On Characters: Male and Female

Recently on the popular, “Absolute Write” website, there have been threads dealing with male and female characters.  On these, some people (including females) have stated they find writing three dimensional females much more difficult than males.  This baffled me, so I did some thinking.

This is what I came up with.  It all comes down to fear.  A lot of writers worry needlessly about whether their character is likeable or not.  My hunch tells me that these same writers worry even more about making their female character likeable.

Such concern is pointless.   One, you can’t please everyone.  Just as not everyone is going to like your novel in general, not everyone is going to like your character.  The vital thing is creating an interesting character that people want to read about.

Another concern I’ve heard has been along the lines of, “I have trouble creating a believable female character”.  Believable, being the key word.    Well, guess what.   There’s no such thing as a believable female character.   That makes it sound like all women are alike.  No.  We’re not.  There is absolutely no such thing as A female character any more than there is A male character.   Personality types, hopes, fears, wants, and behaviors run the full spectrum in both genders.

C.S. Lewis said, “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”

I believe the same applies to making a character “believable”.  If one sits down and thinks, “Okay.  I need to create a believable female character”, they’ll stress  too much on what they think a female character is supposed to be like, rather than creating a real, individual character.

Your characters, regardless of gender, become real, thus believable, when you give them hopes and fears, good traits and flaws.  Who is your character?  What do they want out of life?  What are their dreams and nightmares? 

Ask your character such questions and let them come forth.    Let them simply be who they are, for good or bad. Let them breathe on the page.  They will be real.  And believable.

Published in: on August 9, 2009 at 11:13 pm  Comments (38)  
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  1. For me (and I think we’ve talked about this before) it’s not that I have a hard time writing three-dimensional females, but I want desperately to avoid the trope of the “feisty” or “perky” heroine. If I see one more book that describes the heroine as “feisty” I’m gonna throw something! Not that I’m feisty, mind you. It’s almost as if that’s the only type of female character that’s allowed anymore.

  2. It’s an interesting question, Scarlett!

    I think female authors might also be trying to create “model females”–characters whom readers can look up to as role models, maybe. And that’s pressure, for both the author and the character.

    To Digital Dame’s point, Anne of Green Gables, who was one of our prototype “feisty” girls, and Jo March of Little Women, were both in some ways role models. Ann was riddled with hilarious quirks like her imagination and impetuous honesty, but also faults. But she was an “independent” girl at a time when it was constrained for girls. Same with Jo.

    But today… I wonder if people pick those “typical” heroic qualities because they’re drawing on the girls who inspired them from within the pages of a book.

    So I wonder if folks are afraid of shortchanging protagonists that don’t seem to fill out naturally when they’re female because we limit them by our need for them to serve a purpose rather than to just be themselves.

    Or, if I’m just reflecting my own anxieties. 🙂 *cough* 🙂

  3. Uh, and male writers could be doing the same. 🙂 Didn’t mean to limit it just to women. I was just commenting from my own perspective.

  4. Sputnitsa, that could be. I thought a lot of it stemmed from trying too hard to write a “modern, independent” type of female, going too far in the opposite direction from the “woman as victim who needs to be rescued.” Maybe I’m just tired of seeing the word “feisty.” It seems to always be accompanied by the same personality type of “intelligent, sassy, sarcastic…” Can they not be strong without being sarcastic and bitchy?

  5. Hey Digital Dame,

    I’m with you on the types we see popping up. It reminds me of how so many movies like to portray these independent, flighty, hyper-imaginative, carefree, alternative girlfriends who shake men out of their rat races. Invariably someone has an incurable disease; usually the woman. 🙂

    I actually ended up blogging a bit about this topic…after reading Scarlett’s post and your response…and thinking on how I write my own characters.

    It’s a fascinating and somewhat disturbing thing…

  6. […] an interesting question.  As GypsyScarlett writes, there should be no difference in writing believable female and believable male characters. […]

  7. Hey DD,

    “I want desperately to avoid the trope of the “feisty” or “perky” heroine. If I see one more book that describes the heroine as “feisty” I’m gonna throw something! Not that I’m feisty, mind you. It’s almost as if that’s the only type of female character that’s allowed anymore.”

