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Writing Strong Female Characters Your Readers Will Relate To

Have you ever found yourself drawn to a particular female character in a book? Perhaps you love The Hunger Games' Katniss Everdeen because she's brave and selfless. Or you might be drawn to Little Women's Jo March because of her independence and outspokenness.

On the other hand, maybe you never understood the hype surrounding Twilight because you found Bella Swan to be boring and flat. Maybe you were confused by Margo Roth Spiegelman's purpose in John Green's Paper Towns. After all, she had a big name – literally – to live up to, but her character doesn't undergo much development.

It's normal to have mixed feelings about female characters. After all, they're some of the hardest characters to write. It's easy to fall into clichés when trying to create your own female protagonists because they are plentiful and readily available. It's also easy to try so hard to make your female protagonist different from others in the literary world that she ends up falling into a familiar cliché. These characters have female – and male – readers wondering where these girls came from. They just aren't realistic.

So, how do you write believable female characters? How can you make them relatable? The first step is to be aware of common female character tropes, so you know what to avoid. Let's begin by considering some of these.

Clichés to avoid

blond woman smiling with the ocean in the background
The virginal young woman is a popular figure in many books, but most women struggle to relate to her because of her emphasized innocence. Photo by Kegfire.

Falling into clichés will leave you with boring, flat female characters. Even if you have truly unique world and plot ideas, a poorly-written female protagonist will drag your story down. When you are characterizing your female character, here are some overused, stereotypical tropes to avoid:

  • The pure flower: This is a stereotype we are all too familiar with – not only does it exist in fiction, but it's perpetuated in the media. This is the young girl who is too innocent for the big, bad world she finds herself in. She's vulnerable and at risk of being tainted by the not-so-innocent male characters. Her entire character is dependent on the men in her life, rendering her clueless and gullible. Ironically, she's one of the most sexualized characters in the story.
  • Gorgeous, flawless girl: She's tall and skinny. She has clear skin and shiny, bouncy hair. She's always dressed to impress. Girls want to be her, and guys want to be with her. She's perfect – except she has no idea exactly how beautiful she really is until a male character shows her. These unrealistic depictions of females place harsh expectations on female readers to fit societal beauty expectations. If we aren't that beautiful, then who will want us?
  • Femme fatale: She's alluring and seductive. She's the exact opposite of the pure, innocent flower – she'll ruin your life. She uses her charm to wrap men around her finger, luring them into potential danger. There is an air of mystery surrounding this character. She's seemingly strong and powerful, yet her narrative is deeply intertwined with those of the male characters. She rarely exists independently from men.
  • Heartless and emotionless: What could possibly be worse than branding women as overly emotional? How about creating a woman so independent she appears standoffish and mean? She's been burned one too many times in the past, and she won't allow herself to be vulnerable again. She's purposefully lonely and guarded – she doesn't need anyone or anything. That is, she doesn't rely on anyone else until Mr. Right miraculously walks through the door. Spoiler alert: there's almost always a male character that manages to break down her walls.
  • Damsel in distress: She's in danger, but she can't fight her way out. She needs a knight in shining armor of her own to come to her rescue. This cliché paints women as weak and reliant on men. She is less powerful than her male counterpart, and she usually falls for the man who saves her.
  • Manic pixie dream girl: : Remember when we said we were confused by Margo Roth Spiegelman's purpose in Paper Towns? That's because she doesn't have a purpose of her own. She is the epitome of the manic pixie dream girl – she exists to inspire the quiet, brooding male character, Quentin, to embrace adventure and possibility. This type of female character has limited character development because she serves to advance the arc of the male protagonist.

These are only some of the many female character cliches present in fiction. To avoid writing one of these cliches, try to avoid writing in extremes. For example, don't write the pure, innocent flower or the heartless and emotionless woman. For your character to be realistic, there needs to be balance in your woman's story. No woman is either/or – she is a combination of many things.

Making a great female character

young businesswoman thinking about something while looking at her computer screen
Great female characters are actively motivated by goals and desires - not men. Photo by Iana_kolesnikova.

Now that you're familiar with some of the popular – but poorly-written – female character cliches, you may be wondering how to stand out from the crowd. How can you write dynamic women? After all, the best characters in stories are the ones readers can relate to the most. Here are some ways to write a strong, realistic female protagonist:

