I'm attempting to write a novel, an historical fiction with a small fantasy component (time travel through a portal). The travelers (main characters) are a young couple from the late 23rd Century who are (without preparation or intent) transported back to the late 14th Century. The setting is Venetian-ruled Croatia, though that has little to do with my question.

In my version of the late 23rd Century, at least in the part of the world where these two were raised, is what we might call "post woke"; the mentality of people in their time and area is one of equality, acceptance of differences, and egalitarianism. As such, the male half of the couple struggles with the notion that, in order to blend in to the 14th Century, he has to do things like hold doors for women. This is a simplistic description of what he goes through, but it should suffice here.

Which brings us to my struggles (as a male writer) with writing the female character from her own POV. She's a modern woman of the 23rd Century, albeit young (twenty years old). She can take care of herself, and eschews the idea of needing a man in her life to do much of anything for her save perhaps lifting large, heavy objects. She is, however, feminine, and I'm... not. So I don't have confidence that I can write a female protagonist who has agency without sounding like "a dude writing a chick".

So what tips do you have for writing properly feminine female characters who have agency? I'm particularly interested in hearing from women writers, though tips from anyone are appreciated.

I'm primarily concerned with her internal monologue. How does she think about the world she sees? This is most evident, of course, when she's thinking about how she feels about her counterpart, the male lead. But also her interactions with other characters, in particular other females, should be considered. I may be going overboard, but I really want to make this character "real".

Update: This makes me more than a bit nervous, but I've decided to include a link to my working document on Google Docs with comments enabled for anyone that wants to read what I've done so far. My goal is to get the base story laid down in the first draft (the main events, etc.), then go back and re-write for things that I'm asking about here. If you choose to comment, please make them constructive. Thank you to anyone who chooses to do so.

10 Answers 10

up vote 42 down vote accepted

On "Jo Writes Stuff", Jo has produced an epic analysis of whether or not a character is a "strong female character"; and a test to go with it. Here is her instructions on How To Use The Test.

She has stopped any new analysis, but here is a list of All The Characters She Reviewed.

I believe this can help you with some of your issues; just writing a post-woke female character.

For the most part, other than sexual attractions or attentions, I think in the 23rd century the answer is to write female characters and male characters rather similarly, but NOT as women becoming like men: More like meeting in the middle, or both sides going to some extreme.

For example, consider makeup: One route is to eliminate it; women no longer need it in the post-woke society. But the other route is to make it universal: Your male character may have some trouble in our modern time, because like all men of his time, he doesn't usually go out without makeup. (The same was true for men in some royal courts a few centuries in our past).

Your guy might have acquired many habits and attitudes we might consider "feminine", and what we consider acceptably "masculine" today may come to be considered just rude in the 23rd century. Like men interrupting women, or clerks and managers speaking exclusively to a man instead of to both the man and woman.

-- Edit in response to comment:
Men interrupt women 2-3 times more often than they interrupt men. Women interrupt men and women equally, and less often. See This academic study specifically on conversational interruptions (results are on journal page 430), and see popular articles Why men are prone to interrupting women in "Women in the World" 03/09/15 and The Universal Phenomenon of Men Interrupting Women in The New York Times 06/14/2017.

The phenomenon of men that need to address a mixed gender group (or couple) beginning their conversation with a male of the group is similar; male gender is treated (on average of course) by men throughout society as a mark of higher status / power; almost regardless of actual status / power. To be clear, they don't refuse to speak to a woman, it is just that in a mixed-gender group, they generally choose a male in the group as the "leader" to speak to when addressing the group, far more often than they will choose a female within a mixed group.

This is a form of status bigotry, which post-woke society would likely not engage in: They would use other gender-less cues to choose a "leader", like some combination of age, grooming and bearing, or they would ask to speak to somebody about X, and talk to the person that stepped forward.

Back to interruptions: Female politicians, business leaders and judges are interrupted more often than their male counterparts. Again this is a "bro-culture", women attempt to interrupt both men and women equally; but have fewer successful interruptions with men: The men being interrupted are more verbally aggressive against women that attempt to interrupt, and men in a group are more supportive of that aggression against a women interrupting, than they are if another man had interrupted.
-- End of Edit --

Or on the flip side, your male may be just as motherly and devoted to kids, and know everything there is to know about childcare and raising children, and doesn't defer to women in the least in that respect. In his time, men are expected (by both other men and women) to be full and sensitive participants in childcare.

