Greg Rucka on writing strong female characters

This essay by novelist and comic book writer Greg Rucka is worth a read by anyone interested in writing “the other,” i.e. any character not of the same gender, faith, sexual orientation, or race as you.

Why I write “Strong Female Characters”

“Gender isn’t simply a biological trait; it’s a societal one. The female experience is different from that of the male, and if, as a male writer, you cannot accept that basic premise, then you will never, ever, be able to write women well. A man walking alone through Midtown Manhattan at three in the morning may have concerns for his safety, but I promise you, it’s a very different experience for a woman taking the same walk, and it’s different again for a man wearing a dress. Think about it. That’s a societal factor, and it’s a gendered one, and this is not and can not be subject to debate. If you’re looking to argue that sexism is a thing of the past, that the world is gender-blind, you’re not only wrong, you’re lying to yourself.”

In Rucka’s case, he’s specifically talking about how he writes his female characters, but the same advice can be applied to a whole host of diverse characters. The first step as a writer is to stop being lazy, which is to say, not writing what comes to mind easily and reflexively, because those surface thoughts tend to be homogenous and cliche.

I once did a “how to make comic books” workshops at my daughter’s elementary school. As part of a hands-on demonstration of how a writer and artist collaborate on making comics, I had slips of paper printed with descriptions of a boy and a girl character. I kept them intentionally vague, eschewing specific references to skin color, hair color, or other physical characteristics in favor of general descriptors like “funny” or “athletic.” I then handed the slips to several different kids, and asked them to draw the (same) character. The point of the exercise was to demonstrate how different artists will interpret the written description differently, and if you as a writer have a very specific image in mind, you have to ensure that it comes across succinctly in your words.

But looking back on that same exercise now, I can see a different facet of it. The pictures drawn by the kids tended to reflect their own race and physicality.

It’s so easy for us as writers (or artists, or musicians…) to default to our own experiences and world view each time we’re staring at a blank screen or sheet of paper. The first step is to push that first lazy instinct away, and instead ask “who else can this person be?”

The next step, and the real challenge, is to do the necessary research to ensure the characters come across as real, and not just stereotypes.