Can a Man Write a Good Female Character?

Writerly Rant #53

by Dave K. Heath, Writer.

Originally posted on Dave’s Corner of the Universe, Sept. 28, 2014.

Revised Edition.

blue-woman-silhouetteLast week due to other people’s work schedules and illness, Uncle Dave was in charge of home schooling my niece Mona. That meant Dr. Who episodes for science class, ice cream with lunch and the writing assignment was a book report on the comic book Lumber Janes. Math was only a fifteen minute exercise on the computer but literature was an hour discussion on in media res, character, and setting.

We talked about whether or not gender was important in a story.

I asked her if the Harry Potter stories would have been different if the main character was Hermione and not Harry? What if Star Wars had been Leia’s story not Luke’s? Her answers where thoughtful and concise for a nine year old.

It also got me thinking about female characters. I do not consider myself a feminist, nor do I consider myself an anti-feminist. I consider myself a humanist. All humans should be judged on their own merits. The same way I consider myself a characterist, all characters should be judged on their own merits.

As a reader and watcher of visual media I really like female characters. This trend continues into my own writing. The nature of visual media (movies, TV, and comics) means that many of the protagonist both male and female have to be good looking, I get that. But it has become that we define a female character mainly by her appearance.

Now, Marvel announced a few days ago that they weren’t going to do a solo Black Widow movie, and on the DC side a Wonder Woman movie is in development hell (personally I think a Wonder Woman movie is a good thing in theory, but I would want to see the scrip first). David Hayter (Writer of the First two X-men movies, and the Metal Gear video games), even wrote a Black Widow script before Iron Man came out. The reason that Marvel is giving for us not seeing BW kicking but by herself is the failure of some big time female standalone movies which tanked at the box office.

The examples that are often thrown around of failed female action movies are Blood Rayne, Aeon Fluxx, and Ultra Violet I will even throw the Hallie Berry Cat Woman movie into that mix. But let’s look at these movies. All of them had bigger problems than the fact that they had female leads. Aeon Fluxx cartoon = brilliant; movie = poorly written and stupid. Ultra Violet, I loved that movie but the editing was so clunky that I had to buy the novelization to fill in some of the gaps. Blood Rayne – two words Uwe Boll. And Cat Woman… “Hey Hallie it’s the academy, after seeing the Cat Woman movie can uh…would you mind giving your award back?” These movies didn’t tank because the main characters were a female.

They failed because they were bad movies.

I get that Hollywood is a business, and money is the bottom line. But let’s look at some action flicks with chicks in the lead that made money. Kill Bill 1 & 2, Aliens, the Tomb Raiders, Lucy, even Salt which really didn’t do as well as was expected but still made almost three hundred million in its worldwide theater run. There is defiantly a market for well written and acted action movies with a female lead.

So, if you are supposed to write about what you know then the question arises, can a man ever really write about the female experience?

There is that scene in As Good as it Gets when someone asks Jack Nicholson’s character (admittedly a jerk) how he writes female characters so well and he responds with, “I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability.” Are men that so off the mark they can’t create good female characters?

The same question can be justly asked can a white man create a well written representation of an African American? When are differences so deep we can no longer relate? Now, I do agree that no one may completely appreciate what another gender or race truly goes through, it doesn’t mean that we cannot portray people different from us in a realistic and interesting manner. Writers do this anytime they write about people from a different historical period.

The truth is, most of what we watch and a lot of what we read is written by men; less so than a decade before, but still the majority is written with someone with a XY chromosome pattern. Women are spending more money on sci-fi and action based entertainment than they have in the past. So I think that imbalance will change someday.

My hope for Hollywood is not only better female characters, but better characters in general.

Dave K HeathA frustrated writer and a fan all things trivial. Now living in a small town about twenty miles out of PDX.

Categories: Rants, Writerly Rants

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

4 replies

  1. To understand how insulting this question is, can you imagine the outrage if someone posted an article titled, “Can a woman write a good male character?” The writer would be IMMEDIATELY be forced to take down the article and then write a retraction, an apology, and a mea culpa, but he’d still be deluged with hate mail and possibly be subject to a boycott.


    • Hi David,
      I’m sorry you feel so strongly about this particular rant – I do believe “Uncle Dave” is getting upset with the industry for the same reasons you are upset with him… He does believe that men can write compelling women characters it’s just that many of the scripts that Hollywood has chosen to develop into feature length films, that have female leads, were not well written scripts – not that the women characters were the problem… which is how Hollywood is interpreting the sales stats. I like this rant particularly because as writers, we know that character gender isn’t a barrier – it’s a challenge any good writer will rise to and yet, in this day-in-age big wigs like the producers in Hollywood still work with blinders on.


  2. I think asking this question is fine and even an interesting one. I’ve noticed with things like Afternoon Delight, In a World and Girls that something from them can leave me feeling a bit disconnected with the characters – I still enjoyed them (mostly) but I found it harder to empathise. Makes me wonder whether women feel the same about very male characters like Tony Soprano.

    Clearly men can write brilliant female characters but generally I would say that is either because it is a very well realised character with a purpose or it’s like Enlightened where her character touches on something very universal. However I don’t think men, generally, could really write women that well because it’s very difficult to see the world with such a different perspective. If I’m writing and the character comes into conflict I can never really ask myself “how would I navigate this scenario as someone that has been a tiny woman my whole life?” because I just don’t know and if it is a realistic drama with a “normal” character I can’t just make them do whatever I want.


    • Those are some very profound thoughts, Scott.

      I think that if we are able to open ourselves up to new experiences and allow our gender-opposite tendencies a brief life of their own, the characters we write will ‘ring true’ with any reader. As a tomboy growing up, I felt more at ease and compatible with the boys. Girls confused me – the gossiping, the secret romances, the backstabbing and make-up obsessions… As an adult, I still don’t wear make-up unless I’m performing on stage or being filmed for some reason and while I’m prone to breaking down for apparently no reason and can lay a guilt trip like you’ve never seen – I still don’t connect with those ‘girls’ and have difficulty writing them because I haven’t yet discovered how they tick. I don’t think I could realistically write a ‘Rocky’ type – oober macho character at this point in my career, but I can pull off the hopeless romantic, the nerd, and most average guys because that’s who I associated with growing up. It’s all perspective and we simply need to recognize our own limitations before venturing into new territory 🙂


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