Why is writing girls difficult? This is a legit question, I swear. More than half the population is girls, (60%) but it feels like there are only like five girl characters in existence. There’s the mom, the damsel, the hardened badass, the sexy one, and the silly one, but if you look at the dude archetypes, you’ve got way more variety. There’s the paragon, the big friendly guy, the smart guy, that dark misunderstood one, the moral gray area, the team dad, the lancer, and so many more. Hell, even the everyman is a dude. Why? This isn’t meant to be accusatory in any way, I’ve honestly been trying to figure this out because I have so much trouble with this. The first piece of major writing I did had precisely one female character. She was pretty and demure and cried a lot and had healing powers. It was a disgrace, really. The thing is, when people notice this problem, the first solution tends to be to take a fully developed male character and turn him into a girl. Take the big guy, now he’s a girl. Smart guy –>smart girl. And this can totally work, but sometimes you get weird translation errors where traits affiliated with the archetype clash with their gender. Like when you take a grizzled soldier badass and make him a her, There’s a weird tendency for her to spout a bunch of cookie cutter “Don’t be such a girl,” stuff every other minute, because, of course, in fictional militaries, the overwhelming attitude is very classic Macho. So when you fit a female character in there, you get a weird bit of character whiplash when her own Machismo is expressed by calling unimpressive behavior womanly. Like, girl. Own yourself. By the way, this character is pretty much what people are referring to half the time when they scornfully call someone a “Strong female character.” The other half they’re talking about a Bayonetta type who is threateningly sexy, the I’ll-kick-your-ass-and-look-good-while-doing-it variety, which is just a variant on the aforementioned sexy archetype. Actually, more specifically, It’s a repurposing of a villainous female archetype. The dominatrix kind of villain who’s both sexy, and intimidating. You can totally take that archetype and turn it into a hero, But that’s actually a new development, since for a few centuries there, women weren’t allowed to have sex drives, so of course only evil women could be dangerously sexy. But anyway, there is another instance of that cookie-cutter gender swap thing where the translation error doesn’t manifest in the character, but in the reception of the character. Like, well… not to open a can of worms, but like Rey from The Force Awakens. I was so surprised when I went online after I saw the movie, and everyone was complaining that Rey was an OP Mary Sue, because when I saw that movie, it looked like a faithful recreation of Episode IV, magic space orphan and all. Rey and Luke were the same character with a slightly different attitude, but a chunk of the Internet went berserk. Now, admittedly the Internet is in a constant state of going berserk over something or other, but this one kind of hurt. Because, I really liked Rey. I liked her curiosity, her experimentation with her powers. One of the most complained-about scenes when she manages to mind-trick the guard was one of my favorites, because it was obvious she’d grown up hearing stories about what the Jedi could do, and as soon as she learned she was force-sensitive, she started trying new things she’d heard about in stories. And I really liked that because it was exactly what I would do. She felt like a real person to me. But her confidence and the rapid growth of her powers flipped some rage switch that wonderboy fighter pilot chosen one Luke Skywalker hadn’t. And we can argue about why all day long, but I’d rather not Because fundamentally, I think the problem here isn’t gender specific at all, I think it’s just symptomatic of a much larger characterization problem. The root of the error, I think, is that writers oftentimes draw inspiration more from other stories than they do from reality. And it’s a sad truth that, up until a few decades ago, there were basically four or five girl characters. You got your fairy tale princesses, your moms, your femme fatales, and your occasional Viking warrior woman. And the characters ended up getting recycled as a consequence of the fact that most writers are inspired to write by absorbing what other people write. The original error and girl characterization is, yes, rooted in centuries of dude-centric storytelling. But the reason why it propagated is, I’m pretty sure, this. And then within the past few decades, you suddenly got this moment of clarity where people started asking “Why does this character have to be a dude?” And that’s how you got the cookie cutter gender swap stuff, which, by the way, was the second approach toward female characters that I ended up writing into that world. I had a warrior prince I decided to add some estrogen to. Again, shamefully lax writing on my part, but in my defense, I was, like, twelve. But I think this idea that we should write from archetypes is the root of the problem, because if we were drawing characters from our lives instead, I’d say the vast majority of us have been exposed to all kinds of fascinating people of every gender. Archetypal writing is what leads to half a million identical heroes fighting the other half million villains. There’s nothing wrong with starting from other stories, but there are so many benefits to drawing from reality too. Now, I’m better at actually drawing that I am at writing, So let’s use that as an analogy for a minute. Say you want