    I hear you. That’s been driving me batty, too. And I think this falls into the fear thing I meant. It just seems to me that writers have this fear or anxiety that they *must* make a woman a certain way.

  8. Hey Sputnitska!

    “I think female authors might also be trying to create “model females”–characters whom readers can look up to as role models, maybe. And that’s pressure, for both the author and the character.”

    I think you have a great point. And that pressure of role model leads straight into what DD complained about how so many female characters tend to be the same type of tough chick nowadays- leading straight into one dimensionalism and tropes.

    I strongly believe the important thing for writers to do is create three-dimensional, breathing characters, regardless of gender. To make the character real in *themselves*. That’s what I meant about allowing them to “simply be” who they are.

    Be true to the character and the story.

    That’s not going to happen if writers worry about how readers regard the character.

  9. This was a great post and one I took to heart due to a recent experience of mine. First, the characters we create are not real people. They’re never going to be real. Second, trying to create a “likable” character means winding up, more than likely, with a boring character with no flaws, no quirks, no arc. There’s no way a writer can create a character that everyone is going to like. Because we’re all different people. There are people who HATE Scarlett O’Hara and yet she’s probably one of the most recognizable characters in literature.

    As for creating “believable” women, I think there’s this fear of creating a politically incorrect female character. Maybe it’s me, but lately, a lot of female characters, especially in movies and on TV, seem to be coming from some PC-character factory. I’ve noticed that many of the female characters are tough and logical and no-nonsense and, in some cases, sexually repressed while their male counterparts are funny and loony and intuitive and more sexually expressive.

    Maybe I’m wrong about that, but that’s what I see with a lot of female characters, especially on crime shows.

    So, I totally agree with the advice to be true to the character and the story. That’s about all a writer can do and have any control over. Once a reader reads a story or an audience sees a movie or watches a TV show it’s out of the creator’s hands.

  10. Hi Jenna,

    Thanks so much! Really glad you liked the post.

    And you’re not wrong at all. That *is* the exact female you see all the time now on tv crime shows. It’s like they think to be taken seriously, the woman can’t have any personality. Heaven forbid a sense of humor.

    The ridiculous thing is the best females are always on sci-fi shows. Aryn, Chiana, Zhaan- Farscape. Susan and Delenn- Babylon Five. From what I’ve seen so far of Battlestar, they were pretty rounded on that, too. But really- do female characters need to be thrown in space to be allowed to be sexual and funny?

    I hate any double standards in real life, and I’m sure as heck not going to perpetate them in my own writing.

  11. Jenna,

    I wanted to highlight what you said here: “Second, trying to create a “likable” character means winding up, more than likely, with a boring character with no flaws, no quirks, no arc.”

    Exactly! It’s just like in real life. People who are simply themselves tend to draw much more people to them than the people who have this, “PLEASE LIKE ME!!!!!” vibe. Same with characters.

  12. I think the concern shouldn’t be making them believable, but making them interesting. How many boring people do we know that are certainly real, but that doesn’t make us want to know any more about them?

    Interesting – that’s my worry.

  13. Well you read my first NaNo Tasha so you know what I am talking about, so here it is.

    When I started on my second novel, men ruled the roost (there is a gay character but definitely “male”) while the women were either victims or monsters. That worried me a little bit until I came near the end of the NaNo and a certain character popped up that was strong and in her introduction (a big chunk of tell, must fix that on the re-write btw) the third person narrator comments on how she has had to adjust to the roles expected of her in society, from high school cheerleader to sorority girl (with a near-rape experience didn’t go so well for the frat boy) to domineering/demanding boss/bitch as the head of the U.S. office that deals with the supernatural.

    Other women have popped up as well and I decided to go and explore the Crone/Daughter/Mother triptych and how it applies to them.

    I hope I can pull it off.

