Like I mentioned last week, today’s post is going to be about variance and diversity in your female characters personality. Hopefully at this point you have more than one female character in your story, which is really the first step.
I know I’ve talked to other writers who sometimes feel like their female characters have to fit a certain box to a good role model or to be strong. I think we get a lot of female characters that seem both similar and disposable, because they end up hitting the same tropes over and over again.
So today I’m going to walk you through an exercise to help you make your female characters more varied, so they have their own voices.
First, make a list of the female characters in your story.
Just the main characters for the purpose of this exercise, but you could later do the minor characters as well. List them by first and last name. Hopefully you’ve breezed past the Bechdel test by now, and you have at least 2 main female characters. My characters in the example are going to have sort of funny names, but surely you will find better names for your characters. I’m counting on you.
Second, make a list of their traits.
This is going to give you an idea if there’s the basic needed diversity between your characters. If they look sort of similar on most of the traits, then you may want to make some character revisions. If they have some things in common, that’s probably not the end of the world. I would avoid having all your female characters be timid and submissive or defiant and rebellious, unless you have a really good reason plot wise for that. Just watch out for too much similarity based on traits.
My mother, sister and I all grew up in similar places with similar cultural and familial backgrounds. We do have things in common, for sure, but we aren’t copies of each other when it comes to personality traits. My mom has a gift for honesty and analysis. My sister is a joyous ball of endless energy who loves all things girly. I’m sarcastic, overly caring and very sensitive. I’m using this as an example to show you that even though we’re all from the same place and same culture, we’re all still very different people.
Example of traits list:
Hera – Strong, Persistent, Determined, Loyal, Brutal, Blunt.
Emily – Compassionate, Caring, Sympathetic, Anxious, Unsure, Talkative.
Katie – Shy, Smart, Capable, Enduring, Thoughtful, Quiet.
Third, make a list of what they want and what they fear.
By listing their wants you’ll get your characters goals and their motivations for those goals. Most of have basic needs that are similar (See: Malsow’s Hierarchy of needs) so hopefully your character motivations go beyond that, but maybe they don’t. Maybe the world you’ve built is a wasteland and her goal is to survive, but you may also want to go further than that and figure out what she is living for. What is her motivation to keep going? You can also use Malsow’s Hierarchy to think of other goals. Maybe your character is a scientist and she wants respect from her co-workers, since she’s the only woman in the lab. Maybe she is looking for romance, a companion, while fighting off space lizards from the plant Zoonan. Figure out what she wants and why she wants it.
Fears are important too, because they tell us a lot about the character and what they want to avoid. Maybe that character surviving in the wasteland fears the coming of night, because scavengers come out then and they will try to kill her. Fears can lead to conflict, and all good writing has conflict.
You can and should go into more depth than the example below.
Hera – Goals/Motivation/Fears
Goal: To protect her sister, Katie, at all costs.
Motivation: She loves her sister and Katie has the formula to cure a evil virus that is turning everyone into space lizards.
Fear: Her parents both became space lizards, and Hera fears that she will too, and that she will fail both Katie and the human race.
Check and see where your characters look similar and where they look different. They may have things in common. That’s okay. I have things in common with my mother, my sister, my friends and even women I’ve never met, but it’s rare we have everything in common. Having things in common is different than being the same. That is a difference that you as the writer want to be aware of as you try to give each of your own characters a background that individual to them and a voice that is unique to them.
So go forth and analyze your female characters! And don’t forget, don’t only give them diverse personalities. The world is filled with people from different backgrounds, places and cultures. Do your research and broaden your horizons. It’ll be good for you and good for your writing.
In part 4, I’ll touch on the very murky water of tropes and stereotypes. It’s likely to be sensitive material, so be aware of that as we go into part 4.