5 STEPS TO WRITE BETTER FEMALE CHARACTERS

Here's some (hopefully) helpful advice on how to avoid a lot of the pitfalls that so many JRPGs and anime fall into with their female characters! Most of it's applicable to writing any character who seems "different" from you. It's easier than you think!

Step #1: Don't Think of Them as Female

A pretty good guideline to writing any character who isn't exactly like you, whether it's their gender, race, age, religion, whatever, is to stop defining them by that difference. A person is a person, just like you! The key to good characterization, above all else, is to get inside the character's head. If you begin from the starting point of "this person is nothing like me", you're immediately hitting a block in writing them.

The fact is, you probably have at least something in common with everyone you've ever met. While there's nothing wrong with basing a character on someone you know, in my experience it is much easier to just pick some random personality trait of yours, affix it to the character you're trying to write, and let them develop from there. If you're a guy and you want to write a female character in your story, please try not to just base her on the stereotypes or observations you've made about "female behavior". You'll get much further by basing some part of the character on yourself and your own experiences. Why would I say that? Because typically, women have a much easier time relating to the male characters in stories written by men...because they're written as real people, with fully-formed personalities, ambitions, flaws, and vulnerabilities. If you're a guy writing a story, I'm willing to bet that most of your male characters have some aspect of your "self" attached to them. Do the same with all your characters! No matter what gender, race, etc. they are, you'll get a much more complex and fascinating character if you draw upon your own inner depths rather than relying on tired cliches and tropes to prop them up.

Step #2: "Strong" Does Not Equal "Manly"

One of the unfortunate trends in modern media is the emphasis on creating "strong female characters" without understanding what that actually means. If you think it means "put girls in the story who speak like guys, act like guys, and might as well BE guys," then you're doing it wrong. A much better word than "strong" in this case would be active. A passive character's behavior is driven by events outside of their control, while an active character takes action and has their own goals and dreams that they seek to fulfill.

So if your female character is just a willowy damsel in distress whose only purpose is to get captured by the bad guy so the male lead has a reason to fight, then yeah, she's a boring passive character. If your female character only exists to provide pure, selfless moral support for the male lead when he's an emotional wreck, then she's also a boring passive character. You may notice that both of these hypothetical girl leads play into feminine stereotypes -- these are the sorts of characters that most people are sick of these days. So what's the source of the problem? Is it because they act too feminine? Should you flip it around so the female lead is gruff, tough and manly to counteract the stereotypes?

No! Not necessarily! Because you see, we're not dealing with a masculine/feminine divide here -- that's just more of the same sexist thinking that creates these issues in the first place. It's really a passive/active divide. Go and watch a few episodes of Cardcaptor Sakura or any other good magical girl anime, and you'll see that a female lead can be girly as heck and still be extremely compelling, strong-willed, principled, and heroic. Sakura Kinomoto wears tons of frilly dresses, gets bubbly and excited over cute things, and has a crush on an older boy, but she also kicks ass, takes names, saves the day, has a fiery temper and a strong sense of justice. She feels like a real, relatable character because she acts like a real girl in the third grade would act.

So if you're a guy trying to write a female character, don't be afraid to give them feminine personality traits! Just don't confuse "femininity" with "passivity" like so many people seem to do. Let's take a look at what happens when they really get mixed up!

Step #3: Don't Make Their Worlds Revolve Around a Guy

This one is pretty basic but it still happens like...a LOT in fiction. Even in romance books written by women (*cough*Twilight*cough*), there's a tendency to have the female lead's sense of self-worth and all her desires depend on the approval and ambitions of a guy. This is also very common in fantasy stories with a male protagonist, where the love interest girl's main role is to provide "moral support" like I was talking about in Step 2.

Obviously the protagonist's journey is the primary thrust of any story, but it usually makes for a more interesting tale when the other main characters all have their own problems to solve that don't directly involve the hero. There are tons of JRPGs and anime where the male protagonist has a "rival" who's also a guy, and the two of them work at cross-purposes because they want different things, or even the same thing, but maybe they eventually team up because they realize together they can achieve more than apart. Gee, doesn't that sound vaguely like the premise for a love story? Two people with their individual dreams, who come from different backgrounds, yet ultimately need each other to become their complete selves? But usually, the actual love interest of the hero is some girl with no clear goals of her own, who just stands around and cheers for the hero's success when they happen to be in the same room, worrying for his safety when they're apart.

