Writing Women – What Male Writers Should Keep In Mind When Creating Female Characters

This is a guest post by Rachael Cooper of Jericho Writers.

For centuries, women have had the opportunity to read about the world from a man’s perspective. This often gives us an insight into the male psyche and therefore, a way into writing believable male characters. There is an absence, or indeed a limited field of, female writing throughout history. So, it can be more problematic for male writers to capture their female characters in prose.

Let’s admit it; women can be an enigma, and literature is littered with common misconceptions. So, let’s delve into the world of writing women and think about how to write real women.

1. We’re 51% of the population

There are far fewer female characters in Literature than males, but in reality, we are 51% of the population. By that token, we should be represented within the literature as such. Female characters should appear at all levels of a text, from major characters to minor roles and to those that simply wander in and out of your writing incidentally.

In many works of literature, women are vastly under-represented – for example, in the Lord of the Rings only 19% of the characters are female, and in the Name of the Rose, there isn’t a single female named character in a cast of dozens. In The Eagle has landed, out of twelve named characters, only two are female.


We are 51% of the population and should be represented as such within Literature.

2. We aren’t two dimensional stereotypes.

It’s straightforward to reduce character traits down to several character archetypes. But no character, including women, should fit snugly into just one of these. If you find that your character does, then you might want to reassess some of their traits.

One way to eliminate the holy grail of stereotypes is to conduct the Bechdel test. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Are there two women?
  • Do they talk to each other?
  • About something other than a man?

If the answer is no, then you may need to address whether or not your female characters are interacting realistically. Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Naomi Alderman’s The Power both get this right, with an ensemble cast of women talking about everything but men.

Some revered literature falls short of achieving this. In some cases, this is simply because of an unrealistic lack of female representation; for example, in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Other examples fail the Bechdel test because they create a cast of female stereotypes, spending much of their time discussing men. Examples include E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey and, perhaps more disappointingly, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.


Women don’t fit into archetypal character traits. We move fluidly between them. Make sure we discuss something other than our love lives.

3. We have complex desires, broken childhoods and dark thoughts

I’m sure that many men out there can vouch for this one. We’re complex souls, and the only way to ensure that the women you write are similar to those in the real world is to get to know your characters really well by looking carefully at your character development.

Some writers choose to craft a biography about their protagonists to delve into their past, ambitions, motivations, wants and needs. Others may choose to answer an extensive list of questions to get to the bottom of their character’s psyche.

Either of these strategies allows writers to consider the minutiae of their protagonist’s characteristics. What does your character do in conflict? Do they fight or flee? How do your characters appear to outsiders? What was your character’s childhood like?

If you confidently explore these sorts of ideas, then you will understand how your character will react in every situation that you throw at them. And you’ll know how others will respond to them before they’ve even met in your writing.

Remember: Understand your female characters in depth and consider their character development to ensure that they are real-world women.

4. We’re not picture perfect

In many seminal works of literature, women are painted as perfect. In James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, he describes his female character as her long fair hair was girlish: and girlish, and touched with the wonder of mortal beauty, her face.’ We do not look like this in real life. Well, certainly not for the majority of our waking hours.

If you want to write women well, you may want to look for inspiration from something more like the character of Ruth from Fay Wheldon’s The Life and Loves of a She-Devil. Sometimes women are too tall or too short, with imperfect features. Sometimes we’ll leave the house without our make-up. More often than not, we’re not feeling particularly sexy. We don’t have time to perfect beautiful hairdos in the morning, and some of us have children with snotty noses climbing up our legs. Your characters should have imperfections too.

Remember: Imperfections will keep your characters more realistic and more interesting too.

5. We’re more than pretty faces, hair and clothes

When we first see or hear about a new character, it is important to find out who they are and less what they look like. How are you going to introduce your character? You only get one opportunity to do this for your reader, so you need to do it right.

When writing women, even some well-renowned authors miss the mark. In Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck introduces Slim, a ranch worker, as possessing ‘a majesty achieved only by royalty and master craftsmen’ and ‘prince of the ranch.’ In comparison, Curley’s Wife (who doesn’t even have a name, but don’t get me started on that) is described like this:

A girl was standing there looking in. She had full, rouged lips and wide-spaced eyes, heavily made up. Her fingernails were red. Her hair hung in little rolled clusters, like sausages. She wore a cotton house dress and red mules, on the insteps of which were little bouquets of red ostrich feathers.’

All we know is that she’s wearing a lot of red. We discover nothing of her personality.

Steinbeck is not the only author to do this. In Catling’s The Vorhh, his female character ‘was about to cover her startled breasts.’ In Tim Lebbon’s Coldbrook, ‘Melinda was a natural beauty who paid little attention to what God had given her, and even though she rarely made much of an effort, she always exuded sexiness.’ Women are so much more than their physical attributes. Focusing on them first does your character an injustice.

Remember: Think about your character’s personality, rather than what they look like. Chances are, their characteristics will drive the narrative, not their bra size.

6. We are not defined by our relationships with men

Consider the Bechdel test again for a moment and ask yourself these questions:

  • Are there two women?
  • Do they talk to each other?
  • About something other than a man?

In some Literature, women are reduced to talking about men and romance, whereas men talk about war, politics, business, family, power or golf. This is just not true. Women talk about everything that a man would. Similarly, men can and do talk about their feelings and relationships. Avoid the stereotypical trap of defining women by their relationships (or lack of) with men.

Remember: Women do talk about their relationships but not at the expense of conversations about their values, beliefs, hopes and fears (and everything in between).


In some ways, it may be beneficial to forget that you are creating female characters at all and concentrate on simply crafting characters instead. A protagonist doesn’t need to be defined by their gender. Instead, focus on their motivations, values and life experience. But along the way, make sure you don’t fall into the trap of creating perfectly groomed female characters, who are introduced to your readers by their looks and who fall into the character traits of female stereotypes.

Women are enigmatic because we don’t do that. Get to know your female characters in as much detail as possible so that they react to the world you create in a similar way to your male characters.

Rachael Cooper is the SEO & Publishing Manager for Jericho Writers, a writers services company based in the UK and US. Rachael has a Masters in eighteenth-century literature, and specialises in female sociability. In her free time, she writes articles on her favourite eighteenth-century authors and, if all else fails, you can generally find her reading and drinking tea!