You don’t want to be that guy who writes cookie-cutter women. As a good writer you want ALL your characters to be real, believable, and relatable. After all, the more your audience identifies with your fictional peeps, the more captivated they’ll be by your story.
I know it’s a challenge, but just because you only have one X chromosome doesn’t mean you can’t breathe life into your women. Other male writers were able to pull this off back when most men considered women lesser creatures and hardly bothered to care about what we were thinking. The effort can be rewarding. Just ask Flaubert. Emma Bovary is such a compellingly human character that he went down into the annals of literary greatness. So here are some tips:
- Have her act and not just react. Are all of her lines a response to the main character? What about her actions? She shouldn’t just be bouncing off the main character, give her a mind and will of her own. Is he always the instigator of the action and she’s just responding to him? Think about it: How often does this happen in real life? Hardly ever, unless you’re conducting an interview with a truly desperate jobseeker, or engaging in conversation with a geisha. This makes her a weak character and, by extension, a weak scene. Which means that you have to…
- Give her a goal of her own. Interesting things happen when one person wants one thing and another person wants something else. Maybe she wants to learn how to ride a horse and the hero keeps trying to talk to her while she’s on her way to riding practice. The goal doesn’t even have to be big or life-altering, either. It could be as simple as wanting a cup of coffee, or needing to find a pen. The point is: Most of us live our lives thinking about what WE want, not what others want; this can be the source of comedy, tragedy, or suspense. Applying this to her character will lend her depth and make for greater subtext in your scene.
- Then make her conflicted about it. Most of us have a mixture of hope and fear around our deepest desires. That’s because whatever we want so badly is so powerful that it also terrifies us. While this push/pull might be neurotic, it’s also a behavior mode that nearly everyone understands, if you set it up properly. Your characters can’t just voice their doubts, the audience has to see what the source of this ambivalence is. Of course, conveying this effectively is a challenge, particularly if you don’t want to use flashbacks or add too many extra scenes if your female character is not also your protagonist, but it can be done and will add a lot to your writing.
- Try seeing the story from her point of view. Jean Renoir once famously said, “The terrible thing about life is that everyone has his reasons.” As an exercise, write a treatment in which she tells the story. This might give you a different perspective on your main character as well. So, perhaps our hero sees her as unattainable because she’s aloof, but what if the truth is that she’s just incredibly shy? And it’s easy to write her bitchy, but what if the reason she’s always so angry is because she’s got the meanest boss on the planet, her dog just died, and her brother-in-law keeps stealing from her?
- Make her human. Even the most beautiful, intimidating creature on the planet has made a mistake, gotten a pimple, been rejected, failed at something, and experienced some deep humiliation. Hell, I can practically guarantee that even the most transcendental goddess went through an awkward stage at around 12 or 13. (Seriously. Do you know anyone who didn’t look and act like a total dweeb in middle school?) While we may be embarrassed to show our vulnerabilities, they’re also what make us human and relatable.
- Think back to the real women you found compelling. This could be your sister, your aunt, a teacher, or even an ex-girlfriend. If you can, try to think back to the moment when she first sparked your interest, or to something she said or did that surprised you. Maybe this was something that you yourself didn’t realize you admired. Whatever it was, it’s likely that it was unexpected. Just like in real life, if your heroine keeps lobbing curve balls, not only will you make her real and intriguing, interesting plot twists are likely to occur as well. If you are close enough to this woman in real life, ask her if she’s had an experience similar to one your heroine has had. Then interview her. Even if this exercise doesn’t make it into your work, at least it will give you insight into what being a woman is like. Hell, this might even be the insight that in certain circumstances, everyone, male OR female, reacts the same.
- Give her something that she’s good at. This can be anything from fixing cars to cooking to skiing. Everyone is good at something, and it’s nearly always fun to watch someone display skill. All right, that depends on how the person feels about her gift, but nevertheless this also leads to interesting paths. Maybe she’s unaware of it, or maybe she toots her horn about it; whichever it might be, you’re certain to come up with fodder for yet other interesting interactions.
- Lend her one of your experiences. This could be as simple as an argument you had this morning with the bus driver, or as significant as a great loss you experienced in childhood. Writing from inside your own experiences is almost guaranteed to give credibility and depth to a character. You will have to mold it to her, naturally, but if you have followed some of the tips above, you will have an easier time igniting that spark that makes a character talk to you and lead you to great writing.
Which female characters have etched themselves in your memory and why?