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Because She's Worth It: How to Write Female Characters


posted by Lucy V Morgan on , , , , , , , ,

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In this post, I asked for advice on writing awesome female characters. I’ve added a little of my own experience as a writer, a few intern-y observations, and voila: four factors to consider when writing a plausible, well-fleshed female character (or FC, for the sake of my aching fingers). The first three are more applicable to your protagonist but in the end, they all come together to make yummy character-muffin  goodness.

1)      I Am Woman: Hear Me Roar! (After I’ve had my coffee)
    There are two ways to get your FC under the reader’s skin: respect or connect. She’s got to admire her, or she’s got to sympathise with her (a bit of both would be great, but it’s not essential). Here’s where being strong is very important. It’s not all about physical strength; there’s no reason why she can’t be an awesome fighter, but attributing a stereotypically masculine characteristic does not a strong female make. Strength of mind is just as important:
     “I love my female characters, and do already consider them strong women,” says Australian writer, Trisha.  “Recently though I was put on the spot when asked to think about WHAT makes them strong women. I think it's that they have strong opinions and yes, they're willing to listen to other opinions, but they don't do what other people want them to do just 'cause they get pressured into it. Intelligence definitely comes into it. Most of my ladies are witty and opinionated.”
     Being outspoken is one way to demonstrate strength of mind, and writing that snarky dialogue is buckets of fun. Watch that your FC doesn’t get too mean, though. It’s common to see what is intended to be funny read as outright bitchiness.
      “I admire brains,” says writer Sarah Ketley. “I admire that quiet determination. That determination that fires up when people she loves are threatened. Not violence, just determination. They get the job done.”
Determination is a great way to flesh-out an FC. She can be flawed, she can be knocked down, she can be strung up like a baked ham in a butcher’s window but if she keeps going until the fat genderneutral sings, you can’t help but respect her efforts (unless they involve genocide. Genocide perhaps isn’t the way to go).
     Don’t forget that the most interesting thing about a strong character is their weakness. Try not to wimp out and make this a penchant for 70s jazz or awful portrait painting skills; these are distinctive characteristics (which we’ll get to in a bit) but they aren’t real flaws. A stupid, illogical act is also not a flaw—though these are often employed for plot convenience. Your FC’s flaw is what stirs her inner conflict and makes her relatable. Get down to that gritty, raw, emotional dimension of your girl and dig up her worst fears. Then force her out on that tightrope to wobble on them. You’ve given her strength: now test it and watch her hold on by her brittle, cracking nails.

2)      I’m Bringing Sexy Back (also, after my coffee)
     “Give her depth, make her rational and unique.  And sexy,” writes erotic romance author Sascha Illyvich. Sexy isn’t always about huge boobs and a pneumatic pout. It’s also not about every other character in the novel fawning over FC’s good looks as if they’re paid-up members of the fan club. Sexy actually has very little to do with your FC and everything to do with the eyes of her beholders.
     What does your love interest see in FC? What do others admire her for, and what are they jealous of? Writing a sexy character is all about subtlety. Think about it this way: her strength and flaws define her, but somebody finding her sexy is what drives a romantic plot.
     (Please don’t make your FC utterly gorgeous but have her not realise this. Yes, modesty is important, but there’s a point where it gets patronising to your reader. It’s far more realistic to have FC panic that the hero will find her bitter or too impulsive than not like her bum).

