How to Write A Strong Female Lead

[Article, 10 Min Read]

**Now just a heads up here, I’m going to be digging into my opinion of what a great female lead looks like. I want to be clear that I am well aware that I’m a dumb man and have a very limited point of view into the female experience. But I felt it necessary to share my opinion because powerful women are always my favorite characters to read and write about, and far too often I see it done wrong or in bad taste. All this is my opinion and would love feedback by any women or female authors especially.**

It could be because I was raised by women, but I’ve always had a soft spot for a strong female lead in fiction.

If I really wanted to dig deep, in many ways, it feels like rooting for the underdog. Through thousands of years of Patriarchal rule throughout thousands of different cultures, women have far to often been second class citizens or even property.

Thankfully, the idea of women being treated as the equivalent of livestock has (mostly) faded here in America, there is still a strong presence of female stereotypes.

Stereotypes such as women are meant to be the homemaker, a good cook, obsessed with shopping or fashion trends, and many more that I’m sure you are already aware of.

When I see a well written female lead shatter those stereotypes and kick-ass in her field of choice, she will, without a doubt, be one of my favorite characters of all time.

I know I’m not breaking new ground here by saying women in fiction have often been handled poorly. Often times they are used more like furniture or at the very best mild plot devices.

This has happened so often, in fact, there is a specific test to check for a mishandled female character called the Bechdel Test.

The Bechdel Test is a simple one. There are only three criteria to meet to pass this test

1. The story has to have at least two named women in it

2. The said women talk with each other

3. The women talking woman discuss anything other than men

According to the Bechdel Test’s website, out of a database of 8076 movies, 57.59% pass all three criteria, 10.17% pass two, 22.10% pass one, and 10.14% pass none of the listed criteria.

Let’s look at that list of pesky criteria again.

1. Two named women

2. The women need to talk with each other

3. The women need to talk about LITERALLY ANYTHING but men

That is not a high bar to overcome.

Again, I know I’m not rocking anyone’s world by pointing out that the entertainment industry has an issue portraying women as anything more than sex objects most of the time.

On the other side of the spectrum, I’ve also seen some, maybe well-intended writers, play the female lead a little heavy handed.

I call it the “I’m a bad bitch, and I don’t give a fuck” type.

Let me put it another way to explain my point. You know the stereotype of small men who own giant trucks? It traditionally means a man wants to drive a large vehicle to compensate for either their height or penis size.

From my view, the “I’m a bad bitch” character type is the equivalent to the little man in the big truck. The female character is steered so far off in the opposite direction of the 50’s mom homemaker type, into a whole other annoying spectrum. Often coming off as rude and nasty even when the character is not asked to fill the role of a villain or anti-hero.

So What is Considered A “Good” Female Character?

Write them like as a normal human being.

It feels like we put way too much emphasis on a persons gender or sexual orientation. So much so that characteristic becomes the person’s personality. What I would say could be a fair exception is if you were writing a piece that was to place a gender or sexuality issue under the spotlight purposefully. I could totally get that.

But a societal issue is not always the sole focus of a movie or book. Often times you write a character who just happens to be a woman.

I’m reminded of a tweet I saw today from the frontwoman of one of my favorite bands, Dorothy.

Like she said, the only difference between her and a frontman, is that she may have to buy pads or a tampon.

All That To Say

Just remember people are people. Doesn’t matter the genitalia. We all get scared by things and laugh at others. Every person is different and unique in their own right and should be treated as such.

So, male authors (me), wondering how to introduce a couple of female leads? Want to do the gender justice?

Focus first on the personality, and the rest will fall into place.

3 Comments

  1. Mark, it’s good to see you tackle this with conscience. Just remember one thing: your character’s chosen profession should not determine her level of strength or independence. A strong woman can be a stay at home mom, if that was the right decision for the family. She can be a grandmother, an executive, a hairstylist, or a lawyer. We get too caught up in defining success by the work we do. And that goes for men as well! I’ve written my female characters in a wide range of professions: engineer, landscaper, nurse, stay at home mom, and baker. The professions were only one facet of their personalities and aside from one of them, only peripheral to the story. In writing from a male point of view, I’d advise you to base the personality of your female lead on a woman you admire in real life. And then let your female friends or fellow writers read it and give you some feedback! Best of luck, Mark. You’ve got this!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is great feedback, Meg! You are right, women, and people in general, are more then thier job or profession or position in life. Basing a character on a woman I know in real life is great advice as well! Can’t get more authentic then basing a character on a real person. Thanks so much for your feedback!

      Liked by 1 person

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