How I Mastered the Art of Writing Female Characters

(Spoiler: I didn’t and I haven’t.)

The feminist female fiction writer/professor asked me if I thought that I—a white male—could convincingly write female characters.

It was 1994. I had just started grad school, on my way, I figured, to academic acclaim and literary success. I was attending this creative writing conference at the invitation of my mentor, a poet/professor. I was full of myself, and I was drunk.

“Sure,” I said, ready to impress the room. “I just put on the Indigo Girls or maybe some 10,000 Maniacs, get in the flow, and go to work.”

By all appearances, the feminist female fiction writer/professor was about to clock me.

Instead, she muttered to herself something that I wish I’d heard and walked away. She ignored me the rest of the conference.

I deserved it.

In the spirit of the question, and in light of a recent piece by Tasha Robinson, I’d like to try to answer that question again:

Do I—a now middle-aged white male—believe that I can convincingly write not just a female character, but an authentic and ‘strong’ female character?

I hope so.

Up until I began work on my novel The Ten Vanished Memories of Charles McManus, I favored women as my point of view characters. It was an often instinctive choice, one that I probably couldn’t explain if I had to. Vanished, though, is a male-centered book, and its very male-centeredness has me worried, has me reading Robinson’s checklist for creating STRONG, FEMALE CHARACTERS and wondering if my sole female main character meets the criteria.

I didn’t set out to write such a ‘male’ book, but the novel seemed to want what it wanted.

In the past few weeks, I’ve begun a new novel—a novel with several female point of view characters as the main protagonists—and I feel more comfortable, more inherently myself, by having these women be who they are within the fabric of my narrative.

Like any fool, I also believe I’ve learned how to be both a better writer and a better human since 1994. If that feminist female fiction writer/professor were before me now—in addition to apologizing—I would offer this as to how I believe I can write authentic female characters:

Write to the character; allow her to lead.

Consider the character’s actions in the context of the larger narrative and, especially, in relation to the other characters.

Strive for specificity. Employ love (yes love) and compassion and appreciate the unique aspects that make the character who and what she is.

I am, of course, no expert. I’m certainly—despite the title of this blog—no master. But I do know that every writer should create characters of any and all genders, and those characters should always be believable. That’s the job.

Finally, in response to Robinson’s article, the typical error that many male creators make in trying to create STRONG, FEMALE CHARACTERs is that you can’t simply substitute a kick-ass woman in place of a man and think this does the job. Yes, you can start in the shallows, where there are those similarities between men and women, but very quickly, you’re going to need to swim out into the deeper, more treacherous waters of difference, of dissimilarity. 

Take a chance. Be brave. And don't be afraid to embarrass yourself, even if it means you might get clocked by a feminist female fiction writer/professor.