Realistic Female Characters

This post is probably going to be snarky and full of feminist rage.  Hold on to your hats, ’cause I’ve been reading Edgar Rice Burroughs and that’s what fueled the blog post about Realistic Female Characters.

I hear this term everywhere.  Guys ask it in writing forums.  Women complain about it every time  a new movie or series comes out.  It drives me up a goddamn wall: why is the “realistic female character” such a challenge? Why is it such a standard to live up to? Is the gender dichotomy so ingrained in our systems that men and women are truly from different planets?

(And for that matter, why did someone who created an amazing, in-depth, thought-out world not bother to give a little thought to gender roles?)

Okay, yes, Burroughs was a product of his time.  And I love the John Carter series, because I’m a sucker for adventure stories and good worldbuilding.  But Edgar, this one’s for you.


  1. Pass the Bechdel Test.

For those still unfamiliar with this test, it’s a simple series of questions that determines the realism of your Strong Female Characters.

  1. Are there at least two women characters in the film?
  2. Who talk to each other?
  3. About something other than a man?

Lots of wonderful, well-crafted, vivacious worlds do not pass the Bechdel Test.  Lord of the Rings is a particularly well-written offender, as is the original Star Wars trilogy.  Also much (although not all!) of Shakespeare’s work.  You do not need to pass the Bechdel Test for your work to be an excellent read.

That said, this is the easiest way to write Realistic Female Characters you can possibly manage to put in a novel and the fact that the questions have to be asked in the first place is so sad it’s downright funny.  Want to have realistic women in your book?  There are probably more than one of them, since we make up roughly 50% of the population.  Since there are just so many women in the world, I bet they talk to each other sometimes.  And they probably have their own shit going on in their lives.

I mean… duh.


  1. Give her (them!) a subplot.

Not every main character in the world has to be female.  But if every one of your characters has something else going on besides the token girl, whose subplot is falling hopelessly in love with your main character, you’re doing something wrong.  

Yes, for some people romance is all-inclusive and consuming.  Yes, your main female character may have an all-consuming passionate desire for your male character.  Shit happens.  It’s your world.  In that case, though, I have some advice for your main character:

Run, bro.

A romance that takes over your whole life is unhealthy.  It makes for great drama, sure (see: every sitcom ever invented) but it’s lazy.  It never ends in happy-ever-afters.  Unless you’re gonna really have fun with that trope, avoid it at all costs lest your female readers throw your book violently at your face.

Plus, it’s lazy writing.  If you’re going to bother having unique secondary characters, make them interesting! They need a purpose.  Don’t just put in a token girl for the hell of it.


  1. Put some effort into your romantic subplots, if you have them.

This one is SPECIFICALLY directed at Edgar Rice Burroughs, although I’m well aware his works have long since passed into the public domain.  Dude, limit your romantic interactions! Holy shit, John Carter is apparently sporting some sort of super-pheromone, because every single woman on Mars falls in love with him.

What.  Edgar.  Why.

Yes, romance is fun to read, but only if the chemistry is organic.  Only if the characters actually like each other.

I admit I have a hard time with this one, personally.  As my girlfriend can tell you, I’m awful at romantic dialogue when I’m actually in the relationship (I call her “nerd” far more than I call her “sweetheart” or “honey”), so writing natural romantic dialogue is a challenge to me.  I get it.

Just give your characters at least a couple chapters (or a few hours, Edgar) to get to know each other before they try to jump each others’ bones, okay?


  1. When all else fails, ask a girl.

Women come at the world from a different perspective than men.  Guys may not understand why telling someone to smile is a degrading, annoying thing: any chick in the world can tell you exactly how infantilizing it is, and we’ve all had someone say it.  Same goes for unsolicited compliments.  Or unsolicited chivalry.  Or any other form of microaggressive behaviour.

Unless you’ve been on the receiving end, you probably don’t understand the problem to its fullest extent.  So sit down with someone you know and ask questions. Let her talk.  I guarantee you she’ll be more than willing to help you understand.


  1. Go back and switch the genders of this article.  It still applies.

Or replace “girl” with “person of color”.  Or “lgbt person”.  Or even “child”.

This article was fueled by the freaking oversight that is A Princess of Mars, but it really applies to anything you write that falls outside the realm of your experience.  Twilight is just as awful as A Princess of Mars, and for all the same reasons (although Twilight doesn’t have any of APoM’s good bits, like war and worldbuilding).

There’s a reason I don’t have many people of color in my stories– I’m not a person of color.  That’s something I’m working on changing, but it’s hard not to fall into the Token Black Friend trope.  Same thing happens with kids in adult literature– usually only present to be in distress or show the main character what he’s fighting for.  And the gay people never get a realistic romantic story arc.

Gender isn’t a person’s defining characteristic, even if it’s a big part of who they are.  Same goes for sexuality.  Skin color.  Ethnicity.  Whatever.

Write people.  Not tropes, not characters, not daydreams.





Various events over the past few years have caused me to think a lot on the nature of forgiveness.  My best friend abandoned me in a time of need. There have been various family falling-outs since then that it’s hard for me to get past.  I’ve been working through my trust issues while in a long-term relationship, which is a lot harder than romantic comedies make it seem.

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Conlang Lite: The Language Facade

Language is a passion of mine.  Specifically, conlanging is a passion of mine.  The nuts and bolts of how words fit together is fascinating to me: I have literally spent hours coming up with language concepts.

Seriously. I don’t go overboard at all.

But it’s not for everyone.  Which I totally get.  Most writers are in this for the story, not because they’re weirdly obsessed with letters.  In which case, those who want to address the problem of language might feel a little overwhelmed: it’s a huge complicated worldbuilding monster that can often appear like an all-or-nothing deal.

Don’t worry. You can have a realistic language without having to build the whole damn thing. Here’s how: Continue reading

The Unappreciated Art of Receiving Criticism

Giving critique on anything is easy.

Giving coherent, insightful critique can be difficult: that’s why people can make a career out of being a critic.  It’s easy to say whether or not you like something, but saying why in a meaningful way can be fairly convoluted.

Receiving critique, though, is damn near impossible.

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Further Adventures in Adulthood

I’ve written a little about my day job: I’m a substitute teacher in a midwestern school district.  It’s one of the best jobs I’ve ever had: I get to work with kids, I have no direct boss, and I work with some amazing people. Plus it works well with my wanderlust, since I can take time off whenever I feel like it.

I can say this honestly: I love my job.

But it seems to beg a question, because there’s this question people keep asking me:  “Is this the career you want to go into?”  And hot on its heels: “Are you looking for a full-time position?”

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A Thousand Words

My grandfather passed away in October.

I’ve already written about it and link to it incessantly.  It’s been ruthlessly on my mind since it happened, and I’m still trying to process the whole event.  I don’t know that I’ll ever really stop processing it.  I hope not.  But I digress.

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Character, Write Thyself.

Building a person is a long and complicated process.

In the real world, it takes twelve to twenty years to really solidify someone’s personality, and we never really stop building on that.  In fiction, it can take anywhere from a single line to an entire novel’s worth of notes to get an idea of who the hell you’re actually writing about.  In other words: not easy. Fun, depending on the type of writer you are, but not easy.

I’ll admit it, though, I’m not the type of writer to keep copious notes on character-building. I have a ridiculously hard time sitting down and creating a framework to draw my story from (linguistics stuff aside).  For me, at least, it’s a lot easier to let the characters figure it out for themselves.

Which means, rather than trying to build the character’s personality up bit by bit to the finest detail, you focus on what they want.  And to learn what they want, you only need to ask a couple questions.


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