So, the Cursed Question of How to Write Believable Female and/or Other Characters will simply not die, stupid as I, at least, find it. And I finally reached such a pitch of frustration that I decided to speak my mind on the topic. Ravencon offered me the opportunity; people actually arrived to listen to me be grumpy, and the result is the. . .rant, below. For those who were present, I did vary somewhat from what is written here, but you’ll recognize most of it.
Includes stage directions, because I need stage directions.
How to Write Believable Female Characters:
You’re Asking the Wrong Question
Sharon Lee rants at Ravencon, May 1, 2016
Who here wants to be, is, was, or will someday soon be, a writer OF FICTION?
And among this fellowship, who wants to learn how to write believable female characters?
Show of hands, please.
How many want to learn how to write believable male characters?
Transgendered characters? Black characters? Asian characters? Believable alien characters?
WHAT IS THE SINGLE WORD THAT I KEEP SAYING OVER AND OVER AGAIN HERE?
Yes, thank you — characters.
OR, if nobody: Characters.
There’s a real danger here, which is why I’m standing up in front of this room, BY MYSELF, to talk to you about this — something I never do at conventions, because I am a hard-core introvert…
But there is a danger here, TO YOU, and I want to show you your danger before it’s too late.
If you say that you want to learn how to write AIR QUOTES Believable female characters /AIR QUOTES you’ve limited yourself, your art, and your creativity, before you even start to write.
That’s a bad thing. You don’t WANT limits on your creativity — and honestly? You’re already going to PUT limits on your creativity and do dreadful things to yourself, because we all do — Imposter Syndrome, Writing to the Market, Award Angst, those leap to mind immediately. There are a MILLION bad things that writers do to themselves simply by virtue of being writers. You don’t need to add ANY more, especially, ESPECIALLY, this one.
But, you say — yes, I see you saying it, back there! — but I REALLY DO want to learn how to write believable female characters, if only to keep my future readers from telling THE ENTIRE INTERNET how I got it wrong when my story comes out.
Which — OK. We’ll talk about that later. Right now, we want to stick with that question — that LIMITING question — and it’s underlying assumption.
What assumption, you ask?
The assumption that there’s a template — A TEMPLATE — right there in your Writer’s Tool Box — right there, clearly labeled — BELIEVABLE FEMALE CHARACTER — see it?
And do you know WHY that template is NOT in our toolbox?
Because we’re all different.
Yes, we are. We. Are. ALL. Different. We really ARE unique, special snowflakes.
Therefore. . .
THEREFORE, the question you want to be asking — the LEGITIMATE craft question you OUGHT to be asking — is. . .
Wait for it. . .
HOW DO I WRITE BELIEVABLE CHARACTERS?
Now, that? Is a good question. And, lucky for you — there’s a simple answer.
All you have to do is:
See how simple?
Observe — now that just doesn’t mean sitting on a bench and watching the people walk by, though that’s fun. I like to make up little flash-stories in my head when I people-watch, or make guesses about the characters of the people who pass, or what they do for a living. It’s amusing, and it’s useful practice. Practice in reading body language, practice in characterization, practice in stringing together a tale.
But observation also includes BEING THERE at the day-job, LISTENING to your co-workers, and WATCHING them. Observation means eavesdropping on the conversation going on over the table next to you. Listen! One of the Great Moments in my own observations was the day I stepped on to an elevator in time to hear one guy saying to another, “They acted like it was all my fault, because I was the housesitter? But hey! I told them, I said — Sometimes, houses burn down.”
Never stop observing the world, and the people around you. Real Life is a great education, the BEST education, for a writer.
Empathize — This means trying to put yourself inside another person’s skin in order to feel what they’re feeling. This is hard. The internet, bless its heart, teaches us that we must ALWAYS mock, ridicule, belittle, and destroy ANYthing and ANYone who is Not Exactly Like Us. That the only Real and True stories are told ABOUT people who ARE Exactly Like Us.
*pause to look around the room*
Resist this. ACTIVELY resist this.
Now, there are ways to increase empathy. First, if you’re observing and listening, like we just talked about, you’re bound to come across somebody who, well — ISN’T Exactly Like You. Little details might be different. You might like vanilla ice cream, your co-worker might like butter-brickle.
Butter-brickle. Boy, there’s somebody who’s out of touch with reality, am I right?
Or not. She might have her reasons for preferring butter-brickle, and if she’s an acquaintance in the so-called Real World, you can actually ASK what makes butter-brickle so special for her. If you do that, LISTEN to the answer. No, really. Just don’t assume that what she’s about to say will be boring, or stupid, or a waste of your time.
Because — you don’t know what you’re going to get, when you ask a question. You’ve gotta stay on your toes.
In this case, butter-brickle was her father’s favorite flavor of ice cream. When she was a kid, and they went to the ice cream stand together in the summer, and winter evenings when it was just the two of them up to watch the late movie, and at the long break in the middle, they’d go into the kitchen, and each get a scoop — or two — of butter-brickle to help them through the next half. Her dad just died recently — well. Four or five years ago, it must be now, and she’s not supposed to really have that much ice cream, anymore, but, when she DOES have ice cream, she has butter-brickle, and for the space of an ice cream cone, she’s sharing a moment with her dad again.
You never know what you’re going to get, when you ask a question. People are complicated.
Now, on this question of butter-brickle — maybe you don’t ask. Maybe your co-worker’s perfectly fine with vanilla, like all right-thinking folks ought to be. But you might ask YOURSELF, in, yanno, an idle moment, while you’re perusing the board over there at the ice cream stand one hot August evening — Jeez, what kind of person WOULD eat Moose Tracks ice cream. And why?
