Occasionally I get asked if I have any advice for writers on how to create believable female characters while avoiding cliches, especially in fantasy novels where the expectations and settings may be seen to be different from our modern world.
There is an “easy” answer to this.
Write all characters as human beings in all their glorious complexity and contradiction.
That’s a decent answer, although rarely easy to pull off in practice, but it’s not really answering the question I’m getting asked.
Standard Disclaimer One: In no way am I suggesting anyone has to write women in a particular way or that they have to write women at all. Write what you want to write. That’s what I do. This post is for the people who have asked the question to me directly or in a more general way to themselves.
Standard Disclaimer Two: I’m barely scratching the surface here. There is so much more that can be said. Think of this essay as part of the journey rather than the destination.
My Three Basic Pieces of Advice
1. Have enough women in the story that they can talk to each other.
The lack of women talking to each other is the most frequent criticism I have of writers writing women (especially male writers).
Pay attention to the fact that women DO talk to each other. Create opportunity for women characters to talk to each other. Check to see if you-as-writer are missing chances to have women talk to and interact with each other.
It’s all well and good to remind writers that they can in fact have more than one female character in their story. But I often notice stories with more than one woman character in which the female characters exist in isolation from each other. That is, each woman or girl exists in a different sphere—a different sub-plot or specific plot-setting—which results in each being the only woman or girl within her sub-plot, which results in the individual women only ever (or mostly) interacting with men. It’s not that those characters have to come into contact with each other, and it may not be possible or desirable for those individuals to do so within the narrative, only that it is possible to think about who else they could interact with.
Women and girls talk to other women and girls A LOT. If you are writing a hard-shelled patriarchal society, this is going to be even more true rather than less true, and in such a case your story will be less realistic if the female characters in the narrative only ever talk to or interact with men. It’s rare for women to live in isolation from other women—and in circumstances where they do, they are often eager for a chance to interact with other women even for a short time. In Molly Gloss’s novel The Jump-Off Creek, the chapter in which a homesteading woman, who lives in almost terrifying solitude, relishes the chance to spend a few days with another family offers a great example of this.
I’m not referencing the Bechdel Test here; that’s a useful but limited test that has a specific remit to make people think about representation in film.
I’m saying it is realistic and believable to show some, all, or many of your women characters interacting with and talking to and having close, important relationships with other women.
2. Filling in tertiary characters with women, even if they have little dialogue or no major impact on plot, changes the background dynamic in unexpected ways.
Pay attention to how you are assigning minor roles.
I define primary characters as the protagonists, often, although not always, the point of view character(s). A primary character’s personal story usually drives the plot. Harry Potter is a protagonist. Secondary characters (by my definition) generally have a relatively significant part to play in the plot and with the primary. While I could (and might) argue that Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley share protagonist status with HP, I believe I can safely say that the other Weasleys, Sirius Black, Severus Snape, Minerva McGonaghall, Draco Malfoy, Luna Lovegood, Cho Chang, and Hagrid (and so on) all function as secondary characters.
By tertiary I mean characters who have much smaller roles, maybe only one or two scenes interacting with the protagonist(s) or secondaries, as well as characters whose major function is to be part of and thus help establish the setting. They might be the scribe who has a document your protagonist needs, the servant who knows a secret entrance into the mage’s tower, the soldier or farmer chance-met on the road, and the healer your character approaches for an ointment to sooth a poison ivy inflammation. They are the people your protagonist asks for directions on the street of an unfamiliar city, and the artisan or street vendor your secondary buys a knife or food from.
In virtually all societies historically there have been both women and men present. Really, it’s true. In a few societies women’s movements have been (and in a few places are today) constrained, but this aspect of women’s lives is highly variable. Women exist, then as now. Furthermore women of the upper classes are often involved in their family’s business and political dealings. As always, everywhere, working class and poor women have to work, to haul water, to run businesses, to sell in the marketplace. No matter what other constraints these women live under, they partake in the tasks that make society function.
Re-think these smaller roles. If you default to assigning almost every secondary and tertiary role to a male character, stop. There may well be historically accurate reasons you can give many of those roles to female characters. Anyway it’s your world and your rules: All else aside, what do you want your world to look like?
Check your background. Actually take note of the background characters with whom your main characters interact. Think of this as the equivalent of scanning crowd scenes in films.
Who we see in the background of a world tells us as much about the world—and the writer’s imagination—as the physical landscape and the cultural trappings of the story.
3. Set women characters into the plot as energetic participants in the plot, whether as primary or secondary or tertiary characters and whether in public or private roles within the setting. Have your female characters exist for themselves, not merely as passive adjuncts whose sole function is to serve as a mirror or a motivator or a victim in relationship to the male.
This is where it gets complicated.
It’s not enough to say “let your female characters do everything your male characters do” because that can feed back into the idea that the lives of so many women across time and cultures are important only insofar as they are congruent with or participating in “men’s lives” or “men’s activities” (however those are defined, and those definitions differ cross-culturally).
