Help a Guy Out!

So Frea asked me to do a blog post today and I have to admit, it was a struggle. After an exhausting day, my brain was fried. But thanks to an e-mail by the smart and awesome zappeej, as well as my own curiosity, I started thinking about how to write a good female character. I mean, most of us here love Sarah Walker (at least the sane among us). We love her on the show and we love her in fic. But she can sometimes be a struggle to write "right." I know I struggle with her in my own fic. How exactly does one write a strong female character? Well, fortunately, Frea, being the most benevolent overlord that she is, was more than willing to help me figure out this question.

Borrowing the mxpw vs. Frea format for this post, what follows after the link is our conversation. Here, Frea gives some great tips on how to write a female character, as well as gives some examples of strong female characters for those of us who want to learn more about this important writing topic.

mxpw: I don't suppose I can use my e-mail reply to zappeej as my blog entry, can I?

Frea: What is your email reply?

mxpw: I was just kidding. It's just a reply about random things.

Frea: Ohhh okay.

mxpw: I doubt anyone on the blog would find it interesting anyway.

Frea: :) I might, but yeah, they're weird.

mxpw: Well, we mostly talk about the books we are reading. Actually, now that I think about it, that's probably the majority of what we discuss. Right now, we're talking about the different ways women are portrayed in the Wheel of Time, Sword of Truth, and A Song of Ice and Fire universes.

Frea: Heh. I was talking about that at work last night.

mxpw: Really? Very interesting. I think ASoIaF actually might be better than people initially think.

Frea: Yeah, we were talking about writing from men and women's perspectives. And my coworker was talking about how he thinks Jordan is actually one of the best at it.

mxpw: Hmm...I don't know. I think there's a large aspect of subjectivity at work, but I don't agree.

Frea: I couldn't actually refute it or not, having, you know, never read Jordan.

mxpw: Heh. Well, I've read at least one book from each series. Not that that makes me an expert or anything, but it does give me at least enough of a foundation to talk about it with zappeej.

Frea: The conversation was more about the necessity of choosing which perspective than it was about inherent sex roles in writing, though. And why you choose each perspective.

mxpw: What do you mean by perspective?

Frea: And the philosophy that each new perspective should teach something different about a scene. I talked a lot about how I hate it when people do canon rewrites because they don't add enough to make it interesting enough.

mxpw: Do you mean POV?

Frea: Yeah, I use perspective and POV interchangeably.

Frea: Since I tend to write in third limited, they're kind of the same thing to me. :)

mxpw: Oh, okay.

mxpw: Well, I'm not sure I quite understand as all three series do scenes/chapters in women's POV.

Frea: Well, there's two topics I mentioned. We started talking about how the writers write men/women differently. And then the conversation segued.

mxpw: I see.

Frea: As conversations with me are wont to do.

mxpw: Men and women are different. You should write them differently.

Frea: Yes. Naturally.

mxpw: Right.

Frea: And yeah, some authors should just stick to one sex.

mxpw: Ahhh, okay.

Frea: Because romance writers in particular are awful at male perspective.

mxpw: Heh. I think I am one of those people. I don't think I write women very well, which is a problem, since a lot of the stories I come up with have female main characters.

Frea: Practice. :)

mxpw: Can practice really help you at writing a female perspective? I mean, it's not going to turn me into a woman.

Frea: No, it won't turn you into a woman, but you can practice all things writing.

Frea: Seriously, talent is part of it, but only like 2%. The rest is dedication, paying attention, and just writing over and over again.

mxpw: Well, what are some things that I should focus my practicing on? I mean, tips on how to write a female character?

Frea: Well, you could read books that you think have really well done female POVs. Look at what they do, what works and doesn't work for you. And yeah, I know you’re going to say something like, 'How do I know? I'm a guy.'

Frea: Even as a guy, you do have some instincts about this sort of thing.

mxpw: I suppose. I am pretty clueless when it comes to understanding people, though. And emotions.

Frea: Well, here's a really blunt example. Who writes a more female Sarah: APR* or me?

mxpw: But you are right. That is a really good way of doing it.

mxpw: Well, you write a more realistic and balanced female, so obviously you. You write one of the most balanced Sarahs in the fandom.

Frea: I cheat. :)

mxpw: What do you mean?

Frea: I ignore the things about canon Sarah that make her less balanced, and make her struggle more.

mxpw: Oh right, that is true.

mxpw: Canon Sarah is kinda schizophrenic and all over the place, though. It would be really difficult to account for all her many issues to be truly representative of her character.

