Are You a Male Novelist Whose Female Characters Are Comically Underdeveloped?

Christine Ro

Staff Writer

Christine writes about books for Literary Hub, VICE, and the Ploughshares blog. She occasionally writes about other topics, because someone once told her (although it seemed implausible) that there’s life outside of books. Blog:

Hey there, male novelist with an impressive eye for character detail. Are you extending that eye to the women in your book? Here are some signs, to be taken with the sodium chloride compound of your choice, that your female characters might be underdeveloped.

male novelist

You describe in lavish, lingering detail the appearance of your female characters, but not the male ones.

Your female characters conveniently die, move, or otherwise exit the narrative once their presence is no longer needed by the male characters.

You’ve poured loads of research into developing your male characters, but are convinced that this wasn’t necessary for your female characters because, after all, you have a mother and you’ve slept with women. Perhaps not as many as you would have liked, but still.

Your young female characters are irresistibly attracted to your older male characters…who are in no way, no how, wish fulfillment projections of your own dignified self.

Sexually, your female characters want exactly the same things your male characters want (not necessarily the other way around).

Your female characters are only funny if the joke is on them.

Girls younger than—and women older than—your established range of sexual desirability don’t appear in your book, or only appear as appendages to other characters.

Your female characters spends the bulk of their time thinking and talking about your male characters.

The main adjectives used to describe your female characters are “sexy,” “beautiful,” etc.

Your name is Philip Roth.

Whenever you need the plot to move along, you make something violent happen to a female character.

Your female characters cease to be interesting as soon as they get married.

The virtuous female character in your book is the one who doesn’t sleep around. The vile female character in your book is the one who does.

Your male characters take actions for a rich and complex set of reasons. Your female characters…just do stuff.

To the extent that your female characters have problems, they can be resolved by (or stem from) your male characters.

Your female characters, but not your male characters, talk in ways that no woman has ever talked, anywhere.

If your female characters do, say, or think things that are inconsistent because they’re lazily written, well, it doesn’t matter, as obviously women are such irrational, inscrutable creatures that you don’t need to worry about making them cohere.

Your female characters spend most of their time naked. Your characters might be naturists and sex workers, but in real life they would spend the bulk of their days clothed.

You’ve introduced a handy binary system for assessing your female characters. Attractive=good, unattractive=bad. C’mon, man, your novel isn’t a Disney theme park.

Here’s the good news, introspective male novelist. There’s a wealth of resources out there about ways to flesh out female characters (without reducing them to their flesh). These include:

“Women in Fiction Need More Than the Bechdel Test”

“I Don’t Think about My Boobs As Much As Male Novelists Think I Do”

“The Girl Myth in YA Fiction (and Beyond)”

Plus, psst, there are literally billions of women you can talk to and interact with. Incorporating just a smidgen of their complexity into your stories would massively enrich them…you know, if you’re into that whole character development thing.


Looking for more on female characters? Check out The Hollow Woman: Female Characters in Science Fiction and Our Favorite Women In Books.