Writing Tips

#WW Help! My Female Character Is Flat

I’m guilty! Oh, so guilty.

While writing my latest manuscript for my publisher, I hit a snag 38,000 words in, and could not—for the life of me—figure out what was wrong with it. Then, I realized what happened.

My female protagonist was flat.

Allow me to back track for a little bit.

I never used to have this problem. When I first set out to write books, I honestly feel like I was a better writer than I am now. At least, in regards to the first draft. I would simply let my work be what it needed to be. Now, I’m bombarded with so many rules and expectations (some awesome, some not-so-awesome) that I end up worrying about what I should be writing instead of worrying about what my book actually is, who my characters truly are, and how things will happen naturally.

Example? Well, let’s go back to where I started. My flat female character. Why was she flat? Because she wasn’t flawed. So, why wasn’t she flawed? Because I was afraid. I kept thinking about all the things readers want (and don’t want) a female character to be. Tough but not too tough. Girly but not too girly. A good friend, a completely independent lover, a strong-minded leader, a determined dreamer, and someone who never faints from total exhaustion from all that perfect-ness.

I take issue with too much expectation, especially in young adult fiction where characters are coming of age and still trying to figure out who they are, what they want, and how they’re going to achieve it. But I get it. I do. As a reader myself, I know readers are harder on female characters, because the world is harder on females in general. I have my moments, too! It’s ingrained into us, after all. But I hadn’t realized how much it was affecting books until my paranormal romance trilogy released last year. Spoiler warning now, I was shocked that my male protagonist could take a two-ton car, throw a hissy fit, and crash it at 100 mph without so much as a blink of judgment, while my female character was called all kinds of nasty names because she went underage drinking with her friends and got into some trouble. Personally, I think his choice was much more destructive considering how he could’ve killed someone else—or an entire car full of innocent people—while her reckless decision really only put herself in danger. (And she was with friends she should’ve been able to trust.) All that aside, though, only one of them was judged. And she was judged harshly. (Shameless plug: I’m talking about Seconds Before Sunrise.)

As much as I wish I could say this didn’t affect me, I think it did.

Now, when I approach my female characters, I’m hesitant to let them make any mistakes at all. I’m afraid to let them cry (because they’ll be deemed whiny), but I never hesitate to let my male characters cry (because when they cry, they are somehow seen as deep and approachable and need to be comforted).

It’s extremely frustrating, because I am also a female, and I know these judgments extend far beyond the pages of my books. It’s also why I fight my own fears to keep my female characters round. In a world that is constantly trying to flatten female characters, I will fight to keep them round. I will even fight myself—my own misconceptions and…well, flaws.

Before, I held myself back, and therefore, I held my female character back, and I apologize for that.

She is not someone I should hold back. She is strong and weak and happy and sad. She’s dealing with trauma and dreaming about the future and falling in and out of what she thinks might be love (but she isn’t sure), and she is reckless for all kinds of reasons. She also cares deeply about those around her…and sometimes she forgets to care about herself, too. But she will do her best and she will make mistakes, and the combination of both is what matters, because that is who she is.

I will not worry whether or not readers will hate or love or judge her, because she is her, and that is who she is supposed to be. And this is her story to tell, not mine.


15 thoughts on “#WW Help! My Female Character Is Flat

  1. All of this is sooooo true. When I write, I feel like I have to spend so much more time on female characters and be way more intentional with their actions than male characters because I know they’ll be analyzed more. It can make a person dizzy

    But I think you’re right that it’s important to let female characters be exactly who they are in the end. The women, regardless of age, reading about those characters are in the same boat and it’s important to be reminded that it’s okay and natural. Characters are good at lessons like that.

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Tay.Laroi! Thank you for commenting. It’s nice to know I’m not alone. I think it’s a common dilemma authors find themselves in. It’s nice to talk about it with others!

  2. I noticed this with female heroes and it’s starting to happen with the males too. People are having no tolerance for protagonists that make mistakes. Seems to have the same series of steps too, especially with heroines. They end up praising the ones that are flawless, but rather dull. You get a push-back from people who focus on the dull and eventually it’s a character that is either loved or hated to the extreme. I see this more in fantasy and sci-fi though. At least from my experience, YA gets a little more wiggle room because of the maturity period as you stated. Doesn’t seem that way on the surface though because people that complain tend to be louder than those that enjoy what you do.

  3. I was applauding as I read this post, because yes, yes, yes, I agree wholeheartedly. Female characters are judged more harshly than their male counterparts. The heroine can’t be too nice because she’s dull and boring, but she can’t be too confident either because she’s a *itch. She needs to be perfect, yet imperfect. It’s hard to win, especially when everyone has their own idea of perfection.
    I think the problem comes mostly from female readers since I’m not sure male readers are as critical. It mimics real life when you think about it. Women judge themselves and other women worse than any men do, don’t they?

    1. Yes, absolutely! I think it stems from our culture, which is why it happens in regards to judging books, too. It’s very disheartening to see, but something we must all let go if we’re going to write the right book. 🙂

  4. Hi Shannon. Yes, I think all people, (therefore our characters should be, too), are flawed. A funny conversation my wife and I have had concerns “naming the quirks” of the others in our large extended families. Seems like everyone had them but us!! LOL Seriously, at 61 it still surprises me that the “flaws” and “dysfunctions” and “hurts” are so pervasive among my friends and colleagues and extended family. Beautiful in a way, but tough! 🙂

  5. I totally hear what you’re saying. Women are judged differently than men, in fiction as in life. At some point, I guess you have to say “this is who the character is,” and make people deal with it themselves. You’re a writer, non their nanny!

  6. Huh. You know, it’s interesting that you’re not the only author I’ve seen say something similar to this. Look, forget what people say. Flawed characters are interesting. Most people want dynamic female characters, not perfect ones. People who want perfect characters should go write their own and see if anyone finds them interesting.

  7. I can’t even express how much more a female protagonist resonates with me when she acts more…well…HUMAN. It irritates me so much when an author writes a character who can do literally everything. She’s good looking and can swing swords and all the boys want her attention, oh and she never cries and has nerves of steel! That’s not realistic and it’s hard to relate to a character like that. Yes, we readers realize that there are of course some elements of a book that will escape reality and those are perfectly acceptable, even welcome, but making a character unflawed just makes them…uninteresting. It’s good that you consider these things when writing, because a lot of writers just don’t seem to anymore.

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