I recently saw a superhero movie with my sister, and our discussion of the film afterward somehow turned to the depiction of female characters in cinema. My sister made the simple yet astute observation that women characters often lack depth or realism compared to their male counterparts because the writers, directors, and everyone else in the movie business who shape these characters are almost always male, and consciously or unconsciously, they are usually speaking to a predominantly male hypothetical audience. As a lifelong bibliophile who decided to go into the publishing business, I immediately thought of literary examples of flat or clichéd characters that are the opposite gender of their creators, and I decided to investigate how authors and editors can avoid perpetuating this phenomenon.
Examples of male writers who churn out clichéd, unconvincing female characters are easy to find in any genre, from macho action thrillers all the way down to YA lit. My sister is a die-hard fan of the Percy Jackson books by Rick Riordan, but she’s repeatedly expressed disappointment in “Uncle Rick’s” ability to make his female protagonists sound and act like real teenage girls. However, women authors can be just as guilty of poorly written opposite-sex characters as the men, and they seem to be most prone to this with their romantic leads. Examples include the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer, whose infamous vampire hero routinely delivers lines that would never even occur to 95 percent of straight men, and the Divergent series by Veronica Roth, whose male deuteragonist can only be described as wooden.
These examples reveal that one of the first pitfalls writers and editors alike should watch out for is idealization. If a character is meant to be the “perfect” man or woman, then by definition they won’t read as real human beings. A character of any gender can certainly possess qualities that you personally find admirable or attractive, but they should also have believable flaws and weaknesses. Emphasis on the believable—token flaws like occasional clumsiness or being a misunderstood outcast for no specific reason don’t count. Realistic weaknesses are often the flipside of a character’s strengths; for example, a “brave” character may also be described as “impulsive,” “reckless,” or “hot-headed.”
Another pitfall is leaning on stereotypes and stock characters. Granted, people of the same gender (and age, race, socioeconomic status, etc.) often have a lot of traits in common, and stock characters generally arise from observable trends, so it’s almost impossible to get away from “typical” behavior entirely. However, no character should be formed entirely out of stereotypes. Every human being is typical in some ways and atypical in others, and it’s the tension between these that helps characters feel real.
So how can you, as a writer or an editor, shape believable characters that are the opposite gender? A cursory Google search will turn up all the help you could ever want, and there are some common bits of advice between them. One method is to closely and consciously observe people of the opposite sex in your everyday life—how do men speak, move, and react to various situations differently from women, and vice versa? Another tip is to read well-written characters of the opposite gender as yourself. Most sources recommend reading characters that were created by authors of the same gender—for instance, trying to get into a female headspace by reading Austen or Brontë—but it’s also worth looking at writers who successfully crossed gender lines. J. K. Rowling wrote seven wildly successful books in the perspective of an adolescent boy, and while George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series has raised eyebrows for taking graphic sex and violence up to eleven, nobody can deny that he’s succeeded at writing a wide variety of convincing female characters, from naive young maidens to ambitious queens to women warriors. Finally, consult your opposite-sex friends and family members if you’re unsure about a character—what rings as true and untrue to them?
Entire books could be written about creating believable characters of the opposite sex. For more in-depth advice, follow the links below:
“The Four ‘R’s of Writing Characters of the Opposite Gender” on the Writer’s Digest blog
“On Writing the Opposite Gender” on Writer’s Edit
“So You Want To / Write a Character of the Opposite Gender” on TVTropes