Let me say it clear and loud: characters with no goals are boring, passive, and might as well be nameless NPCs. Give your female characters their own stakes in the story, their own reasons for standing up to the villain that DON'T involve the hero, and for gosh sakes, let them fight and accomplish things. You could just as easily have the hero's best buddy get captured by the villain than have the love interest be a damsel in distress. You could turn the trope on its head and have the female lead get captured deliberately as part of a brilliant plan to infiltrate the villain's lair. You could have the female lead slowly fall in love with the hero, but still have her own personal quest to fulfill. Heck, you could even make the female lead the hero's rival!

The point is, just like in real life, every character in your story should ideally be the hero of their own story. Nobody thinks of themselves as just the "love interest", and nobody wants to be an NPC. Give each major character in your story their own personal arc to go through, and you'll have a much more interesting, multilayered narrative.

Step #4: Not Every Girl Has to Fall in Love With the Hero

This is another one that speaks for itself, but it's everywhere in anime and most JRPGs. Every girl the hero meets, no matter what background she comes from, no matter what first impression he makes, somehow feels a sudden attraction to him and wants to have his babies wants to be "closer to him" and follow him around, abandoning whatever life she used to live before she met him. Now, there are pretty convincing reasons for why this would happen in a story, especially in an RPG -- the hero is controlled by the player, and the hero's journey is the core of the story, so it makes sense that supporting characters along for the ride feel a strong respect and admiration for the hero that draws them in and keeps them there. If the game has romance elements, there's that reason as well!

But having all the girls blush and swoon over the main character when they've known him for five seconds might be a bit too far. In real life, attraction at first sight is definitely a thing, but if your female character is a stoic mercenary who's seen the worst of humanity and shut down her feelings because of it, she's probably not going to get all shy and embarrassed just because the hero offhandedly calls her pretty...because, you know, a lady in that line of work would have fellow mercs sexually harassing her all the time, and her first response to someone flirting would be to put up defenses, not let her hair down.

Similarly, a princess who's been raised to be the heir to a throne will have an extensive education and insane amounts of pressure being put upon her to succeed and promote her country's welfare, with numerous suitors flocking around in the hopes of wedding her, so she's probably not going to get all starry-eyed over the first peasant boy who steps in to rescue her from danger. In fact, being "protected" by chivalrous knights and such is probably something she'd be very used to, if all the hopes of the kingdom are literally pinned on her survival. That doesn't have to mean she'd look down on the peasant boy or feel ungrateful, but he's probably not going to stand out as some extraordinary person at first glance when she's already got so much else going on in her life.

And that's the thing we keep coming back to, isn't it? When you're writing characters, no matter what age, gender, sexuality, or anything, they won't come across like real people if they aren't written as individuals who react and respond to things the way a real person would. You can certainly put in a convincing romance arc if the chemistry is there, but don't shoehorn it in as a power fantasy for the reader/player without making it feel "earned".

You know what I'd love to see more of, actually? Female characters who are attracted to the hero and don't feel embarrassed about it. Female characters who are smart enough to figure out their feelings without some silly "wh-why do I always feel so warm around him...?" Female characters who are confident enough in themselves to admit their feelings to the hero without repeatedly denying it and getting flustered till they accidentally reveal it. I dunno, I just think it's refreshing when people are honest and intimate with each other, it's usually a good sign they belong together.

But as long as we're on the topic of human behavior, I've got one more trope to dissect before we wrap this up...

Step #5: "Introverted" Doesn't Equal "Innocent"

We've all seen female characters, especially in anime, who are shy, sensitive, lonely, and sheltered beyond belief. They're "too good for this world", pure like an angel. They're also pretty unrealistic and (somewhat) unrelatable, especially to a modern internet-age audience.

Why do I say this? Well, don't get me wrong, having an arc where a character goes from being innocent to jaded (or at least wiser), having their eyes forced open to the horrors (or at least the realities) of the world, is a perfectly valid storyline because it's something we all go through as we grow up. It's the crux of most "coming of age" stories, whether the protagonist is male or female. But I also see so many female characters in anime and JRPGs who are inexplicably sweet, cute, pure and shy for no other reason than, uh...well, I think we all know the reason, don't we? Because this is a "fantasy" or "dream girl" for some guys. And that's totally fine! But if you want to take a "shy, clumsy" character and give them a little more depth and realism, I have tips for this!

