The beautiful thing about writing is that the narrator doesn’t always have to be you, or even someone like you. As an author, you can imagine someone totally different telling your story—perhaps someone of a different country, a different time period, or even a different gender.
Writing characters of your own gender allows you to draw from your experiences and put them on paper. But if you’re writing from the perspective of the opposite sex, your whole viewpoint has to change.
A Fresh Perspective
For example, he reimagined the story of Snow White by telling it from the perspective of the stepmother: from that viewpoint, Snow White could be seen as a power-grabbing, vampire-like creature who is able to stay in a coffin for a year and come back to life with no problems!
This results in an interesting twist that makes a familiar story fresh and compelling.
The Challenge of Writing Women
As the famous book says, “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus.” The differences in how the male and female minds work can make it a challenge for men to write about female characters.
Adding to that challenge is the fact that, up until the last decade or so, the percentage of bestselling books written by men far exceeded those written by women. This may have contributed to the often inaccurate or stereotypical pictures of women that more contemporary writers also draw from.
Writing from a female point of view is a powerful skill, as some stories can only best be told from that perspective. Here is a quick list of some of the most popular books that have an excellently-developed female lead character:
- The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins
- Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
- Divergent by Veronica Roth
- Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
- Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
- The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
- Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
However, all these books were written by female authors: this means that they understand how the female mind works, and they can easily convey that on the page.
But what happens if a male author writes about a woman? This proves to be more challenging. Some of the most common mistakes include:
- a male author making too many references to the things that are mostly noticed by men, such as the female body
- a male author writing inaccurately about a woman’s physiological processes, such as monthly periods
- a male author giving a female character an overly-masculine role
How Do You Write a Female Character?
Although we want to avoid gender stereotypes, the male and female minds do have different ways of looking at things. Here are some tips to help you write a female character in a realistic and convincing way:
1. Be aware of stereotypes.
Just because someone is a girl doesn’t automatically mean she loves talking about boys, buys the latest fashion, wears makeup, or enjoys cooking or housework or babies. Not all girls obsess over their bodies, are clueless about cars, or need a man to rescue them.
First, you need to be aware when something is a stereotype. Then decide if your character exhibits that trait or not.
Making your character too stereotypical will make your writing unoriginal, irrelevant, and possibly offensive. However, there is such a thing as over-correcting: if you write your female character like a man just because you are a man, she’ll likely feel inauthentic to all types of female readers.
2. Listen to how women talk. (And talk to women!)
If you are a male writer looking to write from a female perspective, it would be wise to spend some time listening to how women talk. Again, in an effort to avoid stereotyping, let’s look at some scientific findings:
Throughout the years, numerous studies tried to prove that women indeed used more words per day than men. But one study explored the scenarios that triggered women and men to talk more: women were more likely to talk more over a lunch conversation, while men tended to talk more in a professional gathering of six or more people.
Female psychiatrist Dr. Louann Brizendine wrote a book called The Female Mind, in which she shared how women allocate more brain cells for communication. She also cited the dampening effect that the male hormone testosterone has on the part of the brain that processes language.
From these findings, we can safely hold to this main difference between men and women: women do tend to process language and communication more effectively than men.
But as you do your research, don’t just observe how women talk—actually listen and talk to them! Ask them about their lives, their struggles, their opinions—anything that might help you get a feel for their experience.
All of these questions will lead to some pretty powerful insight that can help you shape realistic, well-developed female characters. And this advice can apply to all authors writing women characters, whether they’re male or female, since not all women experience life the same.
Think about the type of character you’re trying to write, and spend some time with real women who embody those traits.
3. Learn how women process feelings.
Another common belief is that women tend to be more emotional (or at least more verbal about their emotions) than men. Although research still remains inconclusive on that matter, cultural norms seem to dictate that it’s more acceptable for women to display their feelings than for men.
But, we also know that unfortunately, women are sometimes perceived as being weaker because of the perception that they are more emotional.
With this in mind, you may want to consider how your female POV processes her thoughts and feelings. You can make your character as emotional or stoic as you’d like, but if you opt for the former, don’t fall into the trap of assuming her display of emotion makes her weak.
4. Always start with the person.
Before you start writing, create a character profile of your POV narrator. Unless you’re writing in third person omniscient, chances are, your storyteller will most likely be one of the characters in the story. Get to know that character first, listing down things like:
- Her motivations and dreams
- Her fears and pet peeves
- Her speaking habits
- Her thought patterns (i.e., is she prone to pessimism? Or is she usually sunny and calm?)
5. Make them more than supporting roles.
Sometimes, even if a female character seems like a heroine or protagonist, she’s really there to be rescued or loved by a male character. Or worse yet, she might be there simply to improve or balance a male character.
To avoid this, make your female leads actual leads, and not just supporting roles. Show readers how that character is special in her own right, and not just in the context of how she improves, supports, or is loved by another character.
6. Identify what your character thinks or cares about.
As you start to create a three-dimensional character, pay close attention to what your female narrator is most likely to think or care about.
One common mistake that male authors make when writing from a female perspective is an overemphasis on physical attributes. Scientific studies show that men tend to respond more to visual cues, while women respond more to aural cues.
This is why a female narrator who talks too much about other characters’ bodies may be an indication of a female POV fail.
Failed Attempts at Writing Women
Sadly, we have many examples of writing fails by male authors who attempt to portray female characters. Here are some of the more popular ones:
Example #1. Kill Bill (2003)
In the movie Kill Bill, the main character, played by Uma Thurman, decides to right every wrong done to her. While vengeance is a common theme for both men and women, the way she goes about it portrays her more as a male character in a female body. Critics remark that this may be because the film was written and directed by men.
Example #2. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
Despite his earlier success featuring five women in his debut, The Virgin Suicides, Eugenides adapts an entirely female point of view in this book. And although the main character, Madeleine, could be believable in every way, the story lacks one thing: true female friendships.
While this may seem trivial, the bonds between women are actually an important factor that’s been studied by science. Studies such as the Bechdel Test have emerged to test the authenticity of stories based on how women are portrayed interacting with one another.
Example #3. The Anarchist by David Mamet
Although David Mamet is considered a king on the stage, his attempt to focus this play on two women ran into a wall: the characters did not feel authentic, and the play was considered a failure.
Excellently Written Women in Literature
Fortunately, these next examples show how effectively a male author can write with a woman as the main character:
Example #1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Anna Karenina is the tragic heroine in this classic novel. She starts off as the belle of the ball and everyone’s favorite, but her adulterous affair with Count Vronsky leads her on a downward spiral.
Leo Tolstoy uses the third person omniscient point of view, shifting between different characters throughout the chapters. He effectively portrays the thoughts and feelings of both male and female characters, including Anna’s tormented thoughts toward the end of the book, before she falls to her tragic end.
Example #2. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Madame Bovary follows the life of Emma, whose obsession with books lays the foundation of all her adventurous and passionate imaginings.
This classic novel also uses the third person omniscient point of view, and even uses indirect speech without attributions to show the different character’s subjective thoughts about other people and events.
Example #3. The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
Henry James is hailed as a prime example of a male author who writes women authentically. Perhaps the years he spent with his female cousins contributed to his deeper understanding of women.
In fact, it was around the time when one of these cousins was dying of tuberculosis that he started toying with the idea for what would later become The Portrait of a Lady.
Writing Female Characters
From these tips, you can start exploring writing with a woman for a main character as one option in writing your novel.
Be meticulous about developing strong characters, including your narrator, and you will find yourself creating a compelling story that your readers will love.
Do you have a favorite example of a female character or a book written from a female perspective? Tell us about it in the comments below!
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