Writing the ‘Realistic Female Character’

This post probably merits a Harsh Sarcasm Ahead warning label all on its own.

Also, there will be a lot of asides and tangents. (Sometimes my brain works that way. Unless you’re new here, you already know that.)

It still seems strange to me, but apparently a lot of writers have difficulty with the whole concept of How to Write Realistic Female Characters(tm).

Um… You just write them as themselves, don’t you?

Maybe it’s a case of people taking “Write what you know” way too far and thinking that anything they don’t know personally cannot be real.

I’m not saying that being a woman doesn’t have any effect on how someone thinks or acts, but it’s not the sole — or even most important (at least shouldn’t be) — factor in what shapes a person. Do women play chess in a different way from how men do, simply because they’re women? Do they wash their cars differently? Do they fill out their tax forms differently? Do they listen to different music? How much does sex/gender influence what someone’s favorite color is, or favorite food, or whether they enjoy visiting their relatives during the summer holidays? Absent any outside influences telling them what they “should” like, would women drink different brands of beer from what men drink?

People are people. Period. If you wonder why I am more likely to reblog/comment on posts about writing realistic (or strong, or whatever) female characters, it’s because the prevalence of those posts tells me there’s still a need for them. And when I see one that’s full of bullshit, I comment on that, too. By bullshit, I mean things like, “Women all talk about their emotions a lot, which is why women use, like, five times as many words in a given day as any man does, because women have more feelings than men do,” or, “We all like shoes, right, ladies? Shoes and chocolate are what make ladypeople happy — ALL ladypeople, ALL THE TIME. And that’s why we’re all on diets and our feet always hurt from wearing fashionable shoes.”

According to my friend Grace, even women who are part of a hive mind don’t hold the same views on everything. 🙂 (She’s joking, of course; the hive mind she’s part of also contains men, so it doesn’t count.)

You probably know more people who don’t fit those stereotypes than ones who do, even if you don’t realize it. As for whether or not someone is “realistic”… Is this a real person? Yes? Then however they behave is how real people behave. Chances are, whatever you come up with for your fictional people, as long as it is internally consistent in the story, fits how some real person, somewhere, thinks and acts.

Whether or not your fictional person is realistic for who you’ve said they are… Well, as I already mentioned, there needs to be internal consistency, and that’s another matter.

Small tangent: “Realistic” often misused as a synonym for “average.” Don’t do that. In a standard bell curve (pardon the talk of statistics for a moment, but it’s necessary), you’ve got about two thirds of whatever is being measured falling in the “average” middle. That means you’ve got one third that isn’t average at all. And yes, this applies to humans, too. Pick something — anything. How about lightness/darkness of hair color? Some people have very dark hair, compared to the average for the whole population of the world; some have very light hair. If most have a sort of medium-dark ash-brown hair, that does not mean that anyone who’s fair red-blond is unrealistic.

(For what it’s worth, I do blog about stupid stereotypes for writing male characters, too: Men only think about one topic at a time, they don’t use a lot of words, they don’t have feelings, they like dogs better than cats, they don’t know how to cook and refuse to do housework, they’re action-oriented, they make demands rather than requests… *sigh* I know I’m not allowed to say not all men fit these stereotypes, but the articles and blog posts about how to write Realistic Male Characters(tm) do sometimes say all men are like this — ’cause the ones who aren’t are unrealistic and thus don’t exist, y’know — so I’m just sitting here saying absolutes are usually wrong, and generalizations have exceptions which may not be as exceptional as some people think. I’m sitting here, with one of my six cats just having jumped up onto my desk, writing a long and emotion-filled blog post blathering about several loosely related topics, and I’d really appreciate it if you think about what I’ve said after I post this and go do the laundry. 🙂 And the only irony in the previous sentence is that it’s all true.)

Once upon a time, I saw someone blog about how it’s unrealistic for a woman who knows how to use a sword or ax (a “good” trait, because it isn’t “girly”) to also know how to cook or sew (“bad” traits, because they’re “girly,” and a Strong Female Character isn’t supposed to have any “girly” traits). So of course I told my friend Grace… Grace, y’see, knows how to use a sword or ax, although she prefers the mace or war hammer. She also knows how to cook and sew, and she’s very good at the latter. And, oh yeah — I know how to cook and sew, as does my clone. (*mental note — post photo of clone in SCA garb*)

Part of the trouble with narrow definitions of “realistic” characters is that it links up to whether a character is “relatable,” and that leads to all sorts of nonsense. Y’see, we’re often told that only “average” characters are relatable, because readers are all average people, right? (I did issue an extra Harsh Sarcasm warning, didn’t I?) Readers are all middle-class, average-intelligence, never-did-anything-unusual people… Except all the ones who aren’t, of course. (Even defining “relatable” as “a character who does the same thing I’d do if I were in that situation” doesn’t always work. Sometimes a character does something that seems unspeakably stupid to me, but that’s only because I have knowledge or experience that the character doesn’t. I wouldn’t do the same thing they did. On the other hand, I understand why they did it. Maybe there’s just something wrong with me, that I can understand someone else without being just like them and experiencing the same things they have… and maybe I’m just a sarcastic sonofabitch who delights in being sarcastic because Teh Expertz say I’m incapable of sarcasm. Yeah, it could be that.)