Dig deeper to find meaning and importance and a place in the narrative for all lives.
For example, let’s say a female character’s place in the plot mostly revolves around a male character or is confined to a small domicile. She can still have her own dreams, her own desires, her own goals and quirks and thoughts and emotions. She can make choices, however small they may seem to be, for herself. This is how I define the nebulous term “agency.” (Others may have different definitions of the word. That’s cool.)
People with little access to external agency can still have internal agency. Furthermore, people with fewer direct avenues to power and influence have always had ways of digging around obstacles, cobbling together leverage, or acting privately through the public agency of others. There was, after all, one person almost all male emperors in a cut-throat world could trust: their mothers.
A blanket statement to the effect that “with few exceptions women living in pre-industrial cultures really were not all that interesting” can’t be taken seriously. Nor can the argument that, because of patriarchy, women in the past were erased slates without intelligence, personality, desires, or ambitions.
Ask yourself, as a writer, if you are automatically assuming a woman’s story, her agency, can’t be interesting because it literally cannot be or rather if the idea that “women’s stories” aren’t interesting is one many of us have absorbed without really interrogating its truth. I can’t say this enough: I struggle with such engrained assumptions all the time in my own work. I do not think most writers do this to be assholes or sexists. As a writer, you have the option to find a way to make a variety of stories intriguing and vivid. That’s your job.
It’s often a matter of perspective. If a male born into slavery or serfdom or the working class can be deemed to have enough agency to make his story worthy, say, of epic fantasy, then it is in fact no stretch at all to find women’s stories that can become resonant and fantastic tales in their own right. In some cases, it’s a matter of looking hard enough for stories that dovetail with the traditional and standard epic map. In other cases—and here’s the rub—it’s a matter of looking outside expectation, of expanding the map.
I’m not saying a woman character in an epic fantasy shouldn’t be (for example) a kick-ass warrior. I love the kick-ass woman trope. Bring it on.
I’m saying: Be careful of only investing excitement and significance in what I’ll call the public theater of (often male-identified) public action.
Don’t get me wrong: I love writing about the public theater of public action, but it’s not the only way a story can be told, and it’s not the only thread that can be woven through a story. Putting a female character into a stereotypically “male role” is not the only way to make her interesting or strong.
Of course not every activity has to be gendered in your story (nor does gender have to be binary, since it isn’t—a topic outside the purview of this essay). There are so many ways to write stories that move beyond the idea of gender being the most crucial thing we know about someone or the root of all behavior or the locus of how people are treated in the world.
By the same token, not every activity has to be non-gendered. Depending on the culture(s) and setting and how you want to write your story, there can be culturally understood male and female spheres of activity or there can be something more complicated and multivalent.
Make conscious choices rather than default choices.
Whatever their age, experience, background, fortune, and personality, your female characters will become vivid when you find their hearts and their minds. That’s it.
A Not-so-Brief Discussion of How Preconceptions Influence Reception
At the most basic level, one-dimensional, shallow, and cliched characterization comes about because of poor craft on the part of writers whatever the gender of the characters. If a writer can’t be bothered to dig deeper than a commonly deployed trope (defined as a literary or rhetorical device), their characters aren’t going to be well drawn.
If the clichés and tropes they use belong to a subset of character types that is currently valued and commonly agreed upon as “typical” or “realistic” in the popular culture of the moment, then some readers may not notice the shallowness or cliché because it is a portrayal they EXPECT to see and have seen a thousand times before.
Its very familiarity comforts and feels right.
If a woman is introduced as a potential love interest for the hero and then killed so he can be sent off on a quest or spurred to seek revenge, not every reader and viewer will recognize that as The Disposable Love Interest or The Fridged Woman; rather, people see this as an established and suitable narrative theme.
The Nameless Raped Girl is often described as “realism” even though every person who has ever been raped has a life and a personhood that such a plot obliterates in service to the story.
A female character who behaves like a guy and is portrayed as “one of the boys” or “as good as a man” in a way that elevates her above all those uninteresting women whose lives consist of boring-women-things doesn’t elevate women characters on the whole, nor does it show respect for the historical diversity of women’s lives in the particular.
The Exceptional Girl walks alone, almost never interacting with other women except maybe in competition with them, but often people don’t remark on how much of a stereotype it is to situate one girl away from other women as if women are somehow made more important the farther away they get from other women.
Be cautious with the popular Mother Figure, for as I once described the film Immortals: Men can aspire to be divine. Women can aspire to have sons who can grow up to be men who can aspire to be divine.
The Evil Seductress With Her Sexually Tempting and Irresistible Wiles; The Slutty Girl Who Pays For Her Sexual “Freedom” With Her Life; The Girl Too Ugly To Get Married; The Passive Bride who will either Be Crushed By Life or who will Find Her Strength; The Withering Old Woman Who Hates Her Youthful “Rival” Because There Is No Meaning For Women Beyond When They Cease Being Sexually Attractive to Men; The Peaceful Matriarch Whose Nurtures All Because It Is The Essential Nature of Womanhood To Nurture.
