Great Female Characters and How to Write Them
If you’re a creature of the Internet like we are, you’ve no doubt read about the recent Twitter debate re: whether men can write good female characters.
For those of you living in an interweb black hole, firstly: well done you; and secondly: here’s the skinny:
The Internet event began when young adult author Gwen C. Katz tweeted about how a male writer claimed he was, “living proof that it’s possible for a male author to write an authentic female protagonist.” What followed was an example of the dear lad’s writing, demonstrative of his ‘gift,’ which sent the Twitter-verse into glorious upheaval. Let’s just say his example of an authentic female protagonist included a description of “a nice set of curves,” various pairs of tight jeans, and many mentions of breasts . . .
In other words, not exactly the kind of characteristics that come to mind when we think of real women and how they see themselves—or how they hope a real-life person of any gender will perceive them, for that matter.
To remedy the situation, and perhaps offer up a few solutions to those less well informed, we’ve rounded up some of our favorite female protagonists to inspire you to write real women—and read about them too!
Aside from her endearing bookishness, which obviously holds her very close to our hearts, Matilda is beloved for her cunning bravery and clever pranks. What makes her such a great character? Her undeniable loyalty to her friends, her desire to belong to a family who loves her, and her innate goodness that makes her a gorgeous, wonderful person despite being raised amongst human monsters. Oh, and did we mention how jealous we are of her superpowers? Roald Dahl is certainly one male author who knows how to construct a female character worth reading.
“So Matilda’s strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships on the sea.”
—Roald Dahl, Matilda
From Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s third novel Americanah, female protagonist Ifemelu encapsulates what it means to be an authentic character. Determined to make it in America, Ifemelu’s curious mind continuously considers the questions of race, equality, and home that make this such an important read. Through failed relationships, intense education, and culture shock, Adichie’s protagonist is a character both incredibly real and beautifully flawed.
“She thought nothing of slender legs shown off in miniskirts—it was safe and easy, after all, to display legs of which the world approved—but the fat woman’s act was about the quiet conviction that one shared only with oneself, a sense of rightness that others failed to see. Her decision to move back was similar; whenever she felt besieged by doubts, she would think of herself as standing valiantly alone, as almost heroic, so as to squash her uncertainty.”
--Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah
Have you written your own badass female protagonist? Not sure where to take her? Check out our Manuscript Assessment to see where you and your leading lady stand.
Though her sisters each have their own charms, none can hold a candle to Jo March. Jo defined nonconformity in a life full of gender constraints and limitations through her pursuit of writing and her desire for independence. Tender-hearted, temperamental, and tenacious, Jo comes to terms with her womanhood whilst exemplifying how unique that journey can be. She is a truly strong-willed character, ahead of her time.
“I want to do something splendid before I go into my castle—something heroic, or wonderful—that won't be forgotten after I'm dead. I don't know what, but I'm on the watch for it, and mean to astonish you all some day. I think I shall write books, and get rich and famous; that would suit me, so that is my favorite dream.”
—Louisa May Alcott, Little Women
Another exceptional of a male-written female protagonist, Thomas Hardy’s Bathsheba Everdene is a great example of how to write a beautiful yet tragically human character (we’re looking at you, Sergeant Troy). While her romantic life is certainly an intrinsic aspect of the plot, Bathsheba proves to be a fearlessly loyal character, committed to maintaining control over her land and her independence. Hardy demonstrates the right way to write a romance-centered novel and well-rounded, dynamic characters with oh-so-many flaws.
“When a strong woman recklessly throws away her strength she is worse than a weak woman who has never any strength to throw away. One source of her inadequacy is the novelty of the occasion. She has never had practice making the best of such a condition. Weakness is doubly weak by being new.”
—Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd
In Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie Crawford begins as a naive yet hopeful young girl with little opportunity or control over her future. However, it is her transformation into a wise and thoughtful woman that makes this character so loveable. Janie is never defined by the men in her life, but rather learns how to live as an individual and take control over her own future. Hurston crafts a character so real that her victories feel like your victories.
“She stood there until something fell off the shelf inside her.”
—Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
As these authors (and many others) prove, it’s far from impossible to write an authentic female character, for all their rich complexities. While no one is perfect, and there is surely no calculated way to ensure authenticity (especially when writing about someone of another gender), there are a few things you can ask yourself as you write:
Is this character a stereotype? (Does it support common assertions prescribed to a certain gender that refuse them uniqueness?)
How can I make this character more lifelike? How can this character emulate the kind of people I meet, know, and/or admire in my own life?
What is this characters greatest fear? What is their greatest weakness? How are they flawed?
What about this character makes them unique, interesting, and complex—in other words, what makes them worthy of writing about
Does this character feel like someone I might meet IRL? Does she feel human?
If you feel you have mastered your own character, we want to support you through your journey to get published! Sign up for our Publishing Guidebook to see how you and your character can take the next important step together.