Even when writers describe and develop female characters well, they still must navigate a minefield of stale and unhealthy cliches. Tumbling into one of these pernicious pits can ruin a great heroine, and sometimes the entire story along with her. In this final post of my series on writing female characters, I’ll identify three common traps that demean heroines, tips for avoidance, and an example of how I’ve tried to subvert them in my own books (spoiler-free). Ready? Put on your authorial HAZMAT suit and let’s neutralize some toxic tropes.
1. Woman as reproductive system.
Setup: I’ve lost count of the TV shows I abandoned in disgust because the writers, desperate to scrape up plot lines for later seasons, resorted to contrived baby drama. Motherhood is not the only way to complete a female character’s arc. Some women want kids. Some don’t. Those who choose the latter aren’t secretly incomplete because of it. Those who choose the former will tell you it’s a whole new set of challenges, not an instant happily-ever-after button (looking at you, Mockingjay movie: two kids and a floral-print dress can’t magically erase all the horror in a heroine’s past). Science fiction writers, who often deal with post-apocalyptic population crisis themes, should be especially mindful of this trope, lest they slide into biological determinism.
- Don’t default to parenthood as a character arc conclusion.
- Have female characters make meaningful contributions to their communities other than reproduction/maternal roles.
Subversion: My Syzygy series includes three generations of characters, so unsurprisingly some of them are parents. But before that, they were kids with dreams and demons of their own, so I tried to let their backstories shine through, emphasizing their identities beyond just “mom” or “dad”. In a final twist, one female character’s redemption comes not in the attainment of motherhood, but in its sacrifice.
2. Woman as reward.
Setup: In many popular novels, the main (often only) female character serves as a completion prize for the male protagonist. Sure, she might throw out a handy plot clue or a few sassy jibes, but her primary purpose is to ensure the hero goes home with a trophy. Invariably described as “beautiful” in the book blurb, she’s the narrative equivalent of a blow-up doll, often with as much personality.
- Give the female character strong goals of her own (even better if they don’t align perfectly with her male counterpart’s).
- Moderate the instant attraction often cited in these situations, making the relationship less overtly sexual.
Subversion: I once wrote a biopunk heroine who prized the strength she’d achieved without trendy biomechanical enhancements, until an accident—or what looks like one—early in the story shattered her body and her world. Part of her journey involved coping with a new physical reality. Although sex played a role in this, it wasn’t about validation from a lover, but reclaiming her own body autonomy. In this way, the heroine was a sex prize: her own.
3. Woman as reclamation project.
Setup: She was a butt-kicking space marine, or a ruthless journalist, or a snooty prom queen, aloof and untouchable…until the hero came along. His manly affections melted her frigid exterior and healed the love-starved woman inside, transforming her into a softer, more feminine ideal. This device is perhaps the most challenging of the three listed here, because a strong relationship—romantic or otherwise—can transform people’s views and behavior. Watching characters slowly bring out the best in each other is often the most satisfying part of a good ship. But a step too far risks the impression of one partner “fixing” the other. (Interestingly, this is the only trope in the trio I’ve seen applied to male characters as well as females, most commonly in romance novels.)
- Demonstrate equal change on both sides of the relationship.
- Keep changes subtle, rather than drastically altering a character’s fundamental nature.
- If a female character is cold and distant, link the root cause (and thus the resolution) to something non-romantic.
Subversion: I draw explicit analogies between Blue Karma’s heroine and the icebergs she poaches. Connecting with a love interest does thin her protective shell, but when the situation gets dire, she’s as tough as ever and remains committed to her original goals, even if it means forsaking the nascent relationship.
As in the two prior posts, avoiding these setups isn’t about “political correctness” or bending to new social sensibilities. It’s about writing fresh, strong stories that don’t rely on hackneyed narrative devices. This blog series hopefully provided a map to guide you through the danger zones of writing female characters. Where next? It’s up to you! Veer off the trail of tired tropes and let your heroines blaze exciting new paths through our imaginations.
Have you encountered these tropes (or others like them) in your reading or writing? How did the author manage it? Let me know in the comments!