I don’t think I’m the only one who decides a lot of their opinion about a book (or movie or TV series for that matter) on how the book’s female characters are portrayed. If the female characters are relegated to sideline support or bad stereotypes, there’s a really good chance that I’ll lose interest in the story and go look for something else. And in today’s market, we’re lucky to have a larger variety of well-written female than previously existed. (Women’s right movements for the win!)
But what makes a good female character can vary between each reader. Some readers like their characters more independent and strong, while others like them more emotional and relatable. Some readers like a good mixture, or none of the above. It depends on what’s important to you.
So, what’s important to me in female characters? Well, I’m glad you asked.
What Makes a Good Female Character (according to Kourtney):
- The Only One in the Group. This was a lot more common in the 80’s and 90’s, where there was an all-male cast with the obligatory female character in the mix. Think of stories like the Smurfs, Duck Tales, Transformers, or Star Fox, where there’s one girl and she’s usually in pink or purple. For me, it’s hard to have one character that supports an entire gender. It immediately ditches the idea of having many kinds of female personalities and characters in the mix and representing a wider variety of women. Steven Universe is a phenomenal example to me of many women with a variety of personality and ideas.
- The Damsel in Distress. This is a common complaint about women I’ve heard on Tumblr, and I’m among their ranks. It’s so…cliché and overused. And so demeaning to the character. Granted, there can be characters from all genders that get in trouble or get captured, but it’s especially irksome for me if a female character is only a damsel in distress. If that’s her only role in the story and to accent the storyline of a male character, count me out. Some of the only times I’m game for a damsel in distress character is if she grows out of it. She becomes aware of her weakness and does something about it. Elisa from Gargoyles comes to mind for me; she’s a strong and clever character, but occasionally she gets in over her head and needs some help. But that’s not entirely her role.
- A Man in a Dress. This character archetype seemed to appear in response to the complaints of the Damsel in Distress archetype; if you don’t want your female character to be useless, let’s make her into a powerful, unstoppable character instead! An awesome idea and points for trying to fix the problem, but it becomes a turn-off to me when a female character is essentially a man in a dress. She has no personal connections, is as stoic as a rock, and accepts help from no one because she’s a strong, independent woman who don’t need no man. She’s not really a woman at that point; she’s more of a man in a dress. Let female characters cry, be vulnerable, have fun, and love! Let them be human too.
- Just the Romantic Interest. In the same vein of the previous two ideas, it’s really annoying for me if a female character is just a romantic interest. Most of you probably know what I’m talking about. She’s introduced into the story as a romantic foil for the male main character, and pretty much stays that way. (It’s especially unpleasant for me if she has no personality or gets trapped in an abusive relationship.) And you can tell with stories if that’s what a female character is meant for; you see it in her storyline and the way she’s written. I lamented the loss of Asuna’s character from Sword Art Online; she started as a powerful and independent female character who slowly turned into just Kirito’s sidekick and romantic interest. That was one of the harder stories for me since she had great potential that interested me and it disappeared.
- Just Nice Boobs and Butt. More attention has been drawn to the prevalence of the male gaze in stories, but it still exists plenty today. I find this happens more with visual stories like TV shows or movies, but it can happen with books too. I’ve come across some fantastic posts about what happens when women are described purely in terms of their physical attractiveness, and while it’s hilarious to see how women are described (mostly boobs and butts), it’s also a bit depressing. I want to read about a woman who’s got brains, who has personality and spirit, who has emotions and her own story. I’m not as interested in whether or not she’s supermodel material. In fact, one of my favorite stories, A Posse of Princesses by Sherwood Smith, features the main character, Rhis, is who is very plain in comparison to the other female characters. It gives Rhis a chance to show her personality and smarts to stand out.
- An Engaging Storyline. Have you ever just lamented about how much a character could have become if they had just had a good storyline? I’m right there with you. It destroys something in me each time to see a good female character who I can believe in and relate to losing so much potential because she was relegated to a storyline that didn’t give her the right depth, whether it’s just a poorly written storyline, a sidekick role, being a love interest, or not doing anything at all. Galadriel’s story in The Silmarillion is really engaging for me; she goes from a powerful, rebellious spirit determined to become a great leader among the elves to a humble, wise person who has been through terrible heartbreak and suffering. *
- Minimal Airtime. It’s not until you stop and think about it that you realize that women don’t have nearly as much talking or airtime as male characters do. There’s a whole test on the Internet to determine if two female characters have any airtime at all talking to each other about anything besides men (if you’re curious about it, it’s called the Bechdel Test). And the probability of most stories passing that test is depressingly low. I want to hear what women have to say; I want to listen to them talk to others, give advice, share their darkest feelings, and have their own voice in the story.
*This is only in some versions of The Silmarillion; Tolkien changed a lot of things depending on the version he had of the story going.
There are other traits I could include here, but then the post would get ridiculously long, so I’ll cut it off here. This is my general criteria for female characters when I start a new book. And not every female character I like has these qualities, but as a rule of thumb, most of them do.
Let me know what you think: what are your thoughts on good female characters? What makes a good female character to you? What are some of your favorite female characters? Leave your comments below!