Writing a great female character

11 04 2015

gender pronouns

Taking a break from discussions on politics and religion to rant on writing.

In a recent discussion, a fellow writer said, “This is how to create a good female character: Write a good character. Add female pronouns.”


What I love about writing speculative fiction (the broadest possible descriptor of the paintbox that includes SF, Fantasy and Horror) is that you can go there. So much contemporary fiction is reactive; it explores gender as it is experienced by the majority of readers. This is because, in order to appeal to the broadest audience (translation: sell big and earn big bucks) the story and the characters must resonate with readers. The reader must be able to relate to them, and thus the characters must fulfill familiar roles.

For example: What is it like to be a man struggling with the tension between what his girlfriend wants and who he needs to be around his male friends? What is it like to be a woman of a certain age realizing love may never come to her again? A woman in an unhappy marriage? A man dealing with his adult children? A woman dealing with female friendships? A writer is said to have succeeded when the reader gushes about “how right they got it.” They’ve failed when the reader scoffs, “A real woman wouldn’t act that way.”

This of course implies that there is a correct way to capture what it means to be feminine or masculine. Which implies that there is a typical, expected way to be a man or a woman. That’s precisely what many of us are bristling at. And why Spec Fic is appealing. One can escape expectations. Invert roles and bend gender until it breaks. Dare to defy what is accepted as correct.

It isn’t that being female should be completely irrelevant or not a factor in what makes the character who she is, especially in the way others relate to her and the social situations of the story. The problem lies in having a certain set of attributes assigned to females. And presuming she would encounter problems if she lacked those classic female attributes. Is someone a “real man” or a “real woman”? A pox on that box we put characters in! Or people for that matter.

Imagine doing as my colleague suggests with a well-known iconic character. Someone absolutely splendid and singular. Sherlock Holmes, for example. Now, just add feminine pronouns. No, don’t add manicured nails, lipstick or high heels. Just change the pronouns. There is absolutely no reason a woman couldn’t wear a deerstalker cap, suffer from nicotine addiction, or shoot a gun into the wall when bored.

Does this make your head explode? If not, you’ve gotten a glimpse of the sort of female character many of us want to see. Not just a “strong” female character. Splendid and singular.

DoctorDonnaWhy does the idea of a female Dr. Who make some in fandom shriek like an orchestra of scorched cats? In the David Tennant years we got a glimpse of what a female doctor might be like when Donna Noble took on the Doctor’s mind for a short while. It was magnificent. Catherine Tate captured so many subtle mannerisms and expressions that made it absolutely believable that she was the Doctor. (By the way, as heretical as it might be, Donna is among my favorite companions in part because she makes it very clear from the outset that she has no romantic interests in the Doctor. She is not written to be “sexy”.) Doctor-Donna convinced me in a heartbeat that not only could it work, it had to happen.

There is far more variation among people of a given gender than between the genders. Nor is the division between male and female as stark as popular culture wants to make it. And we are all human. Richly human, in all its astonishing diversity. We writers will never run out of material to create marvelous characters, singular and splendid. Let’s write them!

And add the pronouns afterwards.




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