On Writing: The Obligatory Post About Strong Female Characters
Updated: Feb 21, 2021
Stop me if you've heard this before: to write a female character well, you have to treat women like people, and in fact the key to writing a Strong Female Character™ is to firstly write a strong character who just happens to be female. I probably just summed up 99% of the advice that you can find online on this topic.
A surprisingly common complaint from rookie male writers is that they just can't wrap their heads around writing women (well). A common piece of advice they get, surprisingly not just from men, is that if they know how to write a good male character, then just write a man and change the pronouns afterwards.
There is merit to this. Perhaps most famously, one of popular culture's most beloved female heroes, Ellen Ripley of Alien fame, was originally written as a man, as Ridley Scott told the LA Times. The script of the original Alien was virtually unaltered when the character became a woman. That is to say, this can absolutely work.
Another similar, related type of advice often given to authors who say they struggle with writing women is some variation of "focus on writing a strong character first, then add the gender later". This certainly rings true, but it assumes that the writer is capable of creating a "strong character" in the first place. If they are really good enough, and confident in themselves enough, to do that, well, then they probably didn't need to hear this advice in to begin with. No competent author needs help with writing 50% of the human race.
Here's the thing: if you flesh out a character before assigning their gender, you will, by definition, inevitably miss out on using the character's gender to flesh out said character. And personally, I think gender is more important than that. I earnestly believe that a character's sex and gender shouldn't be afterthoughts. This does not mean that gender should be the most important thing about the character, or God forbid the most important thing, but it is important.
Also for this very reason, I find it at best cheap, and at worst actively harmful, to take a male character and slap tits on them in order to make a Strong Female Character™.
Case in point: Ellen Ripley. I would argue that the ending of the sequel, Aliens, would have been much weaker if it didn't play up the "mother protecting her child" angle, contrasting the Alien Queen, herself the mother of the titular aliens, versus Ripley assuming the role of a surrogate mother to protect the helpless little Newt.
Given context, one of cinema's most famous lines hits far stronger coming from a woman:
WARNING: Controversial opinion incoming!
I'm going to try and not offend anyone with what I'm about to say, but I think this needs to be said.
By and large, speaking strictly in generalities, purely in a statistical sense, looking at the big picture, all things considered, taking one thing with the other...
Men and women are different.
I'll pause for a moment here to let the shock wear off.
We good? Okay.
I'm fond of female characters. I generally enjoy reading about them, and so far I've enjoyed writing them. Both of my published novels feature female protagonists in primarily female casts, and my upcoming dark fantasy will also have a young lady for a protagonist. (For the record, I do have a number of male-centric stories planned, I've just got to get to them!)
Now, allegedly, I'm pretty good at writing women. I distinctly recall that one of the early reviews on Seven-Point Star on Amazon actually refers to me, the author of the book, as a woman. It's an honest mistake, as I do write under a pseudonym, and I'm not very outspoken about the details of my personal life, so I took it as a compliment if anything. The point is, I'm under the impression that my female characters are generally well-received, so I've probably got a leg to stand on when explaining how to write them.
I don't do well with dispensing general sage advice. Do this, don't do that, this is how it's done – no, no, I can't do that. Not my style. What I can talk about are my personal reasons for writing female characters, and my personal reasons for why I often enjoy following female characters. Once again, just to be safe: these are not the only reasons to write or enjoy female characters; they are my reasons.
The first step to writing a Strong Female Character™ is, I think, to recognise that men and women aren't all that much different. The second step is to recognise that men and women are different.
Men can be quiet and sensitive; women can be powerful and physically intimidating. Things like bravery, honour, physical fitness, height – most every human trait you can think of exist on a bell curve. This means that the overwhelming majority of the population falls near some average value, with deviations from that average, in either direction, dropping steeply in number.
For a lot of traits, the bell curve peaks at different places for men and women.
It is an objective fact of biology that men, statistically, tend to be taller and have greater muscle mass than women. An adult male who is slightly below average in height is still taller than most women. It's also common sense that height, naturally, often correlates with physical strength.
Crime statistics worldwide show that the vast majority of violent crime is committed by men against men. Certainly, you can pin some of this on the phenomenon often referred to as "toxic masculinity" – the idea that (western) society encourages men to be "macho" and thereby amplifies aggression, misogyny, homophobia, competition, bullying, what have you – but it doesn't account for these drastic, global, historical differences fully.
There is a simple reason for all of these differences between the sexes. The same reason that men tend to be taller; the same reason that men tend to be more violent; the same reason, indeed, that male-to-female transgender people have a much harder time "passing" than their female-to-male counterparts. We can talk about culture, "nature versus nurture", toxic masculinity or feminism, but at the end of the day, even the most ardent social justice warrior will have to come to terms with this one, simple fact:
Testosterone is one hell of a drug.