Wow, this post sure did drift from the original topic. On the other hand, it’s all connected. [Tangent tirade deleted.] As I said, realistic character is often linked with relatable character; some people say they’re the same thing.

In my opinion, the criteria for realistic is internal consistency, not only with the character’s personality as defined by the author but also with the setting in which the character is placed. A woman living in the 1780s is not realistic if she thinks and behaves exactly like a woman living in the 1980s. That doesn’t mean she has to be “typical” or “average” for women in the 1780s, but it does mean that her environment shapes her. If she’s a badass swordsperson, for example, the author has to give the reader a reason to accept this as realistic for that character. If she’s a badass swordsperson who dreams of settling down with a good man and spending all her time raising babies… That’s gonna be a harder sell, because the reader may reasonably assume that such a woman would rather settle down with a good man (or woman, or both) and start a fencing school for underprivileged youngsters. Why give up something you enjoy and are good at just to do something else you want to do, when those things are not mutually exclusive? And that’s sort of the point, too: there is nothing logical that says a woman — or a man, or a person who identifies as both or neither — has to choose between doing things “stereotypical” for them or doing things that run counter to that stereotype. A badass swordsperson — of any gender — can also like wearing nice clothes, or baking cookies, or reading about landscape architecture, or knitting… but not naalbinding, ’cause that causes so much frustration that the character is likely to go berserker. Why do you think I gave it up? 🙂

Anyway. Realistic doesn’t mean average. Relatable doesn’t mean average (unless the reader is unspeakably narrow-minded). People are people, and if you don’t apply the same basic criteria to realistic female character as you do to realistic male character (or realistic character of any gender), you’re doing something wrong — in how you’re being a human (or other sapient person) as well as in how you’re being a writer.

(Made it through the whole post? Congratulate yourself, go have a beer or coffee or whatever you prefer, and take it easy for the rest of the day. Anyone who can read a fifteen-hundred-words-plus blog post in this era of ultra-short attention spans and “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” deserves some reward…)

WordPress’ spell check wants me to change sew to so, ax to acts, and swordsperson to sportsperson. No wonder we can’t have nice things…


About Thomas Weaver

For several years, I’ve been putting my uncanny knack for grammar and punctuation, along with an eclectic mental collection of facts, to good use as a Wielder of the Red Pen of Doom (editor). I'm physically disabled, and I currently live with my smugly good-looking twin Paul, who writes military science fiction and refuses to talk about his military service because he can’t. Sometimes Paul and I collaborate on stories, and sometimes I just edit whatever he writes. It's worked out rather well so far. My list of non-writing-related jobs from the past includes librarian, art model, high school teacher, science lab gofer… Although I have no spouse or offspring to tell you about, I do have eight cats. I currently spend my time blogging, reading, editing, and fending off cats who like my desk better than my twin’s.
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6 Responses to Writing the ‘Realistic Female Character’

  1. Sheron says:

    I’m getting pressure to make my female characters “bad ass, kick butt” because editors say readers want strong female characters. Gheesh! Not all women want to hold a sword or slash the bad guys. It makes me weary. In trying to provide a stronger role model for young girls, the pendulum is swinging the other way. (Hunger Games) I totally agree that regardless of gender, we have types of all kinds. Men and women should be able to fit into society where they are comfortable whether that be a female engineer or a male fashion designer. And the time period, and society where any female, or male, lives shapes their choices. Excellent point.

    Ps. Glad you have clean laundry and fun cats

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Ha! I’ll take my reward as a can of ginger ale. 🙂

    Agree with everything you say. Making a character relatable doesn’t mean stereotypical or average. It means giving them relatable elements. I may not relate to being a badass sword woman, but I can relate to parents not agreeing with my choices on what to do with my life. Which a badass sword woman may or may not also experience.

    People are people. Shaped somewhat by gender, family, experiences, and a slew of other things.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. M. Oniker says:

    Many good points here, all the way to the end. A long time ago, in a book — with a title and author’s name long forgotten (but note, one of the points was not forgotten) — the morality of Julius Caesar era Romans was discussed . They had a morality, but it was based in something much different from our western, Judeo-Christian mores, and so unrecognizable to our modern notions. We tend to forget that, because, “Hey, they are Romans” like “Hey, Italians,” and we know what that is about. In forgetting it, we judge things unfairly (including scholars who should know better). That really opened my eyes. It was an “of course!” moment. That works for reading history and fiction (and world news). I’m going for the world parenthetical comment record for a short blog comment, 2017.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. J.R. Handley says:

    Well thought out, clearly you have no strong feelings on this one way or another! 😛

    Liked by 2 people

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