Your Guide to Writing Women


There’s a lot of talk these days on “how to write a strong female character”. It’s a push back against the Disney-esque damsel in distress type character, where a woman’s biggest struggle in life was choosing the right man to marry or being preyed upon because of her beauty. Now emerges this tough as nails, self-assured, “I can change my own tires and never call me a princess” woman.

Can I tell you that both of these depictions are ridiculous?

All women are capable of being both soft and strong simultaneously. To be a woman is to exist in paradox. Yup, it’s complicated, but that’s exactly what we’re discussing in this article: how to write a woman if you’ve never been a woman and can’t think like one either. Below, we’re sharing our favorite tips and strategies for creating authentic women in your stories. You may want to bookmark this one.

Here’s a handy and printable list of do’s and don’ts for writing realistic women characters.

Let’s Get Rid of “Strong Women Characters”

pexels-photo (1)

Whenever I hear the term “strong women character”, I start to twitch. It’s not that I don’t approve of the idea, it’s just executed incorrectly.

Far too many male authors project masculine qualities onto a female character in an attempt to show how tough she is. Here’s an example: she can get up from a one night stand and never call or look back.

The result?

You reinforce the idea that femininity is weak.

It’s one thing to push against gender stereotypes but it’s another thing to create a fantasy woman that doesn’t ring true.

You can create a strong woman but make sure she’s a woman, and not just a dude with a skirt on. In other words, she can’t be you in drag. She’s got to have the heart and motivation of a woman in every scene she’s in.

What Motivates a Woman?


I’m glad you asked.

Most women are motivated by two things: safety and service.

Women want to feel safe. But take note: there’s no universal definition to safety. This is how you can explore the individuality of your character.

What will make her feel safe in this scene and in the story as a whole? What is preventing her from reaching that place of safety? Perhaps it’s an outside obstacle, or maybe it’s her own weakness.

Always have your woman character reaching for safety, not just for a gun (well, only if you must).

Women also want to be of service. Women have a deep capacity to serve others. That’s not to say that women are subservient. On the contrary, women are in positions of power and influence as mothers, teachers, doctors, storytellers, et al. In fact, women can fulfill most any job that men can do.

The difference is that, for most women, ego is not the driving force.

This isn’t a slight against men, though. It’s just that men and women see work differently.

Men consider work as a way to showcase their ability, a beating of the chest, if you will. Women consider work as a service, whether it’s helping the customer, helping the company, or putting food on the table for her kids.

Now, I know I’m speaking in generalities here. So, don’t throw tomatoes at me just yet.

In your story, show how this woman serves others. Maybe she’s sacrificing her freedom for her sister. Or, in a twist, maybe she’s an unreliable narrator who pretends to be a loving, self-sacrificing wife when she’s really a manipulative sociopath. Extra points if you can name those stories.

While these two motivations don’t apply to all women, they’re a great jump-off point when you set out to write from a woman’s perspective.

What is Your Motivation?


Now, let’s turn the table on you. Here are a few questions you should ask yourself before writing from a woman’s perspective:

  • Why are you assigning a female gender to this character?
  • Are you just doing it to show how cool and hip and progressive you are?
  • Are you writing a biting, sardonic social commentary?
  • Do you want to create a realistic portrait of a woman?
  • Is there an added level of symbolism to your gender choice?

Let the answers to these questions dictate how you assign gender to all of your characters, not just the female ones.

As an aside, one of the best types of tension in literature (and life) is male versus female. Men and women will never think in the same way which makes life so very interesting and infuriating at the same time. Using men and women to foil each other can create an delightful dynamic in your story, as long as you avoid stereotypes.

Here’s a list of stereotypes:

  • The delicate flower. She barely talks above a whisper, she’s sad, so terribly sad, suffering from the pain of a mysterious past.
  • The femme fatale. She’s a sexpot, only wears skin-tight clothes, and has a gun with your name on it.
  • The crazy girlfriend. She’s also got a gun.
  • The stay at home wife. She’s wholesome, virtuous, and dependant. Her only will for living is to be a wife and a mom.
  • The career driven. She’s cold-hearted and she wears designer shoes.
  • The most beautiful girl in the world. She’s so beautiful that she doesn’t even know it, but every other woman around her hates her.

Keep in mind that writing a female character who exhibits the polar opposite of any of these stereotypes doesn’t make your writing cool or edgy, it just makes you look like you’re trying too hard.

The best thing you can do is to avoid these stereotypes altogether. Don’t even acknowledge that they exist, and you’ll instantly improve your storytelling.

