As well as my nonfiction stuff (shameless plug: check out Den of Geek and Film Stories for more examples) I also like to write fiction. It was a short ghost story competition in 2012 which prompted me to pick up a pen (well, keyboard, but you get the point) and get writing again for the first time since I was at school (I won’t mention the epic 20000 word Star Trek: Voyager fanfic called ‘Gravity of the Situation’ which I penned in 1996 – it wasn’t very good and the floppy disk it was saved on is long gone, which is probably for the best).
Moving on. Swiftly.
So, as I started to get back into writing I remembered a lesson from school: Write about what you know – and I did. My entry for the competition was a spooky tale about a boy whose reflection tries to swap places with him. After that, I wrote about two lads who get into a spot of trouble when out on their bikes. My third was about a young man going base jumping and my fourth… and fifth…
I realised I had been writing about what I knew – being a guy. Aside from a couple of nonspeaking roles, all of my characters so far have been very much male. I needed to remedy this, so my next story featured six-year-old Debbie as its main protagonist. But what do I know about being a little girl? Nothing. I wrote it anyway and was relatively happy with the result. But when I came to write a follow up to it earlier this year there was this niggling worry… What if I’ve got “being a girl” wrong?
This brings me rather neatly to How NOT To Write Female Characters by Lucy V Hay, which fell into my lap just as I was starting to have these doubts. Perfect timing, so I put Debbie’s next adventure on hold until I’d finished reading it.
First thing I noticed is it’s a very short book. It was going to take less than an hour to read according to my Kindle. This initially triggered alarm bells, but it was also a very reasonable price – and at the time of writing the Kindle edition is still available to download for FREE! So I entered in expecting it to just be a few well-trodden soundbites and platitudes to fill it’s few pages.
But I was quite happy to be proven wrong.
The depth of detail Hay covers of in such a small page count surprised me. It’s certainly not a heavily academic time, but it’s also not wasteful with its limited volume.
The book is divided into several sections – each looking at, as you would expect from the title, thing to either avoid or approach with caution when writing female characters. Topics covered include not defining women purely by looks, avoiding character types like the Kick-Ass Hottie and Mary Sue (a well-known trope in fanfiction circles), not shoehorning women into a story when they’re not necessary and many more.
If you think this is just the so-called “feminist agenda” then you couldn’t be more wrong. This book is actually very well balanced as Hay’s primary interest is helping the writer to draw out interesting, realistic characters – and she has a few words to say about female characters who represent Girl Power for no reason other than diversity for diversity’s sake i.e. they’re one dimensional and don’t drive the story forward in a meaningful way. This is levelled at female as well as male writers as both have been known to create weak or superficial female characters, for different reasons (or even totally by accident).
This refreshing approach is reflected in one particular passage where she talks about Jed Mercurio (writer of Bodyguard and Line Of Duty) and his propensity to create the characters first with distinct backstories and personalities and assign gender later.
What’s also interesting is Hay calling out writers who only write strong women, saying that weak or evil female characters aren’t necessarily a bad thing if the story requires it – and they DO exist in real life so reflecting that diversity is actually far more realistic and relatable. Another important lesson is that just because a female character is bad, that doesn’t mean that the writer thinks that about women. You can support feminist views while writing women doing terrible things – once again if that serves the story well.
As I read I kept my heroine, Debbie, in mind and I was glad to see that she conformed to most of the suggestions. And I got plenty of ideas of how to make her even more well rounded. Considering this book is both free and short, it packs in a lot of valuable material to any budding writer. If you’re looking to fashion believable and realistic female characters, then the hour it takes to read this is time well spent.
A resource any writer of fiction should have in their toolkit.
About The Author
Lucy V. Hay is an author, script editor and blogger who helps writers via her Bang2write consultancy. Lucy is the producer of two Brit Thrillers, DEVIATION (2012) and ASSASSIN (2015), as well as the script editor and advisor on numerous other features and shorts. Lucy’s also the author of WRITING AND SELLING THRILLER SCREENPLAYS for Kamera Books’ “Creative Essentials” range, as well as its follow-ups on DRAMA SCREENPLAYS and DIVERSE CHARACTERS.
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