At Writing Fictional Women

captain marvel logo

Please make this good, Marvel. Pleeeeease. (Also, make a Black Widow movie. Pleeeeeease.)

Overall, this has been a great year for girls and women in film, TV and literature. We’ve got Ursula K. Le Guin and Jacqueline Woodson, who each won 2014 National Book Awards (for Lifetime Achievement and Young People’s Literature, respectively). We’ve got a Captain Marvel movie in the works and two female-led action movies, Divergent and Mockingjay Part 1, making bank at the box office. We’ve got Olivia Pope, Jessica Day, Sophia Burset and a host of other women blazing trails for many interesting, unique television characters to come.

However, the reason that these characters are so notable is partly because they are in the minority. For every book, movie and television show that writes its female characters well, there are five who still rely on tropes and outdated stereotypes—or worse, outright cast women just so they can be eye candy. For some reason, after over 2000 years, writers, even the writers who write about the characters I listed above, still have trouble portraying women as humans in the media. If you’re a media professional, or hope to become one in the future, I’ve created a little guide for you and for my own reference (writer, hello); have a look and feel free to tell me anything I missed!

What is not sucking? Not sucking in the realm of creating fabricated female characters that are just as three-dimensional, active and distinct as they are in real life.

  1. Create more than one of them, and give them names. Women make up 51% of the world’s population. Shouldn’t they make up more than 30% of all speaking roles in the movies? Shouldn’t they make up more than 15% of the protagonists we root for in cinema? Shouldn’t they get their own movies instead of just cameos in every single male superhero’s movie? (Sorry. I’m still bitter about the severe lack of a Black Widow movie in our universe.) Put more than one woman in your fictional work. Extra points if they’re friends.
  2. Let them have conversations with each other about something other than a man. Fulfilling just these first two items makes sure that your piece will pass the Bechdel test. “Well, that bar’s set pretty low,” you might be thinking. Yes. Yes it is. But you’d be surprised: only a little over half of the movies released in theaters in 2014 have passed the Bechdel test. Some of the titles that passed are surprising: 22 Jump Street,
    I didn't see this movie, but I guess Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill couldn't have been the only people in it if it passed the Bechdel Test.

    I didn’t see this movie, but I guess Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill couldn’t have been the only people in it if it passed the Bechdel Test.

    Transformers: Age of Extinction, and Flowers in the Attic all featured conversations between two named female characters about something other than a man. This proves that your story doesn’t have to be sophisticated or even particularly feminist to pass this test; your dialogue and worldbuilding just have to acknowledge that there are a lot of women in the world, and they talk about a lot of stuff that’s not dudes. Your female characters’ conversation can be about anything—shoes, dinner, other women, taking over the world—except a man, and can last no longer than two or three lines, and you’ll pass the test. BUT WAIT, YOU’RE STILL NOT DONE:

  3. Write them with complex, diverse personalities. Some women are strong warriors who literally wear combat boots, kick butt and take no nonsense from anyone. That’s great. Some women are soft and kind and bake cookies and make glittery Pinterest projects. That is also great. Lots of women embody both or neither of these types and all of them are great. (Except when they’re not. Women can be villains, also, and not just because they’re aggressive businesspeople or Wednesday-pink-wearing mean girls.) Think beyond the stereotypes you’ve seen before and go big. Also consider reflecting our actual world in your fictional world by populating it with a significant number of non-white, non-straight, non-cis-gendered, bigger-than-size-6* people as well as their white, straight, cis-gendered, smaller-than-size-6* counterparts.
  4. Write them with individual motivations. Women are often daughters, wives, girlfriends and mothers. Again, that’s great. However, some women are none of these things, and even women who have partners and families have ambitions and interests outside of their partners and families. Just like men, women may have career aspirations, a desire for political power or scientific discovery, patriotic or even nationalist loyalties—in other words, desires and narratives that have nothing to do with family relationships. Explore those. They’re interesting.
  5. Write them as people. That is, after all, what we are.

*If you are a man, or writing male characters, the phrase “size 6” means almost nothing to you because men’s sizes are based on things like inseams and waist measurements, while women’s sizes are based on things like black magic and lotteries. I know. It’s nuts. Read more about it here.

If you’d like to role play as a fictional female character… maybe don’t do it on this blog’s Facebook or Twitter. But you can come talk to me about it there!