One of the most common questions I get, as a male writer, is “How do you write female characters?” Sometimes it’s asked as a compliment, by someone who thinks I write very believable female characters. Other times it’s asked with the implication that I don’t know what I’m doing and that my characters aren’t realistic. And sometimes it’s another writer who wants to write their own characters more effectively even if they’re a different gender.
My usual answer is that I focus on writing each character as an individual, rather than as a representation of their gender (or for that matter, their race, religion, or sexual orientation). If I tried to write a character to be what I think is a realistic, acceptable portrayal of a Caucasian/Italian teenage lesbian woman, I’d end up with a walking stereotype. But if I write Gabby Palladino, she is an individual, and if there are aspects of her that don’t fit with someone’s expectations, well, that’s life. Not everyone fits within the norm.
Which got me to thinking about how different a lot of my characters are when it comes to where they “fit” when it comes to masculinity/femininity, sexuality, their gender portrayal, and so on. And I realized that each of my main female leads is completely different, so much so that the question “How do you write female characters?” becomes completely irrelevant.
During the course of Manifestation and its upcoming sequel Contamination, there are five main female characters who get significant “screen time”: Gabby Palladino, Tock Zipporah, Dr. Patricia Caldwell, Maelyssa Southeby, and Minori Tsujino. And looking at them, I find it impossible to pin down a single common trait that all five share that could be used to define what makes them female.
Gabby is a feminine, shy, gentle person. She’s a lesbian. She wears feminine-style clothes, skirts, and so on. And she has conservative attitudes towards sex.
Tock is much more masculine, plus she’s a loudmouth and someone who doesn’t take shit from anyone. She’s bisexual. She dresses in practical clothes, jeans, flannel shirts. And she views sex as no big deal; if it feels good, do it.
Dr. Caldwell is classy and professional. She wears business-style clothes, but opts for skirt-suits rather than pants-suits to add a touch of femininity. She has no time for romance because she is a career-minded woman.
Mae is a punk rock skater girl. She wears cut-off denim, heavy metal t-shirts, dark makeup, and lots of (stolen) jewelry. She’s straight, but she hasn’t ever dated and she doesn’t really know much about sex.
Minori is a highly religious, spiritual, pure person. She dresses in conservative, simple, modest clothes. She’s asexual. She believes premarital sex is a sin.
These characters have almost nothing in common. Their personal styles, the way they portray their gender, their views towards sex and relationships, all of it is unique to each individual. And I didn’t make them like this on purpose. Each character simply developed with their own unique traits.
So maybe next time someone asks me, “How do you write female characters?” I should ask them, “Which kind of female characters?” Because no two are alike. Just like no two real people are quite alike. I don’t know what traits people are looking for in a “female character” that they think will define whether that character is believable or not. Or what it is that they think makes me, as a male, incapable of writing a female. Because it doesn’t matter if I write characters who fit into people’s normal perceptions of masculine or feminine traits. What matters is whether people like Gabby, Tock, and the others for who they are. None of them are defined by their gender. And I hope readers will look at them all with an open mind.
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