She’s a Hero: Writing Female Characters

As I sat pondering what to blog about today, my gentle viewers, a little fork appeared in front of me. The one tine led to writing about language and completing the penultimate installation of The 25, and the other led down a rocky and somewhat divisive path. Naturally, I chose rocks and division.

So, gentle viewers, here we are. Notice how I chose to title this blog. Some of you might have remarked to yourselves that I omitted the -ine at the end of the word “hero.”

I did that on purpose.

I was watching The Hangover 2 yesterday with my husband, and I remember being struck not only by how not funny the whole movie was, but (again) by how the women were portrayed. You have the Nagging Wife: “Where are you? What have you done this time?” You have the Hot Fiancee: “I love you even though you disappeared, lost my brother who in turn lost a finger, and nearly crashed into the wedding in a boat. You’re perfect even with the stupid tattoo on your face!!!!!” …and that’s about it. The women in that movie fall into two categories: completely obnoxious naggers or obsequious fawning hot chicks. I’m sorry. That’s disgusting.

I read this article a while back, and while I don’t feel like going into it in huge detail, one point I wanted to bring up here was this: when women ask for strong female characters in books and film, we’re not asking for a stick-thin paper doll who has a few “masculine traits” (like fixing cars, fighting, or drinking dudes under the table) but eventually ends up being the damsel in distress all over again. We aren’t asking writers to inject their female characters with super-strength just to make the shlubby everydude look even better when he rescues them at the end of the book or movie. No. And the more I see that, the more frustrating it is.

While some dudes might be looking for this:

Strong female, not a strong character.

What I want to see more of is this:

Because the above image comes before Buffy does this:

Strength is coming back to beat what beat you before.

Want to write strong characters who are women? Get to know Buffy Summers. Hell. Get to know some women. This is what I know about women. For a moment ignore the stereotypes, ignore the media. If you want to write women well, especially if you want your female character to be a hero, listen up.

The same things that make male characters strong are found in women. Real women.

Perseverance. Courage. Intelligence. Ability. Resilience.

Strong characters have weaknesses. I can’t stress that enough. The best male characters in literature and film have all had their weak spots. Maybe it’s arrogance or unrestrained candor. Maybe it’s a stutter or some weird psychological blind spot. They all have them. Strong female characters have them too — and no, if you want them to be real people, they shouldn’t be stereotypical weaknesses like fainting at the sight of blood or crying constantly with little provocation. If you’ve ever known a mother, you should know that women can handle blood. And shit. And vomit. Because yours cleaned all of the above from your squalling body at some point.

We’re writers. We’re responsible for what goes out into world in print. Which means we have a lot of power. A lot of it. What we choose to show the world of women can change things. It can create role models for young girls and boys. It can teach girls that they can be scientists, fighters, mathematicians, professors, astronauts, soldiers, or whatever else they want to be.

My challenge to you is this: read through your work and look for things that are blatant tropes. Some very common tropes are damsels in distress, naggers, or fawners. Look for women who are only placeholders. If any of those exist, I implore you to think about real women. Think about the Maya Angelous of the world, the Harriet Tubmans, the Eve Enslers. Think about mothers. Think about single women making it on their own, paying their bills, getting ahead. Think about their qualities and how your placeholder can become three dimensional. Remember that in great fiction, women aren’t simply tools to make the men look better. Remember that women conquer obstacles in their lives every day.

It’s okay for the men to save the women sometimes, but remember that it’s also okay for women to save men. It doesn’t make men less to make your women strong and well-rounded. The key to writing female characters is writing them as people. As human beings. They should have strengths and weaknesses, goals and purpose.

Make them courageous. Make them dogged. Make them persistent. And whether you’re male or female yourself, if you write women, put the best parts of yourself into their characters. You won’t be sorry.


About Emmie Mears

Saving the world from brooding, one self-actualized vampire at a time.

Posted on November 8, 2011, in writing process and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Argh, you’ve convinced me! I’ll check out Buffy the Vampire sometime. 😉

    Good post. I tend to write both male and female characters, and I hope that I write strong females, but I don’t know. Thanks for the post and the thoughts it has evoked.

  2. Emmie,
    Interesting posts. Well thought out. Some good insights here. I agree that much of film is dominated by male bias. And there is a lot of stereotyped writing being done by men. But women are kicking-ass, in my view, with regard to the world of contemporary literature. Maybe this is because most men are spending their time playing video games and watching sports instead of reading books.

    There aren’t many literary books I’m aware of being written with male protagonists (unless they spend the whole time talking about their girlfriends). Perhaps you can point me to some counter-examples in contemporary literature.

