1. If something would be boring and/or undramatic for a male character, it would probably be boring and/or undramatic for a female character. If you’re writing a female character (particularly in a major role), I’d recommend thinking about whether you’d want to read about a male character in that situation or with that trait. If not, then you’re probably boring your readers.
2. The character is useless. Have you made a main character more or less helpless for most of the story? Does she watch as the story happens around her? Does she get repeatedly saved by other characters when the going gets rough? Please think back to #1. You’d probably be bored reading about a more or less helpless guy, right? Your readers will be just as bored by a helpless female.
3. The character’s only defining trait is being hyper-smart or (more rarely) a total ditz. That’s fine for one character among several, but if she’s your only significant female character, it’ll raise questions about your ability to handle female characters at a more relatable level of intelligence. If you’re having trouble with more relatable female characters, I’d recommend checking out some Meg Cabot books, Mean Girls and/or Pride and Prejudice.
3.1. The character is totally pure. A character that always does the right thing and has no motivations besides being friendly/agreeable/nice is probably pretty boring. 100% pure characters strain the suspension of disbelief, are less relatable and usually less dramatic. For whatever reason, these types of boring characters are almost always women.
4. Your readers will probably be able to tell if you have not read many female main characters written by female authors. If you don’t have the firsthand experience of actually being a female, being well-read is probably the closest you’ll get to seeing the subtle distinctions between most women and most men in terms of perspective, dialogue and actions. Conversely, when I’m reading manuscripts, the easiest way for me to pick out male characters written by female authors is when 1) the character is hyper-introspective and collected (even in a crisis) and the author doesn’t realize that’s unusual, and/or 2) a male character notices far too many irrelevant details, such as eye color and hair color, and the author inadvertently makes it sound like the character’s ogling someone or writing a fashion review.
5. The character is a love interest that doesn’t have a role outside of romance. She’ll probably be a more interesting love interest if she has something else going on. For example, Lois Lane is (occasionally) a competent reporter whose investigations sometimes tie into Superman’s work. Pepper Potts figured out who kidnapped Tony Stark by breaking into Stane’s office. Ramona Flowers from Scott Pilgrim had a penchant for awesomeness and a mallet. Also, she was a ninja courier for Amazon.
5.1. The character is defined by her physical attractiveness and/or sex appeal. If you consider physical attractiveness one of the three most interesting things about a major character, I would recommend rethinking the character’s development because most likely the character is a love interest that is interesting only to the author. (Think back to #1–you wouldn’t want to read about a guy whose main trait was his handsomeness, would you?) Also, please bear in mind that most of the professionals evaluating your submission will probably be ladies, so you won’t even have the titillation angle working in your favor.
6. The character has no substantial goals besides going along with other characters and/or getting in bed with somebody. If you’re going to bother writing in a character, I’d recommend giving him/her some sort of independent effect on the plot. If not, why bother having the character? Fortunately, you don’t need to give a character much space to give her/him a role to play. For example, Neville Longbottom had around a page of dialogue (~350 words) in the first Harry Potter book and he still managed to raise the stakes for the protagonists by growing a spine at absolutely the worst moment. (Dumbledore’s recognition of his badassery was probably the highlight of the first book for me).
7. The character is mute. In general, I think the mindset behind this decision is “I’m having a lot of trouble writing dialogue for females, so I’ll just make her mute.” In this case, muting a major female character will only draw attention to how bad you think your female dialogue is. I’d strongly recommend practicing your female dialogue instead–the practice will help, and at least you’ll get out of instant-rejection territory.
Wow. This list is like a how-to guide on perpetuating bullshit misogyny in writing written by the most clueless, not-helpful person who thinks they’re helping ever.
First off, I just want to address a part of #7 on this list, particularly: "I’d strongly recommend practicing your female dialogue instead"
REALLY?!? “Female dialogue”. What the fuck is female dialogue? What is it that we female types do that makes the way we speak so different or so strange that people need to practice it? You say practicing like it’s some complicated form of algebra that we need to really do drills on until we’re able to do it smoothly because apparently women talk so funny that other people can’t get the hang of it at first. They don’t talk like men. There’s a special kind of dialogue that’s JUST for female types and you need to practice or otherwise they’ll speak the wrong way in your writing.