Frea: Yeah. But really, the best way to get an idea of what makes a female perspective better is to pay attention to those books you like that you think are great, and even to ask women readers and writers what some of their favorite POV stuff is.

mxpw: Okay. What are some of your favorite POVs?

Frea: *grin* Well, I tend to like tomboys. Torin Kerr, for example. I think she's fantastic.

Frea: But when I was a teen, I loved Meet the Austins, because I thought Vicky's narrative voice was very real.

mxpw: Oh right, I remember. You like characters that are brash, fun, lead with their chin.

Frea: But then, it's Madeleine L'Engle.

mxpw: You've said that before.

Frea: Vicky's not like that, though.

mxpw: Well, you are a complex woman.

Frea: *grin*

Frea: You'd probably dislike the Austins series.

mxpw: I don't even know what it is.

Frea: Well, you know Madeleine L'Engle from Wrinkle in Time right?

mxpw: Uh...yes? I've never actually read that book.

mxpw: But this series is similar?

Frea: Sort of.

Frea: Okay. Hm... Well, a lot of girls grew up reading Judy Blume, right? They attribute Judy Blume books to their teenage girl angst.

mxpw: I do recall that Judy Blume is quite popular. There's even a new movie coming out about one of her books, I think.

Frea: For me, that was the Meet the Austins series. Which is easily explainable due to, you know, my upbringing and the fact that I've been a science fiction nerd since my very first days (Five-year-old watching Star Wars? Right here).

mxpw: Haha, me too. I am largely a sci-fi fan thanks to Star Wars as well.

Frea: For the uninformed, Madeleine L'Engle explores science, faith, human nature, and Christianity and often ties them together in ways that make you think. She's got several protagonists that you can follow along with—Meg Murray from the Time Quartet, Vicky Austin, and Poly/Polly O'Keefe, Meg's daughter. Vicky's a few years older than Poly/Polly, but several characters do cross between the different series.

mxpw: I wonder why I've never heard of this series before. I clearly need to spend more time in the YA section of my bookstore.

Frea: Among them, Zachary Gray, who remains one of my favorite characters to hate. But anyway, I always really liked the Vicky series because I discovered them around the same age as Vicky and kind of grew up with her. I'd consider her a great example of a teenage girl point of view.

mxpw: Interesting. Okay, I will keep that in mind, because I actually want to write a teenage girl as a main character in a book idea I'm thinking of.

Frea: A Ring of Endless Light, then, if you can put up with teen angst. :)

mxpw: Oh man, teen angst. It's like I'm watching the CW. Heh.

mxpw: Okay, I will keep that in mind.

Frea: Only, you know, not crappy.

mxpw: Any examples of a good adult female character?

Frea: I know a lot of people slam her for writing the same character over and over again, especially since all of those characters look perfect, but I really do like the way Nora Roberts writes her female (and male) characters.

mxpw: Oh no, don't make me read her! Haha.

Frea: Don't worry, I'm not going to. Hmm… I've talked of my love for Tanya Huff a time or two, but then, I like tomboys, so I was doomed to like Torin Kerr. But I also like Claire from the Summon the Keeper series, too, another well-written female perspective.

mxpw: Hmm...okay. What about whatshername from that one series you like? Thursday Next, isn't it?

Frea: I like Thursday, but...she could kind of work as a woman or a man.

mxpw: Ahh, okay.

Frea: Especially since I'm rereading the first book again and thinking, "Man, Thursday is...just a man with a woman's voice sometimes."

Frea: And by voice, I mean the thing you speak with. Not the narrative voice.

mxpw: Heh, okay. So she's not a good example then.

Frea: She gets better, but I wouldn't say so. She's got her other strengths.

mxpw: I'm trying to think of any books I've read recently that could help.

Frea: If you're looking for great teenage girl perspectives, I'd go with Tamora Pierce, by the way. Her two stories about Bekah Cooper are divine.

mxpw: I did read A Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and that has a female protagonist but I don't know if I'd consider her a strong female character. It's really hard for me to judge these things.

Frea: But she also has Daja and Sandry and other characters like that from her Circle of Magic. And you can't go wrong with Daine, Alanna, or Keladry.

mxpw: Okay. Looks like my reading list is getting an expansion.

Frea: In fact: read those. You won't regret it.

mxpw: Heh, okay. I will do my best. Guess I gotta check their kindle prices.

Frea: Heh, I'm realizing that most of my adult picks tend to be in men's POV, while my YA is predominantly female.

mxpw: I am noticing that too. Though you tend to switch off yourself.

