Hi Indies! Welcome back for Part 2 of a current hot topic: How to Write Female Characters/Heroines. If you missed Part 1 about inspirational resources, you can check it out here. Today, I’m going to talk about key elements or tools that can help you create believable/relatable female characters.
IMPORTANT TOOLS FOR WRITING BELIEVABLE FEMALE CHARACTERS
#1: Realistic Reactions. Few things are worse for me as a reader, than having a beloved heroine go bi-polar out of the blue. Or worse–stupid. I can love a book to pieces and one unrealistic reaction from a character will ruin the whole thing for me. In instances like that, it’s easy to determine that the writer was so in love with the scene, that they forced their character to react in the only way they felt would make it work. There is no scene worth sacrificing your character’s truth for. It’s not a remarkable scene for your readers if the character is suddenly behaving like aliens invaded their body – and you don’t write SciFi – so the practice it pointless.
Realistic reactions have layers, just like personalities do. The core should always be: stay true to your character. If she has an ‘uncharacteristic’ reaction, then there should be a reason behind it that’s either foreshadowed or clearly explained in a later scene. Whenever I’m not quite sure how to write one of my character’s reactions, I always ask myself: How would I react to this situation? Or, if I’ve modeled my character after someone else, I ask: How would so-and-so react to this situation? If you can’t picture yourself or a person you know reacting the way you want the scene to go while staying true to your character – it’s time to rehash the scene, not the character’s reaction. #sorrynotsorry.
#2: Flaws. The most believable thing about a character is their flaws, and we all know this. It’s what makes them relatable to readers. Even if your heroine is supermodel gorgeous, juggles a host of natural talents, and can slay zombies with one hand tied behind her back – she’s still going to have insecurities, doubts, a dark secret, or a bad nail-biting habit – something. Because I bet if you interviewed an actual supermodel, artist, or soldier they could give you a whole list of things they don’t like or would change about themselves. Whether your characters are 100% human or not, readers will love them all the more for the flaws they can relate to. For the insecurities they can sympathize with.
#3: Growth. I think it’s pretty common to see characters undergo some kind of personal growth by the end of a book – or at least, it should be. This adds to the realism and relatability of them for your readers and is simply based off how you present them in the beginning of the story, versus how they end up being by the end of it. Leaving room for your female lead to grow is an important element in character development and can have a long-lasting, positive impact on your readers. Take a moment right now to think of some of your own favorite heroines and ask yourself how many ‘personal growths’ they went through along their journey. Did those moments make you love them all the more, did they end up better versions of themselves by the end of the book?
Most female leads that come to my mind don’t necessarily scream “OMG, I need so much growth!” right off the bat. A lot of times, neither they or you as the reader, even realize they need it, until something happens to make them realize it. Obstacles are great elements to trigger moments of growth for your characters. Tough decisions, hardships, a challenge issued by the antagonist, etc. There’s an endless supply of ‘reasons’ – but if your female character is already 100% grown to the version you want her to be and is surpassing all the obstacles without breaking a sweat, then these moments of greatness are lost and readers have nothing remarkable to remember about her story.
A Growth No-No: A major, recurring -ish that I have derives from the romance genre. I’ve seen this horrendous trend more times than I care to count, where ONLY the male character is expected to make any compromises, changes, growth, apologies, groveling, basically give up everything that ever made them who they are as a person – just to win the female lead’s undying love. And it irks me so freaking bad! It is the worst trope in romance novels ever – and it’s rampant.
Seriously, writers, this is one of the most unrealistic and unbelievable things you can do in your story. As a real life woman and reader, I will never buy that a relationship magically falls into place when just one of the characters makes it happen. If your female character is going to portray the belief that a man should love her for who she is, flaws and all, then she should be willing to extend the same courtesy to that man. Nobody likes a hypocrite.
Most importantly, if you’re writing romance, that means you are showing the development of a relationship – and a relationship takes equal effort from all parties involved. Plus, it goes back to flaws. Your female lead should be flawed to be relatable, which means she would have her own share of compromises and inner-reflections to make, and should be adult enough to admit when she’s wrong, because the relationship should matter to her just as much as it matters to her love interest. The relationship is the key element in a romance novel, which easily makes it a huge ‘reason’ for all of your characters’ growth. Note: There are always exceptions to the rule – this is based solely off of the most common couple types depicted in romance fiction.
#4: Character Integrity. This could be considered an ‘umbrella’ element over all of the others I’ve already mentioned, but it’s something I try to remain conscience of while I’m developing new characters and haven’t completely fleshed them out yet or gotten the whole of their personalities sorted. Basically, it’s quite simple: Make sure your heroine walks the talk. If you’re going to claim she’s highly intelligent with an IQ of whatever, then don’t have her acting clueless throughout the entire book. It’s rare to see happen, but I have read a few books where the main character’s behavior and reactions to things completely contradicted her inner thoughts – at every turn. Every time a course of action was taken or dialogue was spoken, she would go against or do the exact opposite of everything she’d claimed to think, believe, know, decided about. And it’s one thing for an author not to notice this after reading their own story a gazillion times – but their editor on top of it? Ugh.
Another instance I’ve come across is when an author is trying to keep certain things ‘secret’ so they can have a ‘dramatic reveal’ later on – but they make the mistake of giving away too many clues that their “intelligent” heroine just can’t seem to piece together, even though the readers could have figured it out with less detail…while they were wasted. However – this can also be done on purpose. The difference is with how your heroine reacts when the ‘secret’ is revealed. Note: if she’s utterly surprised, you need to rethink things.
For example: In the Avarice trilogy, my female lead, Kami, appears to ‘miss’ clues that I know damn good and well my readers were able to piece together right away and quite easily. It wasn’t because she had moments of lapsed intelligence, it was a psychological hangup – she was in too much denial to acknowledge the clues and make the connections. But, I showed that to the readers with her reaction. Not only does she ridicule herself for not making the connections sooner when they’d been so obvious, she admits to herself that she hadn’t wanted to see them, making them too easy to ignore.
Side Note: Speaking of obvious…Clarification is something I struggled with a lot as a writer when I was first starting out and still do every once in awhile, when I find myself having to explain things to my editor. It can be difficult to remember that our readers don’t already have all of the information we do. They’re not getting half of the things we’ve fleshed out behind the scenes and then never used in the finished manuscript – or in the case of a series – events that will unravel later on. Which means, things that seem obvious to us, are not at all obvious to them. The art of subtlety in writing is precarious and can be a downfall in helping readers connect with your characters. It’s better to err on the side of caution and spell things out for your readers, than to try and use clever subtleties half of them will never get. This is an area where reliable beta readers can come in handy during your writing process.
One Last Tip: A good exercise you can use to check the realism of your female character/heroine – as backwards as it may seem – is compare her to a YA character. I’m not kidding. If your adult heroine is coming across less mature, less in-depth, and less believable than a teenage girl in a YA novel, then you’ll know you’ve got some work yet to do on fleshing her out. Just don’t forget to leave her room for growth!
Coming up in Part 3 for this article, I’m going to talk a little about the challenge of writing female characters/heroines that take us out of our comfort zone and then cover some of the ‘types’ of heroines that we may or may not be drawn to.
❤ As usual, feel free to leave your questions or feedback in the comments below! 😀