Stereotypes make a character fall flat. Stereotypes deflate what could be an interesting character.

Use a Muse


Base the character on someone you already know. But be careful, this one’s tricky. You definitely don’t want it to be too similar that you risk a lawsuit and the relationship if it’s unflattering.

I recommend going with the “inspired by” approach. For example, model a character after your grandmother. Based on what you know of her, how would she face this particular situation? What would she do? How would she respond? Is she feisty or subdued? Is she careful or careless?

And here’s the thing: you don’t have to use just one woman as your muse. In fact, it’s better to create a composite of more than one woman. She may behave like Jan but look like Cindy.

Will Real Women Admire This Character?


Here’s your litmus test. Will your character, as she’s written, appeal to a female reader?

If your answer is, “I’m not sure”, it’s time to get your story into the hands of a woman. Ask her to pay special attention to the women in your story (you do have more than one, right?). A woman should be able to answer whether the women you’ve written seem authentic or fantasy.

Here’s Your Homework


Talk to a woman. As you’re talking to her, pretend that she’s the character you’re writing. Things to observe:

  • How does she respond to you?
  • What’s her body language?
  • How does she speak? Is it fast or slow?
  • Does she emphasize certain words, repeat certain phrases?

This woman may not represent the entire character, but perhaps an aspect of her. “Interview” several women to create a composite character.

Interview a woman as if she is your character. Let’s take a step beyond mere observation. Explain that you’re doing character research and ask someone you know for an interview. In your interview, ask your friend or family member questions as if she were your character. For example, set up a scenario or scene from your novel and then ask questions like:

  • If you were in this situation, what would you do?
  • What would be your thought process in this situation?
  • What would be your main motivation?

Of course, you don’t have to go into detail, especially if you don’t want to share your story before it’s time. Instead, create similar scenarios for the interview that you can then use to understand key motivations for your female characters.

Not sure if you can find a woman to interview? Remember, women like to help and be of service to others. Good luck, and now you can throw tomatoes if you’d like.

Here’s a handy and printable list of do’s and don’ts for writing realistic women characters.

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As a guy this was informative and eye opening


Thank you – I’m a woman and it was still interesting to read this 🙂

shannon jones

This article was very informative. Even though I am a woman the points of reference and what is important in writing a women character was easy to understand.


It’s always difficult to write of a sensuous woman without making her sound as a “slut” and thereby offending the female readers. My personal choice is a “lady” in public who can and does have a sensuality side that is private and “just for me” and occasionally aggressive in taking the lead

Judith Hamer

Guess the only women you’re talking about are white since the three images you show are white. Since women of color like me are not included in your definition of “women” I will stop reading this column.

Kat Canfield

Judith, don’t stop reading because of the images. Pick up your camera and go take pictures of the women who are underrepresented in stock photography. These are pictures anyone can use from the internet. And yes, you are underrepresented.

Marilyn Linn

Thank you for all your tips on a variety of writing issues.

Ed Rude

My protagonist is a male adult in 1957. I am more interested in what makes women like him…I know the basic answer for 1957, but the readers will be in this century and I would hope he has qualities that are attractive to women, in the present. Of course, women are concerned about safety and being of service to others, and so are many men. It is the way they think that puzzles me – I’m getting ol, my wife has Parkinson disease and my daughter is no help whatsoever in this one (I doubt she does think very often, even thoug she has a useful brain.) So answer one question: What makes a woman think a man is attractive?

Lucia Sellek

He is kind, he is gentle, he is attractive, he makes her laugh, he is smart, she loves his touch, she likes his eyes, his shape, his height, the way he speaks to her and others…..does that help?

Vashti Q

A confident man with a great sense of humor is very attractive. Also, a man that respects women and admires what makes a woman a woman instead of acting as if it’s a weakness. In other words, an intelligent, confident, witty man that respects women and treats them as intellectual equals. A handsome face, athletic build, great smile, hair, and style doesn’t hurt. 😉


I can’t tell how much of a stealth parody this is, if at all. It’s got some good advice, but saying that a woman character has to act like a woman (there’s no thing as a stereotypically “masculine” woman) or that men and women automatically have different motivations based on their gender, no matter what their character is? Get real.
*Safety and service? Yes, I’m sure my motives aren’t competitive at all, since I’m female. I just want to cooperate and serve, no matter what my personality is.


As a female author and therapist, you lost me on this. Safety and service? Ugh. Women are much more complicated than that. And this also seems like a very traditional, Christian, white perspective, especially the pictures used and ‘service’ part.

