This is a topic I’ve been wanting to write about for a while, and as folks (Cathy) have asked me about it, here are my thoughts on female characters.
Sometimes people ask me and sometimes I ask myself—what’s necessary for a good female character? They’re so few, and their qualities are so hard to pin down; they seem to be a perpetual challenge for writers of both sexes.
I have a lot of thoughts and feelings on this topic and have yet to succeed in crystallizing them into a real answer to the above question, but for now I’d like to express such thoughts as I have.
For my part, I just write female characters that appeal to me, and sometimes they work for others and sometimes they don’t. I’m most compelled by characters who are courageous, practical, and intelligent, and it may be that such qualities are so rare in female characters that when one has them, it’s striking. But I also know those qualities alone can’t make any character extraordinary.
While it can be challenging to write, I think what does the most for any character is complexity. That’s why, as others in the group have mentioned, people and characters who seem harsh on the surface but reveal deeper emotions are automatically interesting. It’s not the emotions or the harshness that are interesting; it’s the complexity of, for whatever reason, having the one hidden beneath the other. It automatically makes us ask How did that happen? and start imagining stories.
The most compelling female character I’ve ever read is Signy Mallory, the captain of the starship Norway in C. J. Cherryh’s classic space opera Downbelow Station. When people ask me about female characters or when I’m assessing a female character, Signy is my point of reference. I’ll do my best to explain why.
Signy has the qualities I list above: She’s courageous, intelligent, and practical. She has a number of traits hard to find in characters, and especially in female characters. She’s complicated. Her various actions are equally awful and compassionate, all for believable reasons. She’s in charge of her world and the people around her. Her emotions are strong and real, but they don’t make her who she is any more than her thoughts and judgements do. She feels like a real woman because she’s complex in a way that’s consistent and understandable. And all this makes her general badassery that much more awesome, because it belongs to a real woman and not a token Strong Female Character.
Oh, if that’s all it takes to make a female character work for you, simple enough, right?
I try to judge characters fairly. I’ve seen plenty of female characters who are perfectly good, but the honest truth is that Signy Mallory ruined me for most of them. I don’t want all other female characters to be just like Signy—but I would like far more of them to be equally compelling. Simply put, most female characters I encounter seem to lack intensity.
To justify to some extent this unforgiving attitude, I think female characters need much higher standards. Too often and for too long, women have been portrayed in a way that can be best summarized as awful, and the tradition of portraying women badly is one the entertainment world is still pulling its long, slow, sticky way out of (where it’s trying at all). And while the increasingly popular brave fighter women (e.g., The Hunger Games) might counteract perceptions of women as weak or cowardly, they don’t do as much as they might to address the (in my opinion) more important, underlying problem of portraying women as varied and complicated human beings.
Of course, the problem of real and complex character-building affects both sexes—but it’s the female characters who face a long history of being portrayed as vacuous, one-dimensional, unintelligent, or simply not as interesting as the male lead. And this is why I scrutinize and judge every female character I see: I think a tough attitude and amazing female characters are necessary to counteract a history of literary and cinematic abuse. I don’t look for female characters who are just well-constructed or strong or brave; I look for ones who are awesome, not only as fighters or lawyers or parents or nuclear physicists, but as people.
[As an aside, I’m in no way criticizing the body of male writers, many of whom have produced great female characters, or suggesting that only women should write women, as plenty of female writers have produced terrible female characters.]
Them’s my thoughts on female characters, in an eggshell. I hope they clarify why I’m occasionally a pain on the subject, and what I hope to do when I write my own stories.