People, not tropes: The Fear of Writing Women

“I don’t want to write female characters because I’m afraid I’ll do it wrong.”

This is a worry that I’ve had and heard expressed by male writers on a repeated basis. It makes me sad. Not because, as some of my fellow students at my college might be quick to claim, it’s an easy excuse for sexism. I don’t think that it is, most of the time. My own experience is that the fear comes from a desire to not screw up something very fundamental and important to people’s lives. These writers have seen how bad it can get and the kind of criticism that kind of bad work gets and deserves. In some cases, they themselves have written a character and caught flak for it, sometimes well-deserved, sometimes not. They honestly don’t want to be that sexist douche by accident. No, it makes me sad because despite the good intent, this fear divides us as people into categories, because it distances women from men as being different and complicated. It makes me sad because in the end, it means fewer good female characters. It makes me sad because it doesn’t have to be that way. Friends, this is actually easy.

Sexist+seth+oc_032f36_3378622 We can all do with less of people being that guy

This is advice that I write by. It’s my MO, but it’s hardly the only one. If you have your own advice for writing a good female character as a male writer, please, tell us in the comments below. Conversely, if any female writers want to talk about how different it is for you to write male characters than it is for men to write women and the issues around that, please do so! (Hell, if you’re gender queer/fluid you can tell us about writing cisgendered people or other kinds of LGBTQA people, or a black writer who wants to talk about writing an Asian character you can do that too. If anyone has anything to add about writing a character with a fundamentally different identity, please put it in the comments below!)

The thing to remember is that we are all just people. The actual psychological differences between genders are actually quite small (and between races nonexistent). At our core we have the same feelings. We have different skins and bodies, but everyone’s just a person. If as a male writer you want to write a female character, but are scared of messing it up, remember this: you are first and foremost writing a person. Not an ideal. Not a pattern. Not a trope. Not the opposite of a bad trope. A person. If you can just write a strong person, you will have written a strong character, no matter who they are.

Of course, just writing a character with no reference to their gender or anything else sometimes isn’t enough, and it risks being bland. Sometimes you don’t want to write a good character who happens to be female. You want to write a good female character, one whose gender is actually relevant to her character. You know, like it is in real life. As it happens, the advice is the same. Start FIRST by making a good character. THEN think about what their gender means to them. Add layers bit by bit, making sure you’re not factually wrong about anything. (If you are actually serious about doing it right, you have no excuse not to fact-check something you say if it needs that; you don’t need to write an essay, just don’t ignore that what you’re writing may actually have a relationship to fact.) What does she think about being a girl? How does society treat her differently from the men around her? Answer questions like these. Then have a go-over of what you’ve written and put yourself entirely in your characters shoes–high heels and all if that’s what’s there. Your character’s viability is more important to you here than whether they’re rescued or rescue someone else. Which leads nicely into the next bit of advice here, which is this: Drop the tropes list. I love TVTropes as much as anyone else, but your character in this case needs to be character-driven, not trope driven, It feels good to flip sexist tropes, I know, but it’s not about counting up rescues. Doing that gets everybody nowhere quickly. Your character becomes about that overloaded mess of meaning everyone argues about online, the overcomplicated flamewars you were hoping to avoid. Stick to the person, not the trope.

flamewarsHaven’t got a specific idea, just want to improve your writing of other kinds of people? Go read some Women’s Literature, watch some Chick Flicks, play some Girl Games. Forget what you “know” about these “genres” and look at how people write about themselves. And find what you enjoy there. There’s some really good stuff there. Don’t let the ghetto effect keep you from seeing that.

Finally, if you do write something that ends up getting trashed online, don’t regret it. Listen to what people have to say, in detail. And yes, sometimes there will be some unreasonable stuff out there. The important thing is that you put something out, something headed in the right direction. It will help you grow as a writer, help other writers grow, themselves, and help your readers/viewers/players grow, too.

6 thoughts on “People, not tropes: The Fear of Writing Women

  1. As a female writer, I most often find myself writing stories with male protagonists and it’s funny that I never had the worry that you do. It seems to me that it is much easier for a woman to take on the perspective of a male without fear of accidentally saying something offensive about them.

    Your article reminded me of the comment made in class about the game that had one small scene where the male character rescues the female character. From what I gathered in that conversation was that females were outraged at “another damsel in distress” character and completely ignored that moments before the female had saved the males ass.

    I think everyone needs to take a step back and realize not every representation of women whether in stories or video games, is a personal attack on the gender. I’m not denying that there can be some very unhealthy representations of women in both types of media mentioned (and that in a lot of cases, people have a huge right to be angry about these). However, what needs to happen is an acknowledgement that not every writer is going to have it perfect. There may be stories or games in which a female character is rescued by a male. And that is perfectly okay. It’s not always a social comment about how weak women are. And there may be stories or games in which a male character is rescued by a female character. And that is perfectly okay too.

    I think you shouldn’t be afraid to give writing from a female perspective a try. And I think people should read your writing and know that your intention was not to portray women negatively.

  2. Your last paragraph hit home. Their is no secret to writing good female characters (although there are many ways to write bad ones) that won’t receive criticism. Everything can be criticized by someone. Have you ever seen anything controversial not have at least a handful of people disagree? To get better all you have to do is not be scared of all the disapproval and learn from it. Spot on!

  3. I agree with a lot of this. For some characters, their sex and gender will play a lot into their personality, but for others, it really doesn’t affect that much. And learning to tell the difference between criticism, legitimate call outs, hurt feelings, and people just being angry is an incredibly important skill for anyone whose work is in the public sphere. Not to mention your second to last paragraph, where you mention looking into how people write themselves. I’m a firm believer that all content creators should expose themselves to all the various genres and subtypes of their preferred mediums, if only to see how others are doing things. There’s something to be learned everywhere.

    As far as writing tips go, I’m going to be the dork who suggests a Tumblr Blog, clevergirlhelps. They have so much information for all the various steps of the writing process. You can browse just their blog or go through their tags ( http://clevergirlhelps.tumblr.com/tagteam ) to look for specific information, but I expect that their tags on Mary Sues, Cliches, Agency, and Representation would have plenty info on how to not unintentionally perpetuate sexism.

  4. I really agree with a lot of what is being said here. I wish more people would try to write believable characters without falling back on these kinds of stereotypes. I also find it really frustrating when people write a character who is simply an “anti-trope.” That’s not giving depth, it’s just performing the opposite of an imposed narrative. So frustrating.

    I just want to add that, in addition to male writers becoming more skilled at writing characters who happen to be female, more game companies should include women and people of color on their development teams. Because really, the easiest way to get these experiences isn’t to read about it- it’s to live it.

  5. I read this when it was first posted and I am commenting now to let you know I selected it as one of my favorites for the final survey. I love hearing the writer’s perspective and I think this post definitely addresses the several concerns people may have writing female characters. At the same time, you challenge those concerns and pave the way towards solution, showing that it really is possible to create well-developed, healthy representations of female characters.

    1. Hey, thanks! I really appreciate this and all the other stuff people have said. I’m glad to hear people liked it as well as what other ideas they have on the subject! Good to know it all might help.

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