emotional relationships with other women

I want her to be weak sometimes

I want her to be strong in a way that isn’t about physical dominance or power

I want her to cry if she feels like crying

I want her to ask for help

I want her to be who she is

Write a Strong Female Character?


So if you want to write female characters well, make them more than just strong, make them people.

10 thoughts on “On Writing Female Characters.

  1. THIS! I’ve been meaning to write a post on this subject, and hopefully I’ll get around to it soon. I totally agree … I’m really sick of authors thinking they can give a female character a few weapons and try to pass her off as being a “good female character” just because she kicks a few asses. I think a lot of writers misunderstand the term “strong character” and interpret it as *physically* strong. But as you said, what’s more important is creating a character who’s interesting, complicated, and believable, regardless of gender.

    I do think there are a lot of issues with how female characters are portrayed, and I do often get irritated with whiney/needy female characters who always need to be rescued and never do anything for themselves. But that doesn’t mean that a female character is automatically a bad character if she is occasionally rescued by others and/or sometimes displays emotion. So … it can get complicated, but ultimately I agree that it’s not just about making female characters “strong.”

  2. Really great post, Rochelle. I felt like yelling ‘Here! Here!’ at the end – but then I’d probably be portraying myself as old-fashioned… I think ‘human’ is the key word and that means having weaknesses as well as strengths, and sometimes it just suits our female characters to embrace their femininity, because that’s what they are – WOMEN!

    1. Thank you. Abs yes, sometimes they do need to embrace their femininity and I don’t think there is anything wrong with that, it’s just a shame, like in Victoria Scott’s case, that some people do.

  3. An interesting post. And one that makes me realize that my definition of a strong female character is everything you have just listed…not so much someone who is kick-ass, never cry, never need help, never show emotion. To me that is a weakness or character flaw I like to see them work through. I am seeing that somewhere along the line strong has become not crying, not, asking for help, not embracing being a woman…yeah…not good. Great food for thought, thanks!!

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