Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Creating Positive Female Characters

A few years ago, I was doing my AS-Level in Media Studies, and we were given a coursework assignment to make a two-minute film opening. We all split off into groups, and I ended up working with two other girls. Of course, studying Media made us all hyper-aware of the fact that a lot of women are given a somewhat bad name in films and television, so we were adamant about portraying a strong female character. With that in mind, we got to work planning and creating a storyboard, sure we would be able to represent a woman who didn’t adhere to the typical limiting conventions.

The first thing we did was discuss our protagonist. Naturally, it would have to be a woman. She would be strong-willed and independent, resourceful and brave. She would put her mission before her feelings because that’s what we thought would make her comparable to men in the media. We really wanted to make sure we were good feminists (the word didn’t have such a bad name a few years ago) and make the man the vulnerable character for a change. I mean, of course, men are allowed to show vulnerability. Toxic masculinity was stupid and destructive. Let’s create a man who isn’t portrayed as less manly simply because he shows us his feelings.

All was going wonderfully… until my teacher came up to us and, having listened to our great enthusiasm about this innovative and progressive female character, said:

“So you’re creating a femme fatale?”

Oh wow. Change of plans. It seems we did slip into a conventional role for women – just the complete opposite one. We’d added in a cliche without even meaning to… but we weren’t about to change it! I mean, all of that time lost – with all our other coursework? You have to be kidding! We wanted to create a positive female character, but not that much!

The moral of my little story is that it is very easy to fall into the trap of adding in cliches and turning any character into a stock character without realising. This is especially true of women, who have suffered from a long history of being given the shaft in media. There were, however, a few points that we’d failed to recognise when we were beating ourselves up about not realising what we’d done:

  • Cliches aren’t always your enemy. You just need to know when and how to break them if you’re going to use them.
  • Physical strength doesn’t mean strength of character. There are many different types of strength.
  • We should have focused on creating a convincing and interesting character first, instead of simply reducing her to a feminist symbol.

Before you dismiss me as a crazy tumblr feminist and denounce me as a “man-hater”, please hear me out! People love to shout “sexist” or “bigot” whenever they’re met with criticism or alternate opinions in this day and age, but the truth is often far from that. Really, in the West, most guys are absolutely happy to treat women as their equals and give them the respect that they deserve. Likewise, most women act like they’re worthy of the respect they’re given. Women are largely paid the same (with an exception being, surprise surprise, the media industry) and legally, women get the same benefits as men. It’s the media as an institution which just doesn’t seem to keep up with the way our society actually already is. It is the biggest culprit of perpetuation gender gaps and often seems to just be stuck in a time when women were viewed as weak, helpless, sexualised objects. Save from the odd film that’s rare in the grand scheme of things, the media industry is just not as progressive as we are in our everyday lives.

Often, the people who disagree with me will cite a few amazing women in stories, video games, tv shows and films. Then they’ll say something which boils down to “here. Equality achieved, so stop whining” – as if we should be happy that there are any prominent women in the media at all and not strive for better in the future. They can then get angry and defensive, seeing me pointing out ways we can improve as a society as me saying that all men are bad, or that all the art in the past shouldn’t be appreciated just because it has its flaws. That’s completely not what I mean. It’s the opposite, actually. It’s important to appreciate art from the past. It’s part of our history, after all. I can love and appreciate things which have come in the past because my brain, like most human’s, is complex enough to be able to criticise something that I love. I don’t think we should stop loving the things we love. I think we should learn from them and find ways to make them more representative of and accessible to the whole world. We learn and we grow: that’s what makes us such a successful species.

So the next time you’re about to jump on the bandwagon of calling any feminist you find a man-hater or an idiot, think for a moment. Think about times in your life where you’ve wanted feedback on your own work, whether for a job or for hobbies. Think about how frustrating and useless it can be when people don’t tell you ways you can improve. Yes, your work may be good, but does that mean that you should stop striving for better? Perfection is an artificial concept, after all – but we can sure as hell keep trying to get there.