  14. Jenna,

    You hit the nail on the head. The new show “Castle” with Nathan Fillion is a perfect example. The two characters, Castle and the female cop, Becker(?) are exactly what you describe. He’s the funny, loony sexy guy, and she’s the hard-as-nails, no-nonsense tough female cop who won’t give him the time of day. Ugh. Much as I love Nathan Fillion, I don’t think I can sit through that show again.

  15. Hm…I don’t know if male/female matters as much to me- I think some characters just come to me more fully formed than others, and some just need more work. Ponder ponder…

  16. Melanie,

    I agree with you. I think when you create a three-dimensional character they become interesting, and thus, believable in themselves. It’s all tied together in that sense.

  17. Ralfast,

    That should be interesting to see how the female character changes and grows. Good luck with it! 🙂

    I also wanted to add, there’s nothing wrong if the female characters are treated like victims due to the society/world they exist in. But, they should still be people with personalities. Not “the victim girl”.

    Even though this has nothing to do with your novel, for some reason the movie “Spartacus” came to my mind. Take Jean Simmons character. She’s a slave girl. So in that aspect, she’s certainly a victim of her time and place. And it certainly wouldn’t have been realistic to show her kick assing the Roman soldiers butts. But she has a dignity to her, a quiet inner strength that shines through. She has a personality. She’s not one dimensional “slave girl”.

  18. Colby,

    I’m with you. The gender issue has never been a problem for me. I think some people are making it more complicated than it should be, for some of the reasons mentioned here.

  19. Can I quote you on that Tasha?

    Well I am going to, but if you don’t approve then by all means please tell me so that I may rectify the error.

    Thank you in advance.

  20. […] Others simply say, “Don’t worry about it!“ […]

  21. I LOVED Jean Simmons character of Varinia in Spartacus.

    There’s this great scene where she and Spartacus, who is at the gladiator training school where Varinia is a slave, have been thrown together in his cell in order for them to have sex, much to the perverted amusement of their captors.

    Spartacus shouts that he’s not an animal.

    And Jean Simmons, with that quiet strength and dignity that shines from her even though she’s in a dirty cell and wearing threadbare clothes says, calmly but fiercely, “Neither am I.”

    Now that’s a strong female character!

  22. Jenna,

    That’s *exactly* the scene I was thinking of. She walks in (a female “gift” to the gladiators who have performed well), and he gets so excited saying, “I’ve never had a woman before.” She brushes him away and takes off her dress (so she can keep that much control at least). Then after he realizes the soldiers are watching them, cries, “I’m not an animal!” Breaks down. She cooly says, “Neither am I.” He looks up at her with this totally ashamed realization and goes over and hands her the dress to put back on. They look at each other and this silent understanding passes between them.

    People often talk about the, “I am Spartacus!” “No. I’M Spartacus scene.” But that’s actually my favorite one in the movie. It’s played out so pefectly.

  23. Hm, now I want to see Spartacus 🙂 Where WAS I when it came out??? 🙂

  24. I don’t know, Sputnitsa, where WERE you in 1960? 😉

    Seriously, it’s an awesome flick. Watch and enjoy! 🙂

  25. Great post!

    For me I tend to have a harder time writing from a male perspective simply because I will put my female view on him on occassion. But I really don’t stress about it; normally I don’t even see what’s wrong until someone else points it out 😛

  26. Great post! I’ll definitely keep reading your blog. 🙂

    I fall occasionally on the line of “unable to write decent female characters,” but I’m thinking of trying an experiment: write a character and then change the pronoun/name that I use.

    I also realized that I don’t write many female characters, but I just chalk that up to the setting/time period that I’m writing about.

  27. Hi Dara,

    Thank you! Really glad you liked the post. 🙂

  28. Hi Beth,

    Nice to meet you- and thank you!

    I’ll be over later to check out your blog. 🙂

  29. I’d hate the idea of making my female characters likeable to everyone. In fact, part of the fun is starting out with the heroes either disliking or fearing them or both. 🙂

    I also try to avoid feisty characters, because to me feisty is someone who mouths off and makes a big deal out of her strength or independence. I’ve always believed that if characters have to *say* how tough they are, they probably aren’t all that great.