Because of “female dialogue” and also reasons.
This whole list is exactly we’re getting nowhere at light speed when it comes to gender equality in media. Male characters and male writers get away with doing everything on this list. I swear to god, I could just go through and write a 20 page analysis on why Game of Thrones breaks all these rules and yet it’s bestselling and there’s a TV show. Starting with the fact that women can’t be mute/speak little and be interesting but that dude wrote a dude who only ever says “Hodor” and people LIKE HODOR. (Me included, but don’t dare say that Hodor the dude gets to be Hodor but female characters can’t possibly pull that off).
This list is about how to write female characters that meet MALE expectations of what interesting and relatable and all that other crap should be.
Interesting to WHO? Relatable to WHO? Answer: men. This is a list on how to write female characters that do what men find best. This is a guide to conforming.
You know what? As a real life woman and real life writer, let me impart my own wisdom. When you write female characters, your biggest problem is not going to be writing the female characters. It’s going to be misogyny. What’s going to keep people from “relating to” or “finding interesting” your female characters is not going to be just your writing. It’s going to be misogyny. It’s going to be that they’re coming to the table with a lifetime’s worth of bad socialization and ugly prejudices they’re not even fully aware of.
You need to understand that when you write a female character, the first thing you did wrong in the eyes of most is that you wrote a female character.
I mean, let’s consider that there’s never any “guides to writing male character”, telling people how to craft male characters that people (which people) can relate to and that people (which people, I ask again?) find interesting.
You know why? Because our society teaches us that when it comes to men and male characters, we ought to make the effort psychologically to at least meet the media half way. We should stretch and find any justification to sympathize or empathize, or at least to be interested. It teaches us that even if a male character just comes on screen (or on the page) sit down and just sits, we should take in every little detail and find a way to at the very least consider that man valid.
Female characters (and women in real life) are expected to stretch until it hurts, until they meet the viewers, until they meet others in their seats. They have to bend into all kind of shapes until someone finds them valid.
But with female character? We have long, long lists of things that women need to do. They need to be: interesting, dramatic, relatable (to WHO?), have a deeply developed multi-dimensional personality, not be too pure (purity levels not specified), not just be a love interest but do things on the side that meet the “interesting” litmus test, have substantial goals, and talk in the right way.
I laugh. There are so many female characters who are this and they get so much shit. They told they’re to dramatic, they’re told they’re phony, they told they’re whiny, they told they’re sluts, they get told they’re interfering with the hero’s goals by having their own, they’re told that they should talk less.
You need to consider the fact that male characters get to be James Bond and Superman and the Disney Princes and hell, even Humbert Humbert (Lolita), who’s a child raping kidnapper and the guy from Catcher in the Rye and Frodo Baggins. I don’t relate well to rapists, nor was Prince Eric terribly developed. He just sailed a lot and fell in love with underage mermaids and that’s all we know of him.
You need to consider that this person is name checking Iron Man, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, and Superman for their examples. All media named for the lead male character. Telling, don’t you think?
You need to consider that when this list name checks titles/authors for practicing on women, they run to: Meg Cabot, Pride and Prejudice, and Mean Girls. Right there, you’ve just proven that this isn’t about gender equality, it’s about being palatable to WHITE men. Those books are about pretty, young, white middle class, able, straight, cis girls/women who’s storylines charmingly revolve around their quest for love and finding their place in the social order. The happy ending of which is that this pretty white thing is now acceptably and heterosexually paired off with a guy who doesn’t need to be interesting or be more than a love interesting because he’s a guy and also fully vested in her proper social place.
Fuck that bullshit. Read Octavia Butler and Nalo Hopkinson. Read Marjorie M. Liu and read Maxine Hong Kingston read Nalini Singh and Gita Mehta. Read fiction and non-fiction. Find books by lesbians, trans women, disabled women, find books by old women, find books by women who’s first language isn’t English. You want classic lit, skip Jane Austen. Get thee to Tale of the Genji written by Murasaki Shikibu, because she wrote that in the 12th Century and it was the world’s first novel.