Frea: I do. My next book will be third person limited in the point of view of either only a guy, or alternately a guy and a girl. My last one before Fates was first-person from a very outspoken girl. Or Girl.

mxpw: Heh, yeah. But Girl has a pretty distinct voice. And what next book do you mean?

Frea: Last Real Prince of St. Louis

mxpw: Ah. Can I include that info?

Frea: R&J has really been inspiring that.

Frea: Sure.

mxpw: Okay, cool.

Frea: Hold on, I'm checking my Kindle.

mxpw: Okay.

Frea: I did grow up reading Anne McCaffrey, who I always thought did pretty well at the female perspective, though she seemed to prefer the male perspective.

mxpw: I was actually gonna ask you about her for that very reason. That you grew up with her.

Frea: I did. Menolly, after all, rite of passage and whatnot. And all of the women in the stories have such distinct personalities: Nerilka, Brekke, Kylara, Lessa, Mirrim, Jancis...

Frea: But there are newer writers from a different school of writing that write better in the female point of view, I do feel.

mxpw: Okay. I am always trying to find a good female perspective, because for some reason, I tend to gravitate more to stories that have female protagonists rather than men.

Frea: Well, we're awesome.

mxpw: Yes, that is true. I think I blame Buffy Summers and Aeryn Sun for that.

mxpw: So this has been very informative for me, Frea. Thank you tons for your help. I'm gonna try and read these books to see how they write female characters. Hopefully it will bleed into my own writing.

Frea: I know I'm gonna wake up tomorrow and be like, "I should have told him about So-And-So!"

mxpw: That's why we have the ability to leave comments. In fact, I strongly encourage all those reading this to please list examples of your favorite female protagonists/stories with strong female characters. I am eager to expand my educational background in this subject.

*Frea - For the record, I'm not actually dissing Armadilloi in this case. Just using a very stark example, as Armadilloi's strengths lie more in originality of plot than in characterization, particularly of females.


So have your own examples? Please let us know!


  1. Ayefah10.6.11

    For some bizarre reason, I thought of Marian Halcombe of The Woman in White right away - and she is a great female character, but she has canonical gender issues all over the place. Then I thought of Dorothea Brooke, but I'm not going to make you read through all of Middlemarch. :P

    Lyra Belacqua of the His Dark Materials trilogy is pretty darn awesome. Y: The Last Man doesn't have a 100% success rate in its female characters, but it has a ton of them, and some - 355 and Dr. Mann, especially - are wonderful. I also really like Karrin Murphy, though you can sense Butcher has a hard time getting into her head sometimes. Gotham Central had Renee Montoya. Shakespeare actually has a really mixed record writing women, but Beatrice of Much Ado About Nothing is pretty great. (Hero? Not so much.)

    Televised examples: Katara and Toph Bei Fong of Avatar: The Last Airbender, who (along with some of the supporting characters) show off an awesomely wide range of kick-ass femininity. I also have a massive soft spot for Community's Britta Perry, who I get the feeling is written with a great deal of empathy by Dan Harmon - he probably knows a Britta. Dani Reese of Life, especially in the first season. Wendy Watson of The Middleman. There's Donna Noble, aka the Awesomest Companion Ever. Oh, and Veronica Mars, of course.

    But those are just characters - when I try to think of a work that felt like it had an overall female sensibility (rather than just one that avoided the overwhelming stench of testosterone) I have a harder time. Dreamgirls, while not brilliant cinematically, did end up feeling feminine (and feminist) that way by the end. The beginning of The Runaways. Jane Campion's adaptation of The Portrait of a Lady. Clueless. Jane Austen books, of course, though the quality of her heroines can vary. (Elinor Dashwood & Elizabeth Bennet >>>> their sisters. Or Fanny Price.) YA books like Island of the Blue Dolphins.

    But it's much, much easier to point to sources that show what not to do: Heroes, Glee, House, Wuthering Heights, Dr. Horrible (yeah, I went there), 99% of all 21st-century cinema classified as "romantic"...

  2. Garth Nix' Old Kingdom series - Sabriel, Lirael, both great characters. S. M. Stirling's got a good female perspective character going with Juniper Mackenzie in his Change series (need to finish them, but will stand by that statement for the first two novels, definitely). Tad Williams has some great female protagonists in his various series. Miriamele in Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, Briony Eddon in Shadowmarch, Renie Sulaweyo in Otherland...

  3. Sheroes Central - website well worth a visit if you're looking into strong female characters. I believe Tamora Pierce and Diane Duane were originally behind it. Might have been others as well.

  4. And just double checked - Was half right, although I'm sure Diane Duane had some connection in there.


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