What if They Don’t Like My Layered Female Character?

I have read (and applauded) multiple posts about how to write a strong female character–a truly strong character, one who is strong because of her convictions. Her compassion. Her personality, rather than a superhuman ability to punch stuff and sass the guys.  So many posts, I can’t include them all, but here are my favorites: Hannah Heath’s input, Christine Smith’s guest post, Bella’s thoughts during her Writer’s Camp, and K. M. Weiland’s opinion.

What these posts do not cover, however, is how to banish fear–fear of seeing your female characters soundly bashed on Tumblr by readers who think that to actually like dresses will perpetrate the constraints of patriarchy and that a woman being physically weaker than a guy is sexist.

Maybe I’m the only writer who’s considered this. But I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve looked at my character Mary from Gentle Fire and wondered how much of a verbal beating she’d get from critics. Mary is married with two children, and most of her focus is on helping her husband build their farm and raise their sons (and later, daughter).  Plus other plot-related goals and struggles after this doesn’t work out the way any of them want.  Yes, she has dreams, and she has strengths, flaws, talents, and quirks–in fact, Mary’s drive is to do her job (whatever that may be at the time) and to help those who need her.   But at the end of the day (and the story), her job and her main sphere of influence is in her home.   And I just know that’s going to be popular with the general readership.

So I’ve thought a lot about how to handle this concern. Here’s my input to writing that true strong female character–without being afraid that others will criticize your characterization.

  1. Write a layered character.  Easier said than done, of course, but if your character is constructed with agency (she drives her parts of the story) and has strengths, flaws, quirks, talents, and non-talents–then you can take comfort that you’ve written a solid character, regardless of who criticizes her enjoyment of knitting, pride in cooking for her family, and hatred of snakes.
  2. Pinpoint what you’re afraid of.  What is all this imaginary criticism directed toward?  Your character’s general personality–or specifically that she spends a lot of time in her home?  (Or that she has a cleaning job, or that she’s the soft-spoken type, or whatever else is unpopular these days.)  If you can easily imagine someone criticizing the fact that your character doesn’t really contribute to the story, that could be your intuition telling you to make sure she’s a legitimate main character.  If, however, you can picture someone nitpicking your character’s interest in embroidery or that she’s skilled in household economy–those are details, not fundamentals.
  3. Adjust your thinking.  Here’s where I might really offend people, but I’ll try to be diplomatic.  Somewhere along the way, the idea of a homemaker became synonymous with the term “doormat”.  Along with the idea that she’s wasting her life.  Or wasting her talent.  But here’s the thing: being a homemaker takes incredible discipline, perseverance, patience, and diligence.  Double points if you add children into the mix.  You are responsible for protecting and guiding these children, 24/7.  How is that weak?  How is that a waste of time or talent?  And why do we applaud a male character who is willing to serve and care for others, but condemn a woman who does it for her family?  A homemaker character has to be strong in many different ways to do her job.  Strength comes with the territory here, just like we expect a fireman character to be physically strong.
  4. Let it go.  As the song says.  🙂  But seriously, unless your imaginary critics are offering polite, constructive criticism–why do you care what they think?  Or what any real critics say, for that matter, unless, again, they’re offering intelligent input on the fundamentals of your character.  If any critics, real or imaginary, whine only about the facts that your character loves children, likes make-up, and cooks a mean clam chowder–ignore ’em.

So, those are some ways I’ve found to beat the fear.  Feel free to add what tips and tricks have worked for you!

I'd like to hear your thoughts! But please be polite. I will not approve comments with curses, insults, or lewd remarks.