Representation – Writing Female Characters

This is a subject I’ve been avoiding talking about for a long time because it’s kind of seen as controversial for some reason, but after seeing recent discussions in my writing group I’ve decided to go ahead and write a post about it.  This may possibly turn into a series of other posts all on representation but with different focuses, but for now I want to talk about writing the ever elusive creature known as: women.

So this started out after I’ve seen a lot of people discussing the whole “strong female character” thing.  If you don’t know what I mean by that, there are a lot of people who say you need to write strong female characters, but a lot of people seem to argue about what that means.  It’s a rather vague term.  Does it mean female characters who are physically strong, or characters that are strong in the sense of just well-written and characterized?  I’m going to give my thoughts on the subject as I have quite a few.

First I want to give some explanation as to why so many people go around saying how we need “strong female characters”.  For the longest time (and it’s even still going on now to some extent though not like it used to) female characters in stories were either non-existent, background characters, or side characters that essentially just boiled down to being a prize to be won by the male lead.  A love interest and/or maiden in distress needing to be saved.  Often times such characters were also written with either next-to-no personality or they were really incompetent, airheads, or annoying.  In other words, they just weren’t written well.

As a kid, I always had a hard time actually finding enjoyment and reading and I think that’s because I didn’t find many stories with likeable female characters as the protagonists.  I remember that the few  did find I absolutely loved and ate up really fast and couldn’t get enough of, but I didn’t see a whole lot of books like that and as a result I never really saw myself as much of a reader.  Along those same lines, I didn’t really have any female role models growing up either.  Every kid has those characters they looked up to and wanted to be like when they grew up, like Han Solo or Indiana Jones or other characters like that.  There unfortunately weren’t a lot of female characters for girls to look up to that they wanted to be like.  Well except for the Disney Princesses, but even as a little girl I never cared about those sorts of characters (I’m not going to say anything about them because it’s been years since I’ve seen those movies and thus I don’t really remember much about them so.)

When I entered the debate about what a “strong female character” was, here’s what I said: it’s someone who is likeable; cunning, intelligent, funny, adventurous.  Someone who you would want to meet and become friends with.  Someone who you would look up to and say “I want to be like them”.  They’re not perfect, they have flaws, but you get to see them overcome their problems and their flaws through their strength of character.  They don’t have to be physically strong.  They can be emotional and cry.  They can be either super feminine or possibly more masculine.  Those traits are superficial and it doesn’t contribute to what ultimately would make them a good character.

I briefly want to mention the “strong female character” archetype that has arisen due to that term being thrown around which is what often makes this a controversial topic.  A lot of people take that term literally and make female characters butch, tough fighters “who don’t need no man” and basically their only characteristic is being able to beat people up and acting fairly unemotional.  Essentially the point of these characters is to take the idea of what is “manly” and “masculine” and just tack it onto a woman and remove all “feminine” qualities from her and that somehow makes her a “strong” character.  Except it doesn’t and, to some extent, that idea is insulting to women since it’s just saying that anything feminine is inherently weak and bad and you can only be worth something if you’re “manly”.

Here’s the secret to writing good female characters: write them like you would write any other normal person.  That’s it.  Does gender change the way they’re going to come out in the end?  In some cases it can, especially taking into consideration what sort of setting your story would be (especially if it’s historical fiction).  But too often I see people acting like writing characters of other genders is some weird, mystical, difficult thing to do when really there’s nothing to it.  It can be difficult to write good female characters if you’re modeling them off the way you’ve seen female characters represented in other stories, because as I said most of the time they aren’t done well.  But maybe instead you could just step back and think of them as a person before you think of them as a gender, get into their head, and just start writing.

Why is it so important to get representation for well-written female characters?  Well aside from the obvious fact that all characters deserve to be written well, we need good female characters to be role models for girls.  We need good female characters to help women feel like they’re not just being tossed to the side because they aren’t important enough to be the protagonist.  We need to be seen as more than just a love interest, more than just a damsel in distress needing to be saved, more than just a prize to be won.  Men need to be shown that women are human beings just like them, that they should be respected – not because they’re “strong and manly and could kick your butt”, but because we’re people.

Besides, there’s probably some little girl out there who isn’t interested in Barbies and princesses and things like that and likes the things that would normally be associated as something for boys.  Why don’t you give her a female role model to look up to so she doesn’t feel so left out all the time?  I sure could have used one when I was a kid.  I’m only just now starting to see really great female characters and I absolutely love them, but still, I wish I’d had them when I was growing up.

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