Well Written Female Characters: A How to Guide, Part 2

Last time I covered ways to get you started on writing well written female characters.  Today I’d like to give you a few more tips and some exercises to help you look critically at the characters you’ve constructed.

I’ll get right down to it.

1.  Take your female character, and flip her gender, just as an exercise. Do any of her traits or plot points feel horribly out of place? Now, women are not men, but sometimes flipping the gender of a character can bring out some things that are possibly lacking or really wouldn’t work.  Clearly there are some gender differences that are influenced by things like culture, but sometimes this switch can point out cultural biases on what is feminine or masculine behavior, that may not really serve making the character a full fledged person.

The other thing this can do, is point out that you might not have given the female character as much to do, or as interesting a plot/backstory as her male counterparts.  I’ve read a few stories about plays where they had all the genders flipped, so men reading the female parts and women reading the male parts.  The women were thrilled, because they felt like the male parts were so much more interesting and had more to do.  The men by the end of it complained that they were bored and didn’t feel like they had much to do.

If you fail to give the female characters interesting and active things to do, there’s a good chance those characters are not going to connect with your audience, male or female.

2.  Is she just as capable as your main character, but instead of carrying the arc, she’s supporting/training the hero/main character?  So this a theme that keeps popping up in a lot of film and media.  You have a female character, she’s sassy, strong and smart, just as capable as her male counterpart.  He tends to blunder a bit through things, but she’s there to pick up the slack and guide him toward meeting his full potential.

If she’s able to get the job done on her own, please don’t make her babysit a bumbling would-be hero.  She might be your protagonist.  Maybe she needs to be the one taking the lead, and her male counterpart is actually the quippy sidekick.  We see a bit of this in movies like the Lego Movie.  Which I still loved.  I mean Elizabeth Banks and Chris Pratt?  How could I not love it.

3. Use the Bechdel test.  It amazes me how many times I’ll watch a movie or read story where there are 4-6 males characters and maybe 1-2 female characters. The men speak together a whole bunch about a bunch of different things, but the female characters either don’t speak to each other, or only talk about the men.

That’s the basis of the Bechdel test.  It was originally for film, and here’s what the movie has to have in order to pass.

– 2 female characters, both of them have names.

– At some point the female characters speak to each other.

– The conversation they have can’t be about men.

Please be aware, it’s a rather low bar to set for female characters, but you’d be surprised how many movies/books/stories/comics don’t pass this test.  It doesn’t take much to pass it.

4. Also use the Sexy Lamp test.  So, this test was coined by one of my favorite comics writers, Kelly Sue Deconnick.  I actually got to hear it first at a writing workshop that she taught that I was lucky enough to attend.

It’s even more simple and an even lower bar than the Bechdel test.

If you can replace your female character with a Sexy Lamp, and the story more or less still works, you need another draft.  There’s also a slight variant of this test, which includes if you could put a post-it with information she shares on the Lamp.  So for instance, if she just stands by and then tells the hero “Oh, no, if you don’t stop the magical influx, everyone will die!” and that’s her only contribution to the plot other than standing around looking good…It’s time to go back and fix your story.

Hopefully by looking at these 4 tips, you can see if the female characters in your story is active and independent, as well as relevant to the plot, or if they need some work.  I was supposed to talk about tropes in part 2, but that is likely to be covered in part 4, since a lot of it is touchy material that I want to spend a bit more time with.

Next time, I’m going to discuss how you can make your female characters varied and break out of common character types that women tend to fall into.  Basically Strong female character does not equal well written female character.  Now go forth, and write better!

photo credit: We Can Donut – Chicago via photopin (license)

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Author: AubreyL

Aubrey Lyn Jeppson is a Freelance Writer. Who really wants to live in reality all the time? Writing affords her a much needed escape from the mundane into the fantastical. She's always looking for other writers and artists to collaborate with. Email her at aubrey.l.jeppson@gmail.com.

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