(Disclaimer added Sept. 30 2020 because someone singled out this post to look at and that gave me a mild anxiety attack: This article is what we might call heavily outdated. It’s from before I came out as or, in point of fact, even realized that I was trans. I keep it here because it’s not flawed in any destructive ways, just in eye-rolling ones. I see no harm in you reading it so long as you’re aware of that context.)
Everyone say hi to Ermina von Schebel. I’ve put her at the start of this post to make everyone feel safe and lure the other men into a false sense of security, as she is the most conventionally-female of my many characters. She also believes poison is an effective means of conflict resolution and that the best response to an insult is a slap in the ear with the flat of a flamberge. Every conventionally-female trait she has emerged as a byproduct of writing a character who would be fun to interact with. So did the flamberge bit.
I am both a novelist and a Dungeon Master. I have very esoteric definitions of “fun.” So here’s step #1 of writing a female character: Just write the damn character instead of fixating on the fact that she’s a woman. That’s it, go home.
Alright, alright, cripes! Calm down people, I’m not actually going to leave that there. I maintain that as my article’s thesis, but it’s also a grotesque oversimplification. What about female characters whose womanhood is core to their personality? What about those who define themselves in opposition to it?
I was inspired to write this post by seeing yet another example of what I’ve chosen to call MWALiFeC Syndrome–that is, “Male Writer Attempts Liberated Female Character.” I worked much too hard to make that acronym sound like “Malefic”, but many of you likely know already what I’m referring to. I’m forever astonished by this problem’s persistence, and felt I might as well write this handy article to reduce MWALiFeC as much as possible.
You know the drill: in a desperate attempt to prove that he supports female agency, a male writer defaults directly to a female character defined purely by her unrestrained, devastating libido. You see she’s empowered because it’s okay for her to like sex and prioritize it and–
Okay, that’s enough of that. I’m giving myself flashbacks to college and that one time in poetry class that, discussing a poem with another man and a woman, I responded to something the woman said with “women like sex too.” A salute to ye, unsung classmate, for responding to that as if it came from another woman instead of from a mouthy dimbulb. Maybe it was obvious I intended it in affirmative fashion, but still, you showed me mercy that day I fear I did not deserve.
That was five years ago. I’ve become a better man since, and a vastly better author. So, gentlemen, here is an excellent starting guideline. If, at any point when writing a female character, you find yourself asking “should I involve sex stuff?” the answer is… yes, when it’s mandated by the characters. I already sense some fledglings near the flotilla’s rear drifting off-course, so let me clarify, ducklings–
–cripes this analogy got weird fast–
–you do not go out of your way to include sex scenes or sexual emphasis. You wouldn’t do this when writing a man, so don’t do it when writing a woman, unless (all together now!) you’re writing erotica. If you’re writing erotica and sex isn’t a focus, I believe that’s false advertising at best. But even then, detach your mind from writing based on gender binaries. Any trait which could traditionally be filed under “womanly” will find its way into the story on its own if it suits the character. If not, then you do not include that trait.
I understand where the struggle comes from. It’s the same reason why neurodivergent characters written by neurotypical authors and characters written by authors of a different ethnic group often turn out wrong. And don’t even get me started on the well-meaning but horrendously-executed “representation” the LGBTQ+ community has been “gifted” with over the years.
There’s this well-meaning idea that we need to make this “different” element central to the character to show that we value this aspect of them. Now, sometimes this fits the story and the character, and it works. Far too often, however, it ends up being weird. Look at it this way: how many fantasy books feel they need to justify the white maleness of white male protagonist #1386?
It’s fucking none of them. Now, obviously it would read as deeply uncomfortable and possibly racist if those books did need to justify the pale legions, now wouldn’t it? Readers would start wondering why their skin color and places of birth keep coming up as if they’re clearly abnormal and need to be explained. Ah. Ah, there’s the problem. By striving so fiercely to “make it important” we end up reducing these characters to whatever elements are different from the “norm” of pasty underqualified farmboys (assuming we’re still talking fantasy).
The sad irony is that by calling our readers’ attention to these elements, we reinforce the idea that characters of non-white ethnicities need to justify this, that women have to somehow justify their womanhood as a narrative component. Thus, while trying to represent these characters, we trap them in exactly the models fantasy should allow them to escape. It’s okay, and indeed sometimes wonderful, to provide understated diversity and representation. It shows readers who identify with these characters that it’s okay to just be as they are, that they shouldn’t feel like their identity needs to be fought for or struggled over just because real-world scumbags often force them to do so.
