Readers have spoken: they want more diversity in fiction. And writers are stepping up, but it can be hard to write about someone who’s different than you. Careful research is the key to avoiding misrepresentation, which causes harm to the very identities being portrayed and creates fallout for well-meaning writers when they’re called out by readers.
For this reason, we’re running a series of posts on avoiding stereotypes in fiction. Written by a diverse cast of talented authors, each post highlights a different people group—the common stereotypes to avoid and how to write those characters realistically. We hope this series arms you with the knowledge and tools to write characters you may have been reluctant to write before—ones that will take your story to the next level.
A stereotype is a simplification. Whilst writers CAN use stereotypes on purpose for effect, too often writers use them by accident. This makes characters feel flat and two-dimensional and can mean our target readers switch off.
There are lots of lists of female stereotypes online, but I always think it’s more illuminating to understand what elements CREATE those stereotypes. With this in mind then, here’s the top 10 No-Nos when writing female characters so we can avoid stereotypes altogether:
1) Stop Using the Word of Doom
First things first … we need to do away with the word of DOOM! That’s right, stop describing your female characters as some variant on ‘beautiful’. (Or even worse, ‘pretty but doesn’t know it’ – BLEURGH).
‘WTF!’ you say: ‘Isn’t ‘beautiful’ a compliment???’
Sure, but it’s overused in novels and short stories. It also lends to the idea women are most prized for their appearance. Whilst male characters may be described as handsome (especially in romance or erotica), it’s rarely at the expense of every other facet of their lives.
2) Don’t Objectify Female Characters
There’s a reason the internet says male writers write TERRIBLE female characters. This isn’t because male writers literally can’t write them (in fact, some of my own favorite female characters are written by men) … It’s because too many are overtly creepy about female characters’ bodies.
Even worse, many of these objectified female characters are in award-winning novels or by celebrated male writers! No, women don’t check themselves out in the mirror, feel themselves up, or walk seductively every minute of the day.
By the way: it’s perfectly possible for female characters to be sexy without only being a sex object. Consider a character like Gloria in the iconic sitcom Modern Family. Gloria’s sexy, yet she’s so much more than this.
She is a fantastic mother, plus a loyal sister-in-law and aunt. She is also clever and pragmatic, clawing her way out of poverty before she met Jay. She’s also got a hella dark back story, with LOADS of knowledge about the world and various professions: she’s been a real estate agent, hairdresser, mover, philosophy professor, businesswoman and (possibly) worked for a cartel. More like Gloria, please!
3) Stop Fixating on Clothes
If used well, clothing choices CAN be a good way of indicating a female characters’ personality, mood or class. Too often however writers use clothes to remind us of a female character’s sex appeal (see point # 2 on this list!).
Alternatively, writers may rely on what I call the ‘laundry list introduction’. This is when a writer uses clothing as a constant stand-in for personality. Tell me: what does white jeans and a black tee shirt tell us about a female character’s personality, really? Honestly: not much.
Whilst some looks may indicate temperament (Goth and hippy are stand-outs here), it’s much more interesting if they’re the opposite of what you expect … ie. a super-happy Goth, or an uptight hippy!
4) Don’t Define Her by the Men in Her Life …
Fathers, husbands, sons, male employers … we frequently see a female character defined by the men in her life in stories. They exist solely to orbit that male character and facilitate their emotions, becoming mere sounding boards. YAWN!
The best female characters are nuanced and three dimensional. They may have fathers, husbands, sons and male employers but are not defined by them.
Consider a character like Amy Dunne in Gone Girl. She is not some classic little wifey. Amy fakes her own death as part of an epic power play and puts her unfaithful husband Nick on the hook for it. The message is clear: you do me down? I will pay you back tenfold.
If you want a wife or girlfriend who ISN’T evil like Amy Dunne, consider Bianca from the movie Creed. Like Adrienne before her in the Rocky franchise, Bianca supports Adonis in the ring. But like Adrienne, Bianca is so much more. She is a musician who is losing her hearing. The way she deals with her own adversity inspires Adonis to push on through with his own.
5) … But Don’t Have Her Fly Solo Just for the Sake of It, Either
Sometimes writers want female characters to stand alone. This works well when a female character is literally alone, such as Ryan Stone in the movie Gravity. She must deal with the adversity of being lost in space, relying only on her wits to get her home. (Even fellow astronaut Matt’s help literally comes from her own psyche, as we discover from that controversial and unexpected dream sequence).
