The Human Condition:

On Writing Female Characters – January 15, 2012

As a fiction writer, I generally create stories that are told from multiple viewpoints, a technique that has recently been picked up by the best of the cable television series.1 To make this technique work, I have to get inside the character’s head, see with his eyes, and report and comment on only the parts of the story that he knows, using his limited understanding. This imposes limitations, of course; for example, unlike the omniscient narrator, I can’t be on both sides of a door when there’s a knock and let the reader know simultaneously who is knocking and who is responding. And sometimes—about half the time, actually—the viewpoint character is not a he but a she.

So, while not being a woman, I routinely have to adopt the persona and write from the viewpoint of a female character. Some writers on both sides of the gender aisle will insist that no one born into the opposite sex can really understand how a woman thinks and feels, or for that matter how a man perceives and relates to the universe. Personally, I believe this argument puts too low a value on human empathy and imagination. But when I have to write a woman character, I do adopt a particular trick: I accentuate the commonalities of human experience rather than the differences.2

Really, secondary sexual characteristics are the least part of a character’s viewpoint. My male characters don’t go through the story wondering about the orientation of and pressures on their penis or when they will next need to shave their face. So my female characters don’t agonize over the size and weight of their breasts or when they next need to wash and comb their hair. I don’t follow my characters into the bathroom and comment on their sanitary habits. Occasionally, my characters may think with their libidos and feel attraction to persons of the opposite sex. Trying to be an old-fashioned gentleman, and not caring much for eroticism and pornography, I generally keep these encounters brief and tasteful. Actually, most people do not spend their entire day wondering about their next sexual encounter and the attractiveness or availability of every person they meet.3

If writing from the female (or the male) point of view means focusing on the commonalities—then what are they? What makes a character decidedly human? I have a list of human wants and needs that my characters must reflect and project. Here are the basics.

Self-respect. Every character is a serious person and expects to be treated seriously. No one considers his or her own life to be unimportant, unexceptional, frivolous, or comical.4 The people and principles they hold dear do matter. They may sacrifice themselves to save another person or to serve an ideal, but they are conscious of the cost. They have a sense of personal honor, which means they hold themselves accountable and responsible for their actions. They hold some thoughts to be shameful, and some actions to be unworthy.

Competence. Every character has something he or she is good at. It may be a specific set of skills, or an attitude of resolve and resourcefulness that lets him or her master many challenges. When confronted with life’s or a story’s difficulties, my characters may be surprised, become fearful, or even hesitate, but they don’t back down.

Self-confidence. The flip side of competence is confidence. My characters know they have mastered their skills, because understanding when you are truly good at something is built into human nature. They are confident of what they have learned and trust they can meet challenges within their chosen field. Aligned with respect, they know they have an innate right to breath the air and walk the earth.

Survival. My characters have something to live for and, when challenged, they will fight. They may occasionally despair, but they do not surrender to existential angst and hopelessness. They see value in life and in the world around them.

Operational space. Every character has freedom of action within the limits imposed by his or her own skills, knowledge, belief, morals, and physical reality. While the character may start in a limited sphere—a prison cell, a confining job, or a smothering relationship—the story must draw the character out into the wider world to explore those limits. The world challenges the character’s competence and confidence.

Goal seeking. Every character has one or more things he or she wants to achieve: a problem to solve, a fight to win, something to prove, someone to save, a relationship to settle.

Some doubt. The flip side of confidence is realization of limitations. Every character knows he or she still has something more to learn, to understand, to become. Characters know there is reason for caution in some situations, particularly situations of impending danger or opportunity. They acknowledge their limits.

Every person reflects some combination of these traits. The conflicts between them—between self-confidence and doubt, between survival and goals, between competence and the challenges of operational space, between self-respect and the challenges of life—establish the choices a character must face and the difficulties he or she must overcome. Life is a matter of complications and choices, and so are the best stories.

There may be people living whose lives and outlooks don’t reflect these traits. Bodhisattvas and Ascended Masters may lack a need for respect or a tendency to doubt. But they don’t usually make good characters in a story. Stories arise from conflict, and conflicts involve real people.

These principles have worked for me in creating characters like Margot and Jane Dobray and Libby Wheelock in The Judge’s Daughter, Janey Pulaski and Rae Howell in Sunflowers, and Ariel Ceram and Grace Porter in The Doomsday Effect. So far, no one has criticized these books because the quality of their women.

On both sides of the gender aisle, we are human beings with human needs and conflicts that come before the demands of sexual differentiation in the zygote.

1. Think of HBO’s Rome, Game of Thrones, and Boardwalk Empire, or FX’s Sons of Anarchy. In each installment, various scenes start with and play through the viewpoint, understanding, and expectations of one or another of a broad cast of characters. For the duration of the scene, the viewer is asked to sympathize with that character and experience the story from his or her viewpoint. In my opinion, this makes for a richer experience than revelation by either an omniscient narrator or from a single-character or first-person viewpoint. Cast in the form of a novel, where the narrative comes from inside each character’s head—a technique I call “first-person narration in third-person voice”—this approach allows the writer to show the reader when certain characters are being wishful or deceitful, following a wrong trail, or being misled. That’s a luxury denied to writers who work only in the first person. And an omniscient narrator exposing other thoughts and viewpoints by hopping from head to head during a scene or piece of action can be clumsy and annoying. The formal, controlled technique of following multiple viewpoints makes for a richer reader experience.

2. Or as Orlando said (at least in the Tilda Swinton movie): “No difference at all.”

3. And, if any character is supposed to have this on the brain, most people would say it’s the male rather than the female.

4. Although, at the end of life, in the last twenty seconds or so, I would hope my characters can reach for the grand jest—the throwaway line—to show they are unafraid and hold lightly to the gift of life.