How to Write Well-Rounded Female Characters in Speculative Fiction

I was recently on a few Comic Con panels about women in speculative fiction (fantasy, science fiction, and other genres). One of my favorites was titled, “Women Warriors and Female Shamans—How to Avoid Stereotypes in Writing”. I loved hearing from my fellow-panelists as well as audience members. It was super cool!

This week, I’m publishing a series of blog posts about how to write whole or well-rounded female characters in speculative fiction.

Yes, I will get sassy on this topic. But I do realize it is a point of real concern for some writers. To that I say, good on ya. This is a really important topic not only for writing but for life!

In fact, I’d like to just start out sassy.

Women Aren’t Flat

If you immediately thought I was talking about boobs, this exercise might be for you! (Okay, actually I would have thought the same thing).

The next time you look at the people living in your house, take notice. Are the men three-dimensional, thinking, emotional, decision-making beings while the women act like flat pieces of paper? No? Interesting.

If the women in real life aren’t one-dimensional, why would you write female characters in science fiction or fantasy that way? It’s so weird how often this happens. No human should be written as a paper doll!

fairytale-paperdoll-graphicsfairy009c

Women Aren’t Easy

Again, if you immediately thought. . .The next time you are at a bus stop and start imagining life stories written on all the people around you, take notice of how you do so.

Are the men covered with words belying the fully-developed, complex stories of their upbringing, financial situation, health concerns, temptations, obstacles, and responsibilities, while the women get only easy, terse labels? Gorgeous. Bitter. Young. Old. Desperate. Sweet.

Art reflects life. Your art reflects your inner life. Please tell me you don’t think of women so simply.

Women Aren’t All Things Nice

The next time you are in a conversation, take notice. Are the men’s statements showing a range of emotions, motivations, complex outlooks, and life decisions while the women are focused on the approval of the men, making the men feel good about what they’ve said, or being sweet at all costs?

If so, you might consider finding some more interesting female friends! Or at least honest ones. Because even those women who behave as if they are all things nice (or all things relative to men!) are actually whole characters and will manifest themselves as such at some point even if they bottle it up now.

And by the way, being a whole character makes women authentically human, not broken versions of what some people have decided women should be.

Most if not all readers have experienced well-rounded female personalities in their real lives, so mere sugar and spice will not a believable female character make.

You don’t want your readers having the same reaction I hope you have to this 1902 poster I found in the Library of Congress:

02926r

For That Matter, Women Aren’t Missing Entirely

The next evening you find yourself thinking about your day, take notice. How many women did you see? Was there one token female arbitrarily placed somewhere in your day with very few lines and even fewer distinguishing character traits? And yes, she was unbelievably smokin’ hot. Naturally!

Even if some scenes in your novel are comprised mostly of men, the overall story should reflect the reality that people generally see a more equal distribution of women to men in a given day. Some stories are exceptions to this based on plot, but not many. Especially in genres as progressive as sci fi or fantasy!

For example, marketing for the 1953 work “The Space Pioneers” invited girls along, but the actual story itself did not reflect their presence. Sound familiar?

The Space Pioneers

Calling All Boys and Girls

How to Write Well-Rounded Female Characters

So I’ve had my little rant, that after thousands upon thousands of years, humans are still having trouble with what to do with women as a concept. Oy vay!

But ultimately, you may still find it elusive to write well-rounded female characters and that’s a legitimate quest.

As a quick aside, notice I did not say ‘strong female characters’ because even though I personally favor ‘strong female characters’, I do not think every well-written female personality has to be a kick-butt man-with-boobs.

To the contrary, I think a lot of ‘traditionally feminine’ qualities are super strong. I personally subscribe to the idea that a man or woman can expand their life by embracing both the ‘traditionally masculine’ and ‘traditionally feminine’ qualities.

But whatever your personal philosophy or taste, you know what your female characters can’t be? Written flat as paper, with simple labels you lazily slapped on rather than getting to know them, and devoid of realistic depth of motivation. Or non-existent.

As always, feel free to comment!

More on writing female characters:

2 thoughts on “How to Write Well-Rounded Female Characters in Speculative Fiction

  1. Excellent thoughts! Writing well developed female characters used to be one of my biggest concerns as a writer, until I realized I shouldn’t be thinking of them as “female characters” and just “characters”. After all, I didn’t think “male character” or “main male character” I just think of them as characters. As with any character I try to work out what drives them, why, and then try and figure out how they act in relation to the story.

    • Seth, I totally agree. I’ve learned that some writers shy away from certain characters not out of disrespect but out of overthinking how different that character is from their own experience. To me, bringing my experience to a character who is not entirely like me is really fun. I’m glad it’s not just me that thinks this way 🙂

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