    Strength takes different forms, whether in men or in women. Melanie in “Gone with the Wind” is one of the strongest female characters in fiction to me, yet she never raises her voice to anyone, let alone her hand. She’s strong because she stands up for what she believes and doesn’t give in to her own (physical) weakness.

    That’s what I’d like to see from characters, whether male or female – strengths and weaknesses that are both balanced and original. And it’s difficult to pull that off if the writer feels heroines *have* to be feisty.

  30. Marian,

    Agree 100%.

    And regarding Melanie- yes! She was strong as hell. She always remained calm and composed throughout everything. She stayed with the soldiers while they were getting amputated while Scarlett ran hysterically away. (not that I can blame Scarlett) But Melanie had a will of iron.

  31. I had an interesting experience with this during my last revision of Filling in the Blanks. My MC was originally the male character. I moved him into a secondary role and gave the lead to Yates. Now I’m thinking, God, I hope she’s not ‘fiesty.’ She is manipulative, headstrong, and independent. Certainly not sexually repressed, in fact she thinks the guys are the ones who tend to get too emotionally involved where sex is concerned. But she feels real to me. She has weaknesses, and scars, and doesn’t understand herself very well. I didn’t spend much time thinking of her as either male or female, but in trying to understand what makes her tick. I’m thinking now, both about your wonderful post, and all of the comments.

  32. Hi Uppington,

    Oh, please don’t worry if your character is “feisty”! I doubt anyone here was trying to say they don’t like feisty female characters- It’s just that there’s been a lot of cases of late where the feistiness is shoved at the reader. I WEAR LEATHER PANTS AND AM SARCASTIC! LOOK HOW FEISTY I AM! Rather than just having her attributes show naturally.

    Really, I don’t want any personality trait pushed at me. It’s like in real life. A nice person simply is nice. They don’t go around telling people they are. My favorite female on “Buffy” was Tara. I loved how kind and sweet she was (with a strong inner core). But she was naturally kind. Whereas, I’ve read books or watched TV where you can tell the writer is screaming at you, “this is the *nice* character. You *must* like her!” That’s always annoying. They used to do that all the time on Soaps. Any wonder why most people ended up rooting for the villainess?

    “But she feels real to me.”

    Then you have the most vital thing! 🙂

    “but in trying to understand what makes her tick.”

    This! 🙂

  33. To sum it up, here’s my personal take on the character thingie, regardless of gender:

    1. create a three dimensional person, without worry or care if they are good or bad, likeable or not

    2. let that character be who they are. let them breathe on the page

    3. whatever that character is- don’t shove it at the reader. let the reader decide for themself how they feel about the character

  34. What you mentioned about Melanie staying calm and collected reminded me of a story I wrote where the heroine met up with a character who was controlling, amoral and violent (one reason I can’t really call him the hero).

    She was consistently polite to him. It was always please and thank you and would you mind. He was so taken aback to be addressed in that respectful, courteous way that he usually went along with what she wanted.

    That’s when I realized that a heroine can sometimes achieve as much through niceness and courtesy as through sarcasm and toughness. Both work; it’s just that we often see more of the latter these days.

  35. Marian,

    That character sounds great.

    And yes, there are different kinds of strength, and also wish we saw both kinds more often nowadays.

  36. Hello! I’m dropping in to let you know that someone likes the way you write about books and has nominated you for Book Blogger Appreciation Week. In order to continue with your nomination, I need to share some info with you (and get some from you), so please email me at bookladyblog (at) gmail (dot) com at your earliest convenience.


  37. Thanks, Tasha. Yes, she was an iron hand in the most velvety of gloves. 🙂

  38. […] culture/subculture we identify ourselves with. A male author may asks himself how does he write a believable female character, an adult writer might have problems tackling a teenage protagonist and any writer would have some […]

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