However, too often writers want female characters to stand alone because apparently having a boyfriend or husband ‘weakens’ her. This point of view is understandable if we consider how many female characters have been side-lined in the wife or girlfriend (WAG) role historically … but the WAG role itself is NOT automatically sexist, as outlined in point # 4 on this list.
Consider a ground-breaking and enduring female character like Katniss Everdeen. As well as change the world over the course of The Hunger Games franchise of books and movies, she must make a choice between Peeta and Gale.
Love triangles are often part of Young Adult stories because they are powerful reminders to teenage fans that every choice we make is at the expense of something else. What’s more, in The Hunger Games Katniss eventually chooses Peeta not only because of their shared ordeal in the arena, but because Gale is arguably responsible for Katniss’ sister Primrose’s death … the reason Katniss went in the arena in the first place.
Far from ‘weakening’ Katniss then, the love triangle between her, Peeta and Gale gives the story an added dimension. It also creates a sense of delicious dramatic irony.
6) Stop Giving Female Characters a Traumatic Past **as Standard**
Drama is conflict. This means characters of any gender may have a backstory that equips them to deal with what’s going on in the ‘present time’ of the story (whatever that means).
However, it’s very striking how many female characters have traumatic pasts … It’s almost like writers don’t believe they can become powerful without first being ‘reduced’ somehow first. Ack.
As a result, we have been overrun by female characters who have been raped, abused or neglected in some way before the story even begins.
Whilst all of those things can be powerful motivators for the right story, too often these backstories are just ‘tick box’ exercises. As the animation Wreck It Ralph jokes about the powerful female lead Sergeant Calhoun:
- RALPH: Jeez, she’s kinda intense, huh?
- SOLDIER: It’s not her fault. She’s programmed with the most tragic backstory EVER!
By the way, that movie was satirising this about female characters a DECADE ago. Time for a change.
7) Don’t Make Her a ‘Kick-Ass Hottie’
The Kick-Ass Hottie is a character like her name suggests … she will take ANYONE on and win (often whilst scantily-clad, or even in her underwear). This character’s roots can be traced all the way back to Ellen Ripley in Alien. She takes on an acid-dripping Xenomorph in her scanties AND wins!
Now, I enjoy The Kick-Ass Hottie. She’s a fun fantasy character who frequently turns up in action movies, plus some Horror and Thriller novels. Audiences and readers love her, so she’s not going away anytime soon.
The problem is not that she exists, but when kicking ass is the ONLY thing she does. Think back to Ripley here. She is an iconic, memorable heroine who is so much more than a simple kick-ass hottie.
So by all means have a sexy heroine who kicks ass in your stories (as per point # 2 on this list). Just make sure you round her out and ensure it’s not the ONLY thing she does.
8) Stop ‘Fridging’ Female Characters
Short for ‘women in refrigerators’, this trope was named by comics writer Gail Simone. ‘Fridging’ is an unholy mix of points #2 and #4 on this list. Basically, a sexy WAG character is raped and/or murdered just so a male hero can go on the rampage to avenge their wife or girlfriend.
This trope is SO prevalent that even full-on superheroes like Batman and Spiderman seemingly can’t save the women in their lives! Yikes.
By the way: ‘fridging’ is not to be confused with the so-called ‘Sexy Lamp’ test. This refers to the idea that female characters should actually DO something in your plot … but if you can take them out and replace them with a sexy lamp? Then they are not doing ENOUGH in your story.
9) Stop Thinking Female Characters Only Talk About Men
NEWSFLASH: female friendships do not revolve around men. Sure, we may talk about our boyfriends and husbands, but not at the expense of everything else.
Consider a teen classic movie like Mean Girls. While the ‘plastics’ do indeed talk about getting it on with various boys, they talk WAY more about things such as the politics of high school demands.
So even in genres where we may expect romance, we don’t have to make it ALL about that.
10) Lastly: You Don’t Have to Make Her Positive!
Sometimes feminist critique says it’s ‘misogynistic’ to write female characters who are evil or have dodgy motives. I can’t stress enough how this is UTTER BALDERDASH. Seriously!
Literally no one worries about ‘misrepresenting’ male characters generally – especially white, straight, able-bodied male characters. This is because the internet doesn’t bother itself creating fake-ass ‘rules’ about how male characters ‘should’ be represented.
