What NOT to do When Writing Your Female Lead

When Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau announced his first cabinet roster after his election in 2015, it was the most diverse the country has ever seen. One of its most noticeable features was that it was comprised of 50% women. When asked why this was the case (as if having equal parts women and men should cause concern), Trudeau simply answered, “because it’s 2015”. It may be one of my favourite mic-drop-worthy moments in politics.

Now, enter the world of literature. It is a world where stereotypes still exist in strength. Where genders generally assign roles in stories, stemming from the classic knight in shining armour and the damsel in distress, and dating to gender roles and stereotypes from centuries before that. Thankfully, female leads are becoming more prominent, more independent, and more noteworthy, thanks to a push for gender equality in all forms of media. Unfortunately, there are so many cases where - even with the best of intentions - authors can still get it wrong.

Here are the top three pitfalls to avoid when creating your strong female lead.

Don’t make her ultra-masculine. You are not doing yourself any favours by making your female lead a male with a different pair of chromosomes. Unless your protagonist is actually struggling with a gender or identity issue, do not cop out by fashioning your female lead after every male hero you have ever seen. Embrace the differences that having a female hero can have, rather than just copying and pasting what has been done before and hoping no one will notice. We will all notice.

Don’t make her rely on a romantic partner. Now this is not saying “don’t let her be in a relationship” or “ignore her sexual feelings”. Romance and sex is not mandatory in a story, no matter who your protagonist is. But a female lead does not need to have her romantic partner as a crutch. Can they make each other stronger? Yes. Can they support one another? Absolutely. But think about real life: my partner draws out the best in me, highlights my qualities just as I complement her own. But she is not a slave to every my every word or action. She is quite capable of functioning when I am not around. Your female lead is her own person, uniquely individual. She can be complemented by her partner, but do not do your character, your story, or your readers a disservice by making her reliant on them.

Make the story about her. Finally, and most importantly, your female lead should be exactly that: a lead! This is her story, she is not there to carry someone else, and she definitely should not be there for fanservice. Consider the Bechdel test, which most critics use to judge films for their inclusion of female characters. It has three stipulations: there must be at least two women, these women must talk to one another, and their conversation cannot just be about a man. If this sounds outlandish to you, you need some serious time to reflect. Women in real life are not there just to ogle over men and help them with their goals, completely forsaking their own ideals and dreams. They are independent, driven, and strong. Highlight her traits, her journey, and her dreams in your story. Another test, this one crafted in the world of Tumblr, has been dubbed the Mako Mori test, after the lone female character in the movie Pacific Rim. Apply this test to your work by asking yourself: does your female character have her own story arc, or is she just there to support a male character?

Those are the big three, though do not think that they are the only pitfalls in writing female leads. There are other factors to take into consideration - one of my favourites is looking to see whether you included in the first two lines of description of a female character a comment on how attractive she is.

And if you read these and thought, “damn, I wrote a female character and didn’t even think about that”, don’t beat yourself up. Some of the biggest names in the writing industry have made these same errors. The cliches and fallacies of stereotypes have been so ingrained in modern culture that it takes conscious thought and effort to avoid them sometimes.

Planning and writing this blog even made me reflect on my own work. I thought that I was, as many of us do, perfect at writing female characters. But making this list and thinking about the topic further has made me change some of the ways I portray my female characters. While I am happy with what I had, I know that having stronger female characters will only make my work more believable and entertaining.

What are some of the biggest mistakes you see when it comes to female characters, especially leads? On the flip side, what are some of the best attributes you have seen in a female character? Are there any pitfalls that I missed, or are there any that you, as a writer, have fallen into? Let me know in the comments down below.

Happy writing and reading, my friends, and I will see you on Thursday.