Writing Strong Female Characters – the trick

Hey you.

Yes you, over there! The guy with the pen.

I see you there, sitting, poring over your script. Trying to figure out how to write a strong female character. And all you’re ending up with is … well… a weak female character.

Want to know the trick?

The secret…? How to get into a woman’s head, and turn her into Sarah Connor in Terminator 2? Or Ripley in Aliens? Or Uma Thurman’s character in Kill Bill? Or heck, we could go for less overt strong female roles.

It’s easier than you might think.

Just write them as if you’re writing a guy. Stop thinking about it so hard.

It’s really just that simple. Most guys (and a few female writers) will write their characters in over stereotypes. Just drop your concept of gender, and write them as you. Don’t color them in such gaudy strokes – remember, your actress will have all kinds of wonderful tricks to remind the audience that they’re female. And heck, you can have sexual banter in your script even. But don’t make the mistake of writing the girl as a girl, or even a guy as a guy. Because the reality is that we’re actually a lot more similar than you might think.

For example, the stereotype of the rational, clear-thinking man, and the irrational, illogical woman? Complete balderdash. Every woman I’ve ever met has been way more clinically logical and ruthless than every man I’ve ever met – especially when it comes to relationships and love. Women seem to have this ability to boil everything down into a set of logical rules that they apply without actually letting their emotions get in the way, and no matter how in love they are. They have to – this is an evolutionary thing; they’re looking for the best chance at their (potential) child’s survival – and this requires ruthless choices.

Men, on the other hand? If we fall in love, our critical reasoning skills fall to pieces. Ruthless logical, rational thinking? Forget about it. Our hearts drive us more than our brains in these situations. That pint of Haagen-Dasz stereotype where the girl is unhappy, and watches romantic comedies while crying into tissues? Sure it happens. It happens to guys too. Just typically without the ice cream. Or the romantic comedies. We’re just not officially allowed to show it in modern society, because we’re supposed to be manly men, all chest hair and permanently erect, looking for the next vagina to be inside of.

(And frankly, women don’t want to see that soft stuff anyway… there’s nothing less sexy than a guy having a pity party… although oddly it worked in Forgetting Sarah Marshall).

About the only valid stereotype is that when discussing something that’s annoying them, men want to attack the immediate problem and fix it, whereas women want sympathy for the problem. And even then, that’s not always true. It really doesn’t cross gender barriers either – most men will get annoyed if you try the fixing it role when they have a dilemma which is causing them emotional pain. They really just want sympathy too.

In short, don’t rely on stereotypes when you’re dealing with gender roles and characters. It’s a way too broad brush unless you’re writing slapstick comedy.

About the author

Simon Cooke is an occasional video game developer, ex-freelance journalist, screenwriter, film-maker, musician, and software engineer in Seattle, WA.

The views posted on this blog are his and his alone, and have no relation to anything he's working on, his employer, or anything else and are not an official statement of any kind by them (and barely even one by him most of the time).

Archived Wordpress comments
Anonymous wrote on Tuesday, October 13, 2009:

Could you write more about this? A lot of what you say seems to make sense - ie that women can be cold and logical about emotional issues, whereas men get lost in them.

It's very interesting to read!

Aaron wrote on Friday, January 29, 2010:

Any tips for writing interactions between women? I have an easy time writing banter for guys, or even banter between guys and girls, but so called: “girl talk” I struggle with.

Anonymous wrote on Sunday, July 4, 2010:

Bit troubling that support for the argument that there's no difference involved pointing out differences. Like saying women being illogical is a myth because all women you've met are more logical than men? This is further confusing me..

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