I gave a how-to writing class to a group of high schoolers about four years ago and one of the young men asked me how I wrote female characters. Having written several books starring female protagonists (The Damned Thing, Rabbit Heart and Gravedigger all come to mind), I immediately had a response. I said that you should always start thinking of your characters as people first and gender later. I told him that there is no one “type” of woman out there… there are women who cry at the drop of a hat but then there are women who are tough as nails. There are women who love to shop and wear pink… there are also women who love mixed martial arts and who can drink any man under the table. There are even women who love to wear pink, cry at the drop of a hat, are still tough as nails, love mixed martial arts *and* can drink any man under the table.
Women are people first. The same goes for different races or anything, really.
I also told him that if he were still worried, to look at the women around him — his friends, his family, his sisters. Think about how multifaceted those women are and then incorporate that into his work.
When I was creating Gravedigger, I thought of ways to make her different from my other characters — but not once did I think of her gender as being a personality trait. She’s a much harder-edged character than Lazarus Gray, because of her life experiences. Yes, she’s a beautiful woman… yes, she could be a mother someday. But she’s a human being first. I don’t need to worry about writing “women” because I know how to write “people.” I mean, I am one!
Yes, sometimes you should incorporate differences into female characters but again, if you know more than a handful of women, you’ll know how different they all can be — some poke fun at men, some don’t. Some like to smoke, drink and swear. Some don’t. Some women would never have sex with a man outside of a committed relationship. Some women see nothing wrong with ‘Friends with Benefits.’
Never assume that a woman — or a man, for that matter — can’t act one way just because of their gender. We have certain societal norms, yes, but the degrees to which we all fall inside or outside of them vary tremendously.
When it comes to sexualizing your characters, you have to know your character, your story and your audience. With my heroines, all of them are beautiful, yes — but this is adventure fiction. The women are beautiful and the men are handsome. I never try to objectify my female characters any more than I do the male ones — in other words, I do objectify them in the sense that they’re attractive and this is mentioned… but they’re far more than that. Pulp is escapism and part of the appeal is that our heroes (male & female) are larger-than-life. They’re gorgeous, they’re brave and they’re heroic. They’re idealized. Even in Rabbit Heart, which is highly charged with sex and violence, I don’t think I treat the women in the story any different than I do the males — some of them are very emotionally unstable, some are promiscuous and some are just downright nasty… but that’s true of both genders in the story. And Fiona Grace, though driven by powerful needs, is still an idealized heroine who rises above it all. Yes, Fiona’s outfit on the cover is risque — but if you read the story, you’ll know there’s a major reason why it’s shown that way. The story deals with archetypes and the way society views them — and Fiona is forced to play that part, to a degree.
So keep the focus on the *person* and not the gender… in the long run, it’ll pay off for you!