Men Writing Women
By Anne Hawley
From a male client working on a novel:
I have a question on a sensitive topic and it’s a bit scary for me to ask. I’m thinking of using a boss of mine as a model for [Character X, an antagonist]. People get criticized for making women “shrill” or “too emotional” and I know this sounds weird, but I get scared about writing a woman doing bad things for these reasons.
[Client follows with a humorous anecdote about this woman boss’s imperious behavior towards her underlings.]
I’m delighted that he asked. I can only answer as a cis woman who is white, American, middle class, urban, old, queer, college educated, coastal, left-handed, child-free, car-free, etc.
Still, it’s legit for him to ask me, and for me to answer, with the caveat that I speak for myself, not for all (or any other) women. Everything I say here, of course, applies to anyone writing female characters.
Obviously, you’ll avoid writing a female character breasting boobily down the stairs. I’ve yet to see a client of mine making that sort of mistake and I hope we’re getting past that. (The link is satire.)
There’s nothing wrong with a female villain. You’re under no obligation to make your female character “nice.” “Nice” is the prison so many real-life women have had to break out of to get anywhere.
Here are some questions I suggested the client ask about any woman he writes. The goal is not to answer yes to every question, though ideally you’ll have four or five yeses here:
Does she have power or autonomy in her own sphere of life, whatever it may be?
Does she have money of her own (a little, a lot, doesn’t matter)?
Does she have self-worth? Do her principal concerns revolve around something other than her appearance?
Does she have recognizable talent, skill, education, training?
Does she talk with other women? About things other than men, babies, romance?
Is there any evidence that she has women friends?
Start by considering your proposed female character as if she were a real human being. Even if she’s a secondary character, take time to sketch a little history for her.
Consider her age. The contemporary boss-lady this client has in mind would be at least in her late 40s. Do you have a sense of how different the culture was 45 or 50 years ago? Her grandmother might well have been born before women had the right to vote. She herself grew up rarely seeing a woman in the halls of power.
So she probably fought hard to get her degrees and rise to the top of her profession. If she “married her career” and never had kids, she endures censure for that “failure.” If she did have kids, how much did her dual role cost her?
Women in high-level jobs are under grooming and presentation pressures unknown to most men. Is she attractive? If so, she’s heard the rumor that she slept her way to her position. If not, she heard whispers of amazement (from men and, sadly, from other women) that an unattractive woman could rise so high.
Has she sustained a long-term love relationship? Or has she been too busy, too “difficult” or too high an earner for most men? And if she’s not heterosexual, keeping that fact under wraps for much of her life will have taken a toll.
She has every right and reason to be proud, self-protecting, and imperious. If she doesn’t give a damn about what minions think of her, it’s because only by not giving a damn about others’ opinions did she have the energy to get where she is.
She’s the hero of her own story, and almost certainly (at her age) struggling to keep her armor on every day.
Apply similar thinking to female characters of any age, station, or historical period.
None of this thinking needs to be on the page, but as her author, you need to know it. And when you do, even if she’s a relatively small walk-on character, she’ll come alive. The words she does speak, the decisions she does make, will in some small way reflect her internal reality, and you’ll contribute your mite to the growing pool of valid representation of women in contemporary fiction.