Ladyofdragons asked me this really wonderful question, which I am answering both publicly and as a text post because both of us would love to see some discussion on this topic.
Because this is a big one, people. How do you write female characters without resorting to stereotypes or cliches?
Oh, so much wonderful input here and food for thought, thank you! You hit on several of the challenges I’ve come up against and provide some really insightful thoughts I definitely want to keep in mind during my process. I’ve been a lover of story and character development for many, many years, both as audience and craftsperson, but there are always new challenges and things to learn!
I have definitely caught myself falling into the trap of coming dangerously close to making a female character too masculine in the process of avoiding feminine tropes and stereotypes, same as I often flirt with the danger of turning her into a mary sue in the process of trying to make her strong.
I suppose the key to the latter is making her strong despite her weaknesses (or perhaps because of them), to give her real challenges—ones that are not trivial—to overcome in an effort to portray the source of her strength in context. I think I have a pretty good handle on this (I am a terrible sadist to my characters, I do like breaking them and putting them back together again via story), though it’s always been a challenge to portray a strong character whose weakness are not external or obvious and not have them come off as a mary sue in the initial stages of establishment, before development can kick in.
But I digress!
Well, it helps to remember that in most cases, it’s not necessarily the cliches themselves that are bad. It is not an intrinsically inferior thing to be emotional, or nurturing, or even to own your own sexuality. It is only when these traits are consistently shown to be inferior, and when women are consistently shown to have only these “inferior” traits, that they become harmful to gender equality here in the real world.
For me, I’ve found the trick is really to just be aware of the metatextual implications of what I’m writing. I try to give my female characters, even secondary and side ones, at least some complexity. I don’t let them be static, or embody only a single stereotypical trait. For minor characters, this can be as simple as picking a “male” trait to pair with a “female” one; for major characters, obviously this process is more involved. It’s important to remember that it’s not the stereotypes themselves that are bad, it’s how you use them and present them in the context of your story.
To that end, it’s just as important to be aware of the way that other characters react to your female character. For example, if I write gentle female character A who doesn’t want to fight, and then write gruff male character B deriding her as weak or useless, well, that’s not intrinsically a bad thing. You don’t want to— nor should you have to— sanitize the opinions of all your characters to be ‘politically correct’. But I always try to make sure to qualify misogynist (or racist or heterosexist or ableist) assertions in the text— to make it clear that even though character B thinks character A is weak, he’s not right. Having another character defend her choices or otherwise making it metatextually clear that character B’s opinion is nothing more than just that, an opinion, is paramount to dodging the stereotypes and writing female characters that are equal to males.
It’s not easy, and there’s no foolproof way to write “good” female characters, I’m afraid. All you can really do, if it’s important to you to write female characters well, is to be aware. Educate yourself on what portrayals are harmful and why, and how they’re used in a text. Build female characters who are more than just stereotypes and write them into a story that doesn’t minimize or shame them, or paint them as plot objects instead of plot participants. Be aware of the harmful attitudes in your characters and be careful that your metatext doesn’t turn those individual harmful attitudes into a more generally problematic statement. Remember that women make up 50% of the population on Earth— don’t just include one or two female characters because you need a token woman to do womanly things.