They write themselves.
This is why I feel it is important to carefully examine your women characters as you conceive and begin to write them. Consider if they are individuals or types. Sometimes the cliché or the “type” might work well in a plot; there can be reasons to use two-dimensional characters in certain roles. But be sure you’re doing it deliberately, not unthinkingly.
The flip side of comfort is discomfort.
People may react negatively to portrayals that are feasible simply because those portrayals don’t match the template they have in their head.
A recent example? Complaining that the current BBC television show The Three Musketeers casting of a mixed race actor as Porthos is “inaccurate” or “political correctness” because of the mistaken belief there were no black people in France before modern times. Alexandre Dumas, the man who wrote The Three Musketeers, was himself mixed race, the son of a biracial man who rose to become a general in the army of Revolutionary France in the 18th century.
When erroneous or cliched ideas about the past fit a reader’s (often unexamined) preconceptions, it may be easier to accept plots and characters that fit these preconceptions than to adjust to stories that might actually be more realistic.
Consider discussions of age of marriage in the European Middle Ages and what some readers consider realistic in fiction set in a “medieval-like” fantasy. I occasionally see the vociferously argued position that back in those days all girls married at 14 to 16 and therefore if a fantasy world shows women getting married in their 20s it is nothing more than a sop to modern sensibilities.
I asked Dr. Ann Marie Rasmussen [Professor of German Literary Studies at the University of Waterloo in Canada] to comment on age of marriage. She writes:
“In the high and late Middle Ages, Europe north of the Alps was the engine of economic and political change. Here, a distinct marriage pattern emerges: late age at first marriage, i.e. in one’s twenties, which is especially notable for women; and a very small age difference between marriage partners. There were many many single women and men, i.e. people who never married (in part for economic reasons). Re-marriage was common; for elites, both aristocratic and urban, it was the NORM, for both men and women. This is called the Western European Marriage Pattern.
“During the same time period, among elites in the countries around the Mediterranean such as the important Italian cities, the marriage pattern is utterly different. Here, elite men marry late, in their 30s, and they marry women who are teenagers, ca. 20 years younger than themselves.” [pers.com.]
As you are writing, beware any blanket generalization about “life back then.” It is rarely so simple, and the past—like physical topography—is a landscape not a stage set.
People carry an idea in their mind of what epic fantasy is. I would go so far as to say we have drawn a “map” of what kinds of story and conflict and characters are appropriate or fitting or “realistic.”
If I am, for example, writing about a patriarchal world where it is my fervent belief that only men had agency, then I may simply not believe women existed in any meaningful way beyond being sexual receptacles for men, the bearers of their sons, with maybe some soft-focus lesbian hijinks in the harem with or without the man around. As we all know, naked writhing harem scenes are totes realistic unlike (say) extensive land-holding by women in the ancient world, a woman running a business, or a king’s daughter fighting on the battlefield [all attested in the historical record].
To quote Alfred Korzybski, the map is not the territory. Neither is our imperfect and fractured vision of the past a fully accurate understanding of the past. As writers we carry a lot of baggage into the writing process about who people really are and how they ought to act that isn’t easily sloughed off.
Over time I’ve come to the conclusion that what’s most “conservative” in fantasy is people’s erroneous and limited views of what “the past” looked like.
Have women in the past (and the present!) often suffered legal impediments that give them a lower status than their equivalent menfolk? Have they in many cultures been subject to the rule of male guardians? Have they been vulnerable physically to violence as well as famine and disease, and medically in terms of risk of death in childbirth as well as disease?
But so what? Women, being people, act and react in a multiplicity of ways to the circumstances in which they find themselves.
To suggest that “inequality” or “violence” is the only or the most important thing in portraying women’s lives in a reconstructed past is a profoundly incomplete representation of a much richer territory.
The actual contradictions and complexities of history are so much more interesting than any bland, rigid default.
These days in fantasy fiction I am seeing a number of complicated, interesting, and varied portrayals of women and girls in a complex web of settings, some traditional and others less so, and in so many modes: fun, tragic, sexy, action-packed, violent, philosophical, compassionate, nurturing, clever, cynical, hopeful, loving, scheming, and bantering.
If you so wish you can visualize a kaleidoscopic palette of women and populate your stories with a range of fascinating characters. The limits arise from within ourselves.
There Is No Trick To This
Assume every character you write is a full human being just as you take yourself to be, with no more or less mystery than you feel for your own self.
Get rid of the word “them,” the very idea of an Unknowable Other with a Mysterious Psychology.
In a narrative that you write and which you encompass the whole of, there can be no “them.” If there is you have already lost the battle because you are relegating characters you feel uncomfortable writing to a lesser, inferior, not-fully-human state, as if they are people who vaguely resemble you in having arms and legs and heads but are otherwise aliens.
People are not aliens. They are people.
Treat all your characters as people.
It’s that simple. It’s that hard.