First of all, if you happen to be an introvert yourself, I seriously doubt that you'd consider yourself an "innocent" person. Chances are, you've been kicked around a little, felt like you couldn't fit in, and you've spent WAY more time in your head than out in the "real world", mulling things over and cynically judging the behaviors of people who are more social and popular than you. Even if you're shy, you probably aren't "pure" by any stretch of the imagination, and you aren't likely to look at people through a naive, rose-tinted filter unless you've been seriously sheltered your entire life.

Young women who are introverted, just like their male counterparts, tend to grow up full of ideas and opinions. Introversion, by its nature, implies a sense of "self" that separates that person from other people, making them feel different whether they like it or not. In modern times, we have access to a wealth of information at our fingertips via the internet, and introverts these days tend to spend lots of time at home, surfing the web and absorbing information.

So the idea that a lonely, socially awkward high school girl in a story set in modern times would be completely clueless, naive and innocent in regards to human selfishness, technology, or even *cough*sex*cough* is pretty ridiculous, actually. I'm 21 years old and I can definitely assure you that most girls in my generation are very aware of all these things, and then some. You can make the argument that a story set in a JRPG-style fantasy world with no internet wouldn't work the same way, but I can make the counter-argument that if the women in your story don't act like the real women in your potential audience, you're missing out on a giant chunk of the population there.

If you want an excellent example of a social misfit written well, I'd suggest checking out an anime called WataMote about a girl named Tomoko Kuroki. Just be ready for a lot of bad memories to pop up from your own life!

Conclusion

Well, I think that's enough tips for one article! I hope that I've given you guys some useful stuff to think about, and I hope none of it came off mean or anything...I just really want to see more well-written female characters! One of these days, I might write an article about writing better male characters too! I certainly have some trouble with that sometimes...maybe I can teach myself a thing or two...

More than anything else, I hope this article demonstrates how important it is to put yourself in your character's shoes, no how matter how "different" they seem to be from you. You could take any of the character types I told you not to write and still make them feel real and convincing if you give them the right backstory and some motivations rooted in real human behavior. If you can see through their eyes, you can probably figure out what words would come out of their mouth and what actions they'd probably take! And remember, an active character is always more interesting than a passive one!


Posts

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Nice article! Basic yet necessary! :D
I pretty much agree with all what you said so I don't know what else to say XD
Eee, thank you!! I was trying to think of what I could write for a first-time article, and I figured this was a topic I'd have plenty to say about and maybe it'd be useful to people >w<

I'm glad you liked it! :D
Great article!

I feel pretty similarly about everything written here too. Ironically though, I am writing some of these stereotypical traits into some of my female characters deliberately - but they're supposed to be unhealthy (like the love at first sight for the male hero thing).

As for the confusion of passive/active with feminine/masculine, I think this is partly why unabashedly "feminine" characters like Yuna & Garnet (who are also somewhat introverted - Garnet in particular) from the Final Fantasy series are thought of by some people as "weak", or crappy female characters - even though those two in particular display huge degrees of agency & strength throughout their respective games.

Oh holy Jesus, how could I forget until this moment about Sansa Stark. She obviously isn't a JRPG heroine, but I think she could easily fall into that "white mage girl" archetype, and she's surely one of the most hated/misunderstood characters within the ASOIF/GOT fandom(s). A lot of people seem to mistake her innate introversion and deliberate, survival-driven passivity as a lack of intelligence and agency.

Then there's the dimension of her character that was written out of the show altogether: the exposure to sexualized violence that informs the conceptualization of her sexuality. Well, it was kind of in the show, but they stripped that role from Sandor Clegane to amalgamate it with Littlefinger's, and instead of her forming her own sexual identity, she just becomes an object for other people to perpetually abuse & loses her hallmark compassion in the process.

Anyway in that respect, Sansa is a far darker character than Yuna/Garnet but this is written to great effect (in the books), as it's more realistic that a victimized girl would unconsciously conflate violence with sex if she's too young to have already made more of a distinction between the two & she's been groomed her entire life to be and want to be a desired object for a king/other courtly dudes.

So (there's a point... sort of?) I think these three are great examples of female characters who defy the stereotypes associated with introversion, compassion, passiveness and femininity while at the same time embodying these qualities in a truer and more relatable sense.

