“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.
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.
Haven’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.