If we want to ensure female characters receive the same leeway? Then we need to let there be a free-for-all instead of consistently boxing female characters in. Sure, some of the female characters will be TERRIBLE … but many of them are anyway! We have literally nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Free eBook to Download
Want more info on this topic? Download my free eBook from Amazon, How NOT To Write Female Characters. Enjoy!
Other posts in this series:
Avoiding LGBTQ+ Character Stereotypes
Avoiding Religious Character Stereotypes
Avoiding Mental Health Character Stereotypes
Avoiding People of Color Stereotypes
Discussion is encouraged, but please keep it courteous. Let’s not call out authors for past mistakes, and let’s do keep an open mind. By listening to and respecting each person’s experiences and perspectives, we can better write the stories and characters readers want to see.
Lucy V. Hay aka Bang2write is a script editor, author and blogger who helps writers. Lucy is the script editor and advisor on numerous UK features and shorts. She has also been a script reader for over 15 years, providing coverage for indie prodcos, investors, screen agencies, producers, directors and individual writers. Publishing as LV Hay, Lucy’s debut crime novel, The Other Twin, is out now and is being adapted by Agatha Raisin producers Free@Last TV. Her second crime novel, Do No Harm, was a finalist in the 2019 Dead Good Book Readers’ Awards. Lucy is also Lizzie Fry, whose books The Coven and Kill For It are out now with Sphere books.
Does anyone have ideas for avoiding age-based stereotypes? Those usually show up when I’m writing (I’m a Hobby Writer) and some other article would be helpful.
Lucy V says
The two age groups misrepresented the most in unpublished novels and spec screenplays in my experience are children/teens and people over 75. Children frequently seem ‘too old’ and have vocabularies that don’t ring true. My son had an extended vocab as a child but he was still just a kid. The over 65s are frequently unable to do everyday things like deal with simple technology like operate a mobile phone! Yet the average elderly person will have had a mobile for a good 20 years, plus many love the internet. Hope that helps.
That’s so true! When I’m watching or reading a story and a small child says something that sound “too old” for them, I wonder how realistic that dialogue is. There are two 5-years-old in my family, the boy seems to be always in a different conversation (LOL!), but the girl though has an “older” vocabulary, her interests are those of a child, and she doesn’t have the answer to life, the universe, and everything (I’ve asked. Ha, ha!)
Elderly persons clichés? 1. They spend their time watching TV and yelling at it (some fit this cliché, though). 2. They only talk about their ailments and the past. 3. Love and sex are a distant memory for them. 4. They can’t study or learn something new. 5. They can’t deal with: technology, new ideas. 6. They’re either incredibly wise and serene or unbearably bitter and cranky.
There are not many TV shows about elderly people, but one of the best I’ve watched was “Last Tango in Halifax”. I think it successfully departs from almost all the clichés of my list. Beautiful story.
Yeah, I agree on your rule ten. Otherwise, I don’t. My female protagonist is dangerous and flawed; however, she is beautiful, skin a shade of brown, caramel eyes. It’s fine to have attractive characters. In reality, readers see them how they choose. Showing how a female lead rises above the constraints is valid. If we don’t write about them, then how will anyone know they exist? And, you are technically correct that women don’t check themselves in a mirror every minute…Let’s be honest. Bars, clubs, major events—some women are in the mirrors, checking their look. Not always, but conversations do revolve around the men in their lives. It’s not an entirely inaccurate depiction, no matter the author.
It’s true, women talk about the men in their lives; the thing is we don’t talk just about men and that’s the stereotype to avoid. Even if it’s a romance or a romantic comedy and the female characters only talk about the male characters, it’s a stereotype. The story has to pass the Bechdel test (It asks whether a work features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man). Of course, a story may pass the test and still contain sexist content.
Lucy V says
“Showing how a female lead rises above the constraints is valid” – absolutely, which is why I also give examples like Gloria from MODERN FAMILY in the post, plus I also concede women DO talk about men in the post. The key is not to do the things listed here at the expense of nuanced characterisation. That is how you get stereotypes – it’s a simplification.
I actually disagree with saying you can’t get much out of the “wearing white jeans and a black t shirt” description. Immediately, my mind jumps to a rather upscale women who is likely single, or at the very least doesn’t have and isn’t around kids. The fact that she’s wearing white jeans shows that she’s confident enough to believe they will go the whole day without getting dirty, which also means she likely wouldn’t work in some kind of manual labor job – retail, food service, lawn work, construction, painting, etc. Yet the black t shirt shows that she likes being casual and has a somewhat more laid back style, or perhaps doesn’t want to come across as upscale/pretentious.