With that firmly in your minds, why is it that we need to criticise and build upon our own preconceived ideas of gender and sex? Why do we need to change our ways when it comes to all sorts of minority groups? Well, those are excellent questions that I will attempt to answer.

It is important to understand that the media we consume has a massive effect on how we act and think. Of course, it’s by far not the only thing that contributes to who we are as people, but it is highly influential. The best way to make leaps and bounds forward is to present all kinds of characters, ideas and scenarios in our work. I mean, what better way is there to make someone empathise with and understand you than to give them an insight into what you think through art? But if we’re exposed to a particular group of people being represented in the same way in everything we watch, read and listen to, we are at risk of developing dangerous stereotypes about them and turning them into the other. This is particularly essential to avoid when you’re creating content for children: whilst adults are also susceptible to being manipulated or influenced by the media around them, children are, naturally, at an impressionable age where they’re massively affected by the things going on around them. Making sure that we show them all kinds of female characters (yep, that does include the typical damsel in distress and femme fatale tropes) enables them to understand that women are all different and it is our actions and intentions that define us.

Okay. So it’s important to make sure that you represent all kinds of women… but how can you start? This is probably the whole reason you clicked on this blog post in the first place! Here are my tips on creating believable and positive female characters:

Positive characters do NOT need to be “good”.

If you’re old enough to watch it, you may have seen Game of Thrones. It’s incredibly popular at the moment and is practically teeming with positive female characters. Cersei is one of them, no matter how much we love to despise her. The interesting thing that doesn’t occur to a lot of people is that even the women we hate who are built up to be antagonists or downright villains can be positive representations of women. When I say “positive”, I actually mean for us as a society, and not just within the framework of the story. Imagine if little girls all around the world were never introduced to a woman who does something wrong or a woman who isn’t positively likeable! They could start thinking that women are incapable of doing wrong and fail to take responsibility for their own actions. It would be madness! When you combine a female villain with a few of the following tips, you can create a positive character who represents a different, less explored side of women. Throw out all the old rubbish about good vs evil and focus on creating a woman who can stand as an interesting character in her own right. Who doesn’t love a good villain, after all?

Give them agency.

What I mean by that is giving your women free-will. Let them think and act of their own accord. Don’t always stick them listening to some patriarch. Although, when they are “controlled” by a man, you haven’t immediately made them a negative character. Try representing this woman’s lack of agency as a bad thing. Give her a chance to shine. Show the audience that she’s got a mind of her own and that she is going to use it at some point to stand up to someone. And please, for the love of God, try something different than the typical Eve-character. I mean, in the Bible, Eve having free-will actually caused the fall of mankind! Talk about a bad message! Why do we portray women with free-will as bad? Why are they always seen as being more at risk of straying off the path of righteousness? I’m not saying that you can’t do that or that a character can’t be controlled just because she’s a woman. I’m saying that if all, or even a majority, of your female characters either have no agency or their agency is seen as a bad thing, maybe you need to have a little re-think about your own subconscious biases.

Give them motives.

This ties in really nicely with the point about villains and has a massive effect on how good of a character you create – man or woman. Your characters should always have motivations for what they do. They should also have a role in the story which actually requires them to have motivations, even if it’s very brief. You don’t have to explain these motives to the audience or reader, but you should have a very good idea of them in your own head. It will shape the way you write these characters and make them seem more human. Why is this a point about female characters? Well, there are many instances in which giving a woman her own motives would have made her a better character. I’m sure you’ve seen stories in which women just feature as a prize for men, and so they barely get any speaking time. Often, they’re there for relief from the action and to appeal to male audiences. Whilst this isn’t ideal at all, giving them a true reason as to why they take this objectification from the men around them (and not just because they like the attention) will make it seem a tiny bit less sexist.

Give them back-story

This is very closely related to motivation, but I feel like it deserved a point in its own right. This is also not gender-specific, but something that I think all characters need. I don’t care how small of a character they are. If you’ve given them even a little bit more of a back-story, it will make them seem much more unique and interesting when you come to write their dialogue and actions. Give them things they dislike. Have their past affect them in some way. It’s realistic and helps show the audience that you know that women are people who respond to their past.

