Have you ever noticed how many more articles there are about writing female characters than there are about writing male characters? What’s up with that? Are women such strange and unusual creatures that we need an ever-growing number of books and articles to tell us how to write them?
It probably won’t surprise you that the answer is “no.” Women are no more bizarre or unknowable than anyone else. Writers just have to depict them like they depict men, but with feminine pronouns. By setting out to write strange creatures known as “women” instead, storytellers create the very problems they are trying to solve. Sometimes this comes from individual prejudice, sometimes from cultural baggage around gender. Either way, these human-made problems make it seem like women are hard to write, which contributes to underrepresentation of women in fiction. It would be impossible to list all the difficulties storytellers create for themselves, but here are eight of the most common.
1. Lone Representation
When a novel has just one female character and she’s a full-time parent, audiences complain that the novel is saying women shouldn’t have careers. When a novel has just one female character and she’s a badass warrior with no interest in aesthetics, audiences complain that the novel is pushing women to adopt more traditionally masculine traits in order to be taken seriously. What’s going on here? Is there something wrong with women being full-time parents or having traditionally masculine traits?
Of course not. The issue in these cases is not with the characters themselves but with their status as the only woman in a big cast. When a story has only one woman, that woman cannot help but become a stand-in for her gender.* This is a problem storytellers create for themselves by including one woman in their cast, and the solution is simple: include more women.
Adding more women on top of the existing cast isn’t the answer. That usually results in a bloated story with pointless characters. Instead, storytellers need to change their existing cast to include more women – or better yet, include them from the start. This doesn’t mean any depiction of a female character is fair game – some things will be misogynistic no matter how many women a story has – but it does mean that individual female characters won’t be under a microscope.
This advice scales with the size of a story’s cast. A story with a dozen major characters should aim for at least six women unless it has a compelling reason to do otherwise. A smaller story is under less pressure. Audiences are happy to accept a single female character if the story only has one character.
2. Separate Fighting Styles
I used to think it was strange how often I would see people online asking how to realistically write women in fight scenes. I thought, “Simple: pointy end goes into the other fighter.” But then I realized that people were actually confused and that the debates over which killing tools would work as “women’s weapons” are largely spawned by existing stories.
Every time a novel depicts a woman needing to find a special weapon or a film gives women a sexy fighting style, it furthers the idea that the way women fight is inherently different from the way men fight. This is nonsense – the physics of murder don’t change based on gender – but the idea persists.
Storytellers can free themselves from this problem by simply accepting that women in their setting fight the same way men fight. A sword doesn’t particularly care about its wielder’s pronouns. If a storyteller actually wants to know what tactics a physically weaker fighter would employ against a stronger opponent, they can ask that, but it should be decoupled from gender. If that level of detail is important to the setting, then it should be considered any time combatants differ in strength, not just when one of them is female.
3. Enigmatic Decision-Making
Storytellers often display an intense need to differentiate the way women make decisions. Maybe they read an article about statistical differences in the way men and women solve problems, or maybe they just have an inherent bias.* Either way, this line of reasoning usually leads to stories where women seem like a different species.
In reality, most humans make decisions the same way: by considering available information and past experiences, then trying to reach the optimal outcome. It’s a messy process, but it’s fairly universal, at least at the level most fiction operates. Storytellers rarely seem to have this problem with male characters, but introduce a female character and she suddenly needs to make all her choices based on the phases of Saturn.
While some storytellers will try to defend this practice in the name of realism or creating a deeper world,* it actually does the opposite. Constantly calling attention to a character’s gender creates a stilted world full of characters who are difficult to empathize with. Most people in real life don’t actively consider their gender whenever they make a decision.
Authors can save themselves a lot of trouble by simply basing a character’s decisions off of their personal history and experiences. Instead of asking, “How would a woman react to a rampaging dragon?” ask, “How would a noble with a strong education and court upbringing react to a rampaging dragon?” That method creates all the diversity of problem-solving a story needs without making any unintentional statements about gender.
Stop me if you’ve seen this before: a female character shouts angrily at a man, threatens him, and maybe even injures him, and the other men in the room look at each other knowingly and say some variant of “she’s a feisty one.”
This scene gets played out with minor variations across countless stories, all of which portray a woman’s anger as no big deal. Sometimes this dismissal is just used to infantilize the character; sometimes it’s also used to increase her sex appeal. Whatever its purpose, it’s a strong signal to the audience that this character doesn’t matter. The author doesn’t take the character seriously, so why should the audience? That specter haunts the character for the rest of the story, lowering tension and investment in everything the character does.
Authors rarely portray male characters as feisty. When a male character exhibits such hostile behavior, he is treated like a serious threat to the safety of others. Dismissing and demeaning female characters who behave the same way reinforces the idea that violence by women isn’t a big deal in real life, which can have tragic consequences for people in abusive relationships.
Storytellers who make this mistake do so because they’ve been taught not to take women seriously as threats. Even though most people intellectually know better, it’s hard to get away from the idea that an angry woman is amusing. That’s just something storytellers need to work on if they want their female characters to be taken seriously.
