Writing decent women characters is vital for the modern novelist, because surveys tell us that sixty per cent of all readers are female. The majority of editorial and commissioning staff in publishing houses today are also women. This means that, as a debut novelist, both the market majority and the people you are pitching to are largely women. This is why it’s so important to have well-rounded female characters in your fiction. It is perfectly acceptable to write a novel in which women are historically absent (for example, the film Master and Commander, based on the novels of Patrick O’Brian, features no women whatsoever because they were genuinely absent from Napoleonic warships). It isn’t such a smart move to omit women from societies in which women truly are present. Neither is it a good idea to have female characters whose only purpose is to snuggle into the hero’s chest, to make him look good in front of his mates. The key, when it comes to writing decent women characters, is balance. If you’ve written a novel with a male lead and a male supporting cast, and you review your fiction and realise that the women float around the edges of the page only appearing for bedroom scenes, then it’s time to do some re-drafting.
I’ll admit that this blog is largely aimed at blokes. As a fiction editor, I’ve encountered numerous unpublished/self-published novels in which the female characters aren’t really any more than props. However, what has surprised me is that women writers too can be unconsciously conditioned by traditionally male-authored accounts of certain historical periods (wartime, for example) or genres (the sci fi adventure), and can also perpetuate the predominantly-male cast in their own writing.
If you need tips on writing decent women characters, because your fictional females aren’t vivid enough, here’s a quick checklist designed to help:
Read widely, read up-to-date novels and read outside your comfort zone occasionally. This will keep you in touch with current trends and what makes a believable, fully formed character.
Join a writing critique group which has members of both sexes and all ages. This will provide you with different ‘takes’ on your work.
Speak to a significant female in your life (one you can trust to be honest) about your women characters.
Create believable women characters who your readers will warm to - give them a proper role in your unfolding story, bestow on them responsibilities, respectful relationships, interests, talents, the odd mean streak... just as you would with your fictional men.