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:
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 is a script editor, author and blogger who helps writers. She’s been the script editor and advisor on numerous UK features and shorts & has also been a script reader for 20 years, providing coverage for indie prodcos, investors, screen agencies, producers, directors and individual writers. She’s also an author, publishing as both LV Hay and Lizzie Fry. Lizzie’s latest, a serial killer thriller titled The Good Mother is out now with Joffe Books, with her sixth thriller out in 2024. Lucy’s site at www.bang2write.com has appeared in Top 100 round-ups for Writer’s Digest & The Write Life, as well as a UK Blog Awards Finalist and Feedspot’s #1 Screenwriting blog in the UK (ninth in the world.). She is also the author of the bestselling non-fiction book, Writing & Selling Thriller Screenplays: From TV Pilot To Feature Film (Creative Essentials), which she updated for the streaming age for its tenth anniversary in 2023.