To state the obvious, these are some of the reasons that for the majority of our history, almost universally in all cultures around the world, societies tended to be patriarchal. It stands to reason that if you're writing a story about humans, your characters are similarly likely to come from a traditionally, historically male-oriented society. Yes, there are exceptions. Yes, cultures change over time. I'm speaking, again, in broad terms.
Right, okay, you knew all this. Why do I bring this up?
Let me tell you about my "lightbulb" moment. I can actually pinpoint the specific moment, not that long ago, when that proverbial lightbulb went off in my head, and I finally realised what I, personally, as a man, like so much about female characters.
I was playing a video game called Life is Strange. It's an adventure game focusing on a time-travelling teenage girl who's looking for a fellow student who recently went missing, with some Twin Peaks-esque and Lovecraftian themes added for flavour. It's got just the right amount of lesbian undertones mixed with cringeworthy "American teen" dialogue written by middle-aged frenchmen to be a guilty pleasure of mine.
Now, the thing about Life is Strange is that the protagonist, Maxine "Max" Caulfield, is a little girl. No, I mean, she's 18 years old. But she is, literally, little. She is a frail, tiny girl. One of the best things about the game, to me, is that it never explicitly calls attention to this, but it's a fact that becomes obvious the moment you take one look at Max.
Max is not pathetic. Max is not a damsel in distress. Max is not "weak". She is a young girl, with all the good and bad that implies.
My "lightbulb" moment came late into the game, when you, controlling Max, explore a hidden bunker-esque room out in the countryside. You're there with Max's best friend ("best friend"), Chloe, who is similarly thin and frail-looking. This hidden underground room, you find, belongs to the game's primary antagonist, who kidnaps and drugs young girls before dragging them to this room, and I won't spoil the rest.
What you find down there are pages upon pages of photographs and files documenting the methodical behaviour of the antagonist: how he – you presume it's a he because, well, see above – chooses his victims, how he approaches them, how he drugs them, what exactly he does with them, all of it laid out in meticulous detail.
It is sickening.
I'll be honest with you: I am a sensitive type. It was there in that dark room, as I was looking through these virtual pictures and files that aren't real in this video game, that I realised that I was shaking. No kidding. No exaggeration. I know that saying this has kind of become a meme online, but I mean it: I was, in fact, actually, for realsies, literally shaking.
It wasn't as simple as being upset by the idea that such a monster could exist. Let's be honest: there are terrible people out there, in the real world, who have done things like this and worse. Intellectually, I knew this. We all know this. And like any emotionally healthy person, I imagine, I am upset, I am sickened, I am furious about this.
Yet at the same time, it's a bit like reading in the news that some earthquake killed a couple dozen people. Yes, it is terrible... but it's also distant. It's a statistic. It's difficult to put it into perspective. It's difficult to really, truly care.
In that moment, when I was playing Life is Strange, I wasn't myself. I was Max. I was that tiny little girl in the lair of the beast. For a brief moment, the empathic part of my brain fired up, and for that brief moment, Max's adventure was real.
It was then that I realised something: I, G. S. Taylor, personally, although not of the feminine persuasion myself, am not very intimidating at all. However, I'm in generally good shape, about the right weight, I work out regularly, and have some muscle. If push came to shove, I, Joe McAverage, could probably knock Max out with a well-aimed fist to the jaw. Max could probably not do that to me.
Max is small even for a girl! When I am Max, suddenly I don't just have to be afraid of hulking massive men, or someone with a gun; when I am Max, I am suddenly at the mercy of the overwhelming majority of the human population. Men, women, strong, average, young, old – I am a little girl with nothing but a smartphone in my pocket to protect me, which is, let's be honest, even more fragile than I am.
My female protagonists have never been physically very strong. Sure, they were usually fit, or fit enough, and they were brave, they were smart, they were competent, they were willing to fight – but at the end of the day, they could be physically overpowered with little effort by most people they met on the street on a walk down to the grocery store.
It's a feeling of disempowerment that never really occurred to me, as a man.
And the thing about disempowerment is that it is great for storytelling. Limitations force creativity. My upcoming novel follows the adventures of a government agent who hunts supernatural creatures for a living. What's more interesting than a secret agent whose job is to find and arrest vampires? A secret agent whose job is to find and arrest vampires who is also a girl.
See, when James Bond walks into a room, he turns heads, he commands respect, and all that without taking out his gun, simply just by being in the scene. When a young woman walks into a room, she is either ignored or laughed out of it. She knows this. It frustrates her. But giving voice to that frustration would, inevitably, mark her as a "whiny little girl" in the eyes of her male peers; if she tried to be assertive, she would be marked as "bitchy" or "bossy". Both her young age and sex serve to reinforce this: they immediately put her at an inherent disadvantage in almost any situation.
I've been talking about physical strength and height in this blog, but please recognise that I only do so because they are very obvious traits that help illustrate a point.
Remember that I called Max a strong female character, even though physically she is anything but. A character's "strength" doesn't just refer to how much they can lift.