That’s good practice, too.
Now, the last thing on that list of tools that will help you write a believable character, is THINK.
This is the hard part, naturally, and it’s made even harder by the fact that you can’t just think ONCE, really hard, to get everything locked down, and after that the heavy lifting’s done, you’ll never have to do it again.
That would be nice, but things don’t stay locked down — They Move, You Know. . .and in moving, they change their context, and when they change their context, they change their meaning.
So, the thinking — you’ve got to think ALL THE TIME.
I’m really sorry about that, but there it is, and no escape in sight.
Now, I’m going to tell you a secret about characters and their believability.
CHARACTERS ARE PEOPLE WHO LIVE IN BOOKS. If you’re writing one-dimensional characters, if you’re writing cliches — YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG. You haven’t been LISTENING!
. . .and you haven’t been thinking.
Thinking is IMPORTANT. Do not leave this step out. Thinking is KEY in helping you develop a believable character.
Now, I need to preface this by saying that I am, most usually, a seat-of-the-pants, intuitive writer. I tend to let the characters sort themselves out as we move along down the story.
As long as I hold the role of what I’ll call Benevolent Observer, where I write down what the characters do and say, rather than moving them around like counters on a Go! board, this approach works — for me.
However, I am also prone to depression. One of the things that depression does is — it makes you stupid. So, instead of Just Knowing Stuff, you have to figure things out. In other words, you have to Think A LOT, just when thinking is the hardest thing EVER to do.
So! For those times when you’re not feeling brilliant, and you’re unable to empathize — you may — as I HAVE — create believable characters using the following technique.
Think of the world and/or society of which your character is a native.
Let’s say, for instance, that our character is a young person who has grown up on a small trade ship, a closed environment in which any contamination could be fatal to the crew.
What would that person cuss by?
No, probably not.
Well, there’s something.
What else can we figure out from this little bit of information about the closed system?
Hey, the most important task, for the health of the crew, and the safety of the ship, would be —
Keeping the ship clean.
The. Most. Important. Job. Hands down. Let’s give that task a job description. Let’s call it, oh, I dunno. . .
Now think of your own town or city. Who keeps the garbage from filling the streets, attracting rats, and breeding disease?
The sanitary workers — right?
And of course because of their important role in keeping our people healthy and our cities clean, they’re well-paid and honored members of our society? EVERYone wants to be a sanitary work, ride on the back of that bold red truck in all kinds of weather, and the wonderful aroma of rot and waste in their noses — why there’s a waiting list of people who want to take this job. . .
. . .or not.
Now, you need to think. In your story, for your character, how are you going to handle this Vital job? Are you going to turn garbage collecting on its head in the future, and make every Stinks worker a god? Or are you going to stick with the model you know? Which is going to be more INTERESTING? And what does your character think?
It’s a laborious process, but it can be done.
Now, I’m almost out of spoons, here, but I do want to PARTICULARLY address the “believable X character” — female, alien, asian, gay, &C. I am, in fact, going to tell you another secret.
If you write a believable character, regardless of gender, sexuality, nationality, or planet of origin. If you do that — people will believe. If YOU believe your character is a person, then that conviction will communicate itself to your readers.
PRO TIP: It’s easier to believe in people who act out of the necessity of their own beings, and who are part of the warp-and-woof of the world they move through.
PRO TIP: Real people are complex, as I said above. Black-and-white characters are MUCH LESS believable than black-grey-white characters.
PRO TIP: Villains don’t think they’re bad people; they have reasons — GOOD reasons! — for doing what they do. A believable villain — and a believable hero — will have reasons to do what they do. To Fight Crime can be ONE of their reasons.
But it better not be the ONLY REASON.
About getting your story right, and your characters right, so that you won’t be name-called on the internet, or by The Critics, or by the groundlings on Amazon. . .
Your story is probably NOT going to be universally liked. *hold up hands* It MIGHT be. But it’s not the way the smart money bets.
SOMEONE is going to hate your story. SOMEONE is going to love your story. Very often, the reason for the first person’s animosity and the second’s adoration, IS THE VERY SAME THING.
In point of fact, you don’t WANT everyone to love your story. You want controversy — well. You want chatter. You don’t tend to get chatter when Everybody Agrees that you’ve written a good story.
You get chatter when some people loved the story, some hated it, and some thought it was OK, but nothing to write home about. The folks who are on the fence, hearing the fireworks and thunder, have to go out and buy the book, to see what all the fuss is about. This is how you sell books.
So, try not to take it to heart. . .too much. . .if you don’t get Total, Unconditional Love for your work. It’s hard, and, yes, the negative reviews REALLY DO weigh fifteen pounds each, and the positive reviews blow away like soap bubbles and pop into nothing in the sunshine.
What your job is, as a writer, is to write the best damn story you’re capable of writing, with well-thought-out, natural characters who are so real, you want to go out clubbing with them. Your job is to improve your craft, and to NOT make the same mistakes twice. Your job is to lie SO WELL that, for the length of time it takes them to read your story, TOTAL STRANGERS utterly believe that everything they’re reading here is true.
And as for characters, one more thing.
You are not a puppetmaster, pulling the strings of wooden dolls, and shoving words into their mouths.
You are a GOD, who, having breathed life into a handful of mud, steps back to see what will happen.
That’s all I’ve got. Who has questions?