For the most part, I would just have your 23rd century people not perceive any difference between interacting with men or women. As a psychological trick to help you do that and get past your own cultural bias, she responds to and speaks to men as a modern woman would respond to and speak to another modern female stranger, saying or doing the same thing: Gender makes no difference to your time traveler. The opposite trick for your time traveling man: he responds to and speaks to women the same as a modern man would respond to and speak to another modern male stranger.

And though they are a couple, they engage with each other as friends. If you intend to have romantic or sexual scenes in the story, make them equally desirous.

There is seldom a need for designing a "strong male character", But I'd use Jo's checklist in the same way. Here are her questions; the link above has details on what you should consider for each question.

  1. Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
  2. Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
  3. Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
  4. Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
  5. Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
  6. Does she develop over the course of the story?
  7. Does she have a weakness?
  8. Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
  9. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
  10. How does she relate to other female characters?

Good luck.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Monica Cellio Oct 11 at 2:21
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    See also, Bechdel Test. – brokenindexfinger Oct 13 at 13:00
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    @brokenindexfinger This is far more comprehensive and reliable than the Bechdel test, and consumes it, by point 10. – Amadeus Oct 13 at 14:35
  • This answer is related to one of my favorite gags in comics. The character of Booster Gold (male) is from the 24th century and his gimick is using common future gadgets to fight 21st century crimes. He confronts a female supervillain who asks him "You wouldn't hit a girl?" Cue one mean right hook to the villain from Booster... who explains in his time, gender equality has reached the point that it's equally acceptable to hit a man and a woman and so he has no problem hitting her. – hszmv Nov 15 at 22:11

Woman here. :)

I think what your female character would struggle with most is that suddenly she does need her man beside her - for safety, for being treated a certain way by other people, etc. It doesn't matter how feminine she was in the 23rd century, it doesn't matter if she liked cooking and staying at home and having doors opened for her, being suddenly deprived of the choice in the 14th century is going to hurt.

So how is she going to maintain her agency when the setting actively deprives her of it? There are two elements you can consider.

First, sometimes a strong character is deprived of agency. A POW isn't suddenly made a weak character by virtue of being deprived of virtually all agency, confined and abused. After becoming a POW, the character would be faced with a question - "what next?" They'd have to make a choice, pick a goal, be it "escape" or "survive" or "lead a rebellion", and then they'd be struggling to achieve that goal.

Same for your female character: her freedom has been considerably curtailed. What next? How does she choose to respond to the new situation? Whatever active choice she makes, whatever goal she picks, as long as she gets that choice - she has agency. I'd elaborate more, but @Amadeus has said it all, better than I would.

Second, and that comes after the first point, not instead, you could do some research. There were strong independent women in medieval times. Doña Gracia is my favourite example. There are others. Find out how those women came to hold prominent positions, what they had to struggle with, and what systems were in place to allow them to rise to where they did. Doña Gracia dealt with Henri II of France, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Popes Paul III and Paul IV, and Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. All those prominent men accepted her as someone who one could, and should, have dealings with.

Armed with this knowledge, and depending on where you want to take your plot, your female character could become formidable indeed.

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    This is an excellent point. I wish I'd thought of it! – Amadeus Oct 9 at 21:00
  • Thanks. I'm working to put both characters through a period of depression (separately) as they run out of stamina to deal with the overwhelming situation they're in. Of course, being different people, they run out of steam at different points, and deal with their depression differently. I know what he will do (sulk) and how he will address it internally (he won't), but I'm not sure how to voice her depression. So far I'm dealing with it by having her state observed by him, but it would be good to have her (internal) view of it. – J.D. Ray Oct 9 at 22:00
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    @J.D.Ray Different people experience depression differently, regardless of gender. One person might find it hard to do any work, while another throws themselves into work, to avoid thoughts they don't want to think. One might become unsociable and argumentative, when another might wear an overly pleasant "all normal" mask. How your characters respond is up to you, and really depends on how you choose to portray them. – Galastel Oct 10 at 11:18

While I'm not qualified to advise you on this specific question, I do have some good general advice. Start by doing some research in the form of interviews with someone who resembles your character (it doesn't need to be a writer).

Obviously you won't (probably!) find a time traveler, but you can talk to young women in male-dominated fields. You can also talk to older women about what it was like to be young in the (presumably more sexist) past, or women who have lived or traveled in more "traditional" parts of the world. You can also read work with strong female characters by women writers and see what choices they make. Doing the research is a good general strategy for writing characters with demographics that don't match your own.

A really good resource for you would be the book Kindred by the science fiction writer Octavia Butler. It is written from the POV of a modern young woman transported through time, against her will, into the life of a slave woman in the pre-Civil War American South.

