Writing Women in Your Stories
Female characters have a bit of a bad rep. For most of Western literature in the last two thousand years or so, we’ve been cast as either vicious villains or virginal damsels. Recently we’ve gotten a third option: the “Strong Female Character” (SFC). But as I’ve explained in a previous blog post, the SFC tends to be two-dimensional, sexualized, and ends up as the damsel in distress more often than not.
Let’s be honest here: most women authors don’t have this problem. It must be said. For some reason, male authors throughout the centuries seem to think that our lives revolve around their dicks, and it shows through their poor storytelling.
The Two-Step Process
Generally speaking, this problem can be solved by a simple two-step process. Many of you have already heard this bit of advice when it comes to writing women:
Four out of five times, it really is as simple as that. Is there any reason Iron Man can’t be Iron Woman, or Harry Potter Harriet? Why not make the president in your novel a woman? Why not make the main character a woman?
This is great for those writing contemporary novels, sci-fi flicks, or any setting where gender is not an issue. But what about historical or history-inspired pieces?
Steps Three and Four
While it’s never explicitly stated, Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings is a very clear patriarchy. Eowyn’s gender--or rather, her people’s attitude toward her gender--is a major hurdle between her and her dream of fighting for her country. So if Aragorn was genderbent into a woman, how many people would take her claim to Gondor’s throne seriously? How would she get the soldiers to follow her orders? How did she learn how to use a sword in the first place?
Then there’s the flip side: say you’re writing about a matriarchal society, like the Amazons of Themyscira. Diana’s gender in Wonder Woman had never been an issue or seen as a negative while she was on the island, so she grew up used to female authority being unchallenged and respected. This made for some tense and awkward situations when she went to Europe to fight in World War One.
With writing women characters in patriarchal societies, you still end up following the two-step process above. You just have to ask yourself some extra questions to fully flesh out her personality. The biggest questions are these:
3) Assuming the setting is patriarchal, how did she (or how will she) overcome the systemic hurdles designed to destroy her?
4) How does her upbringing (patriarchal, matriarchal, gender-neutral, whatever) influence her relationship with the other characters?
Something that failed to do this was The Hobbit movies. As we said earlier, Middle Earth is a male-dominated society. And yet Tauriel managed to become one of the finest warriors in the elven ranks. Not only is she a woman, but it’s also implied that she comes from a lower class of elves, which is the main reason King Thranduil doesn’t want Legolas marrying her. That doesn’t stop her from giving orders and challenging authority. She’s confident, she breaks rules, and she’s a hell of a shot.
So how did she get there?
We don’t know. The Hobbit never goes into her backstory, instead focusing on the romance between her and Kili. This is one of the biggest mistakes authors make when writing women characters. Tauriel is a token. Take her out, and the story is virtually unchanged. Worse, her narrative revolves around a man. She’s not her own person. She’s defined as “Legolas and Kili’s crush.”
A successful case study would be Avatar: The Last Airbender. Yes, it’s a kids’ show. That doesn’t make it any less of a masterpiece. For the most part, gender is not an issue in the world of the Avatar. There’s a wide variety of girls in this show, but the only one who is treated harshly specifically because of her gender is Katara.
This happens at the end of season one, when the main characters reach the North Pole. Katara has always wanted to learn how to fight with waterbending (re: water magic), which is half of the reason she made this perilous journey in the first place. But the waterbending master, Pakku, refuses to teach her because she’s a girl. Only boys are taught how to fight. Girls with the gift of waterbending are forced to become healers. Katara balks at this, because her home, the South Pole, has no such rules.
This leads to an intense battle between her and Pakku, who is convinced to teach her not because of her fighting ability or passion, but because she’s the granddaughter of the woman he loved and lost. Katara’s grandmother fled to the South Pole because she rejected the North Pole’s gender rules, which makes Pakku realize the horrendous cost of a strict patriarchy. He ends up teaching Katara, and she becomes the greatest waterbender in the world.
If all else fails, try this:
Get yourself some women beta readers.
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The first Dragons, Zombies and Aliens blog was started in 2015. Somewhere between college coursework, paying rent with door-to-door sales, and keeping up with my sorority sisters, I wrote reviews, rants and commentaries on books, TV shows, and movies. Now, this blog has moved, improved, and the sky's the limit!