TL;DR Nice work, I agree with everything XD

Red_Nova
The all around prick
7330
author=suzy_cheesedreams
I feel pretty similarly about everything written here too. Ironically though, I am writing some of these stereotypical traits into some of my female characters deliberately - but they're supposed to be unhealthy (like the love at first sight for the male hero thing).

It's not ironic at all! What you're doing is called deconstructing a trope. Establishing a cliche only to blow it up with practical or real world consequences is a great wake-up slap to people who get too used to seeing them in media. Tales of Symphonia and Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica are both examples of media that deconstruct specific tropes in order to catch audiences off guard.

In fact, you can write nearly any step in this article as character flaws rather than traits to avoid entirely. Just as a character unironically chest-deep in cliches is boring, a Mary Sue heroine is flat and uninteresting. Obviously, the article isn't trying to encourage writing more Mary Sues, but to discourage writers to willingly dive into these pitfalls.

So yeah. Don't feel at all bad about using these issues if you have a plan in mind. Otherwise, definitely leave them behind.
Marrend
Guardian Angel of the Description Thread
14507
For major characters, and sometimes minor characters, it's useful to know, and understand, why a so-called "tough-guy" (regardless of gender) acts tough. Do they actually have something to hide, and the attitude is a barrier they put up to protect themselves? Maybe they have something to prove to someone? Why is that other character meek? Did they witness something they were not supposed to see? Did they experience something that shocked them into ostracizing themselves?

Though, saying that, I've probably fallen into some of the traps outlined in this article. ;_;
Frogge
"nothing can beat the power of gay"?
5480
That tip about how strong =/= masculine is really great.
On the other hand, I personally relate to female characters whose entire world revolves around guys they like. My entire world revolves around guys I like, lol.
InfectionFiles
the world ends in whatever my makerscore currently is
3999
author=Frogge
That tip about how strong =/= masculine is really great.
On the other hand, I personally relate to female characters whose entire world revolves around guys they like. My entire world revolves around guys I like, lol.
This happens to everybody! So, that's fine. :P
@Red_Nova I know what deconstruction is, I was being kind of ironic about it, haha. Context is hugely important, of course, for whatever you want to put into a story (and what you want the audience to take away). That other crap I was going on about in my post was essentially describing deconstruction of a character type (well, partly), but I was writing it late at night and evidently completely forgot that was a concept so the word was never mentioned once XD

Frogge, I totally understand that too XD



hard to find good anime these days when they are sunk so deep in these tropes, its pretty sad.
author=suzy_cheesedreams
So (there's a point... sort of?) I think these three are great examples of female characters who defy the stereotypes associated with introversion, compassion, passiveness and femininity while at the same time embodying these qualities in a truer and more relatable sense.

Oh my gosh, thank you so much for the in-depth response, Ms. Suzy!! The funny thing is that Sansa, Yuna, and Garnet/Dagger are all characters I really like too. In the books (don't even get me started on how the show's handled her), Sansa's a much more complex character than people give her credit for and she has enormous amounts of character growth, she's prob'ly one of my top five favorites from the series (Daenerys is the one I relate to the most, though...in the books, not the show. Never the show). I haven't played through all of FFX/X-2 but I really like how Yuna evolves in the second game, it's one reason why I've always been tempted to finish it. And then there's Dagger, who I was actually thinking about while writing Step 4 of this article because she's a strong-willed, feminine, intelligent princess who does NOT immediately fall head over heels for Zidane, and I also like Zidane because even though he's a shameless flirt, he's also a gentleman, not to mention very clever and heroic...by far my favorite male lead in the FF franchise :D

author=Red_Nova
In fact, you can write nearly any step in this article as character flaws rather than traits to avoid entirely. Just as a character unironically chest-deep in cliches is boring, a Mary Sue heroine is flat and uninteresting. Obviously, the article isn't trying to encourage writing more Mary Sues, but to discourage writers to willingly dive into these pitfalls.

Yep yep, exactly!! This is what I was trying to imply in the last paragraph, you can take any of these tropes and make them work if you take a self-aware, realistic approach to them. It's the lazy, thoughtless, unoriginal way that cliches are usually utilized that makes them so annoying.

author=Marrend
For major characters, and sometimes minor characters, it's useful to know, and understand, why a so-called "tough-guy" (regardless of gender) acts tough. Do they actually have something to hide, and the attitude is a barrier they put up to protect themselves? Maybe they have something to prove to someone? Why is that other character meek? Did they witness something they were not supposed to see? Did they experience something that shocked them into ostracizing themselves?