And for any woman writers out there who are nervous about writing men: just swap out the pronouns here and the same advice applies. I’ve seen concerns from some of you about this, but trust me–if you just write a fully-developed character who’s a man, you’ll have blown most of your male peers out of the water anyway.
Important concept: evaluate characters for themselves. Do not arbitrarily include traits and hooks which should rightfully be external to the character just because “it goes with the demographic”–just because that’s often true in our world doesn’t mean it’s always a good idea for the story you’re writing.
Any trait which might normally be seen as gendered will find its way into the character when it matters. If they tackle problems head-on, they’re aggressive. If they overthink every little thing, they’re a worrier. You can encompass everything a gender-focused approach would allow without even once referring to what fickle genetics put between your character’s legs and whether they think nature screwed the pooch on that one.
Of course it’s not really that simple in this case, is it? Some traits which seem innocent in isolation and really do appear mandated by the character you’ve created are ones we have to be careful of using because they’ve been so thoroughly abused elsewhere. See above: in a perfect world where bigotry and sexism never existed, a female character defined mainly by liking to have sex would just be lazy writing–c’mon, man, you know one trait’s not a character! Unfortunately, however, this is Earth, where men–and some women, sadly–have relentlessly cast overt sexuality as negative to the point that any female character who has sexualized traits risks reading as a sexist caricature.
For that one guy out there huffing and puffing and folding his arms and saying, “Well, it’s not sexist, but anyway I have the right to write whatever I like!” Buddy. Palio. Fellow Y-Chromosome-Haver. Did you miss the part about “a female character defined mainly by liking to have sex would just be lazy writing”? If you don’t care whether other people believe you’re sexist, well, society pivots on our relationships with others and that’s actually a ridiculous self-destructive attitude in itself. However! The salient point: this still constitutes bad writing, and you should still want to write well.
Anybody out there who doesn’t want to be a better writer? Any male readers out there who don’t care about insight on this point? If so, then get the fuck out. I didn’t burn myself out a few weeks ago from pushing too hard in my creative endeavors just to cater to word-mangling incompetents. Writing stands among the oldest human professions. Words shape minds, cultures, and the future. You will learn to wield them well, or I’ll not brook your presence. Begone!
They gone? Right then.
For those choosing to stay, I need to repeat a simple, obvious truth: women are people. We as men cannot live a woman’s experience–except for any trans men among my readers, who probably have more insight than I ever will. What the rest of us can do is–I want you guys to bear with me, this is a shocker–listen to women.
I’m serious. The same process of slow osmosis we as writers use to understand and write every male character works just as well for women. If you pay attention to their grievances, their gripes, the details they give about the difficulties they go through in life, I think you’ll find you pick up enough to write from pretty damn quickly. Suppose that–probably not helped by my “Writing is sacred, zealotry or GTFO” palaver above–you’re not confident about writing a woman?
I believe most of you have read Gratai Lin’s name a few times by now. A very early version of Gratai was created under the name Grada; this originally referred to a male necromancer whose “creative” touches were ones I gave him in direct opposition to his being a necromancer, such as giving him an “earth tone” robe. This is to say, brown.
How many times now have I said that writing purely for symbolism or subversion creates bad results? I think it’s a lot. I submit the above as proof of both points. This Grada’s brief and torturously bland existence took place entirely in the shadows of another writer’s world; I still have the unfinished chapter featuring him somewhere. I’m not going to finish it either, for a vastly superior entity has subsumed him. At some point I said, “Grada sounds a little more female.”
Under this name my protagonist rapidly took shape as a ghastly-pale woman living in a remote cave. Star’s above rendition is Gratai’s canonical complexion, though it’s a byproduct of the Patreon reward tier under which this sketch was created. Other traits accrued swiftly: Gratai had an explosive temper held in check by a rigid sense of discipline–ironically, this generally made her rages worse when she was pushed a little too far. She simultaneously cared about and longed for intimacy from her family, but felt uncomfortable with the things they expected from her.
Most peculiar to herself, she found necromancy enthralling and intellectually stimulating. For Gratai, it was a creative act, almost an affectionate one.
