Female characters. They are amazing when they’ve been done right. But story-ruining when they’re done badly. A lot has been said about writing female characters in the past. Many tropes such as the Final Girl, the Damsel in Distress, and the Femme Fatale have all been critiqued extensively. I don’t intend to write on those topics that have been covered by almost every writer blog and critic out here. However, I’m going to use this post to talk about my particular pet peeves that I have with certain overlooked tropes and recurring themes that involve female characters.
Before we start, I want to mention that this article is not about pushing forward a particular ideology. Some of my pet peeves can be labeled feminist or antifeminist but that is not the message I am sending. As an avid reader and writer, I want to put the spotlight on certain tropes that make works of fiction less appealing and believable by the way the author has written their female characters. Now that’s out of the way, read on to find out my top pet peeves about female characters.
Female Main Characters Must Have a Love Interest
Jane Austen opened her beloved novel, Pride and Prejudice with, "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." Well, it seems to be a truth universally acknowledged that a female protagonist in any genre must be in want of a love interest. However, outside of romantic fiction, there is no genre or plot requirement that makes all writers give their female protagonist a love interest. Yet, in almost all mystery, thriller, or horror novels I read with a female protagonist, there is always a love story thrown in the mix. Now, some romantic subplots can be intriguing if they are 100 percent vital to the plot but most of the time I find myself saying, “This book would have been a lot stronger if the love interest had been cut all together.”
For example, one of my favorite books, The Bullet by Mary Louise Kelly, is about a woman who gets an X-ray and finds there is a bullet lodged in her neck but she doesn’t remember getting shot. This revelation causes her to dig into her past and her parents’ past to solve a violent crime. This premise was intriguing, the female protagonist was taking action and standing up for herself. I was on the edge of my seat dying to know what happens next. Well, until there was a subplot about her having a fling with some hot guy. It turns out the hot guy kinda had something to do with the case she was trying to solve but it would have been just as interesting or even more so if this guy was not in the book at all.
While there are many books with male leads who have female love interests, there are also a large number of books where male characters go about their lives without having a romantic relationship at all. I feel like this constant need to pair a woman with a man comes from old stereotypes about women always needing a man. The plot of The Bullet was perfect, and it didn’t need romance to make it any more interesting. Next time you’re writing a female lead, ask yourself if her love interest is vital to the plot/character development or if you’re giving her a love interest just because you feel like you should.
Women in Law Enforcement – Sex Objects or Men in Women’s Bodies
There is one thing that most male fiction writers seem to get wrong and that’s women who are in law enforcement. There are two types of female cops in mystery, thriller, or horror fiction that I constantly see. One is the extremely feminine and desirable officer who usually is “too womanly” to be in her line of work. Not only is she lusted after and objectified by everyone even the third person narrator, she is too weak, too dumb, too naïve or too kind to do her job. This type of female cop is typically saved by or seduced by the male main character by the end of the story. The second type is the overly masculine female cop who acts just like a man and is totally okay with (and even joins in) objectifying other women. This character usually doesn’t have much a role in the story and is solely there to just be “one of the guys.”
The point of noticing these two stereotypes is to help people realize that women in law enforcement are just like everyone else and have a mixture of masculine and feminine traits. They aren’t so dainty that they can’t do their duty nor are they just like men with girl parts. Two good examples of female cops in books and television are Detective Sonja Test from The Silent Girls and other books by Erik Rickstad and Detective Ellie Miller from the Broadchurch series. These female detectives feel like women you’d meet in real life. They have a family, they are feminine and can show their emotions but still are tough and smart enough to get the job done.
Constantly Describing Female Character's Breasts
I get it. Men like breasts and notice them a lot. But your readers are not nearly as interested in them as you think they are. I read this novel that will go unnamed where the male main character introduced every female character with a description of their breasts. And not just the first time they met, but every time a female character entered the story. My tip is for fixing this is to find the amount of times you describe a female characters’ breasts (or behind, if you’re an assman like Kramer) and cut it in half. There has to be other interesting or attractive features this female character has and I know you can write about them.
The only time when this type of description would not be painful to read is if the character is narrating in first person and is a perv like Humbert Humbert from Lolita and you must write that way because it’s how the character would be thinking. But if you aren’t writing a Humbert Humbert-like character, constant sexual descriptions of women really breaks the tension especially if you’re writing thriller, horror, or mystery. After all, the reader is there for the thrills of your story-line not the sexual descriptions. If you do want to write about breasts all day, consider writing erotica instead.
Calling Grown Women Girls
Gone Girl, The Girl On The Train, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Luckiest Girl Alive. What do all of these titles have in common? Not only do they use the word “girl” in the title, all the characters are over the age of 18, legally making them not a girl anymore. The protagonists in these novels are full grown women in their twenties and early thirties. They are dealing with grown-up things like marital troubles, career problems, and alcoholism. They aren’t “girls,” they are WOMEN. I understand that “girl” is a shorter word and works well in titles but you wouldn’t write a novel about a 30-year-old man who thinks he witnesses a murder from a train and call it, “The Boy On The Train,” now would you? This is simple to fix. If you have a female character who is older than 18 years old and acts like a full-grown adult with committed relationships, career responsibilities, and the like, call her a woman, not a girl.
Defining “Strong” with Masculine Standards
Usually when the media talks about a strong female leading character in a book or movie, they are often referring to female characters who take on aggressive male traits. For a good example of this, look no further than Kill Bill. Beatrix Kiddo is a strong woman and one of my favorite characters from cinema, but she uses violence to solve all her problems. She is not the only one. Countless movies and novels now have female leads acting like Navy Seals – fighting, shooting, and stabbing their way out of every confrontation. Female characters that choose to be kind and use their intellect or their social skills to get out of a bad situation are seen as weak. One of the best videos that points this out is ScreenPrism’s critique of Cinderella. As you may be aware, Cinderella is often seen as a bad role model for girls and women because of her passivity. However, this video points out she is using feminine strengths to free herself from her bad homelife instead of trying to use physical violence.
When writing female characters, remember they don’t have to be violent or aggressive to be strong.
Let me know what you think of my pet peeves and if you have any of your own. Don’t worry, male characters don’t get a free pass! My next post will be on my pet peeves with male characters. Happy Writing!