Though, saying that, I've probably fallen into some of the traps outlined in this article. ;_;

I totally agree, these are some of the character traits that a lot of stories skim over the reasons for just because it's "cool" or "convenient" for the character to be that way. People's current personalities are almost always rooted in their past experiences, but unfortunately writers don't always think that through with their characters. :(

And yeah, I'm pretty sure most of us have fallen into the same traps as writers that came before us, because they were the ones who influenced us! But as our talents grow, we have the chance to dig deeper into these things and expand our abilities :D

author=Frogge
That tip about how strong =/= masculine is really great.
On the other hand, I personally relate to female characters whose entire world revolves around guys they like. My entire world revolves around guys I like, lol.

To be honest I also relate to it, when it's explicitly written as an "obsession" rather than a healthy attachment n//n;; In the article I was talking specifically about the cases where the love interest is nothing more than a plot device to further the male character's story in some way, like she's just a "prize" for his heroism, that kind of thing. :3

author=bicfarmer
hard to find good anime these days when they are sunk so deep in these tropes, its pretty sad.

You're gonna make me cry, farmer-san ;-;

Thank you so much for all the comments, everybody!!!
Great read! I've always thought that giving manly traits to a female character was a poor way to build a strong female character. Hana from "The Wolf Children Ame and Yuki" is such a great character and has no manly traits forced onto her by the writer. I never managed to figure out the exact character building process but you did with the passive vs active approach. I like the way you present it; how a character needs goals; and take actions to achieve those goals. And more importantly how the writer needs to get inside the character's head. This is the equivalent of "get inside the player's head" to design human-like AI.

author=bicfarmer
hard to find good anime these days when they are sunk so deep in these tropes, its pretty sad.
I think the same. Probably because I don't get enough good recommendations to avoid the tropes.
author=StarlightShoals
Oh my gosh, thank you so much for the in-depth response, Ms. Suzy!! The funny thing is that Sansa, Yuna, and Garnet/Dagger are all characters I really like too. In the books (don't even get me started on how the show's handled her), Sansa's a much more complex character than people give her credit for and she has enormous amounts of character growth, she's prob'ly one of my top five favorites from the series (Daenerys is the one I relate to the most, though...in the books, not the show. Never the show). I haven't played through all of FFX/X-2 but I really like how Yuna evolves in the second game, it's one reason why I've always been tempted to finish it. And then there's Dagger, who I was actually thinking about while writing Step 4 of this article because she's a strong-willed, feminine, intelligent princess who does NOT immediately fall head over heels for Zidane, and I also like Zidane because even though he's a shameless flirt, he's also a gentleman, not to mention very clever and heroic...by far my favorite male lead in the FF franchise :D

And I was so worried that I had written too much XD

Show Daenerys is abominable, haha.

I think I was crying during the Arya/Theon scenes in the last season because of how irreconcilably they had butchered those characters and whatever they were meant to stand for (also the treatment of Sansa reached disturbing new lows XD... although I don't think anything can really top Theon's fight scene on the beach). They're my favourite characters along with Sansa, Sandor... and maybe Jaime... I mean, there are so many great, complex & disturbing characters in ASOIF.

Final Fantasy has a fair number of decent female characters overall, I think; I like Quistis & Lightning a lot too.

Zidane has interesting character development to me because he realizes his thoughtless flirting makes him look like a jackass (at least, that is how I remember it, haha).

author=Irog
Great read! I've always thought that giving manly traits to a female character was a poor way to build a strong female character. Hana from "The Wolf Children Ame and Yuki" is such a great character and has no manly traits forced onto her by the writer.

Well, it's not like there's anything at all inherently bad about giving a female character what are typical masculine traits.

Dragon Age has a number of well written women, like Aveline and Cassandra, who have more conventionally "masculine" heroic traits - they dislike/tolerate politics and prefer action, they're blunt and truthful, they're skilled warriors with leadership qualities; Aveline is very private and stoic, and Cassandra is hot-headed and romantic.

There's also Shepard, obviously, who I have read doesn't count as a good female character to some people because you can play as a dude, so the dialogue is neutral/set to "dude" anyway (in the same vein as Fang from Final Fantasy XIII not counting because she was originally written as a man), but to me "FemShep" came across as completely believable person... so long as I avoided all paragon/all renegade answers, as that made her sound either painfully corny or like too much of an asshole.

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