5. Femininity Balancing
Everyone knows that when you write a female character, you’re basically walking a tightrope. If you make them too girly, no one will like them because girliness is bad for reasons. But if she’s too masculine, then she won’t be hot and might even – *gasp* – mess with someone’s concept of gender. So what you presumably need is a character who disdains dresses and the color pink but screams a lot and looks like an underwear model.
If that sounds like a lot of pointless trouble to go to, it is. There isn’t actually anything wrong with embracing traditionally feminine things or with a woman who takes on traditionally masculine traits.* And yet storytellers keep forcing themselves into this balancing act, to the point that “not like other girls” has become a routinely mocked cliche.
So why does this happen? Because authors are letting themselves fall for the cultural catch-22 that devalues anything feminine but also insists women conform to traditional expectations. That’s why so many storytellers try to make their female protagonist seem cool by degrading other women and yet return to the same feminine stereotypes.
The solution is to let a female character present whatever level of femininity or masculinity makes sense for the story, and then to not make a big deal about it. If your character likes armwrestling and DIY construction projects, that’s fine; they can like those things without deriding dresses and nail polish. By the same token, a character who is into dresses and nail polish isn’t inherently bad. Those are just their preferences.
6. Frequent Reminders of Attractiveness
Whether through formal instruction or the mean streets of beta reading, most storytellers know that a protagonist shouldn’t spend a huge amount of time thinking about their appearance. It’s jarring for a character to constantly consider how they look, unless they have a good reason to do so like going to a fancy party.
Despite this common understanding, storytellers also have to constantly remind the audience how hot their female characters are, right? At least that seems to be the case, based on how often authors emphasize their female leads’ looks. Of course, this dual need makes writing women much harder, since readers don’t typically appreciate their stories being interrupted with reminders about a character’s sexy bod.
It gets worse! Storytellers also need to put in some token effort to make their female leads relatable, especially in stories aimed at women, but not in any way that would reduce the characters’ attractiveness. This is why we get characters with the “flaw” of being too slender or having hair that’s too red. It makes readers roll their eyes, but authors clearly have no other choice.
But what if there were another way? What if authors could just describe what their character looks like, and then leave it at that unless it was relevant to the story in some way? That would solve the problem, and there’d be no downside. Sounds wild, I know, but this technology has already been cracked for male characters, and very serious scientists in lab coats have assured me it can work just as well for female characters.*
7. Sexual Abstinence
Storytellers who want to put their female character in a romance face the ultimate conundrum: such relations usually result in the character having sex, but women having sex is bad! It must be, or else why would we have so many slurs and degrading terms for sexually active women?
Some storytellers try to get around this problem by assuring the audience that their characters have been pure and chaste before meeting their current beaus, but that raises the question of why sex was bad before and okay now. Short of making the boyfriend a divine avatar,* there’s really no explanation that will square that circle. Another common tactic is to explain that the female character used to have sex with many partners, but now she’s seen the light and will only have sex with this one dude. Except that just sounds like a downgrade.
If this seems like a headache to you, then you’ll be delighted to know that all the obsession with how much sex a woman has is nothing but misogynistic cultural baggage. Sexual activity has nothing to do with moral value, no matter what gender or lack thereof is involved. So relax: you officially have permission not to comment on how much sex a female character has had before their current relationship. In most stories it’s not relevant, and if by some chance it is, you can save yourself a lot of trouble by mentioning it in nonjudgmental terms.
8. Gendered Magic
A lot of people hold views about ways in which men and women are just inherently different, and when those people are spec fic storytellers, their views can translate into gender-based magic. Sometimes this is explicit, with characters openly stating that women and men have different magical abilities. Other times the split is more subtle, with female characters only receiving feminine-coded powers like healing and telepathy by sheer coincidence.
No matter how it’s manifested, gendered magic systems earn the story a lot of extra scrutiny. Suddenly, every choice about how magic works seems like a grand statement about gender.* If women are better with fire then men, is that a statement about women being more hot headed? If a system has men gain their magic through long periods of isolation, is it saying that men aren’t fit to be part of a family?
Gendered magic also raises unavoidable questions about people outside the conventional gender binary. In a world where magic discriminates between men and women, what kind of magic does a nonbinary or trans person use? Audiences can’t help but ask these questions because magic represents the physical rules on which a world runs. It’s like crafting a world where E=MC² only holds true when a woman calculates it.
For all that, most gendered magic systems aren’t trying to say anything interesting or insightful about gender. It’s usually something an author does for a bit of added novelty or that they simply add on impulse. That’s not a good enough reason to add such a deep pitfall to the story. The vast majority of stories will do better to leave their magic unaffected by gender.
Speculative fiction would be in a much better place if storytellers would stop making things unnecessarily difficult for themselves, especially when it comes to writing women. So many (mostly male) authors approach the subject as if they’re solving an ancient puzzle, like it requires intensely deep thought to write about a woman slaying a dragon or piloting a space fighter. It doesn’t, and the sooner people realize that, the better.
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