Writing the Compelling Female Character (that people WANT to read)
Goldfish in Space has an original, clever plot which continues to surprise up to the last page. The author shows a sophisticated command of wit, and at some points his narrative caused this reviewer to laugh out loud. However, the characters were clichéd and unrelatable, and it was often hard to guess their motivations. Reading their interactions was rather like viewing a social event for store mannequins.
One of the toughest challenges for an author is to create strong characters. While we may easily create whole new worlds, magic systems, parallel dimensions, and even alternate histories, populating these places with well-rounded, multi-faceted characters can often be just a hair’s-breadth out of reach.
This is especially so with female characters, because we are so often presented with very characterised images in mainstream media. For example, here are a few female image stereotypes that might be currently hard-wired into your brain:
- · young career woman who wants nothing more than a pay rise and a pair of Jimmy Choos
- · angry, ass kicking Lara Croft type
- · dizzy blonde bimbette
- · no-nonsense, prudish, uptight librarian/law student super-brain
Because these stereotypes are so recognisable, we respond quickly to the clichés that suggest them. So if a story starts with: “Damn – I’d broken another nail. I wondered if I had time before drinks at the Malibu Bar to fit in a mani-pedi – perhaps if I skipped lunch...”, the reader’s mind starts connecting with the young career woman type.
The trouble is that as writers, we’re trying to create people on the page – not types. I mean, when was the last time someone said to you, “I’m just your typical middle manager buying a red sports car to ease me through his mid-life crisis”? Not likely – most people will go out of their way to remind you of what makes them an individual. And why? Because individuals are interesting; types aren’t.
Most writers I know do not set out to create a type when they’re writing a female protagonist, or female secondary character. We want to create a compelling female character (CFC, if I may shorten it). But you know, we’re only human: we get lazy sometimes.
Being the eager-to-please bunnikins that I am, I’ve compiled a list of prompts to help you avoid the cardboard cut-out female, and instead breathe life into a fully-fledged CFC that readers will relate to and like. The list is by no means exhaustive, but will hopefully get you thinking about all the many and varied depths of your own CFC.
1. Make her realistic and let her dream. Perhaps these seem mutually exclusive, but they’re not. After all, you’re realistic, aren’t you? And you have dreams too. So should your CFC. Give her all sorts of odd dreams and aspirations, not just those which fit neatly into your story (she doesn’t just want to find the Grindstone of Doom, she also wants to learn tap dancing). You don’t have to make a big deal of this in your novel – it may not even find its way in – but just knowing this about your character will make her more real to you. If she’s real to you, she’s more likely to be real to your reader.
2. Make her rational, and let her have emotions. Again, just like *gasp* a real woman. Presumably you’re not aspiring to write about a dumb-dumb, so make use of the brains you’ve given her. In a mystery, for example, have her make some of the realisations, instead of just going along with the male sleuth. Put her one step ahead of her counterparts now and then. On the other hand, don’t transform her into the stereotype of the robotic, emotionless android. There’s nothing more annoying than a character that shows no emotions. Look at Sigourney Weaver in the Alien movies. She was very rational; cool, calm and collected. But remember in Alien Resurrection, when she discovered the suffering Ripley clones and torched the lab? That was a good moment for the franchise.
3. Make her self-possessed, and let her have moments of insecurity. Let’s face it: deep down we’re all a little insecure. But we put on a brave face and tough it out. Why should your CFC be any different? My character Isabel would never let anyone see her cry. But twice in my novel she heads off to her room to have a little weep – and deservedly so; everyone around her is dropping like flies and it’s probably her fault.
4. Make her respect men, and let her interact with them in a way not confined to “sexual tension.” Remember that the CFC is not defined by how she reacts to men – she’s defined by how she reacts to everything. And if you think back to all the men you’ve talked to/seen in the last week, how many of these interactions were defined by sexual tension? Probably not many. And your CFC is the same: she’s not going around wowing the bus driver with a beautifully arched eyebrow, nor is she exchanging delicious double-entendre with the guy at the DMV.
5. Make her respect women, and let her interact with them in ways that you wouldn’t see on a commercial. There is a neat little thing called the Bechdel test, which is designed for movies, but I think works equally well for books. A movie passes the Bechdel test if it satisfies the following requirements:
- It has to have at least two women in it,
- Who talk to each other (a real conversation)
- About something other than a man.
Sounds simple enough, right? But actually there are a good proportion of Hollywood blockbusters which would fail this test – they’d often stumble at the first hurdle, because there is only one female character (along with one black guy, and one fat person thrown in for comic relief. Le sigh.)
I would add to this that the women in your story shouldn’t only talk about getting stains out of clothes; perfect pie crusts; shoes, makeup or fashion; they shouldn’t be bitching about another woman; or comparing their children. But, you know, that’s just me...
