19 Female Character Stereotypes or Tropes to Avoid

One of the most basic steps in avoiding the use of female character tropes and stereotypes may sound obvious. It’s to know what the prevailing stereotypes even are!

I’ve gathered 19 female character tropes that tend to bother me as a reader, and many of these I’ve heard complained about from others as well. That’s a bunch, while hardly being a comprehensive list. You may start to feel like it’s impossible to avoid them but really it’s about going beyond them.

Are Female Tropes and Stereotypes Really So Bad?

Yes, because using them is lazy! Stereotypes are usually focused on a trait that can be part of your character; it just can’t be all of how you’ve written her. For each of the tropes on my list, you could therefore add the statement, “And that’s all we know about her.” That’s what makes it a poorly-written cop-out.

As you’ll see from this list, stereotypes can be positive or negative and for protagonists or antagonists.

  1. The Kick-butt Action Girl – Likes to punch, kick, and be tough
  2. The Mary Sue – Written to fulfill the author’s fantasies or concept of self-perfection
  3. The Crone or Hag – Old woman who can curse or harm others, literally or socially
  4. The Perfect Wife – Ideal suburban 50s housewife, for example
  5. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl – Exists solely to inspire men through her quirky nature
  6. The Damsel in Distress – Helpless and waiting for rescue rather than attempting a solution
  7. The Queen Bee – Alpha type in business, adolescent social groups, etc.
  8. The Evil Queen or Matriarch – Female monarch whose motivations are purely evil for no discernible reason
  9. The Spinster or Cat Lady – Woman without children or romantic relationship
  10. The Benevolent Hooker – Misunderstood lady of the night
  11. The Slut – Defined by her interest in sex
  12. The Shrew – Nagging, angry woman
  13. The Evil Fiance or Ex – Written as ‘bad’ primarily because she has what the protagonist wants
  14. The Final Girl – The last girl alive in a horror movie, whom we often know very little about
  15. The Valley Girl or Spoiled Rich Girl – Shallow and affluent
  16. The Gossip – Talks about others without being a character herself
  17. The Ingenue – An overly innocent girl
  18. The Girl Next Door – Wholesome and average through and through
  19. The Mother Hen – Shepherds and coos over people without any other defining motives or qualities

Any character can be subject to stereotypes but this list has focused on female stereotypes because it is part of my recent series of posts on How to Write Well-Rounded Female Characters.

Have you got some other pet peeve stereotypes? Or, any thoughts on stereotypes and writing in general? Feel free to comment!

Writing Characters Who Are Female, Not Females Who Are Characters

Characters I enjoy reading about are written for their personality and decisions first and foremost. On the other hand, I do not think I have ever fallen in love with characters who were described primarily by their gender stereotypes.

Maybe when I was five, watching Aurora, Snow White, and Cinderella as interpreted by Disney but I’ll get to that in a minute.

This is part of my series of posts on How to Write Well-Rounded Female Characters

Distinguishing Attributes from Character

Write someone with a good personality–which could be benevolent or evil!–and it doesn’t really matter whether they are male or female. Brunette or blonde. Gay or straight. Any race. You get the picture. Those are attributes and subsets of a character’s full self.

Thoughts. Conflicts. Experiences. Relationships. Quirks. Choices. Weaknesses. Inner philosophies. I mean, think of the most interesting person in your whole life. Would they be just as interesting if they were a different gender? Of course.

For that reason, I say if you want to write a vivid and well-rounded female character, don’t obsess over the fact that she’s female.

To my delight, the fabulous Neil Gaiman agrees. When asked about writing female characters he said the following as quoted on a site called The Mary Sue:

“I always feel like the wrong person to be asked when I get asked that question because people say, ‘Well how do you write such good female characters?’ And I go, ‘Well I write people.’ Approximately half of the people I know are female and they’re cool, and they’re interesting, and so, why wouldn’t I?”

And thus Mr. Gaiman deftly revealed himself to be, in my book, the perfect person to answer that question. Interestingly, though, Gaiman does believe books end up taking on a gender of their own. I’ll have to think about that one.

Assumptions Versus Articulation: Don’t Be Lazy!

While gender may inform aspects of the characters we write, my opinion is that the more it does, the less developed that character tends to be. Gender stereotypes allow an author to plaster the reader with assumptions about their character, rather than doing the work of articulating who this person is as a distinct individual.

That’s pretty much the lazy way out!

You have to earn the right to intrigue readers, by working to know a character’s inner workings. If you don’t know them, your reader won’t know them, and not knowing usually means not being intrigued enough to care about what happens to them.

A Poor Example from Among the Disney Ladies

Princess Aurora of Sleeping Beauty.  This character has been revisited in later works, but I’m referring to the first Disney movie.

Princess_aurora_disney

Promotional Image from Disney

She wore a pink dress. She was lovely and sang with birds. She was saved by a really good kiss. I feel Princess Aurora was written as a female and not much else. She’s a stock representative of prevailing feminine stereotypes.

What are her weaknesses? What’s going on in her head? She could be anyone in there! Would you want to eat lunch with her and have a conversation? Who knows?!

She’s a main character so why do we not know what makes her tick beyond the fact that she doesn’t like being locked up unable to talk to strangers and she has a thing for handsome princes? Hardly distinguishing traits.

A Better Example from Disney Characters

Mulan. Yes, I love that she was a more proactive personality who cross-dressed and got the job done! But she was also just written better.

Promotional Image from Disney

Promotional Image from Disney

We know oodles about this rad character from seeing her family interactions, her reaction to cultural expectations, her problem-solving, her motivation to save her family’s honor (and China!), what she says no to, what she says yes to, what scares her, what impresses her, and on and on.

Writing the What, Why, and How

The point is, maybe a particular character should be written as a more passive personality like Aurora. The problem isn’t the character, it’s how the character is written. With Aurora, we hardly get the ‘what’ of who she is let alone the ‘why’ she is that way or ‘how’ her personality manifests itself. Instead, we see manifestation after manifestation that Aurora is female.

It’s odd, really!

As I’ve composed this, I’ve really tried to think of a situation when you would want to write a nondescript female main character (or a male one for that matter). In art I feel there are always exceptions so I have to be open to that but I couldn’t concoct one. If you have or if you have anything else to say about all this, please leave a comment!

This is part of my series of posts on How to Write Well-Rounded Female Characters