I love writing female characters.
Why? I think this is worth sharing with you.
I never realised the fact that I enjoy, and even thrive, writing female characters until quite recently (the last year or two) when I began pushing my writing out and receiving more and more feedback from people whose opinions I trust and cherish. And it was the comments on ‘writing women’ that really got me thinking. Why and how are they easier and more interesting for me?
I started writing in my mid-teens, throwing out clichéd male leads torn straight from books and movies I had already read and wanted to duplicate with my own spin.
Why these leads? Because they were most prevalent in what knew from books, movies and TV, and they kindled something in me that, at the time, I wasn’t sure what it was.
I was writing out my fantasies and what gave me the strongest emotional reaction. I started writing soon after my father divorced my mother abruptly, which itself was only a year or so after my mother’s remission from cancer.
I’m an introvert; an INFP; ‘The Mediator’. I don’t like conflict and certainly handled it worse when I was a teenager. I can go inside myself and play out the most brutal, grotesque and offensive fantasies anybody could imagine, but that’s where they remain until they spill onto the page. In an indirect way, that was exactly what I was doing.
I was counselling myself, manifesting and fighting demons, but it was never aimed out at an external source. I was fighting myself. And whenever I sit down and write a short story or a novel, I go through the same war over and over again.
So how does this relate to writing interesting female characters?
I’m an observer rather than a participant, a silent watcher at the table soaking in everything around me, happy to do so and nothing more. (Just look up INFP traits!) I relate to women far more than I do to men, and the reason why is simple: I’m emotionally driven rather than logically driven. What I do and how I write character actions is through emotional stimulation rather than what logically might dictate would happen.
This was when it began to make sense to me. Here are the four points I’ve boiled it all down to:
– They’re always a part of YOU
– Demons vs. Angels
– If you make them more than a side-line character, they will be
– What ties it all together?
1 – They’re always a part of you.
This applies to all characters, great and small. It’s simple and marvellously easy to implement, but all too often overlooked by some authors. Ever been taken out of a really good book when it feels like the author is trying too hard for a character to act or talk a certain way? Hate it when dialogue or actions feel forced or insipid?
Do some soul searching and, rather than asking ‘what would this character say or do in this situation?’ as I’ve heard a thousand times before. Try this subtle yet infinitely stronger question: ‘What would this character say or do in this situation if I were them?’ Because they are you, and you are them, only in a different mindset. Not ‘What would I want to do?’ but, ‘What would I actually do?’
More often than not, any character is either going to be a fantasy getting played out, or a creeping fear manifesting in fight-mode. If they’re not, they’re probably not a strong enough character, or they’re not a true desire or fear. Dig down there and haul out your fears, emotional fears, and admit them to yourself.
2 – Demons vs. Angels
Of course, fears and fantasies are not mutually exclusive, nor should they be. Just as nobody is complete evil incarnate, and nobody is utter pureness, no character should be the absolute fantasy or the ultimate fear without some level of everyday humanity to them, and at least a pinch of the opposite.
I’ve read or witnessed a lot of female characters who aren’t really flawed in any satisfying way and so don’t pull enough emotional weight to go on an adventure or to prove anything to me. And I’ve read too many male characters who are flawed to the Nth degree, only their humility is lacking, and no matter how much they’re supposed to be charming or loveable I just can’t buy their character arc. It’s like watching a friend get into a baaaaad relationship with no way to prevent the inevitable.
In my novel, Brittle, this is the point of the lead character, Marcus Cockburn. There is a dichotomy between his external actions and his internal rationalisation of – and detest for – them, and much of the book is his internal battle as much as it is his external one. Whilst on a physical level he may appear to achieve less than he sets out to, he manages to defeat one of his strongest internal enemies and make up for his excessive flaws through truly good intentions, whether or not he shows them outwardly.
Make her strong and weak, but in new an unusual ways. Strong doesn’t have to mean emotionally unavailable, and weak doesn’t have to mean easily manipulated.
3 – If you make them more than a side-line character, that’s what they’ll be.
Potentially interesting female characters can all too easily get side-lined. Love interest. Shy friend. Slutty workmate. Without packing a story full of excess characters who serve no purpose other than as passing shadows in the main character’s day to day life, bring them to life with character as well as their bullet-point traits. I have to remind myself of this every time I’m editing, just to check that the character serves a purpose, and are worth keeping alive other than just as a two word synopsis.
How would you feel if your friends could sum you up, totally and utterly, in two words? If so, would you have any friends? If they were able to, I guarantee those would be ‘boring one’.
Not every character has to be intricately interwoven, with three chapters dedicated to their back story, but make sure that there is enough flesh on their bones to at least pique the interest of the reader: most importantly, to give them something to relate to.
4 – So, what ties it all together?
Surprise surprise, this isn’t just about female characters.
It’s about ALL CHARACTERS.
Bear with me, that’s not as simple or gender-binary as it may sound.
It sounds pretty straight forward as a concept, but it’s a little harder to apply in reality. Done poorly, it feels like what it is, and it will be the final nail in an otherwise shabby coffin.
Rather than thinking in terms of simply reversing literal, stereotypical roles (slayer of the dragon, bearer of the ring, shy and unlucky in love when a beautiful new neighbour arrives), this is about reversing rhyme and reason.
How different would Die Hard have been if John McClane had been more interested in brokering a peace deal because of his love for all mankind instead of taking down Hans Gruber and his crew? Not as fun, certainly, but take a moment to think about it.
And what if it was only an internal desire? He’s still a NYPD cop, still outwardly ready to fight because of the nature of the job, but since growing more distant from his wife he’s able to feel what’s most important in his life: his job, or the love he feels for his wife and children?
In my novel, Fallen Cradle, Deputy Rowger embodies this, only in a slightly more diffuse manner. She’s young and rugged without being masculine, due to the world into which she was born rather than through nature. However, she senses a glimmer in the eyes of the men of that place, something mysterious and excitingly dark that they know, only they won’t speak of it. It’s through a personality need, and not a gender-role need, that she reaches out to acquire it against her nature to indulge her sense of gratification. She’s in conflict between what she knows (through what she has seen externally as she has grown up) and what she knows (through intuition or from birth).
With a fear of oversimplifying, the essence is this: allow your characters to have emotions, real emotions, and to live by them. Be emotional, feel how you feel and take note of it, and of what it makes you want to do – and of what you actually do. Then give those emotions, reactions and passions to your characters.
Women can have emotions and still be strong. More often than not, when men have emotions in novels or in movies (outside of comedies or romances) it’s in the form of brief tears from behind a façade of strength (before logically deciding on the next course of action); or it’s lashing out in anger; or it’s a lack of emotion behind a cool, collected one-liner.
Play to their strengths, help them to love, laugh, cry, be terrified, be brave. Apply them to male characters! #GiveAManAnEmotion Throw them into the pool before they know how to swim, then offer to teach them and see what they say. They may fight, they may get mad, they may panic or they may learn on their own. They may swear vengeance on your soul or they may beg for your help. They may drown, but the important thing is:
What would you do during any of that, standing on the side after throwing them into the water to fend for themselves? That’s the important bit, so long as you can feel what that feels like and translate it into their soul.
That’s why I like writing women. Because I love them.