Lucia Sellek

Yes, I don’t agree with the “service” part…And women are many things, like a kaleidescope…

Connie Kassa

When she said the mass readers are southern, that should be the clue. The bible belt of the country and yes most are white. Do you want to sell books are be politically correct? Sometimes we wish the world instead of live in it. Women have a long history of servicing others and safety for everyone is always key. Believe when I say, this article is spot on!

Tomas Black

In attempting to define woman stereotypes, you’ve fallen into the trap of making a blanket statement about female motivation. To say all women are motivated by ‘safety and service’ is a sweeping generalisation. Just like men, women can be motivated by power, greed, jealousy – the full list. It depends on the context of the story and the hand your character was dealt. To say that women can’t be competitive is far from the truth – at least the majority of women I’ve worked with. The message here is not to create stereotypes – male or female. And it’s poor advice to model female characters on your grandmother unless or course your grandmother was also an MI6 agent during the war.

Brenda Mohammed

I am a woman. Read my Memoirs on Amazon. [1].My Life as a Banker: A Life Worth Living and [2.] Retirement is Fun: When one Door Closes, another opens. You can even read [3]. I am Cancer Free. Those books will teach you about a woman’s capability.

Kat Canfield

Being female don’t always make it easy to write a feminine POV. My current MS has a woman who is running from a stalker. My own POV is I would lay in wait,(like my house knowing he will break in) and shot him when he got close. So, writing a character different from yourself is just as hard as a male writing female POV. I hope you will also write one like this for women writing male POV. They can be just as challenging in todays #Metoo world.

Lucia Sellek

He is kind, he is gentle, he is attractive, he makes her laugh, he is smart, she loves his touch, she likes his eyes, his shape, his height, the way he speaks to her and others…..does that help?

Ellen McGilvray

This is THE most insulting thing I’ve read lately. Women care about “safety and service” ?? The very idea makes me (a woman) want to vomit. CLUE: If you want to write convincing female characters, consider that they aren’t different from convincing male characters. People are PEOPLE, whether they possess a penis or a vulva. Give women the same motivations as men, and you’ll never go wrong.


Umm, “safety & service”? How is this not another stereotype?

Bridgett Kurtz

Why are there three women in dresses holding flowers? “Women consider work as a service” – really? Maybe the word “some” should begin this sentence. Maybe “some” could come before the same sentence that is about men. I do like some of your points, but a lot of these feels outdated to me. Thanks, though.


Could you also do one on writing from a guys perspective??

Okon Ukeme Cornelius

I am still to publish my novel. But there is something I observe about writing nonfiction and it influence in people’s life. You can never be so real nor understand life like God the creator. Each author is gifted with a message or piece of information in a novel. This is what the author she focus on in building its characters whether male or female. The consistency of voice and the whole plot should be the concern. I don’t think an author she worry about how a woman character should behave or how a man should. The story and the message or pieces of information to be given should determine the character’s voice. The target audience would come along with the story and the message. If you have a good plot and voice consistency the issue of Stereotype of gender won’t be that much of a blame unless you over sexualised any of the character just to arouse sexual feelings or brutality just to show gender boss. If sexual image show be portrayed it should be portrayed in a way the target audience would get the message that it’s about the feminine or masculine character’s voice and not in any what postulating a psychological theory…
Nevertheless, people will always pick out negative things to talk about even with the angels of God how much more a work made by human hands… Generally avoid things that may offend people’s moral code and law or the society may find very offensive.

Turcotte Jean-Pierre

“… avoid things that may offend people’s moral code and law…” I use archetypes for making fun of such things as ideologies and religions (all of them, in order to avoid bias)

Laura Connell

You’ve done an amazing service with this article for those willing to listen. Interesting that at least one man in the comments is telling you you’re wrong.

You’re not generalizing when you speak about the majority of women. And the majority of women are not motivated by power. Most women do not want to be a masculinized hero.

Rather than listen and take an opportunity to learn, some would stubbornly stick to defining “strength” as masculine and miss an opportunity to create authentic female characters.

Dennis Fleming

Succinct and for me necessary. My protagonist is a single female cop with an autistic 12-yr-old daughter. I need all the perspective I can get. Thanks.

Connie Kassa

When she said the mass readers are southern, that should be the clue. The bible belt of the country and yes most are white. Do you want to sell books are be politically correct? Sometimes we wish the world instead of live in it. Women have a long history of servicing others and safety for everyone is always key. Believe when I say, this article is spot on!

Perry Culiner

Thank you for a most enlightening article … particularly as nuanced by the many pointed comments that draw attention to divergent points of view.


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