Critical Thinking: Writing Believable Female Characters

We’ve made a lot of progress since the early days of gaming – and I’m not just talking about with technology. Games as a culture inarguably began as a boy’s club. Sure, you’d see the occasional woman dipping her toes into the pool, but as a whole? They were the Outsider. They weren’t the norm, and were either ostracized or idolized for it. Gaming – and the technology around it – simply weren’t the sort of thing women were “good” at. 

There’s irony there, given that some of the first legitimate programmers were female.

Flash-forward a few decades, and people are starting to wake up. They’re starting to point to incidences of this systemic sexism and ask why – and how – it’s considered acceptable. They’re beginning to look, to think; to discuss. We’ve still got a long way to go, but the fact that we’re talking about it is definitely a good first step. 

One area in which there still needs to be a great deal of improvement is in character design. It’s no longer acceptable to cobble together a female character that only exists for sex appeal or as a captured princess; as some trophy to be won or prize to be attained. That’s what we’re going to talk about today – working from a male perspective, how does one manage to craft a believable and well-rounded female character? How does one create strong female characters without their efforts ringing hollow? 

On the surface, this process doesn’t differ from the creation of male characters in any real fashion. The same basic building blocks – the same basic rules – still apply. They need to have a history that isn’t too over the top coupled with realistic flaws, goals, and ideals. They need to be well-rounded and dynamic, the sort of character that feels like they could well step out of the screen into the real world.  

Where the design of female characters differs, however – where many male writers tend to fall short – is in the agency of those characters: the question of whether these characters are acting of their own accord (based on what’s been established of them thus far). In many cases, where female characters are concerned, they don’t possess this agency. What control they do have is “unpleasantly overtaken by the author’s control. A female character who kicks ass and chews bubblegum and does a billion slow-mo kills in a slinky nightgown or catsuit is not traditionally thought of as empowering, because that concept is the lurking terror of a creepy, objectifying male designer.” (Exploring Believability)

Of course, further concerns arise when one looks at the nature of agency often afforded to said female characters. The standards by which we determine whether or not a character is sensible – whether or not a character can act on their own and do things on their own terms – are often purely masculine.

Such portrayals – while they do certainly bash down gender barriers – are rife with their own problems. All too often, these ‘badass’ women are hyper-masculine; the things that make them powerful and strong are the same things that would make a male character powerful and strong, and they display a minimal amount of feminine traits. Consequently, we also see many characters from the same works who display a number of feminine traits, and present themselves as weak and submissive. 

The problem here is that both extremes are little more than base archetypes. The key, then, is to display diversity. Don’t just make the woman you’re brainstorming up a cardboard cutout. Give her personality. Give her an attitude, an outlook, a mind of her own. If need be, talk to some of your female friends, and ask them what they think of your character – how they feel about her and engage with her. 

So at this point, most of you are probably wondering where the hell I’m going with this. After all, I’m kind of jumping all over the page: we set out to have a discussion about female characters in video game narratives, and I’ve somehow instead managed to ramble on for several paragraphs about feminism, agency, and empowerment. Let’s re-focus: what am I trying to say here? 

I hesitate to speak in absolutes, but if you’re designing a female character, her gender should not be an incidental thing for her just as a man’s gender shouldn’t be incidental for him. With a few exceptions (Commander Shepard comes to mind, as do most player characters in such games), you shouldn’t end up with a character who would be exactly identical if their gender happened to be swapped. You need to consider how their personality is tied to their gender, without stepping over into sexism or letting that detail define the character. 

Regardless, I’ve rambled on enough. Take a look at Remember Me’s protagonist, Nillin, if you want a more concrete example of the ideas I’m trying to get across. 

See you folks next week. 

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