How I Write Female Characters

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]


But Marie — aren’t you a woman?

Yes, I am.

Do you really mean to imply that you write female characters in some different, specific way?

No, I don’t. Thank you, Imaginary Questioner, for leading me to the exact point I want to make.

Some years ago, a writer-friend asked me what I thought of his female characters. I told him that honestly, I hadn’t given them much specific thought. But now that I did, it seemed to me that he wrote them first as people, second as whatever kind of people they were (a soldier, a noblewoman, etc), and third as women. And that as far as I was concerned, that was the right way to do it.

That’s how I write characters, be they male, female, or (in the case of one story I’m wrestling with) mystical bilateral hermaphrodites. Female characters aren’t “marked” in my head, but neither are male ones; when I sit down to include a male character in a story, I don’t ask myself “okay, what are things guys do? They belch, they fart, they scratch themselves, they drink lots of beer –” A) That way lies stereotyping and B) I know plenty of women who do those things, too. When Deven gets drunk with his buddies and suffers through a hangover early in Midnight Never Come, he doesn’t do that because I was trying to write Guys, he does it because I was trying to write young Elizabethan gentlemen who had gone to war together welcoming a newcomer into their ranks. Their gender was not their foremost defining characteristic.

Of course, if you follow the path I outlined above, you run the risk of a result aptly described in The History Boys (though they’re discussing Michelangelo’s nudes): “These aren’t women, they’re men with tits. And the tits look like they’ve been put on with an ice-cream scoop.” Except I question the “of course”-ness of that danger; I have a hard time thinking of any stories I’ve read or watched where the women seem like men with a female paint job on top. The reason for that may lie in last month’s post; I’m more likely to process those characters as women who happen to exhibit characteristics usually associated with masculinity, rather than as somehow Not Real Women.

I can, by contrast, think of plenty of examples of Not Real Women generated by authors’ attempts to write Women, instead of female people. Robert Jordan probably leads that pack, both because of the characters themselves, and because his own comments in interviews made it abundantly clear that he thought women were Different From Men (and moreover, we’re apparently all the same). You can see this in action throughout the Wheel of Time, as even the female characters who start out as individuals end up indistiguishable from all the rest. Indistinguishable, and implausible: there may be women out there like that, but I’ve never met one.

There are differences. Based on conversations with my friends of both genders, I’d say the women are far more wary when walking alone at night — and we’re probably more worried about sexual assault, whereas the men are more likely to think about being mugged and losing their wallets. And even in our enlightened modern times, women can suffer much worse consequences for the loss of virtue; if you don’t believe me, try asking a rape counselor how people react when the victim was promiscuous and wore revealing clothes. Endless ink has been spilled over which differences are biological, and which are social; me, I think the safe bet is to treat them all as social. Even if it’s true that men are actually hard-wired better for math — which it may or may not be — they occupy the A-F range of mathematical ability, and women occupy the B-G range, so you’re better off thinking about what kind of education your character got before you worry about their gender. And if it’s a fight scene, the individual strength and training of the participants matters more than the general distribution of upper-body muscle across the human race.

We’re people. We’re individuals. We’re not Women, and we’re not types, either — the Cold But Brilliant Scientist, the Nurturing Mother Who Sacrifices All For Her Children, the Whore With A Heart Of Gold. We may share characteristics with those types, but if you start with the type, or start by asking yourself “what kinds of things do women do?” (or, FSM forbid, “what do women want?”), you’re already headed in the wrong direction. Start with people. Start with people in particular circumstances: their culture, their social class, their profession, their family history. Let those be the foundations for their character and actions.

I don’t speak for all readers. But if you approach it from that angle, then even if you screw it up, I for one am more likely to read it as a failure of characterization, rather than a failure of female characterization. And I’m okay with that.