Men Writing Women: 5 Mistakes To Watch Out For

How Not To Write Female Characters

Today I’m delighted to introduce Savannah Cordova, a talented writer who’s kindly offered to put together a post on a hot topic in the world of writing: men writing women, or more specifically, men writing female characters in fiction.

There stills seems to be a problem for some men when it comes to writing women. 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. Essentially, how not to write female characters. 

Men writing women - tweet

Offensive female writing

Who knows what goes through these writers’ minds? 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? 

And herein lies the issue. Unless you’re writing a sexy romance, there really isn’t a need to delve into the fullness of lips, for example. It’s one of the biggest pitfalls encountered when it comes to men writing women.

If you’d like to check out more bizarre descriptions of bad male writing, there are a bunch of websites cataloguing them. You can find yourself scrolling for hours sniggering at some of the utterly outrageous descriptions some people come up with. Below, you can find some of the sources for finding these examples:

I’ve recently gone through the process of writing and editing my debut novel, Pariah’s Lament, which features a female protagonist called Isy. I wrote Isy as a person without thinking much about her gender or physical appearance. The focus for me was on who she was, what motivated her, what terrified her. Everything else seemed a bit irrelevant.

community of writers button

Women Writing Men

In the interest of balance, it isn’t just men who fall foul of getting the likes of descriptions wrong. There are a few threads dedicated to women writing men, such as:

Here’s a little example which made me laugh.

women writing men
McKenzie’s Mountain by Linda Howard

As a man or woman, if you’re ever unsure of something you’ve written, ask! If you don’t know someone of the opposite sex well enough, ask people on social media, or head over to the likes of r/askwomen. There’s no need to settle for bad male writing or bad female writing. These problems are easily fixable. It always helps to get a beta reader of the opposite sex to check over your work before submitting or publishing. That way, you cover all fronts. Plus, Savannah’s tips below will help you out too…

Men Writing Women – 5 Mistakes To Watch Out For

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.)

How Not To Write Female Characters

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.

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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. 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.

More Guides You Might Find Useful

Thank you s much for checking out this guide on the potential pitfalls of men writing women. I hope you’ve found it useful and insightful. Below, you can find some other related guides which you might find useful. They cover everything from epic fantasy story ideas and dark fantasy story ideas, and some other writing guides.

4 Easy Ways To Begin Writing A Novel

A Guide to World-Building

A Guide To Writing Fight Scenes

What is Characterization? 

What is Passive Voice?

Words to Describe Physical Appearance

Check out this awesome list of adjectives for describing physical appearance!

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24 thoughts on “Men Writing Women: 5 Mistakes To Watch Out For

      1. I did. Like the author said, I think it can easily go both ways. It’s good to remember my characters are more than just bodies filling space. I always appreciate books that give even minor characters some depth and dimension. Oh, and also that doesn’t focus so INTENSELY on bust shape and size! 🙂

  1. Very useful article for the most part. But I had to chuckle a bit about the Charles Bukowski reference. I do not think what Mr Barfly wrote represents the actual character of those characters but represents the mindset of the protagonist – which is more often than not, a stand in for Bukowski.

  2. You’ve nailed it. I have read some otherwise good books by male writers that are indelibly marred by poor female character depictions. On the top of the list is over-sexualizing them, making their looks their only asset, and being completely reliant on the male protagonist to save them from the bad guys. It annoys the heck out of me and takes me right out of the story. Please guys, stop!

  3. Good tips. Thanks for sharing. I’m always a bit nervous when writing female characters. Ultimately, when your writing in the head of a character, you want to get them right, but how does a man really know what a woman’s perspective is? That being said, my female characters (most human, but not all 🙂 ) always end up being my favorites.

  4. When I started writing dealing with female characters it scared me. But, after reading the Bloody Jack series written by L. A. Meyer, a man about my age, I made a dive into the subject. I had to make RULES for myself. 1) Although one character of legal age starts a family outside of marriage, she has every intention of marrying, and does, Sex for the purpose of having children or any other reason is not discussed. just acknowledged. 2) when the heroes are in the Amazon I mention just once that everyone wears a loincloth, only. 3) I do very little body descriptions except for establishing an image in the reader’s mind, Tall skinny short blond hair; before the protagonist finds out it’s a girl. That same girl, later a Lady Knight, realizes that she has to give her adopted daughter a talk, The Talk, the one she never got herself.

  5. Quick tip for men:
    no woman looks at a penis and thinks “wow, that is so beautiful.”
    I’ve read that a few times now, then think ah, male author.

  6. Reblogged this on adaratrosclair and commented:
    You may have watched or heard of the “reality TV show” What Not to Wear. Well, this post is about what not to write when it comes to female characters. Though I’m not a dude, I want to make sure I never fall into these male gaze problems, due to the patriarchal society that I live in. #WriterWednesday #WritingSmarter #That’sWhatHeSaid

  7. When I originally left a comment I appear to have clicked the
    -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and from now on whenever a comment is added I recieve 4
    emails with the exact same comment. There has to be
    an easy method you can remove me from that service?
    Many thanks!

  8. I know its a bit old, but I just have to thank you both (Richie for asking Savannah to write this, and Savannah for actually writing it). I struggle with the unspoken, “I don’t have the right life experience” frequently. In the end, my female characters are (I think) some shade of my wife’s strength, vulnerability, resilience, and perseverance. But I am happy to report your Fifth suggestion is right in hand. My wife reads everything I write (and boy howdy is she a harsh critic).

  9. Good post. I’d add that physical traits are not character traits. I occasionally see women described as curvy and sexy as a way to support that their characters are vivacious and feminine. And other, similar associations. The problem here is not an over-focus on physicality but a mistaken assumption about what physicality means, as though the body necessarily reflects the character of a person. Actually, it’s perfectly possible to have giant breasts and be prudish or shy, or asexual, or a trans man who hasn’t had top surgery, or all sorts of other things. I’ve even known women writers to make this mistake.

  10. Informative and helpful.
    Now do women who write men incorrectly ideas and suggestions too please

  11. I write children’s fiction now moving into YA. All my main protagonists (with the exception of one male co-protagonist) have been girls. I can honestly say, hand on heart, I have never made any of the listed mistakes. Why do I go for heroines rather than heros? Partly because it gives me a potentially larger target audience (more girls reading fiction than boys) but mainly because you girls and ladies are much, much more interesting than us blokes.

  12. Great article on a long persisting problem in literature but that’s how it is. A writer should research before venturing to write about something or someone that’s in the unknown territory that’s my takeaway from this. Thank you for sharing.

  13. Some of the examples would be bad writing regardless of the gender of the described person. But I did get the wiggins over the dad character using “sexy” to describe his daughter’s attire. Good tips! @samanthabwriter from
    Balancing Act

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