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.
Let’s Get Rid of “Strong Women Characters”
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.
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.