    I guess my overall point is that film and literature seem to be becoming more and more segmented into gender extremes and stereotypes. In literature most of what I’m seeing is hyper-feminine and hyper-masculine works. Maybe I’m not looking the right places…?

    • I agree with you that things have definitely become segmented into hyper-“feminine” and hyper-“masculine” — I put those in quotes because those extremes often play to the stereotypical biases that pervade culture.

      I haven’t read a huge amount of literary fiction lately, so I can’t speak to that, but the last couple books I did read had male protagonists. To be frank, when I’m looking for new books I often search for female protagonists. I guess I don’t do it consciously all the time, but my shelves are dominated by female writers in many aspects — and they often write female protagonists. One genre I grew up reading is epic fantasy, and although I know there have been a couple in recent years with female protagonists, they tend to be very male-dominated.

      Things are definitely getting better in the sense of being more balanced in literature, but I’d really like to kick Hollywood screenwriters in the pants for what I see in the movies.

    • Just one additional note — I find it interesting (and I’m not trying to come off as critical; it’s merely something I noticed) that you mentioned men playing sports and video games instead of reading as a reason for why women are becoming more prevalent in literature. I’m not sure if you meant that as “they should get off their keisters and read” or if you think that men wouldn’t want to read books with female protagonists. I think you hit the nail on the head in a way, regardless — historically, men dominated all forms of media for a long time, and I think still to an extent they are less likely to get excited about a book with a female hero.

      Which is sad to me.

  3. Fantastic post, I plan on going back and re-reading it, because there’s so much there. I like my female heroes sassy, strong, and flawed. I never got into Buffy, but I did just spend the last couple of weeks marathon-watching the new Battlestar Galactica series, and my new favorite kick-ass chick is Kara Thrace/Starbuck. If you’re not familiar with the series, please, do yourself a favor and watch it…Starbuck is definitely all the above. I love how promiscuous she is, although I’m not that way myself; I love how iron-willed and dogged she is, but how she’s also a seething mass of emotion inside, and is prone to making grave mistakes as well as saving the day. She feels so real, and that’s how I hope my characters come across. Real. In all their glory and grossness. Thanks again for the read!

    • I will definitely have to check it out! People have told me to watch that for a while…it might be a couple months before I can squeeze it in, but I’ll try. I have a lot of reading and writing to catch up on before I take on a new show, lol.

      Thanks for the comment!

  4. Hi Emmie, let me say, “Here here, cheers and louder cheers.” I write mostly female characters and take some pride in making them defy stereotypes. That does not mean not sexy and it doesn’t mean male impersonation. As for Buffy? Well I see why you choose that character even though it’s not my kind of thing.
    The teens who drool over her rather spoil the effect you seem to be cheering for.
    Female heroes are a difficult challenge if one is writing popular fiction, but it is possible to create a strong female that doesn’t insult women. One has to call it literary fiction but it’s possible.

    • Thanks for your comment and for the subscription! 🙂

      Buffy to me doesn’t have much to do with sex appeal when I think of her influence — while I’m sure there are plenty of people drooling over her, the fans of the show in my demographic (mid-20s to 30s) appreciate her character because of the massive amount of development and growth through the seasons, as well as her qualities of a role model. She sacrifices herself for others, makes very difficult decisions, and always keeps fighting no matter what comes her way. Those things are what I admire about her as a character and why she’s one of my go-to’s for examples of successful strong females in pop culture.

      I don’t feel like popular fiction poses that high of a hurdle for writing strong females — Rachel Morgan in the Hollows series is excellent, as is Hermione in Harry Potter, for that matter. Also, Eowyn in Lord of the Rings — not sure if people would categorise that as literary or genre, but regardless, she’s very strong. It only takes thoughtfulness and an engaged mind on the part of the writer, regardless of the genre.

  5. Great post Emmie. It’s interesting because when I thought about the main character for my book there was no contest, she was going to be a Woman. Since I have been writing her I have had no problems finding the hero I envisaged.
    I’m not sure that a female heroes appeal only to women, I would suggest Sarah Lund, the lead character in the Danish TV detective thriller The Killing, as an example of a strong female character who can be completely compelling without any recourse to being ‘sexed up’ and who appealed to a large male audience.

    • I love hearing about male writers writing female protagonists. I was excited to see that when I first started following your blog, Phil, and I appreciate you stopping by to chime in here.

