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Today I’m delighted to introduce Savannah Cordova, a talented writer with Reedsy. Savannah has tackled a topic I follow both with interest and despair.
Some men still seem to have a problem writing women, and most of the time I think it’s inadvertent. Simply misguided. But that’s no excuse. A common issue that I see crop up is the objectifying descriptions of women. Bizarre similes for describing boobs, over-zealous descriptions of body shape. I’m sure if women wrote in detail about men’s cocks and bollocks there’d be something of a stir. And a complaint would be, why is this relevant? I think the same has to be said about some of the features men focus a little too much on. If you haven’t already done so, check out r/menwritingwomen.
I’d also like to thank Desiree Villena for reaching out and helping form the idea for this piece.
Anyway, enough of me. Over to Savannah and her five pieces of excellent advice.
We’re probably all familiar with the classic character mistakes authors can make: failing to create any backstory, forgetting realistic character motivations, and falling victim to overall inconsistent characterization.
But for male authors writing female characters (and vice-versa), there’s a whole other set of potential problems — simply because it’s difficult to get full insight into a gender other than your own. No matter how many friends you consult or questions you earnestly Google, you just won’t have that inherent lived experience of the gender you’re writing about.
Many (indeed, I’d hazard most) male authors these days are pretty careful about how they write women. That said, there are certain pitfalls that male authors seem to run into time and time again — even some of the best-known authors in literature! I’m here to address some of those pitfalls, in hopes of helping male authors avoid them in the future.
(Of course, none of this is to say that some female authors don’t have similar issues with writing male characters; they, too, can suffer from the lack of firsthand experience. But as a woman who’s read my fair share of poorly rendered female characters written by men, I feel more qualified to comment on this particular issue.)
Without further ado: here are five common mistakes male authors make when writing female characters, which you should avoid at all costs.
1. Substituting appearance for personality
Many male writers have historically used personality and appearance interchangeably, at least when it comes to their female characters. The writer who makes this mistake will often lead off with a detailed description of the woman in question, then go on to develop her personality very little (or not at all) over the course of the story — except in terms of her relationship to men.
Again, many a male writer has committed this particular sin of characterization, but perhaps none more notoriously than Charles Bukowski. Here are the opening lines to his story “The Most Beautiful Woman in Town”:
Cass was the youngest and most beautiful of five sisters. Cass was the most beautiful girl in town. Half Indian with a supple and strange body, a snake-like and fiery body with eyes to go with it. Cass was fluid and moving fire. She was like a spirit struck into a form that would not hold her. Her hair was black and long and silken and moved and whirled about, as did her body.
Besides being quite off-putting to female readers (no woman wants to see one of her own so blatantly objectified, even if she’s a fictional character), this description creates an illusion of personality where there actually is none. In a classic misuse of “show, don’t tell,” just because a woman looks wild doesn’t mean she actually is — and even if she is, you’re going to need a lot more substance to corroborate that before the reader will believe it. So here’s a gentle tip for male authors: if you’re stuck for how to start a story, there are plenty of other options besides fixating on a woman’s appearance.
2. Over-emphasizing certain physical aspects
Another major mistake male authors make is over-emphasizing certain physical aspects of female characters. The main features I’m talking about here are those that society thinks of as distinctly “feminine,” e.g. hair, hips, and breasts.
A lot of male authors seem to think that if they don’t emphasize these things, the reader will forget that the character in question is female. Speaking as a woman, allow me to assure you that we will not. In fact, we’d be more comfortable never having to read descriptions like these again.
Plenty of examples come to mind here, too, but one is Jim Butcher’s usage of the phrase “tips of the breasts” in the Dresden Files series. Don’t get me wrong, Butcher is a great writer, and I appreciate what he’s trying to do by not saying “nipples” outright — but the overall effect is gratuitous at best and cringe-worthy at worst.
In the immortal words of Pam Beesly, the rules for writing about women are pretty much the same as selling to women: “Don’t insult body. Don’t compliment body. Don’t mention body at all.”
3. Using female characters primarily to support male ones
This mistake can come in many forms, from the well-intentioned but ultimately detrimental “manic pixie dream girl” trope (in which the quirky female character helps the male character “find himself”) to women flat-out being used as props — or worse yet, breeders.
One of the most disappointing instances of this is Petra Arkanian, one of the most interesting characters in Ender’s Game (one of the best sci-fi books of all time, if you’ve never heard of it). Yet as the series progresses, we see Petra’s primary role become that of a mother, rather than the fearless, independent warrior she was in the first book. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a mother — but for Petra specifically, it’s incongruous and a complete departure from her previous motivations and personality.
Essentially, everything else about her character falls away so that she can serve the purpose of having children… and when she loses her first partner, she simply goes on to have more children for another male character. Needless to say, that’s a pretty disappointing character arc to watch unfold, especially for readers who were so excited by her potential in the first book.
4. Depicting friendships between women as shallow/catty
Luckily, this one seems to be getting increasingly rare, but it’s still worth noting for male authors trying to write realistic female relationships: contrary to stereotypical belief, friendships between women are not all about men, nor do they involve constant emotional backstabbing. Yes, women might be jealous of each other and even fight, but in any healthy female friendship, these occasions are the exception — not the rule.
Rather than giving an example of what not to do in this case, I’ll give you an example of an empowering, realistic female friendship, though admittedly it starts off on shaky ground. In Legally Blonde, Elle Woods and Vivian Kensington are initially enemies when Elle finds out that Vivian is dating her ex-boyfriend, Warner. However, in the course of working together and getting to know one another, the two women realize they have much more in common than not.
By the end of the movie, Vivian has broken up with Warner, and she and Elle are best friends — because a good friendship can, and should, be just as important to a woman (if not more so) than a relationship with a man. This is the critical thing to remember: unless she’s genuinely a bad friend (and to be fair, some female characters might be), she’s not going to choose a guy over everything else.
5. Not getting a female beta reader
While this tip isn’t technically about characterization itself, getting a female beta reader in the editing process is one of the easiest ways to save yourself from making critical character mistakes like these. A female beta reader has that inherent lived experience I talked about before — the kind that male authors simply don’t.
And just as you might employ a sensitivity reader if you were writing about a minority group or culture other than your own, you can employ a beta reader to point out inconsistencies or details that ring false in your portrayal of women. This can be especially helpful if you’re a male writer who’s constructing a female protagonist, or if you haven’t written from a female perspective before. Even if you don’t think you need one, you should consider it; you don’t want to end up accidentally sounding like this guy.
Savannah Cordova is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors and publishers with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, Savannah enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories. Follow her on Twitter by clicking here.
A big thank you again to Savannah for the excellent insights. If you enjoyed this post, why not join my writing community? Everyone receives a free ebook on the craft of writing, lists of publishers of short and long fantasy fiction, and a list of over 100 fantasy book reviewers. All you need to do is complete the form below!