For that matter, people reading this need to consider the credibility of anyone who writes this: Conversely, when I’m reading manuscripts, the easiest way for me to pick out male characters written by female authors is when 1) the character is hyper-introspective and collected (even in a crisis) and the author doesn’t realize that’s unusual, and/or 2) a male character notices far too many irrelevant details, such as eye color and hair color, and the author inadvertently makes it sound like the character’s ogling someone or writing a fashion review.
I mean, I know I’ve wall o’ texted you, but let’s break this down. First, there’s a part about women getting men wrong (I laugh) and that the way you know this is if a character is “hyper-introspective and collected even in a crisis” By the by, apparently if Catcher in the Rye never crossed this person’s desk, or rather, Catcher in the Rye with a female name attached ever did. Thank god JD Salinger was a man, am I right?
So he’s either too much in his feelings or not enough. Hmm. Basically, female authors you need to make sure that your male characters don’t at all deviate from the way MEN think of themselves. This list writer also goes on to say that female writers apparently have too many “irrelevant details” like eye/hair color, which makes it sound like “ogling” or a “fashion review”.
No one who makes a hit at something so strongly associated with women (fashion and fashion “reviews’ - what is that even?) needs to be writing this list. Fuck you, list writer. Fuck you for considering the way women view and understand the world as being inferior and that it’s not good enough to be applied to men. Fuck you on behalf, as well, of the men who like fashion reviews and do look at the world. Fuck you on behalf of all the people you just backhanded because you want women to act like women (though how with a list like this, I know not) and men to act like men.
No, women must follow the canon for male behavior. Men have a lot of latitude, but they must never in anyway look like they’re being used by women to express what a woman writer wants to express.
Never mind that maybe this list writer needs to consider that if women write that a male character is doing something that seems like ogling, it’s because ALL of us live under the male gaze, and many of us spend a good part of our lives as both girls and women having men ogle us, cat call us, hit on us when we want to be left alone, harass us, and generally make it clear they’re mentally carving us up like a tender steak. So if we reflect what we know about men (which we have to know for survival) and you don’t like it, is that really the author’s fault or yours, list writer?
Look, as a real woman and a real writer, let me tell you this tip for writing female characters: start with them being human. Go from there. Meaning, you need to get to a place where you don’t seek out lists like this and go around practicing your “female dialogue”. Because you finally realize that women talk in all kinds of ways, they do all sorts of things.
This list is bullshit in the first degree here. Look, people who think you can’t write female characters. Let me assure that it’s not your writing. It’s YOU. It’s that you’re soaking in misogyny because our society is awash with it. It’s that you’ve been bombarded, even from sources claiming to be helpful, with the idea that women are strange, somewhat boring, whiny, useless, not-relatable pseudo-humans who need to be given at least five coats of polish and taught the rules before they’re fit to be viewed.
I say, write that pure damsel character. I say, write the woman who’s known because she’s a supergenius but not much less. I say write the “just a girlfriend” character. I say write a woman who can’t or won’t talk. I say write a woman who has no idea what she’s doing yet. Write the woman who wears all pink all the time, write the woman who’s working on cars. Write a woman who’s doing both of those things. Write a woman who can’t swing a sword to save her life and how she copes with getting thrown into a situation where you NEED to. Write the woman who needs to be rescued. Write the woman who’s difficult to love and even more difficult to understand. Write the woman who gets along with everyone.
But just write her like you get that she’s a human fucking being.
I’m not saying there aren’t tropes and cliches and down right harmful social memes about women. There are. You need to avoid them. But this list isn’t getting you there. You wanna avoid doing those hurtful things? The answer isn’t to improve your writing, it’s to improve yourself. It’s to educate yourself about misogyny and THEN let that be reflected in your writing rather than trying to write so that the misogyny doesn’t show through.
As a woman who reads, I promise you this. I don’t give a shit what your agent or your editor told you, I know when you’re a misogynist. I know when you regard people like me as inferior. I know when you’re full of shit. I know when you’re being shoved at me by a publishing industry that wants to replicate the success of the same narrow stripe of white people and put you out there because you resemble [insert white person] rather than because you were worth the paper you’re printed on.
You don’t need a list, you need a mental makeover.