      I think in television it’s a lot more common to see shows with female heroes appealing widely to men even if they’re not super sexed up, but in literature, I find that books with female protagonists tend to have far more female readership than male, specifically in my genre of urban fantasy. The Anita Blake books, the Hollows series, etc. There are a few others, but the names of the authors/series are escaping me right now. Maybe my genre in general is dominated by female readers; I don’t know for sure.

  6. Oh stereotypes – we do exalt them, don’t we? TV and film are the most prevalent, visible samples of course, saturating our culture down to its very core, day in and day out. Tragically, I can’t say our beloved literature fares any better, as you yourself have noted. Yet there is hope! Some authors try – male and female both! – but the fact is, they wage an uphill battle appropriately called “the established trend.” It’s not just established, it’s bloody well entrenched. I need but glance into my own realm – into the legions of fantasy novels peppering the shelves – and I could probably throw a dart and hit one of the tragic cases. They’re a dime a dozen in this industry.

    Fortunately, at least in literature (god help us all in the continuing age of “reality” tv and its like), I’ve started to note an almost systemic backlash against the classic tropes. In the gritty modernistic tendencies, people seem to be working to add more (gasp, dare I say it!) CHARACTER to their characters, expanding beyond the one dimension. Referring back to my own area for simplicity – look at George Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire.” Character is the dominant factor, there. Women. Men. The gender matters little – it doesn’t restrict to a certain role. These, instead, focus on the cultivation of personality and identity, and I love those books for it. Of course, many still push the old ways and – sadly enough – in this age of mass self-publishing and indie publishing, you actually get a lot more perpetuating the old trends, as many rush just to get their own names out there, and either poorly consider what they’re doing, or simply try to imitate the old because of their established success.

    Cheers to you, Emmie, for broaching this topic – and also for bringing up Buffy Summers. She might not be everyone’s thing, but as a character, she is a fine example of how it should be done. Whedon may be a touch of a sadist to his characters (yowza, the things he puts them through!), but he knows how to shape real human beings. His characters have great strengths, but they also have their flaws, their weaknesses. They suffer. They overcome. They simply are. I think David is right that the sexuality of the character and the drooling that sometimes accompanies that can undermine the visual – but Buffy is a fine example of a strong female figure. Hell, Willow too. For all her goofy qualities, she was a strong, effective character, and she resonated with people – hell, the LBGT community took her up as one of their stars, for a while there.

    Not to self-advertise here, but I’ve tried my best in my own works to offer people, rather than tropes. Have you heard of Lorelei Signal? One of my proudest moments came when one of my short stories, a female protagonist-centered bit of fantasy titled “The Child’s Cry,” was accepted there – a magazine dedicated to strong female characters; to making those characters more than just, excuse my phrasing, “window-dressing.” And dogged, persistent, well – that pretty well sums up what I went for there. (A link to the mag’s website, if you’re curious:

    A curious subject matter all around, especially when you start to track changing opinions over the years, and shifts in portrayal. Sorry for my own bit of wordiness here, but suffice to say, it was a lovely read you gave us!

    • I agree that there has been a move to expand characterization beyond one dimension in recent years. I think in some ways what’s happening is that those of us who write genre fiction are reacting to the idea that genre fiction can’t be literary and is therefore not as worthy — something that I’ve come up against in writing groups before. Genre fiction writers are I think trying to show that they are perfectly capable of writing effective fiction even if they’re not trying to pen the next GAN (Great American Novel).

      As far as Buffy goes, yeah, she’s hot, but she’s also a fully-described and developed character. That’s one of the things I love about her — Joss wanted to write a ditzy blonde who surprised everyone, and he did. Her development over the seven seasons of the show is one of the best I’ve ever seen on television. Willow as well…and pretty much every other character on that show. Even though it’s TV, I still always think of the writers. All of that came from paper and ink, and I have a huge amount of respect for Joss, Marti Noxon, Jane Espenson, David Fury, and all the other phenomenal minds that brought those characters to life.

      I hadn’t heard of Lorelei Signal before, but I’m definitely going to check into it now. I wrote a short story a while back that may end up becoming a novel, and from what you’ve said it might find a good home there after some editing. Food for thought. Nom nom nom.

      In fantasy, Robert Jordan did a fantastic job of writing believable female characters — Egwene al’Vere soared to the top of my list of absolute jaw-dropping heroes when I finally made it to the end of the (published) Wheel of Time books. I get goosebumps thinking about it. I’m with you when it comes to being most familiar with my own genres in terms of strong female characterization.

      Thanks for the thoughtful and insightful comment — and don’t apologize for the verbosity. I genuinely appreciate that so many people took a chunk out of their day today to pen intelligent responses, many of them quite long!

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