Think about who drives the plot.

So let’s imagine that you’ve jumped the hurdles we’ve already mentioned. You have a diverse cast with men, women and other genders in your story. You’ve created women who think for themselves and act of their own accord. They have clear motives for doing what they do and they are influenced by their past actions. Lo and behold! Your story is starting to seem much more fleshed out and interesting. You can improve this tenfold by thinking about who drives the plot forward. Are these characters reactionist (they just react to the things which happen around them) or are they proactive (they make choices of their own accord and don’t sit around waiting for things to happen to them)? Do any of your female characters play such an important part of your story that it would be impossible to remove them without drastically changing parts of the narrative? If so, well done! If not, maybe you should give their actions a little bit more credit.

Housewives can be badass too!

This is where it’s essential to realise that strength does not have to always be physical. Housewives and women who don’t go out and fight in wars or work in a “man’s world” can often get dismissed. They are, however, just as important as the women who do more stereotypically “masculine” things. My best example of a positive female character who adopts a more “traditional” occupation in a story has to be Molly Weasley from Harry Potter. She’s a mother and a housewife. She’s caring, kind, and nurturing. She knits, cooks a great meal and mothers everyone around her. These are all traditionally seen as good “feminine” qualities. However, she’s also strong-willed, sassy, independent and badass. There’s not a single thing she wouldn’t do for her children, which makes her an endearing character. She’s part of the Order of the Phoenix, and she was the one to kill Bellatrix (another positive representation)! She’s not solely defined by her role as a mother. She’s much more complex than that – and your characters should be just the same.

Think about sexualisation and sexuality.

This is where I’m likely to get a little backlash from both sides of the argument. Traditionalists will tell me that I shouldn’t be encouraging women to embrace their sexuality and radical feminists will tell me that I’m wrong for being okay with the sexualisation of women. However, I put up my finger to the lot of you. I am not someone who uses my sexuality to get what I want, nor will I ever be someone like that. I do think that the sexualisation of women by men can be really destructive, as nine times out of ten, it leads directly to objectification. Women aren’t just here to please men, surprise surprise, and so their bodies shouldn’t be used in the media as a way to appeal to and keep the attention of male viewers. However, saying that, women shouldn’t feel like they’re not allowed to explore and display their own sexuality if that’s what they want to do. I watched a play which I cannot, for the life of me, remember the name of, but it involved two very different feminists. One of the women wanted to show she was as upstanding and respectful as men are perceived and wanted her daughter to be the same. The other woman was very open about her sexuality and, to some extent, sexualised herself. She used her own freedom to liberate herself from the male-orientated bias that the bedroom has adopted and to empower herself sexually. I can’t say I don’t respect that. If you’re going to have a sexual character, give her a reason and liberate her from the usual narrative that sex is there to please men.

Don’t let them be patronised all the time.

A little patronising is okay, especially if you’re using it to point out how stupid it is that a woman is being patronised for no reason. “Mansplaining” was a term that was thrown around sometime not long ago. Frankly, I hate when we create terms to try to demonise men and make them seem like they all hate women. It’s stupid, reductionist and childish, in my opinion. However, mansplaining does happen on occasion. There are women out there who are patronised simply because they’re women. It’s happened to me: I’ve asked some guys what games they have, and they overexplained the premise of Red Dead Redemption to me, simply because they made the assumption that, because I’m a girl, the title name wouldn’t suffice. I gave them a polite nod and then mentioned something about liking Rockstar games as a whole (apart from L.A. Noire), which made their mouths fall open. It’s okay for women in your story to experience this kind of patronising behaviour, but don’t just let it happen. Have one of the characters point it out or point it out as the narrator. Make it clear that it’s bad to assume a woman wouldn’t know something just because women stereotypically wouldn’t know it.

Remember that women have flaws.