3)     I Am A Beautiful Snowflake. No, Really...
     When trying to create a distinctive FC, erotic writer Kenny Wright says, “I typically think of a woman that I'd be attracted to, flesh out a few details of what makes her tick, and write.  Like any character, it's important that she has enough room to breathe and surprise me. Details, quirks, vulnerabilities (even backgrounds) manifest organically.” Some of us are better at “growing” a character than others, but essentially: what makes your FC different and interesting? What will make me remember her, relate to her, sympathise with her? Here are a couple of factors to consider when making your FC unique:
Setting If she works at a magazine, focus on giving that magazine a personality of its own. Give it a professional and realistic name (I see unimaginative company names way too much in romance. Generic might work to make things “timeless” but it’s also frickin’ dull) and mine that premise for dynamic secondary characters (the animal mag with the smarmy vet, the secretary who can't pronounce the names of various animals, the journalists who all bring their pets into work and the tea boy who smells like wet ostrich). Research your setting and choose your details carefully;  if it’s interesting and fun, you’ve already given me a reason to read about your FC.
Preferences and Hobbies Your FC, like any woman, will have varied tastes in music and films. She’ll have a certain way of dunking her biscuit into her tea. She will have opinions on the high salaries of footballers, feel comfortable in a certain type of clothing, will organise her books in a specific fashion and may or may not know how many calories are in the average banana. Perhaps she can’t watch Jurassic Park because it reminds her of the disastrous date when she was fourteen where the pigeon shat in her hair en route. Or maybe she has a weird pet that her boyfriend is terrified of. You don’t have to tell us what your FC thinks of everything—pick these points with care—but please don’t give us a physical description and then let her job define her. It’s overdone and it’s lazy.
Family and Friends This will be dealt with in more detail in the next section, but do consider giving your FC a complicated family/friend dynamic to battle with (especially if you’re planning a series) or an amusing back catalogue of exes. Step-parents and siblings, divorced parents, exes that are friends and just really awesome friends, mothers who are well-meaning and even lovely…all of these make a nice change to the usual dead parents/evil siblings/overbearing mother clichés. Your FC does not have to be a black sheep to have issues with the people who surround her. Once again—think about subtlety.
Appearance This links in a little with being sexy. You can make your heroine look however you like, and don’t worry that she’s too pretty or too fat—just remember to contextualise all this by working in the different ways your other characters see her. Do mention the things she’s most likely to mull over; a nose she hates or how a boy once complimented her legs. Then there’s the memory of how she dyed her hair in pink streaks by accident but loved it so much that she kept it in, or the time she was forced to rifle through her mother’s wardrobe and discovered that 50s shift dresses really suit her. Don’t give us a rundown, complete with measurements, and don’t focus on making FC look so different that she sounds implausible or silly. Make the mundane sound intriguing, original, or beautiful. Show us her facets in a way we won’t forget.

4)      I Can’t Work In These Conditions!
     It’s quite common in romance to have a strong heroine surrounded by caricatures and idiots. In this particular genre, you're often writing to a specific formula or may have limited space, but a skilled writer will find ways to round out her other characters without giving them lots of page time. Pay close attention to your secondary female characters; they need to be just as fleshed-out as your protagonist. Here are some common problems with secondary FCs:
Pantomime villains Female villains are often bitchy to theatrical proportions, and can be found saying shocking, mean things to automatically cast them in their antagonist roles. These women aren’t plausible because everyone would have them sussed at fifty paces. The best female villains are sly and manipulative, and our FC often doesn’t realise she’s been wronged until she’s lying in a pool of blood (physically or emotionally). Please, for the love of god—give your evil FC a brain, and remember that she’s human too. Imagine her as another strong woman with a fault, and once again, don’t let that fault be stupidity. Stupid characters are best relegated to very small supporting roles. Think about women who have truly scared you (aside from your mother!) and twist ‘em up a bit.
The Convenient Best Friend Ah, the FC’s best mate. She comes in two packages:  deus ex MAchina and deuSEXmachina.   
     MAchina is world-weary, full of deep sighs and always ready with the advice. She is the endless provider of sensible solutions and if done correctly, uncomfortable truths. Then there’s SEXmachina, who’s down with the naughty casual sex. Why can’t FC be just like her slutty best friend and have one night stands? (How often have you read that line?). The way she’s is so often used for comic relief implies that there’s something to pity in this girl, just because she doesn’t need a boyfriend to enjoy her body. But that’s a pretty unfair judgement to bestow on your casual sex-loving readers (who will be present along with the more reserved ones).  Don’t preach your morals through your FCs; that is not your place. Just because she’s secondary doesn’t mean I won’t notice.
Bimbos I’m seeing more and more strong, funky FCs surrounded by moronic bimbos. Romance is getting vitriolic and misogynistic in bucket loads. Yes, there are women who dress up for men. Yes, there are women who are really worried about getting a man at the expense of everything else. Yes, there are women who have more boobs than brains. But if you’re going to use these characters, remember to make them distinctive, remember to think about why you’re not going with their male counterparts (because they make awesome characters too), and remember that unless you’re rather clever, the only difference between these women and your FC is the perspective you happen to be writing from. 

     Ahh...so there you go. I'd like to thank the authors who took the time to offer their advice for this article. What do you think--did we miss anything? Get anything wrong? Which female characters have really worked for you?

(If you liked this article, you  might also like this post on the psychology behind Mary Sues, this post on the male lead as a sociopath and this post on writing a complex alpha male).



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