How do you write a woman?

On fictional ladies and why we all kind of suck at writing them, even when we don’t.

Classic lady behavior
Classic lady behavior

Yesterday, I was discussing with my parents a new book the publishing house I work at recently acquired, explaining briefly the plot and what the process is like to take a book from submitted manuscript to finished hardcover. I basically gave them half an elevator pitch — “The diary of a woman in colonial America” — and talked about how much I’d liked reading the book, and then mentioned that the author was a man.

“But he writes it well?” Mom asked.

I refrained from saying, Duh, obviously. Why else would we have acquired it? And instead, I just agreed and reiterated that I enjoyed the story.

“No, I mean, he writes the woman well? I’ve never understood when that happens.”

“That” being when someone of one gender takes a crack at writing someone of another. And it’s an interesting note to ponder, especially in the world we’ve been raised in. How can a man, fighting desperately to live up to the manly standards of manhood, demean himself to write a dainty little wallflower of a lady? (That is sarcasm, please don’t send me hate.)

Oddly enough, earlier that day, I’d been listening to a podcast where one of the co-hosts mentioned how a writer (a comics writer, I believe) had recently been asked how to write a woman, and had responded something along the lines of, “Write a man, and then change the pronouns.”

There are so many things wrong with everything I’ve just written. What my mother obviously meant, and what people usually think of immediately, is how can a man write a woman? And not in a “wow, ladies are so nuanced and deep” kind of a way, but “wow, ladies are so boring and always the sidekick/girlfriend and are also usually dead in the first ten pages (if not in flashback), so how can they even have stories worth telling?”

We’re going to return to this point in a moment, but what that line of thinking also brings up are the ideas that 1) there are only two genders; 2) that each of those two genders has certain roles, traits, and identities attached that can never be molded or changed; and 3) that people of “opposite” genders can never understand each other, and will never make the effort to do so.

To knock all of those things down: there is not only man and woman, boy and girl. There are people who are biologically one thing and view themselves–known themselves to be–another. There are people who use gender neutral pronouns. There are people who aren’t defined by their reproductive organs. And absolutely no one has to fit into a mold or a role or a job or a place in the home. On this day, as we consider what “equality” means in terms of marriage, we must also think of what “equality” means in the wider world. Men and women and those who identify as both, neither, or something different entirely may differ biologically, but we are all human beings — we live differently and suffer differently and express ourselves differently, but we all live and suffer and express ourselves together.

So how does this relate back to this fictional colonial woman and my mom? Because no matter what sex or gender you are, you should absolutely feel free to write any kind of person you want to write. You have a story to tell, and you will tell it as you see fit. If you try your damnedest to make all your characters as human as you can, then you’re good in my book.

Beyond the gender questions, this idea that a man can’t write a woman stems from the idea (in my humble opinion) that white, straight cis-male is the norm in American society. This question — “How do you write x, y, z?” — never gets asked when a woman writes male characters, because obviously women should be writing about men! (This is also sarcasm.) I’m sure some female-written males have been labeled “too feminine,” whatever that’s supposed to mean, and that is, of course, a slight, an implication that the “female” is inferior to the “male,” that to be a “woman” as someone who identifies as a man is a fate worse than death. But when’s the last time a man was killed in fiction so a woman could fall dramatically to her knees, unleash her adamantium claws, and then embark on a journey of self-discovery? Women are routinely brutalized and murdered in order to advance plots — even ones they supposedly star in! And that has to stop.

It’s disheartening that women are so worried about their portrayal in basically all media that they have learned to fear when a man write a woman’s story. How do you write a woman? How do men, specifically, write women? Men write women as they always have, as society has prescribed they should be written. They write them as damsels in distress; as wives and mothers; as daughters; as sisters; as girlfriends; as corpses in shallow graves; as rape victims; as inferior. Any woman that attains anything beyond any of these preconceived roles is considered a success. The bar is so low, a fictional woman need only stay alive to be counted as a small victory.

A woman does not need to be written as a man first to have worth. You do not add an S in front of some Hes and suddenly have a fully-developed character. A woman can have traditionally male characteristics, and she can be more traditionally feminine. She can wear dresses or kick ass (or both!), and she can sit at home on Saturday or she can slink around the local bar scene, looking for a mate. She can beat the bad guy and she can lose. As a creator, if you write a human being and then point to that character and say, “That’s a woman,” no one is allowed to question you. What you have written is truth. You say this person is a woman, so this person is a woman.

So, how do you write a woman? You write a fucking woman. End of story.


4 thoughts on “How do you write a woman?

  1. It’s unfortunate that literature is filled with these Hemingway females (passive characters with little to no power or value). It’s important to remember that literature has been dominated by men up until a recent age. As you know, it’s important to know where you come from, and with all of these male heroes we move away from valuing women and the androgynous mind. May I suggest Evan Bolands “Object Lessons.” It’s an analyzation of women’s role in literature (primarily poetry). I think you’d find something useful in it.

    I love the post! Love the discussion! Keep up the good work.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you very much for the recommendation–I’ll definitely find a copy and give it a read! I just did a bit of research and it sounds fascinating.

      And thank you for your kind words and thorough response. All very true, and unfortunate, but I’d like to think there’s hope for our literary future.


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