Writing Female Characters: A Dilemma?

I came across a thread on the NaNo forums that gave me some pause for thought. It’s called Trouble Writing Female Characters. If you care to peruse the thread, it’s linked right there. To summarize, it’s a thread that’s mostly female writers expressing that they have trouble writing convincing female characters. Some say their women are too cardboard cut-out stereotypical, others say their women are too strong and bitchy because they don’t want to write simpering women. Other posters noted that they don’t get along with or have many female friends in real life and therefore, have trouble writing women. Others say that all women they write are merely subsets of themselves.

Some jumped to internalized sexism or the Madonnna/whore complex or think of feminism with a negative connotation.

And others feel that writing females brings pressure, as if one female in a novel populated by mostly men must represent all womankind instead of being her own character. It’s kind of the same problem as having one character of a different race or culture who is symbolic of all peoples of that race or culture. Really, people?

Most of my characters are women. Whether this is because I’m female and therefore naturally filter the world through a female’s eyes and mentality or because I have a lot of women in my life (mom, aunts, cousins, friends, co-workers) and so can configure and differentiate between female characters and their different motivations and personalities, I can’t be sure. It’s probably a combination of the two.

If anything, as long we’re talking about gender, I’m usually more anxious about writing male characters. I’ve gotten over it–my lead character in the WIP, from whose POV most of the novel is written through, is a man–but being a girl, I’m never quite sure if I’ve written a true male character or if I wrote the romantic comedy version of a guy, you know?

I relate to the idea brought up in the thread that some of the writers feel that they’re merely writing themselves. It’s actually a big reason why I’ve been trying my hand at historical fiction more recently, besides a genuine interest and love of the genre. With the exception of Last Request, I always feel that a contemporary-set story, which invariably has a female narrator or protagonist, is always myself. I then feel tempted to stick in my friends as the lead girl’s friends and then we enter Mary Sue world and it never feels satisfying as a piece of fiction.

If you write: do you write female characters? Do you relate to them? How do they come out? Do you share in the thread’s expressed dilemmas or no? 

I began thinking of a few female characters, contemporary, historical, whatever. The first one that came to mind–this might be blamed on seeing Breaking Dawn on Monday night–is Bella Swan.

Bella has always troubled me as a character and moreover, as a female character. I don’t normally separate other people’s fictional characters into “male” and “female.” They’re just Emma or Anne or Briony or Her Ladyship or the maid–whatever their prominence and positions are within the scope of their world.

But Bella is supposed to be living in our contemporary world, with our contemporary American values and rules and social structure. And with my tendency to relate anything contemporary to myself…I suppose that’s where Bella troubles me.

Think about it. She is all consumed by her sparkly, hundred-plus-year-old boyfriend. She is perfectly willing to forego her family and friends to become a vampire so she can be with her boyfriend for eternity. She has no ambition–she doesn’t want to go to college, she has no career aspirations. She has no shown faults beyond being clumsy and awkward. She doesn’t seem to have a problem with her vampire boyfriend wanting to kill her constantly or with said vampire boyfriend basically stalking her or being hunted down by dangerous vampires.

Girl even goes into an agonizing (agonizing to read) depression when vampire boyfriend leaves her.

So, basically, Bella shows us modern women that it’s okay to be completely self-involved and have your world revolve around your boyfriend. And to have to no aspirations for one’s self, to have your happiness depend upon one sparkly vampire, and to have no self respect or respect for the others who love you.


I remember being enthralled by Mary Boleyn in Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl. I think I read that book when I was about 15 or 16. I went through a Tudors obsession phase in high school–which is why I owned Elizabeth I and The Six Wives of Henry VIII long before Showtime’s The Tudors aired. So, beyond an interest in the period and an abiding interest in historical fiction, it was interesting to read about that part of Henry VIII’s reign from the perspective of a historical figure, but one who isn’t terribly well known.

Mary narrates the book in first person. We see her grow from a naive teenage girl pawned out by her powerful family into a strong woman and mother who makes her own choices regarding her husband and how she wants to live her life. Mary Boleyn was the only one of the Boleyn siblings to not have her head chopped off by King Henry. Clearly, this was a woman who had enough sense (or, at the time, not enough importance) to escape her family’s scandal.

As a young woman in that time, Mary’s only asset is her marriagability and childbearing. She’s not expected to be clever. All of her ambitions, at first, are dictated by her family’s ambitions to rise high in the king’s favor. Even so, Mary never read to me as coming across as too “nice,” though I think her sister Anne Boleyn came across a little too uber bitchy in that novel at times.

Aliena in Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth was a very well-written woman. I actually liked all of his female characters in that book–they’re tough and strong because they live in a brutal time period, but they’re also vulnerable, intelligent, calculating. The book spans an enormous amount of time, so we get to read about all of their experiences and see the different aspects of their personalities. We see Aliena at her absolute lowest point, see her get an idea and go with it, see her in her triumph, and then see how she gets defeated–though Aliena is never down for long. We see her make a stupid decision and suffer the consequences. Aliena falls in love. Aliena becomes a mother and takes her child on a very long journey to find the love of her life.

Pillars has far more male characters than female and being the 12th century, the men usually outrank the women. Yet the women get by using what they can, whether it’s blackmail or the absolute conviction that the throne is rightly theirs or inner strength and fortitude or an excellent business mind. The women are distinct from each other, too.

I love Lord of the Rings, but Tolkien was not that great at writing women. They fit into certain roles, instead of being well rounded. Galadriel is the ethereal but powerful one. Arwen, Galadriel’s granddaughter, is also a beautiful, wise, ethereal half-elf, but her tiny part in the trilogy consists of deciding whether to stay immortal and therefore leave Middle-earth or become mortal, live with Aragorn, and eventually, die. Tolkien did not create Arwen until fairly late in the planning of Lord of the Rings, which might account for her lack of presence in the novels.

Eowyn is the kick-ass one. She’s tough, a survivor, but also restless and reckless. She felt more fully formed to me than Arwen, but even so, the books’ focus is on the quest and darkness taking over Middle-earth rather than a personal exploration of Eowyn’s struggles and her crush on Aragorn and then, eventually, her love for Faramir.

These are a few of the females that came to mind.

Can you think of any others who are well rounded, individual women? Have you come across female characters who are flat or only fit into the “girlfriend” role, either books, movies, or TV?  Are there any female characters that particularly annoyed you? 

Were they written by men or women? I think that might be interesting to know. 

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