Clothing, if well used, can be a great way to get across personality types. If I described a guy as “wearing his beat up jeans, steel toed boots, and a flannel with a rip at the elbow and loose threads where the top button used to be,” that would give you an idea of his personality before the character says a word. The same is true of women in writing.
All that said, I absolutely do agree that if a writer is depending on *just* the clothes, that’s weak sauce and the writer needs to improve their craft.
Lucy V says
Then we agree 🤷♀️
A series of posts on avoiding stereotypes in fiction are a wonderful idea. Does the groups of people this series is about include people with Down Syndrome?
Lucy V says
That’s a great idea. I would love to see a list on disability stereotypes. I have been lucky enough to have a few disabled Bang2writers share their knowledge on my site but have not had someone with Down’s Syndrome do so yet.
Martin White says
I’ve been writing stories for years, and always wonder if I’m writing the women in them well. I will definetly keep this list handy when I’m editing/2nd drafting my work. Thanks so much for this tip list!
Lucy V says
You’re very welcome. Best of luck with your projects! 😀
Mindy Alyse Weiss says
Thank you for this awesome post, Lucy. This should definitely help writers create more fleshed-out realistic female characters. Such a great list of what to avoid…and if we do have something like a traumatic past…we should make sure there’s an organic purpose for it.
Lucy V says
“Organic purpose” is a great phrase! I often talk with my writers about “movie logic” – if something feels like it exists in a film “more” than real life – that’s a red flag.
Jessica Merryn says
Good post, but the author’s book is not free – well, not to members of the global audience outside the US.
A lesson in How NOT to discriminate between your audience.
Lucy V says
On the contrary, I am not discriminating against anyone. You can get it free via my website too no matter where in the world you are – I have lots of links to this both here, via my name and on my WHW writing coach page but here it is again: http://www.bang2write.com/resources. There’s also a PDF gallery of free downloads and a free online course too. Fill your boots!
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
You are incredibly generous to share your knowledge to people so freely, thank you, Lucy!
Lucy V says
Not a problem, always happy to help ANYONE. I am not in the USA myself so know many writers feel frustrated that America seems to be where all the ‘action’ happens, especially when it comes to screenwriting. But the B2W motto is ‘no writer left behind’ so I hope WHW readers will come join us 😁
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
Terrific post, Lucy – so much gold here! Thank you for kicking this series off with a bang!
Lucy V says
Thanks again for having me!
I am new to writing fiction, some of the books or movies I have heard of but never read or saw the movie. I am writing a story now where the woman in the story has those traits you mentioned, and I am keeping them in. Why would I do that? The man in the story thinks he is in control because of those traits. However, she is setting the trap for him to fall into. My wife will not read any of my stories, because they are like Stephen King meets the Twilight Zone.
Lucy V says
If there’s a specific reason for something in a plot that is NOT an accident, we are subverting stereotypes rather than rehashing the same-old same-old. This reminds me of my own mentor who said: ‘When is a stereotype not a stereotype? When it works.’
Wonderful list of areas to be concerned about. But, with #6, if the character has been a victim, can’t that be used to strengthen her moving forward, or cause her to be leery of relationships that can be used moving forward as part of the character arc?
Lucy V says
Of course, but it’s *how* you do it that counts. Traumatic pasts for female characters become reductive when said pasts are too simplistic, ie. ‘Because she’s been abused by her father she can handle this hostage situation’. Ugh. Consider where you have seen a female character who has handled trauma as part of their arc that’s not reductive – for me, Furiosa in MAD MAX FURY ROAD is a great example. We know she has been through A LOT but it never overshadows what she deals with in the present.
BECCA PUGLISI says
#3 is one I see all the time—a laundry list of wardrobe choices that don’t do much more than tell me what the character’s wearing. Let’s see some important details that help characterize, or show their emotional state, something that goes beyond physical appearance. I’m so glad you were able to kick off this series for us, Lucy!
Lucy V says
Thanks for having me Becca and Angela!
G. J. Jolly says
Although I agree with your statements for #6, everyone has incidences from their past that molds them into who they are now. I think it’s important to bring up those events in backstory to explain the character’s motivation. Yes, I’m one of those who believe everything has a reason.
Lucy V says
Back story *is* important, but if it is too simplistic or doesn’t play out on the page via the plot, it’s extraneous. Also female characters have traumatic pasts so often there’s a lot of repetition here – dead daughters and sisters are top of the pile, followed by rape and abuse by fathers