Concerning Writers: Female characters

Edited screenshot from New Line Cinema's The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
Loveable characters are the heart of geek culture. We cosplay as them, we debate who’s better (Gandalf vs. Dumbledore anyone?*), we buy their merchandise.

Is it any wonder that, lately, women have been challenging the way we’re portrayed? Guys have had decades of emulating their strong, interesting, and well-rounded male characters; while women appreciate the Han Solos, the Aragorns and the Edward Elrics, it would be great if we had some female characters who weren’t just written in to stand still and look pretty.

Geek culture is, of course, full of great female characters. Galadriel, Hermione, Katara, Ahsoka Tano, and Sarah Walker are just a few of my favourites. But there are deeper problems that effect how female characters are received, and we should be addressing these issues. For example, female characters are often still expected to take second place to the main male protagonist. Or, stories in which the protagonist is a female are primarily marketed to girls because “boys won’t be interested.” Think of Rowling’s publishers, who advised her to not publish under her real name, Joanne, because they assumed boys wouldn’t want to read a book written by a woman. 

Female characters are often still expected to take second place to the main male protagonist.

For those of you working on your own stories, here are three things to keep in mind as you write female characters:

  1. Is your shieldmaiden constantly having to prove that she’s good enough to be in the military even though she’s a woman? We all love cheering for the underdog, and this narrative is no exception. The problem here is that it still assumes the military is a “man’s world” and that women have to fight to be included. This can also apply for any other “man’s world” setting, like academia, medicine, sports, or anywhere that is not the kitchen, really. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this narrative flipped, where a male character has to prove he’s good enough to be included in a “woman’s world,” so why do we keep on pushing this idea on female characters? “Overcoming being a woman” should not be the central conflict of any story.
  1. Are your female protagonists always young, thin, and pretty? Female characters are still written to fit these standards, even though most women IRL do not, which promotes an unrealistic ideal of beauty and body type. Why not write about an older woman? Or someone who’s overweight? Author Harry Connolly had to write his own book about an older female protagonist because he couldn’t find one already in existence.
  1. Do you hurt your female characters just to provide motivation for their significant others? Think of the classic superhero excuse for not being with the woman he loves: “I can’t be with you because my enemies will hurt you to get to me.” I was watching an episode of Justice League Unlimited the other day (“This Little Piggy”) in which Batman uses this very excuse on Wonder Woman. My first thought?
    It would be great if we had some female characters who weren’t just written in to stand still and look pretty.
    “As if Wonder Woman can’t take care of herself!” It’s an insult to women to assume that we would be so helpless. It’s also an insult when female characters are there just so that they can be hurt in order to hurt their loved ones. This treats women as accessories and perpetuates the idea that our only purpose is to serve the whims of men. There’s a term for this by the way: Women in Refrigerators Syndrome.

I’m not saying that all female characters from-now-until-the-end-of-time have to be tough, ass-kicking types. You can still write female characters in “traditional” female roles. What matters is that they have agency and autonomy. Great female characters make mistakes, fall in love, are mothers, save the world. They don’t remain stagnant; they grow and change throughout the story because they affect their own narratives with their own actions.

Good characters make good stories. Ours will only improve the more we change one-dimensional female characters into the well-rounded beings they should be.

There are many other examples I could have used. What other elements make great female characters? Let us know in the comments.


*Gandalf always wins, hands down.

Kyla Neufeld

Kyla Neufeld

Contributing Writer at Area of Effect
Kyla is a poet, writer, and editor. She writes about various sci-fi and fantasy series, and is interested in the intersections between geek culture, feminism, and social justice. She lives in Winnipeg with her husband, the Sith Lord, and her daughter, the Nazgûl child.
Kyla Neufeld