  • She's active, not passive: We've seen the female characters who appear as sidekicks and comic relief. We've seen the background female characters who have so much potential, but it's ruined because they are exactly that – side characters. You want your female characters to have active roles in the story. Whether they're the protagonist or a secondary character, they must have a role. To be active, they must have distinct personalities. Do not create neutral, bland women – unless your plot calls for them. They should have opinions of their own: they are not accessories, especially to men.
  • Backstory and motivation: Your female protagonist needs something to drive her story – but don't make it a man! Her character's words and actions should not be written with the intention to further a man's plot, such as with the manic pixie dream girl, but her own. Do not sacrifice her development for that of your male characters. Consider what kinds of goals she has. Is she a high school student looking to be at the top of her class? Is she an entrepreneur trying to start her own business? What does she want out of life? Establishing her background and desires will help build an independent arc for her.
  • Give her strengths: A good female character will have strengths. This doesn't mean she needs to be physically strong. There are plenty of other strengths your character can have: intelligence, charisma, intuitiveness. The strengths readers can't physically see are some of the best, because they can be unexpected. Who would expect a battle-hardened warrior to be super charismatic, allowing her to charm her enemies? After all, she spends most of her time with weapons, not people. What about a quiet introvert constantly surrounded by loud, outgoing people? Maybe her reserved nature allows her to gather information and make calculated risks and decisions. Don't give her just one strength – give her many.
  • Give her flaws: Flaws are important because they're what make people human, so your characters should be no different. Flaws can be external or internal. Maybe your character has a visible scar that makes her easily identifiable, so she can't blend into the shadows. Maybe your character has too much pride and refuses to accept help from anyone, leaving her in a potentially dangerous situation. Choose flaws readers can identify with, so they can see themselves in the character. Whatever you do, please don't make her flaw be that she's too beautiful or too perfect. That makes your character seem boring and unlikeable because readers can't relate.
  • Has emotions, but they aren't her entire character: Women are often written as being overly emotional – too sad, too happy, too mean, too obsessive. As we previously mentioned, try not to write your character in extremes. Don't make her "too much" of any one emotion, and do not make it seem like having feelings is a negative character trait. It's important to recognize that having emotions is normal. People are constantly exposed to people and events that change their perceptions and attitudes. For example, it would make no sense for your female character to witness a death and be completely unaffected. Emotions like grief, heartbreak, confusion, and pride are present in everyone.
  • Do not overdramatize her appearance: We've all seen those cringey excerpts from books – the ones dedicated to an overly detailed and exaggerated description of a woman's physical appearance. They either pay particular attention to her figure and facial features or the kinds of clothes she wears and the way she presents herself. Some female characters are so sexualized that any other characteristic of theirs, such as intelligence or strength, are greatly undermined. Some women are written as so careless of their own appearance that they become the butt of jokes or are labeled as uncaring and ugly. It's important to describe your character's appearance so readers can visualize them, but try not to make their appearance their personality. There's a lot more to a person than meets the eye.
  • Avoid the makeover scene: This relates to what we just discussed – appearance should not be everything. The makeover scene is a classic moment where a character, typically a male, gives the female protagonist a physical makeover. In just three pages, the nerdy, innocent girl transforms into a gorgeous bombshell. Or maybe the seductress realizes brains really does prevail over beauty. Do not write your female characters like they need to be fixed by someone else. If she has insecurities or doubts about herself, use them as an opportunity to show her inner and outer strength. Let her solve her own problems – this will show the character development and growth readers want to see.
  • Give her female companions: You might not immediately think of this one while writing your female characters. After all, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone introduces us to Hermione Granger, an amazing female character accompanied by her two male best friends. She's a widely adored female protagonist, and she doesn't have any female companions, so why should yours? While this isn't an absolute necessity for your story, it can help establish realistic relationship dynamics for your character. This will also help establish your character as independent from men. You should never have just one female character in your story.

These are just some of the ways you can write a relatable female character. If you still find yourself struggling with this process, you can consider writing someone you know. Think about the women in your life whom you admire. What qualities do they have? How would they react if they found themselves in a similar situation as your story character?

This doesn't mean your character has to be an exact replica of your mother, aunt, sister, or friend, but it's a good starting point to determine which characteristics you find relatable and likable. Odds are, others will identify with your choices.

Put your story to the test

group of multiracial female friends walk together
Your female characters should have at least one female companion to confide in. Photo by StratfordProductions.

Have you ever heard of the Bechdel Test? Originally applied to movies, the Bechdel Test measures female representation in fiction. Considering the popularity of some of the cliches we previously discussed, this test is necessary to raise awareness of how little proper representation exists for females. Here are the criteria your story needs to fit to pass the Bechdel Test:

  1. There are two named female characters in the story.
  2. The women must speak to each other.
  3. These women must discuss something other than a man.

Wait a minute – is that it? While there are only three criteria for a piece of fiction to pass this test, you'll be shocked to find how many stories do not pass – or just barely pass – this test. For example, Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower passes the Bechdel Test, but only by a hair. There are multiple named women who speak to each other, but these conversations rarely revolve anything other than men. You might even be surprised to discover that Sam, the main female protagonist in this book, fits the criteria for the manic pixie dream girl cliché we previously discussed.

While this test is designed to measure female representation, you may consider using it to measure how realistic and important your own female characters are to the plot of your story. If your story fails to meet these three criteria, then it's unlikely you've written any well-developed female characters. If you just barely meet these criteria, we recommend diving back into your story to improve the women's stories. If you've written great female protagonists, then you should pass this test with flying colors.

Writing a worthy plot

While creating a great female character is the goal, you can't forget about your plot. Your plot should be worthy of an amazing woman. The narrative arc should function to enhance the character's arc. If your plot is boring, then it doesn't matter how unique your character appears – she cannot save your story from failure.

Writing a plot full of trials and tribulations for your character is a great way to develop the plot and the character. This doesn't mean you need a plot fit for a typical hero's journey, but your woman should be a hero in her own story – even if it's a mundane setting. For example, your character could be a student studying to be a doctor. We don't need to be doctors to know that's a long and difficult road, so she's sure to encounter some obstacles along the way.

Writing wrap-up

Don't be afraid to experiment with your characters. A strength you think will work great for your female protagonist may make her super unlikeable, so you're back to square one. The average woman is multi-dimensional, so it's important to take your time creating them. If all else fails, write what – or who – you know!

Header photo by Prostock-Studio.

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