  • 2
    On the subject of reading work with strong female characters: I know a lot of people here like the Writing Excuses podcast and it gets recommended a lot, but here it's particularly relevant -- Mary Robinette Kowal's latest series of novels (starting with The Calculating Stars) deals with many of the same issues (no time travel, but it is about a female protagonist working in a non-traditional role in an alternative history 1950s, so hits a lot of the same points) and her process of writing it has been analysed in depth in the show. – Jules Oct 9 at 20:51
  • I second @Chris Sunami. Basically anything by Octavia Butler. Classic Margaret Atwood (NOT Oryx and Crake which contains a vapid rescue-the-princess fantasy). There are lots. Also, you can look to work by contemporary male authors with self-actualized female characters. Bobbie Draper in The Expanse might be an interesting study, and there are a lot of other very strong female characters in that series. Chrisjen Avasarala and Drummer would be two other interesting studies. Jeff VanderMeer's botanist would also, IMO, be a great example. – brokenindexfinger Oct 12 at 1:40
  • @brokenindexfinger - Thanks! The advantage of Kindred in particular is that it specifically features the time-travel element that relates to the OP's question. – Chris Sunami Oct 15 at 15:05

I think that one fundamental question has to be answered (implicitly in your mind, not necessarily explicit in the novel), and it is this: are men and women on average different in their psychologies (in your fictional world)?

You said that "she is feminine," but you have to figure out what "femininity" means. One option is that of @Amadeus:

Wouldn't most of what we think of as being "feminine" either disappear, or be universally adopted by both genders? I don't think there is much about "femininity" that is inherent in having female body parts. I think nearly all of it is a learned product and attitude of current culture.

For reasons that are off-topic to this question I find this position completely anti-scientific, but it is certainly a possibility in your fictional world. If this is the case, then all these gender roles would be completely foreign to both the man and the woman.

Another possibility is that there are differences (in your fictional world). You describe your "post woke" attitudes as:

the mentality of people in their time and area is one of equality, acceptance of differences, and egalitarianism.

This means that your futuristic people would accept differences between men and women, not look down upon the fact that they are different. This means that even in the futuristic world, there would be certain traits that were considered "feminine" or "masculine." Not in the sense that they are enforced, but simply in the sense that they are more common in one sex. A trait being "feminine" or "masculine" would not be seen as either positive or negative, it would be purely descriptive.

If there are differences between men and women, then this has tremendous implications for how the protagonists would react to experiencing the past. They would likely simultaneously abhor how these gender roles were enforced upon people, and that people lacked freedom to pursue their individual goals, but they would also recognize similarities with their own world.

Let's take a purely hypothetical example. Imagine if even the futuristic world that it was still be the case that women did most of the direct childcare. In plenty of couples it might be that the man did most of the direct childcare, but it was still much more common in relationships that it was the woman. This reality was not due to enforced roles, but rather because couples divided labor in ways which made both happy. If this is the case, they would react badly to the strict enforcement of this role, but they would not be surprised that, if there were any gender roles, that this would be one of them.


As for writing a female character that has agency in this world; I actually don't think that's too difficult. A character with agency has the following traits: they have their own personality, interests, goals and desires, and they behave in a way that is informed by their personality. They take actions to pursue their goals. There may be many obstacles in their way, such as the gender roles in the past, but this means that they would react negatively to those unfair obstacles. They would try to achieve the best they could, given their circumstances and given their personality.

It is possible that your female protagonist has many classic feminine virtues; for example, she may actively enjoy childrearing and cooking. However, being robbed of the choice would still not make her happy. All of us have various goals and interests, and whenever she wanted to spend some time on some of her other interests, she would feel dismayed by the fact that she had to spent time taking care of children, say. But it might be that she would find it amazing that all the other women in the town had all these tips and tricks for making cooking easier (which is one of her interests).

Given that your female character has agency, you need to consider how she would ultimately react to this situation. This depends on her individual personality. Some people ending up in her situtation would be loud and start demonstrating publicly. Some would be slighly less loud, but they would perhaps still chat privately with the other women regarding how unfair some of these roles are. This might still proliferate with the other women also starting to complain, and this might eventually lead to protest. It might also be that she is more careful in her personality. In this case she might not protest out loud, but she will try to avoid/escape from bad experiences. Does she, perhaps, actively try to avoid specific people who are particularly bad with regards to their gender attitudes?

Just think about what she would do, given her personality, and given the situation.

