Writing Strong Female Characters

Look who’s back!  Thriller and sci-fi author Steven M. Moore is my guest blogger today, and he’s offering advice on portraying strong female characters in your writing.  Whether you are a male or female writer and/or reader, please consider the points Steve makes here, because they certainly apply to both perspectives.  And female readers, Steve would really like to hear from you especially.

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Female characters, four years later…

I’ve been writing full speed now, trying to satisfy Ashley Scott and my muses.  Who’s Ashley Scott?  For those who have read The Midas Bomb and Angels Need Not Apply, Ms. Scott is a DHS agent and analyst and a good friend of NYPD detectives Chen and Castilblanco.  She thought it was time to receive top billing and my muses agreed.  She will appear in my new novel The Golden Years of Virginia Morgan, which she and the muses are tasering me to finish (about 60% complete now—I can’t wait to see how it ends!).

I wrote the post “Female Characters” four years ago (http://stevenmmoore.com/?p=224).  Based on my own experience with just three novels (eight now—yep, I’ve been doing this for a while), I gave some advice about portraying strong female characters in your writing if you’re a male writer.  My thesis:  It’s tough, but you have to do it.  You stand to lose half your potential audience if you don’t.  I won’t repeat any more of that advice here (writers and readers might enjoy reading that old post), but I’ll make some comments about what’s gone on since then.

For those in the know, strong female characters are as much a part of my writing as sci-fi and suspense.  Dao-Ming Chen blossomed in Angels; Kalidas Metropolis and Jay Sandoval foiled a conspiracy in Full Medical; Sirena was more than a match for Rupert Snyder aka Vladimir Kalinin in Evil Agenda; Caitlin Murphy and Asako O’Brien kicked butt in Soldiers of God; and Jenny Wong played a pivotal role in Survivors of the Chaos and Sing a Samba Galactica.  In my YA novel The Secret Lab, Shashibala Garcia tamed Mr. Paws, the mathematical cat, and thwarted his evil master, and she was only twelve!

Readers, especially female readers, have the final word about whether I’m any good at portraying female characters.  I find the human female as strange as any other human male does, often thinking that we’re separate species that just happen to play together to perpetuate the human race.  As a consequence, I have always challenged myself to write about the “divine feminine,” albeit less directly than Dan Brown.  You can tell me if I’ve succeeded in giving an accurate portrayal—I’m still learning.

Stereotypes abound when male authors write about female characters.  Here experience counts.  I can’t imagine how anyone can be a marriage counselor without ever being married, especially a priest (historically priests have given both men and women terrible marital advice), so a care-free man about town (more likely, an introverted ostrich with his head in the sand) who has never married has one strike against him when he sits down to write.  As I said four years ago, I’ve been lucky to know, admire, and love some strong women in my time.  That experience counts and allows you to avoid the media and pop culture portraits of women that are often two-dimensional stereotypes, especially when the writer or screenwriter belongs to a different culture.  I’m aghast at some of TV’s sitcoms, for example, and their portrayal of women.

Some of that experience is lacking when the male writer has no female siblings.  For eighteen years of my life, my main experience with women was the apple-pie relationship with my mother.  I had one brother and no sisters.  My knowledge of the divine feminine was minimal when I wrote my first novel at thirteen.  That contributed to its inferior quality that made me chuck it when I left for college (the plot wasn’t bad, though—something akin to the movie City of Angels).  Like many pubescent teenage boys, my ideal woman could be found in the centerfold of Playboy (my apologies to all women except those who have seen the Matthew McConaughey movie or read Fifty Shades—you have no right to complain about Playboy).   I think this would have been different if I’d had a sister (don’t look for Freudian meaning there).

Male writers have to get beyond women as sex objects if they’re attempting to write about women.  Even if they write erotica or romance novels or cross-genre novels involving erotica or romance (historical-fiction-vampire-romance?), they will have a tough time if they can’t get beyond this.  Of course, both males and females treat each other as sex objects at different times, but the male-female relationship is much more complicated than this.  Moreover, a lot of fiction, beyond that already mentioned, doesn’t even need any sexual tension.  Hollywood is notorious for ruining good stories with their insistence on adding a female part to be the protagonist’s love interest, or vice versa.

There is very little sex in my books, for example, much less than you might find on cable TV.  There is often sexual tension.  I’ve progressed in my view of women and can chuckle when recalling that thirteen-year-old and his first novel.  My characters, men or women, aren’t asexual—they’re just normal.  And by normal, I’m thinking normal as we should define it today—heterosexual people and all their LGBT friends.  (Don’t have any?  Your loss!).  Kalidas Metropolis, one of my finest characters in my opinion, is a lesbian who sings arias from Carmen while in the shower (she’s in Full Medical and Evil Agenda).  I don’t think I made her into a stereotype, but readers might think otherwise.  There’s also a teen’s search for sexual identity in The Secret Lab—yeah, parents, your teen can have sexual angst.  It’s all part of life.

Here’s the key, I think, when writing about male or female characters:  their sexuality is part of their personality.  A writer should focus on the personalities.  Of course, many characters are finely annealed alloys of several real people whom the author has observed.  I don’t see how you can write without being a people-watcher, in fact.  Anyone can include female characters in a novel.  The author who has trouble with them hasn’t studied enough women in real life.  The movie As Good as It Gets where Jack Nicholson portrayed an OCD romance writer who couldn’t relate well to anyone, especially women, was hard for me to understand.  How could this guy be a successful writer?

That doesn’t mean the writer has to describe everything about a woman, including her personality, to the nth degree.  For physical description, give some clues and let the reader fill in the details.  To get inside her mind, give some clues too—imagine yourself in there as an observer—then let the reader fill in the details.  Sounds kinky and a bit schizoid, I know, but a writer has to do it.  You have to do it for any character!  It’s kind of fun imagining how a female character thinks or reacts to certain situations, a bit like being an amateur psychologist in the abstract.  Maybe all marriage counselors should have some writing experience?  Or, should all writers be amateur psychologists?

And so it goes….

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Readers, what are your thoughts?  Writing from the perspective of the opposite sex is tricky; many writers have succeeded, others…not so much.  Any suggestions for novels where the character came alive, or fizzled, because the author just didn’t master the trick?

Many thanks to author, Steven M. Moore, for his contribution.  Be sure to check out his web page for information on his latest project and to order any of his thriller and sci-fi books, including his new release, Come Dance a Cumbia…with Stars in Your Hand!  Also, check out my interview with Steve from a few weeks back to learn more.

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Also, if you’d like to guest blog on Gina Fava’s Blog, please contact me via my website

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