to learn how to draw, which I heartily recommend. Say you start by drawing cartoon characters you like. Or by getting one of those how to draw anime books and filling in the lines. You can get really good at that, but in the end you’ll be making what is functionally someone else’s art style. And if that art style doesn’t cover how to draw, I don’t know, dogs, how are you gonna draw that dog you want to draw? Well, you can google how to draw a dog and follow the instructions, But that’ll get you how someone else would draw a dog. Do this with enough things and you end up with this weird Franken-style, where your art is a patchwork of other people’s art. Sometimes the style discrepancy is very visible, especially when you have, for example, very stylized cartoon characters in front of incredibly detailed backgrounds. Or very Disney-looking humans with more Looney Tunes-y animals. But there’s another way to learn art, and it’s pretty much the only way to develop a unique style, and guarantee that whatever you end up making, it’ll be something nobody else could have made. Unless, of course, they were imitating you. Obviously it’s life drawing. But more specifically, it’s developing artist eyes. You sort of need to be able to look at the world and see in your head how you draw what you’re seeing. Animators watch people moving and learn how to get across incredibly complex motion without compromising the simplicity of their visual style. Painters see swathes in color and contemplate the brush and palette knife tricks they’d use to recreate it. Graphic artists see light and shadow and learn how to get across a realistic human face with only a few blocks of black and white. And writers see the people around them and see the characters that their personality could contribute to. There are story characters that are so vivid and unique that you can practically hear the person who inspired their creation. Any given Terry Pratchett novel is full of them. A character inspired by life is going to feel so much realer than a character inspired by another character, no matter how good the original character is. Learning from someone else’s style will only show you how to do what they’ve already done. If you want to do something new or take the character in a unique direction, you’ll need to draw on your experiences from reality instead. So even though, statistically speaking, the vast majority of us know at least as many girls as guys, the tendency towards archetypal writing leads us to disregard these people when the time comes to design our characters. And though there’s nothing wrong with drawing inspiration from the works of others, if you don’t add any of your own observations or experiences, your character is going to be rote. But there is, I think, another element contributing to a certain amount of the trouble people have with writing girl characters, specifically. And that’s that in our culture, there are things that girls are supposed to be. The most obvious one of these is pretty. If you’re not pretty, it’s almost like you’re doing something wrong. Now, this is why girl characters in almost any story are going to be traditionally attractive, regardless of species, profession, or circumstance. It just feels like the norm. The baseline. Now obviously there are exceptions, but the mere fact that there are notable exceptions kind of reveals that there’s a rule here. Now I like pretty girls as much as anybody else, but we don’t write characters we idealize all the time. Or at least we shouldn’t because that’d be kind of boring. But there are other girl rules in place that have much more of a character impact than simple appearance, because beyond the physical, there are social rules we kind of absorb and assume are the norm. Again, most obviously, there’s been this idea for a very long time that when things get serious, the girls hang back and the dude folk sort things out. It’s a chivalry thing, but it becomes almost cartoonish when it shows up in modern cinema’s favorite action comedy trope of the decade, the ludicrously competent girl training the completely inexperienced schlub. Everywhere, from The Matrix to The Lego Movie, the ludicrously badass strong female character with years of experience, building on already extant native talent, hangs back in the finale while the schlub with a week of training saves the day. And it feels natural. No matter how badass she is, she ends up being a support character, because girls support dudes in our culture. And again there are exceptions, but again, they are notable exceptions. And again, this isn’t accusatory, it’s just something to be aware of. We want to write good stories, it’s good to be aware of the things we silently assume have to be there. There are a few more rules in place that are less rigid, but still present. For example, girls aren’t generally supposed to take up space, so their visual designs will tend towards compactness; either short, or, on significant occasions, tall but willowy. You end up with a lot of socially motivated trends over an entire gender of character, and yes, dudes, too, and again, it’s because we’re writing from archetypes. Not experience. We know people or are people who aren’t traditionally attractive, we know dudes who cry and girls who are six foot six and bench eye beams in their spare time, and we know the impracticalities maintaining a glamour routine on a daily basis, let alone while stuck on a desert island or an alien planet. We know this stuff, but because we’re writing from other stories, all this cool real stuff doesn’t get included, which is a shame, really. So yeah.