  • 5
    Thank you very much, this is both insightful and helpful. From my perspective, men and women approach life in completely different fashions much of the time, and I think that is somewhat drowned by the societal urge to establish equality wherein people think treating both genders with equanimity means somehow making them both the same. It can't be done, and shouldn't be done. I won't get up on a political soap box here, though. My characters both have agency; the difficulty for my female character is using that agency without getting burned at the stake. – J.D. Ray Oct 10 at 21:35

I think you're more likely to have problems with the male character.

Back then, it was relatively common that women could be the brains of the outfit. "Behind every strong man" and so on. They may not have carried a sword, but they certainly led armies. Consider the Empress Mathilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Lucrezia Borgia, for example. Even lower down the ladder, women regularly ran businesses on their own.

Your male character has a different problem though, which is survival. Any noble with a sword can kill him with impunity. He needs to learn not to speak out to his social superiors, and that's likely to be a big deal. Even worse, there are things he may do to cause offence without thinking about it - biting his thumb, for instance.

Femininity simply means embracing traditionally feminine activities, such as being nurturing, delicate yet skilled work (like needlework), preferring dresses over shirts, taking pride in a feminine appearance (lipstick, long hair, well-groomed and generally shaved body hair).

Believe it or not, there's a lot of ways someone who is feminine can have agency. Hell, most female lawyers are still very feminine (as looking conventionally attractive, sadly, wins cases, both in men and women), yet are no doubt in charge of their own destiny, yes?

Even a housewife can have agency; as long as it's what the woman wants rather than a role ascribed to them (a la an arranged marriage or something put upon her by her husband) then she's a woman that's chosen to be a housewife.

Here's a good example of someone who is clearly feminine and has strong feminine-coded skills, yet is clearly also a woman who is in charge of herself and is genuinely competent.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A3dv9NYrkUE

  • While this all sounds plausible, it's still clearly an "outsider's" perspective. – Chris Sunami Oct 9 at 18:57
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    That's a beautifully shot video, and whatever she was cooking looked delicious, but I fail to see what it had to do with femininity. In my view, your (above-described) view of femininity is flawed. – J.D. Ray Oct 9 at 18:59
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    @J.D.Ray The ability to keep house, perform delicate tasks with high competence, wear hair long, cook well, garden with skill, be demure and look, simply put, beautifully feminine. She's traditionally feminine (with a few masculine-coded skills like farming), but clearly driven and skillful. – Matthew Dave Oct 9 at 19:13
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    I guess your understanding of femininity differs from that of OP's. If a sign of femininity is a conventional female attractiveness then it's now what is asked here. – rus9384 Oct 9 at 21:34
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    I find this answer a bit confusing, and maybe biased. Values traditionally associated with femininity aren't inherently feminine. Traditions change - a clear example is how pink was considered a masculine coulour in the 19th century (according to Wikipedia, at least). – Liquid Oct 9 at 21:49

Both of your characters will have problems that should be intriguing. He will be an unknown man in an area where travel is unusual except for the wealthy. Strangers can be viewed with suspicion or adopted, depending on whom they encounter.

Considering she is in a society that now views her as a non person, she will be shocked and confused, probably hurt to have her value measured by her presumed husband. She will lose her voice to all but her companion and will struggle to understand why.

Raised in an egalitarian society, possibly communally, she does not normally concern herself with thoughts that her colleagues do not. She has ambitions, perhaps she wishes to pursue the sciences or medicine - which was a feminine skill in the Middle Ages.

She will see women and think of them initially as any other person. She will address men and be chided for such presumption. Her presumed mate will find himself in trouble for failing to control his property.

She might come to resent her companion, unable to show herself without his presence.

She could also be someone who studies sociology and remembers reading about strange tribes where women were treated as things. She might come to study these strange specimens and understand their society better than her companion, who might be a dance instructor or artist.

Focus less on her gender, know that she is willful and wily and will survive. She might be the one who figures out how to return, sending her companion on errands to fetch the required ancient version of what she needs to get them home.

He might start to kind of enjoy his new status, unless they are perceived as peasants or serfs, in which case neither will have much cause for enjoyment.

