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  • Anouchka Harris

Writing Tips: Writing Women

Violence against women has been in the news a lot lately. Self-proclaimed Incels have also been in the spotlight. Unfortunately, while people are wondering how these sad, lonely, angry men end up murdering women, the women at risk are either blamed, or thought about very little at all. Where every effort is made to understand the criminal, the victims are forgotten. I'm a firm believer in representation being a big step on the way to true equality. So here are a few of my thoughts on creating female characters who are more than just a footnote, a fantasy or a decoration in someone else's adventure.

o Don’t feel the need to make your female character a mother. I found that a fair few male writers I have known have defaulted to this when they aren’t sure where to go with their female character. They want to add depth, but they’re not sure how. And sometimes, adding a baby into the mix just seems like a good idea. However, this is often just another stereotype at work. It can work very well. Cersei Lannister is one of my favourite fictional mothers. But don’t just default to this option because you can’t think of something else. You’re better than that, and your readers deserve better than that.

o Ditto on romantic relationships. Your character doesn’t have to be involved in a romance. Even if they are, it doesn’t need to be central to the plot. I know that it’s an easy way to tie your character to others, but there are countless ways to do that. Expand on their platonic relationships; their friends, co-workers, their family.

o Think about your female character. Now think of the first three words you would use to describe her. If any of those words were about her appearance or her relationship to other people, your character needs building. You can, and absolutely should, connect your character to other people. People she likes, dislikes, the people who affect her life, but they shouldn’t be her primary defining features. Establish her identity before bringing others into the mix.

o I can’t believe I have to say this one, but... don’t kill off your female characters in order to motivate your male protagonist. Seriously, don’t. This happens all the time and it drives me crazy. (Supernatural, I’m looking at you). Find another motivation. Your characters deserve better.

o Rape is not a plot-point. It should not be gratuitous. If you are determined to write about it, don’t just use it a plot device to motivate male retribution for your female character’s ‘lost honour’. Again, they deserve better.

o Try gender-swapping your character. Write them as a man and then, once you’re done, change the pronouns. Just the pronouns, nothing else. If you then feel the need to change aspects of description, those changes are usually the parts that weaken your writing.

o If you’re writing in the first person, take note of how often your narrator talks about or describes her appearance. This hardly ever feels authentic in first person narration because, on the whole, people do not stop and mentally describe themselves. And while we’re on description, don’t use your female character to personify a sexual fantasy. It’s usually fairly obvious.

o Accept the limitations of your knowledge and experience. There will naturally be parts of women’s lives that non-female people will not understand. The same goes for any ethnicity, religion, orientation or culture that isn’t your own. You can, and should, do your research, but there will always be a limit. For example, if you don’t have a vagina, don’t bother trying to describe what sex is like with one. I’ve had to remind people that they don’t have the anatomy to describe that experience in the first person, yet that didn’t deter them. If you’re unsure whether you’re able to write an experience well or accurately, get someone else’s opinion and advice. Ask them if it feels authentic.

o Read work written by women, about women. Learn about the male gaze and once you have, find a different kind of gaze to use. Preferably one that isn’t voyeuristic.

I hope at least a few of these are helpful to you. Happy writing!


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