Hester, Jo March, Lisbeth Salander, Hermione Granger, Pippi Longstocking. Great female characters abound in literature—though they certainly could abound more!
These women and girls come to life on the pages of our favorite books and on the big screen, as they engage, enlighten, and enrage, and inspire us to look at our own lives a bit differently.
But, what makes a great female character?
They’re as different as different can be, but they all have characteristics that make us want to cheer for, befriend, hug, shake our firsts at, or just be like them. They make us feel something and connect with them, no matter how far our lives may be from theirs.
Here are a few tips on writing that great female character.
1. Empower the characters
When it comes to writing characters, female or otherwise, remember that above all, your goal is to bring them to life.
Great female characters are brave, spirited, resolute, defiant, dauntless. They overcome obstacles, triumph over evil, and conquer fears and enemies alike. They do this in big ways and in small, obviously and subtly, and always keep us turning the pages to see what they’ll do next.
Not every character needs to wield weapons or possess superhero strength, but they do have to elicit a strong reader reaction and make a lasting impression. Whether people love them or hate them, you want to craft characters so realistic that people just may forget they don’t know them in “real” life.
2. Great doesn’t mean “good”
There are plenty of great female characters who are villains. (Or villainesses if you prefer. Note: Dictionary’s definition of a villain doesn’t specify gender.) Think Lady Macbeth, Veruca Salt, and Estella from Great Expectations. They make us wince, cry, and scream at the pages of our books as we recoil from their atrocious actions.
While perhaps not great people in the sense of being virtuous and noble, they are most definitely great characters. Villains also possess many of the same characteristics as heroines—they’re brave, spirited, resolute, defiant, and dauntless as well. They just use those powers for evil rather than good … more often than not.
Some female characters are so strong they even generate their own words. For example, Bovarism comes from the novel Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. The noun means “an exaggerated, especially glamorized, estimate of oneself,” which accurately describes the book’s heroine, Emma Bovary. Character is defined as “the aggregate of features and traits that form the individual nature of some person or thing,” and that aggregate must also include flaws, such as those of Bovary.
It’s those flaws along with the backstory that make a character fascinating and real.
3. Avoid sexist tropes
The things that make a great female character are the same things that make any character great. Unfortunately, not everyone writes the script that way.
A 2019 report from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media examines the ways in which media stereotypes affect girls and young women. The findings are disheartening at best. Among other disturbing conclusions, it shows that in films, men today are still shown as leaders significantly more often than women, and women who are depicted as leaders are much more likely to be dressed in revealing clothing or shown nude than men. It also reveals characters are still disproportionately male (67% of all characters), and male characters speak the majority of the lines.
“I hope we are seeing better representation of female characters,” says Elli Toivoniemi, a producer-director from Finland, quoted in the study. “But sometimes we need to examine further the arc or function of female characters in a story. There are a lot of things that can be done better and more bravely.”
All this doesn’t mean every great female character has to be a leader in a traditional sense, but it does illustrate how important it is to carefully examine the messages your characters may send to the audience.
A memorable character is a fully realized character, and that’s your ultimate goal as a writer.