“So, North,” you may think, “that’s cool and all, but didn’t this whole thing start when you decided a necromancer should be a woman?” True, it did. And yet–with a single glaring exception mandated by her culture and the world she lives in–this has no real bearing on Gratai’s character. Admittedly this ended up affecting the story a great deal; as the firstborn child to a powerful ruler in a matriarchal society, Gratai causes more than a few problems by deciding to run away from home to raise the dead.
Remember what I said about cheating? I’m betting most of you were too hooked by “raise the dead” to get the “literal runaway princess” angle. Because, she is. Most other character traits can be obscured by artful deployment of “my MC is a goddamn necromancer”. Of course this was a subversive choice in itself; I’m planning an article on how to use subversion well in the near future. I didn’t say subversive elements are bad, just that nothing but subversion is bad. Again, you consider all the factors in play and write the best story you can based upon them. Over time you realize many of them don’t work and you swap them out for ones that do or just excise them entirely.
After all, earlier versions of The Necromancer and the Revenant included yours truly feeling it was very important to mention that Gratai has a toned warrior’s body. This was only slightly better in context; it was a bathing scene. Now, that scene remains, but the only allusion to Gratai’s physique is that her handmaiden worries she’s not eating well enough; Gratai’s not-so-subtle self-abuse is a key character trait throughout the book. The motivations behind it, however, involve spoilers, so I can’t say too much just yet.
If I wanted, however, I could go on for paragraphs just listing traits without a single one involving Gratai’s gender. She speaks almost entirely in Gothic monologues more akin to prose poetry than ordinary speech. She’s keenly aware of magic’s power and the responsibility it involves, but can’t help showing off when she has the excuse. On the one hand, she professes and often practices conventional moral beliefs such as the common good, charity to the needy, and using power to defend those who lack it. Yet she’s ruthless enough to kill without a second thought if she judges it the best solution and has no qualms about using others’ psychological foibles to her advantage.
It’s not necessary for any of Gratai’s traits to reflect that she’s a woman so long as they reflect that she’s Gratai. It really is that simple. Of course, readers won’t have the same impressions of her mannerisms when coming from a 6’3″ woman with a commanding, sonorous voice as they would from a waifish young man, or an animated maelstrom of intersecting rectangles vaguely evoking the shape of a great ocean beast.
Still, I wasn’t confident about writing a woman. On some level I knew the early versions of the bathing scene exposed a problem on my part. So, as I developed the world, even while I sheared these foul-ups away one at a time, I also provided myself a little coverage. An explanation for any inconsistencies between Gratai’s behavior and those other women might think most natural in the same situation: I made her a member of the selectively-bred warstock, a warrior born and raised in a culture defined by an ancient near-genocide so traumatic it couldn’t help but warp humanity’s psychology for millennia to come.
I think this ultimately turned out unnecessary as Gratai became a better-developed character and I learned to better apply my own advice, but the warstock–deliberately problematic as it is–stayed. In the process it further informed Gratai’s character, helping make her feel more a part of her world while moving her further away from the most common fantasy constructions of gender. Ironically, embracing the fact that I had no idea how to write a woman helped me to write Gratai.
I might not understand “women”, but that’s probably because, as a recent comic on Twitter pointed out, women aren’t some outlandish gestalt organism. They’re over half the human species and every last one of them is her own person, shaped by countless factors among which being a woman is just one. That’s not to say it isn’t important or even paramount to many of them, but again–women who define themselves by their femininity have often chosen to do so because it fits who they are. Eventually I realized it didn’t matter whether I understand everything that it means to be a woman–which is good, because I don’t–because I’d come to understand what it meant to be Gratai Lin.
So in sum–don’t ask yourself how to write a female character. Just include a character who’s a woman, develop things carefully from there, and sooner or later you’ll figure it out. Seriously though, don’t start by putting an emphasis on how sexually liberated and active she is.
Even if you’re writing an actual sex demon, you can still put more emphasis on the psychological toll of an existence consisting solely of brief bedroom encounters with little substantive emotional contact or deeper personal connection than on just the sex angle.
You know. If it fits the world, and the character, and the story you’re telling. Enough said? Enough said.
(I’ve told you my thoughts, now tell me yours–would more specific advice about handling female characters have been helpful? Are there any special pet peeves or annoying tropes afflicting written women that just get you frothing? Let me know in the comments, then please leave a like, share it with your friends wherever you may go online, and consider supporting me on Patreon! )