  • It's interesting how you've hit on a few aspects of her character already. She is a student of politics and sociology, with some family-driven knowledge of history (her family name is Foscari, an ancient name in the region for a politically-powerful family. She was pushed to understand her family history growing up, even though she doesn't think being "upper class" is important). When she lands back in the fourteenth century, having a name like Foscari is a blessing, in that it gives her access where she might otherwise not have it, but a curse, in that she's afraid someone will ask questions. – J.D. Ray Oct 10 at 21:02

Men and women often take a different approach to solving problems. What I'm guessing is that you've got a great opportunity to show how the 14th century man has expectations of him which he may not be prepared for, and the woman has to learn different ways to achieve her goals. Speaking in public as if there are 'obvious' truths would be a recipe for disaster. On the other hand there are plenty of examples of powerful Venetian women you can look at and use their techniques. Family ties were very important. Loyalty, and showing allegiance, or feigning it, are crucial elements. You have to go to church, get told the sun goes round the earth and shut up no matter how 'obvious' the alternative is. Straying from the party line is plotting which is a dangerous game. Men and women would probably have different (exclusive) forums for debate and communication.

You've got an interesting situation of compare and contrast to play with. A comparatively tall, fair-skinned, disease-free woman would soon attract suitors whether she wanted them or not. Lots of possibilities for you to explore her evolving reactions.

  • Thanks. There are some great ideas here. – J.D. Ray Oct 10 at 20:47

Before deciding on how to make your female character think (and/or act) like a real female (as opposed to "a dude writing a chick"), in your specific story you'd have to answer these questions first:

  1. Do your characters have anything (devices, knowledge, weapons, any other thing) from the 23rd century... or just themselves?

  2. Are your two characters reasonable - will they try to fit in the world, or to fight it - that is, to behave according to their 23st century habits, at the cost of going against the customs of the entire society? In a situation such as that, a wiser decision would be to follow local customs (even if the protagonist's private opinion is different) at least until they acquire some power and independence, otherwise, constant clashes with the society could take all their time and energy.

  3. Will your characters try to introduce any of their 23rd century knowledge - medicine, chemistry, something? There's any number of SF books with this topic, and you can read them and decide how you want your story to go.

What I'm aiming at is, it is much easier for a woman at that time to behave like a 23rd century one... if she has wealth and power. If she is capable of making good gunpowder, for example, thus making herself extremely useful to one ruler or another. Or medicine (saves the king's child, and becomes his personal doctor), or whatever.

If she has no skills applicable and marketable in the day and age in which she finds herself... now that's going to be troublesome, and she'd better not further worsen her situation.

This, you see, is the main problem: what if someone is transported back in time... and that someone's skills are not applicable? Computer programmer, for example? Social worker? TV repair technician? Skills that either require a full stack of other industry (with skills that specific person doesn't have), or skills that are only applicable in a very rich and much more humane society.

On one extreme end, if the male in the story is incapacitated (sick, dead, wounded...), and the female doesn't have any marketable skills, she could even be forced into... less-than-virtuous means of earning money. In that situation, any talk about equality etc is just so much BS.

So, what I'm saying is, decide on their story first, decide on their situation. Then you will know how much leeway she has (or doesn't have). Only then you can decide how she will accept it, and then how to write her.

I second @Chris Sunami's answer, but I beg to differ. You can indeed find time travelers. Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time AND Joanna Russ's The Female Man. Also look at Perkins-Gilman's Herland and separatist feminist texts like The Wanderground. I'm not saying you have to write characters like that, but it's a good idea to know the archive. Regarding Butler, yes, basically anything by Octavia Butler. Also classic Margaret Atwood (NOT Oryx and Crake which contains a vapid rescue-the-princess fantasy).

In addition, you can look to work by contemporary male authors with self-actualized female characters. (This is not a new thing, ahem.) Bobbie Draper in The Expanse series might be an interesting study, and there are a lot of other very strong female characters of all varieties in that series. Chrisjen Avasarala and Drummer would be two productive studies. Jeff VanderMeer's "the botanist" would also, IMO, be a great example.

  • I’m an avid fan of The Expanse series, and Avasarala is one of my favorite characters. I can’t think of many introspective descriptions in segments from her perspective, except one in the early novels where she was considering her family about the time she visited Holden’s. I’ll chew on that more, though. Thank you. – J.D. Ray Oct 12 at 4:44
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    Babylon's Ashes has some really nice introspective chapters where Avasarala is the featured limited omniscient. Because of how gender works for your audience in the present day, it's hard to show strength and vulnerability at once, and I think the authors have only begun to do this as she ages and because we already know how strong the character is from subsequent books. This is where it gets tricky, because femininity and vulnerability will be understood as more or less equivalent by some (many?) of your readers. – brokenindexfinger Oct 13 at 12:58
  • You should summarize the answer you're referencing so that your answer stands on its own. – V2Blast Oct 14 at 19:37

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