Writing Characters Who Are Female, Not Females Who Are Characters

Characters I enjoy reading about are written for their personality and decisions first and foremost. On the other hand, I do not think I have ever fallen in love with characters who were described primarily by their gender stereotypes.

Maybe when I was five, watching Aurora, Snow White, and Cinderella as interpreted by Disney but I’ll get to that in a minute.

This is part of my series of posts on How to Write Well-Rounded Female Characters

Distinguishing Attributes from Character

Write someone with a good personality–which could be benevolent or evil!–and it doesn’t really matter whether they are male or female. Brunette or blonde. Gay or straight. Any race. You get the picture. Those are attributes and subsets of a character’s full self.

Thoughts. Conflicts. Experiences. Relationships. Quirks. Choices. Weaknesses. Inner philosophies. I mean, think of the most interesting person in your whole life. Would they be just as interesting if they were a different gender? Of course.

For that reason, I say if you want to write a vivid and well-rounded female character, don’t obsess over the fact that she’s female.

To my delight, the fabulous Neil Gaiman agrees. When asked about writing female characters he said the following as quoted on a site called The Mary Sue:

“I always feel like the wrong person to be asked when I get asked that question because people say, ‘Well how do you write such good female characters?’ And I go, ‘Well I write people.’ Approximately half of the people I know are female and they’re cool, and they’re interesting, and so, why wouldn’t I?”

And thus Mr. Gaiman deftly revealed himself to be, in my book, the perfect person to answer that question. Interestingly, though, Gaiman does believe books end up taking on a gender of their own. I’ll have to think about that one.

Assumptions Versus Articulation: Don’t Be Lazy!

While gender may inform aspects of the characters we write, my opinion is that the more it does, the less developed that character tends to be. Gender stereotypes allow an author to plaster the reader with assumptions about their character, rather than doing the work of articulating who this person is as a distinct individual.

That’s pretty much the lazy way out!

You have to earn the right to intrigue readers, by working to know a character’s inner workings. If you don’t know them, your reader won’t know them, and not knowing usually means not being intrigued enough to care about what happens to them.

A Poor Example from Among the Disney Ladies

Princess Aurora of Sleeping Beauty.  This character has been revisited in later works, but I’m referring to the first Disney movie.


Promotional Image from Disney

She wore a pink dress. She was lovely and sang with birds. She was saved by a really good kiss. I feel Princess Aurora was written as a female and not much else. She’s a stock representative of prevailing feminine stereotypes.

What are her weaknesses? What’s going on in her head? She could be anyone in there! Would you want to eat lunch with her and have a conversation? Who knows?!

She’s a main character so why do we not know what makes her tick beyond the fact that she doesn’t like being locked up unable to talk to strangers and she has a thing for handsome princes? Hardly distinguishing traits.

A Better Example from Disney Characters

Mulan. Yes, I love that she was a more proactive personality who cross-dressed and got the job done! But she was also just written better.

Promotional Image from Disney

Promotional Image from Disney

We know oodles about this rad character from seeing her family interactions, her reaction to cultural expectations, her problem-solving, her motivation to save her family’s honor (and China!), what she says no to, what she says yes to, what scares her, what impresses her, and on and on.

Writing the What, Why, and How

The point is, maybe a particular character should be written as a more passive personality like Aurora. The problem isn’t the character, it’s how the character is written. With Aurora, we hardly get the ‘what’ of who she is let alone the ‘why’ she is that way or ‘how’ her personality manifests itself. Instead, we see manifestation after manifestation that Aurora is female.

It’s odd, really!

As I’ve composed this, I’ve really tried to think of a situation when you would want to write a nondescript female main character (or a male one for that matter). In art I feel there are always exceptions so I have to be open to that but I couldn’t concoct one. If you have or if you have anything else to say about all this, please leave a comment!

This is part of my series of posts on How to Write Well-Rounded Female Characters

7 thoughts on “Writing Characters Who Are Female, Not Females Who Are Characters

  1. ldlagarino

    If a male writer keeps a daily journal, one way he might be able to create more interesting female characters is to take every first person “I” and change it to a third person “she.” Of course it’s not as completely simple as that, but it is a place to start. Assuming the male writer engages in traditionally male activities, his female characters will find themselves behaving in non-stereotypic ways.


    1. cindygrigg

      I think that’s totally fun to play with. As you say, many male writers may engage in activities not traditionally male (at least, I hope so because it makes life more full, right?) but those probably aren’t the writers who find it challenging to write a female character anyway. So I think your idea is likely to help someone who feels a barrier regarding writing from a woman’s perspective. Thanks for adding this suggestion, it’s really cool.


  2. hannahgivens

    Some famous author (George R.R. Martin?) said his method was “I think of an interesting character, then I make them female.” I try to follow the same method, because otherwise I totally end up doing a boring “female person” who’s basically the same as all my others. I really don’t get it, I mean… I’M female!

    I only recently watched all the Disney princess movies, and I actually kind of liked Aurora’s portrayal because she was just really not very bright. Lots of people are just not smart, and I thought it was kind of nice to have that representation alongside characters like Mulan, Belle, Tiana, etc. I think you’re right that she’s stereotypically feminine, though.

    (My friend Rose is currently writing a blog series on Disney princesses, I think you’d find it interesting based on this post, check it out if you haven’t already. The first one was in February: http://rosebfischer.com/2014/02/10/one-fat-womans-defense-of-the-disney-princess-in-which-i-post-a-wildly-unpopular-and-politically-incorrect-opinion-and-dont-give-a-shit/)


    1. cindygrigg

      Thanks, Hannah! I know exactly what you mean about the challenge of one character starting to sound like some of your other characters. Even though this was all about writing female characters, since writing this post I keep thinking of other ways I may be stereotyping my characters–at the end of the day, maybe every character could be accused of some stereotypes. I liked your take on Aurora, that totally made me smile, as did the name of this blog series on Disney princesses. So I will definitely be checking that out, thanks for the referral! I don’t think the Disney gals are all bad but they’re so iconic, they make great points of reference for discussions. Hope to interact with you more!


  3. Calvin

    This whole series of posts about writing strong well-rounded female characters is SO helpful for a young writer like myself. I can’t thank you enough. And there are more than a few well-known writers who could learn a thing or two from this as well. Thank you so much for writing these.


    1. cindygrigg

      Calvin, that totally makes my day! Thanks so much for taking the time to tell me. I’m glad you found it helpful and if you have a blog or social media either now or in the future, please send links my way! Great to have you here.


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