How to write fictional women realistically
Overall, 2014 has been a great year for girls and women in film, TV, and literature. We’ve got Jacqueline Woodson’s memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming, and fantasy author Ursula K. Le Guin taking charge at the National Book Awards. We’ve got a Captain Marvel movie in the works and two female-led action movies, Divergent and Mockingjay Part 1, making bank at the box office. We’ve got Olivia Pope, Jessica Day, Sophia Burset, and a host of other women blazing trails for many interesting, unique television characters to come.
However, the reason that these characters are so notable is partly because they are in the minority. For every book, movie and television show that writes its female characters well, there are five who still rely on tropes and outdated stereotypes—or worse, outright cast women just so they can be eye candy. For some reason, after over 2000 years, writers, even the writers who write about the characters I listed above, still have trouble portraying women as humans in the media. I’m no professional writer—heck, I’m no professional anything. But I am a woman (I guess—at twenty years old that word still feels so weird), who was once a girl, who grew up with a mom and sisters and a grandmother and who has consumed countless books, movies, TV shows, and podcasts with female characters in them, both well-drawn and poorly-rendered alike. I’m also studying English and communications at my university; so what background I have in literary analysis is helpful in this context, too.
Ultimately, I think what we all want is for trope-y, stereotypical, and unrealistic female characters to be things of the past. These tips aren’t necessarily the end-all, be-all of writing fictional women, but they are a start. If you’re a media professional, or hope to become one in the future, I’ve created this little guide for you and for my own reference (writer, hello); have a look and feel free to tell me anything I missed!
Create more than one of them, and give them names.
Women make up 51% of the world’s population. Shouldn’t they make up more than 30% of all speaking roles in the movies? Shouldn’t they make up more than 15% of the protagonists we root for? Shouldn’t they get their own movies instead of just cameos in every single male superhero’s movie? (Sorry. I’m still a little upset about the severe lack of a Black Widow movie in our universe.) Put more than one woman in your fictional work. Extra points if they’re friends.
Let them have conversations with each other about something other than a man.
Fulfilling just these first two items makes sure that your piece will pass the Bechdel test. “Well, that bar’s set pretty low,” you might be thinking. Yes. Yes it is. But you’d be surprised: only a little over half of the movies released in theaters in 2014 have passed the Bechdel test. Some of the titles that passed are surprising: 22 Jump Street, Transformers: Age of Extinction, and Flowers in the Attic all featured conversations between two named female characters about something other than a man. This proves that your story doesn’t have to be sophisticated or even particularly feminist to pass this test; your dialogue and world-building just have to acknowledge that there are a lot of women in the world, and they talk about a lot of stuff that’s not dudes. Your female characters’ conversation can be about anything—shoes, dinner, other women, taking over the world—except a man, and last no longer than two or three lines, and you’ll pass the test. BUT WAIT, YOU’RE STILL NOT DONE.
Write them with complex, diverse personalities.
Some women are strong warriors who literally wear combat boots, kick butt, and take no nonsense from anyone. That’s great. Some women are soft and kind and bake cookies and make glittery Pinterest projects. That is also great. Lots of women embody both or neither of these types and all of them are great. (Except when they’re not. Women can be villains, also, and not just because they’re aggressive businesspeople or Wednesday-pink-wearing mean girls.) Think beyond the stereotypes you’ve seen before and go big. Also consider reflecting our actual world in your fictional world by populating it with a significant number of non-white, non-straight, non-cis-gendered, bigger-than-size-6 people as well as their white, straight, cis-gendered, smaller-than-size-6 counterparts.
Write them with individual motivations.
Women are often daughters, wives, girlfriends, and mothers. Again, that’s great. However, some women are none of these things, and even women who have partners and families have ambitions and interests outside of their partners and families. Just like men, women may have career aspirations, a desire for political power or scientific discovery, patriotic or nationalist loyalties or even entirely selfish motives—in other words, desires and narratives that have nothing to do with family relationships. Explore those. They’re interesting.
Write them as people.
That is, after all, what we are.
Shelby Bouck is a college student living in Tallahassee, FL and experimenting with adulthood. She believes in competence, not excellence, in everyday activities, and blogs about those beliefs on hownottosuckblog.com. She believes that, if she had a Patronus, it would look a lot like Leslie Knope.