6. If you make her physically strong, show why. It’s fine, and in my opinion desirable, to have a female character who can kick ass. But if she’s a skinny Minnie who is constantly on a diet and never goes to the gym, how is this going to happen? Superpowers, I’ll give you that. But if she’s in the ordinary world and working against ordinary physics, you need to justify why she can do kung fu. Does she go to the dojo three times a week for sparring? (And did I just mix up kung fu and karate?)
7. If she has a “bad attitude”, show why. I’ve had bad attitudes in my life before. But they were usually to do with a meanie boss, or a lack of sleep, or a bad cappuccino. They weren’t a life-long condition. People who have life-long bad attitude are a bit meh, if you ask me. I mean, would she still be frowning on the roller coaster at Disneyland? (Is it even possible to scowl and say “wheeeeee” at the same time?) Anyway, my point is that a perpetual bad attitude is an oddity. If your character has a “chip on her shoulder”, show why. Make it believable that someone would permanently walk around looking like she lost a pound and found a penny.
8. Give her a variety of interests, outside of saving the world/finding the murderer/falling in love. Real people have real interests. CFCs are probably even more likely to have interests, because they’re smart and engaged with the world. Have her play the cello. Better yet, have her play it badly, but really want to improve. Maybe she fancies herself an entrepreneur, and secretly plays the stock market with a ridiculously small amount of money, convinced that one day she’ll hit the jackpot. Perhaps she knows everything there is to know about local birdlife, and is saving up for a pair of high-resolution binoculars.
9. Make her fair, and make her fallible. No one is perfect, but most of us strive to be good. And one quality that people universally admire is fairness. So have your CFC show this quality. But not too much: after all, she’s a real person, and real people are terrible hypocrites. (I, for example, judge other people’s spelling and grammar errors, but it just took me three attempts to spell the word “fallible”.)
10. Don’t make her beautiful. Please, oh please, don’t make her beautiful. This is not to say that every CFC should be plain. But the fact is that very few of us are GOR-geous. More likely we’re interesting and captivating, or quirky and cute, or shining with an inner radiance that makes us stand out from the other people on the bus. Fans of Flight of the Conchords will remember the song “The Most Beautiful Girl in the Room” where the object of Jemaine’s affection is “one of the top three girls on the street... depending on the street” and likened to “a part-time model... but you’d probably still have to keep your day job”. In my opinion, this is the level of hawt-ness we should be aiming for with our CFCs: compelling, and attractive enough that someone might, one day, think up some odd song lyrics, but not so ridiculously beautiful that cars crash when she walks down the street.
11. Give her a moral dilemma that she can’t solve. Ah, the fun of torturing our characters! But it’s not just for sadistic reasons: an ethical dilemma will give you a chance to show the moral fibre of your CFC. And if she can’t solve the problem, all the better. She’s getting more believable by the moment.
12. Let her recognise her limits – and push them anyway. There’s nothing more relatable than seeing the CFC fail at something. And there’s nothing more admirable than seeing her pick herself up, brush herself off, and try again.
13. Give her an overriding passion or fear. This should be something that she wants/fears more than anything – but it’s not necessarily what she is working for in the story itself. For example, in my novel, Unseemly Conduct, the protagonist Isabel has an overriding passion to provide financial stability for herself – after being on the precipice of ruin and starvation, she knows how precarious her station in life is. It is this overriding passion/fear of poverty that allows her to be manipulated by the police detective Inspector Dennehy. Even after the story finishes, your CFC’s overriding passion will remain.
14. If possible, give her a family. They don’t have to be a nuclear family (hubby, kids and dog in the SUV). Oftentimes CFCs are loners, so an immediate family doesn’t factor into it. But everyone comes from somewhere, and your CFC’s back story will be richer for having a family. A dementia-affected aunt that she was frightened of as a child; a cousin who died of leukaemia; a bullying older brother: All of these things will have left their effect on your CFC.
15. Give her an addiction. It could be to coffee, chocolate peanuts, alcohol, buying antique books, having a foot massage – something that, if she’s offered it, takes serious strength of will to pass up. Sometime’s she’ll pass the test of will – sometimes she won’t. Real people aren’t predictable and neither is your CFC.
16. Give her opinions on the world. Not just the storyline that’s rolling out before her. Give her opinions on politics, the environment, immigration – whatever. It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing in this world or another; whether you’re creating an historical or a contemporary. These opinions don’t have to make it into the story, but if you know her opinions, you’ll be writing a multi-faceted, rounded character.
Finally, dear author, if you feel your female character may falling back into cliché territory, get some inspiration via this YouTube video: Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, answers the question “Why do you write such strong female characters?” (His part starts about 2 minutes in, after the Meryl Streep introduction).
- Charlotte Jane Ivory is a writer of Historical Mysteries, Gothic Thrillers, and her own brand of "Victorianoir". She's a living, breathing warning of what happens when you have one foot in the twenty-first century, and one in the nineteenth. Represented by the Donald Maass Literary Agency, her current projects include a Victorian London murder mystery, a noir thriller about London gang wars during the mid 19th century, and - surprising even to her - a satirical fantasy novel.