This one is pretty straightforward: there’s nothing more annoying to me than female characters who are seen as absolutely flawless – and not just because it’s often coupled with a lack of agency in a story. What a ridiculous and pointless way to deal with women in a story! How are girls in real life supposed to even begin to try and live up to perfection? Giving your characters flaws can make them endearing, and it certainly humanises them massively! Don’t be afraid to make their flaws prominent in your story. Have them have the agency to work through their own flaws or succeed despite them.

Don’t fall into the femininity trap.

Too many stories set up archaic conventions of what femininity is. I don’t think this is an appropriate time to have an in-depth discussion about what gender expression is. Maybe I’ll leave that for another post. However, make sure that your bad characters aren’t always bad because they don’t meet usual “femininity” standards. Make sure that the thing that makes your good characters good isn’t always (or even often) the fact that they meet to preconceived notions of what femininity is. It’s an easy and comfortable trap to fall into. In fact, it happens for masculinity in male characters just as much as this does for women. I mean, how many times have we seen the queer-coded villain: the evil man who acts “effeminate” and is seen as weird, abnormal and even evil because they don’t act like a man? It happens way too much. Break away from that, and you have much higher of a chance to create an excellent story.

Think diversely.

As I’ve mentioned before, it is important to show all kinds of different women in a story. Women come in all shapes, sizes, races, ethnicities, sexualities, nationalities and political views. That’s just naming a few things out of the hundreds that could set us apart as people! If all of your female characters act similar, hold similar views and serve similar functions in your story, you run the risk of implying, whether you mean to or not, that all women are the same. Much worse than that in my opinion: it’s sloppy, lazy writing! Disgusting!

Try something other than a romance.

Where are all the married women in stories? Why is it that stories about women always seem to revolve around romance and falling in love? Why are they so often defined by their romance? I mean, most married men in stories aren’t defined by their families. Often, their families are seen as extensions of them or, worse, as weaknesses that antagonists and villains can use against them! This is rarely the case for women, and men’s stories are rarely driven solely by romance. A lot of stories in which women are the main characters are driven by a romance, whereas men in stories usually get action with a side of romance. It’s never a good thing to allow your character to be defined by one thing or have one purpose in the story (unless they’re really, really minor characters), and romance is no exception.

Eccentricity doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

I remember reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in for university and having a single thing pointed out to me: if it were a woman who did the things Huck did, it would have been seen as way more weird and wrong. Women who act weirdly or eccentrically in stories are often dubbed as freaks. You have the crazy cat lady trope and the crazy break-into-your-house-to-boil-your-daughter’s-rabbit trope, and neither of these is seen as a good thing. Unmarried women are often portrayed as spinsters, prostitutes, witches or hags; whereas unmarried men are called bachelors, players or just men. When women do something that doesn’t fit the norm, they’re demonised for it. When a guy acts strangely in a story, it is much more embraced. Why do we always seem to portray unusual women as bad? Try breaking from that. I vow that one day, I will create an eccentric and lovable female character. When it fits into my story, of course…

First and foremost, be a writer.

See your responsibility first as a writer, and then only then as a feminist or egalitarian. Why? Because your intentions may be noble, but good female roles populating bad stories does more harm than good. It makes it seem like a story can’t be successful if there’s a strong woman in it. This may be a difficult mindset to crack but think of yourself as a writer who just happens to be a feminist, not as a feminist who likes to write. Remember that you are a writer who cares about portraying women well, as opposed to a person obsessed with representation who tries their hand at writing. Can you guess which one sounds more reasonable? If in doubt, work as an artist does: draw before colouring in. Don’t think about their gender, sexuality or race (or any other details you struggle with) until after you’ve filled in the plot-heavy details. Focus first on their hobbies, their back-story and their purpose in the story. Then “colour in” the drawing with the more intricate details and think of ways that these details can relate to the plot points. This strategy is nowhere near perfect, but it’s a great way for someone who’s struggling to make characters who aren’t defined by something like their gender.

I hope this has helped you understand representation of women a little better and hasn’t come across as an insane rant. Please feel free to write any suggestions in the comments!

Happy writing!

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Artwork by ChaoticDeluge @ DeviantArt
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