Women Are Not Small Dogs and Other Tips for Writing Female Characters
1. Women Are Not Plot Points: We all know that there are some characters that exist only to forward the plot. They are in the story because they serve as catalysts to motivate another character or characters. It’s OK to have these characters. It’s OK if these characters are women. But, if these types of non-characters are your only female characters, you might have a problem.
2. Women Are Not Magic: The woman appears, and suddenly everything changes. Other characters are moved, inspired, or suddenly driven to great feats of bravery. Maybe it’s the opposite; maybe the mere presence of this woman makes others suddenly distracted and unsure of themselves. Why? Because the woman did something or achieved something to inspire devotion? Is it because she was able to demonstrate through actions or knowledge that she was worthy of admiration? No, it’s just because she’s a woman, other characters think she is physically attractive. Women aren’t unicorns. Their mere presence does not make soft music play and make everything go slow motion.
3. Women Are Not Prizes: Women do not generally distribute sex and love as rewards for achieving a goal. Just because a protagonist saves the world, defeats a villain, wins the big game, gets good at Kung Fu, or masters chess is not a reason for the female character to then reward the protagonist with her love. Often in fiction the protagonist’s goals and the female love interest are completely unrelated. She is simply a prize that is awarded when the goal is achieved by default. Real love does not work this way. People are not awarded girlfriend trophies for mastering a task.
4. Women Are Not Obligated to Be Sexy: This should go without saying, but it really doesn’t. It needs to be said. Not every female lead has to be a nubile 25 year old swimsuit model. It’s OK to write about women over 65. It’s OK to write about women that are obese. A woman who does not fit society’s idea of what is attractive can still be a worthwhile character, and does not need to be regulated to secondary or comedic roles in your stories. People don’t worry about how sexy a male protagonist will look on the book cover, and it’s OK for it to be a non-issue for your female characters, too.
5. Women Are Not Small Dogs: Bear with me on this one. You might have noticed the difference between the way aggression in large dogs and small dogs is treated. When a large dog is aggressive, it is taken seriously. When a small dog is aggressive, it is often treated as cute and funny that the small dog “thinks it’s a big dog.” Fiction often treats “strong female characters” the same way. Excessive hostility and aggression is often treated as humorous, cute, and ultimately treated as a charming expression of how “feisty” she is. We don’t need this. No one needs excessive aggression, immediately dismissed as a joke, in order to show a female character is strong. Show strength the same way you would with a male character.
How do you express strength in your female characters? How do you think that other writers fail to do this? I’d be interested in hearing. Thank you for reading!