On Writing (Strong) Female Characters

Men know jack about women. Women don’t really get me either. But, men and women authors have to write characters of the opposite sex. They do it all the time. Some even write novels/stories with women narrators. Hey, if they can pull it off all the power to them. Nick Hornby did so quite effectively in How To Be Good, a novel I haven’t read in some time, but, I remember thinking he was successful at it. His novels A Long Way Down and Juliet Naked also feature women narrators or POVs in them and I think he did those well.

But, then again, I know jack about women, so what do I know? Still, writing women characters was something I felt would be one of the more significant challenges for me. Especially characters that are explored in depth over the course of the story.

Recently, I linked to an old article titled King of Lad Lit Nick Hornby On Writing Strong Women — the article was, perhaps, not as insightful about being a “guy’s writer” writing about women as I hoped for… but, I’m gonna explore that idea on my own anyway.

There are a number of primary and secondary characters in my novel that are women. I would not call them strong or weak women by design. I did not set out to say “this character is going to be strong.” No, I had basic idea of who the characters were when I started, and rather than set out a huge laundry list of qualities they would possess, I had a rough idea about each of and the let the character develop organically however they might… and usually that meant something more complex than strong vs. weak.

The truth is, women (and men) are a mix of strengths and weaknesses. Everyone has personal flaws that they struggle with or refuse to recognize. Writing “strong women” characters simply because political correctness doesn’t do your writing any favors… at least, if your goal is to write realistic characters. I tried to write realistic characters, which meant women characters who were just as flawed as my main character… even if for different reasons.

That said, the weakest character in my novel is probably the main character, Nick. When the novel begins he is only months removed from a marriage proposal that ended with his girlfriend revealing that she cheated on him, resulting in the relationship ending. He’s humiliated and depressed, but realizes after a one-night-stand that he needs to get back out there and find a new relationship, which he does, but the incident with his ex-girlfriend haunts him throughout the story, and ultimately influences some bad decisions.

The two most prominent female characters in the novel are Nick’s roommate Devon and his new girlfriend Alli. Neither were written to be specifically “strong” characters as much as they were written to be important characters needed to play specific roles in the story. They both have what would be considered “strong” qualities, though. Devon is assertive and confident, and Alli is motivated and hard working. But, they are also polar opposites, since Devon is extroverted and promiscuous, and Alli is introverted and virtuous. Devon is perceptive, and Alli is naïve. Despite their clashing values and personalities they are both important influences on Nick’s growth over the course of the novel. And I like that. I like that both have vulnerabilities that make them who they are. They are each unique blends of strengths and weaknesses that, I hope, make them believable and not reading like agenda-driven characters.

Whether I’ve succeeded in writing realistic/believable characters has yet to be determined. My first beta reader is still hard at work. I have another beta reader lined up, then someone who will edit it. I’m looking forward to reviewing the first round of comments/suggestions!

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