In Life is Strange, using nothing but her cleverness, her friendships, and magical time travelling powers, Max cracks the mystery of the missing girl and thereby saves potentially countless others from falling victim to the same monster, too.
In real life, a single mother who juggles two jobs and meagre finances, faces judgement and ostracism every day, and still manages to take her children home from school and cook dinner at the end of the day may not have time to hit the gym – but she is for sure strong.
One might argue that in everyday life, in most situations, whether you're a man or a woman doesn't matter. Now that may or may not be true in the "western" world, but it sure isn't true in Iran. In any case, if you're writing a story that you don't want to be dreadfully boring, you're most likely not writing about everyday life, but about events that are anything but ordinary.
I would posit that the number of possible "extraordinary" situations in which being a woman is a disadvantage is greater than that in which it is an advantage.
The thing about the hero being at a disadvantage is that it makes for great storytelling.
People love an underdog. People want heroes who overcome the odds. People love protagonists who have to fight tooth and nail to accomplish their goals. And whether you like it or not, in our contemporary society, making your protagonist a girl is basically a cheat code to accomplishing all of that. I'm not saying this is right. I'm not saying this is how it should be. I'm saying this is how it is.
Not that long ago, in the before times – before the virus – I went out with a foreign girl studying here. She turned out not to be my type – it's fine, it happens – but she did prove to be an interesting conversational partner. She was from Azerbaijan, see, and had travelled quite some ways around the globe beforehand.
Our conversation went quite some ways, too, from dating, and travel, and Harry Potter, and science fiction, quoting The Office when neither of us had actually seen a full episode of the damn thing, all the way to the weird things you can find on the internet and the various communities and their little wars.
Around when we were discussing Harry Potter, our chat took a detour to the then-recent scandal about some things J. K. Rowling said about transgender people. This prompted a tangent about transgenderism in general and the transgender people we each know.
"It just makes no sense to me," I told her. "Do whatever you want with your body. Take hormones, get tits, wear a dress, up to you, I don't care." I'm paraphrasing here, but that's about what I said. If you've read my sci-fi novel What a Time to Be Alice!, you probably know that I'm perfectly positive about body modification. "But I don't get the whole identity politics of it. How can you wake up one day and realise you're feeling like a woman? I don't feel like a man. I just am. The same way that I don't feel like I'm white. I just am. What, do you feel an ambiguous shade of light brown?" (I remember that line because I was really proud of it. I ought to use it in a book someday.)
Her exact response – after almost choking on her gyros pita from laughter – was, to the best of my recollection, "I think this is coming from a place of privilege."
Here's the thing: the girl explained that she is an atheist. Her family is Muslim. Moderate, allegedly, and yet she casually described being beaten and abused by her male family members for minor (or not so minor) misbehaviour, often involving what she does with her body, be that the obvious, or merely going out unsupervised, or getting piercings, or such.
In her own description, she very much feels like a woman. She was made to feel like a woman, to be acutely aware of her gender, every day, by the society around her. And yet here she was, talking to me, confidently, as outgoing as she'd ever been. I kind of admire that.
All of that is to say: there is more to writing a female character, I think, than writing a man and slapping tits on them. There is more to a strong female character than having a woman who can toootally hold her liquor, shoot a gun, and bench weights. It's not that they can't – many do – but there is more to them.
The advice that you should write a strong (male) character first, then after that wave your metaphorical magic wand to turn them female, is generally well-meaning, but I feel it misses the point entirely.
A woman is not a man with tits.
It's because men and women are different. Because society treats men and women differently. Whether you like this or not, when you're choosing the gender of your protagonist, this matters. To ignore this blindingly obvious fact of life is to pass up willingly an entirely new avenue of storytelling and characterisation.
Can you flesh out a character without knowing their gender and still make them memorable? Yes, absolutely. It can be done. Sometimes it's even done well. But should you? Look, if you're reading my blog for writing advice, I would urge you, politely yet firmly, not to.
Consider the world that your story takes place in. 1950s America? 1600s feudal Europe? Contemporary Afghanistan or Norway? One of those rare matriarchal societies from some oft-forgotten annals of history? Some alien species on an alien planet where they've always been perfectly egalitarian between the sexes?
How would your character's life have been different if they had been a man or a woman? Surely the answer isn't "not at all"! How would it alter their perspective on society, their job, their goals, their relationships?
These are important questions, and your character's gender absolutely matters. Don't ignore them. There is more to a character than their gender. You definitely don't want to descend into stereotype – but you should be equally wary, I think, of brushing the character's gender off as unimportant.
Recognise the difficulties and challenges that your female character must face, then have her overcome them. That is how strong women are made, in real life as much as in fiction.
If you want to write a Strong Female Character™, I think, you shouldn't start out with a strong character and then make them female. You should invent a strong woman who is worthy of being in your story.