Yesterday I asked a question about writing a female character who has agency. Much to my surprise, it was well-received and generated a lot of great discussion. In reading that discussion, however, I realized that I asked the wrong question, at least for what I'm trying to understand.

As a somewhat introspective male, I have a reasonably easy time writing from the perspective of a male character. Internal monologue, or at least describing his perspective, comes easy for me. From experience, I know how men (at least one of us) think. However, I observe that women think about things differently than men do. So what tips do you have for writing the interior monologue of a self-possessed woman?

Here's an example of a section I'm concerned about (apologies for the length posted). The character, Celeste, is from an upper-class twenty-third century family who, because of their wealth, was able to afford genetic alterations to give them long life (which will become an issue in the fourteenth century setting where she suddenly finds herself). She is joined in accidental time travel by Marko, similarly long-lived, whom she has only known a handful of months, though they were at the time of the time-travel incident, falling in love.

She found a shop that served wine and settled into a seat near a glassless window with the shutters open to let in the breeze. She realized that she hadn’t seen a glass window anywhere in the city, and thought to look up when glass was invented. Of course, without access to the Cloud, she couldn’t look anything up. She wished her slate, apparently dead of any functionality and stowed in Marko’s pack, was fully connected and working so she could research all the things she wanted to know about this place and these people. Hopefully, she thought, by tomorrow it wouldn’t be a factor any longer, and this would all just be a well-remembered adventure that she and Marko could tell their children.

She stopped herself. Their children. Somehow she had concluded that, even after this adventure was over, she and Marko would be together. She gave that some thought. In recent years, she had told herself that she wouldn’t have children until after age fifty, with a better target being age seventy. That would give her enough time to see the world, establish a career and retire from it, and then settle in to raising one or two children. Her parents would be gone by then, but her mother didn’t seem to have much interest in the idea of grandchildren. It seemed that losing their son in the war, then eventually having Celeste, made them happy for what they had and not wistful for something else. Celeste thought of her mother and her reaction to her daughter having gone missing. She pushed that thought out of her mind, determined to return before her mother experienced too much grief. She thought instead of the idea of being with Marko for fifty years or more. As Petra had pointed out, he was handsome enough. He was tall, but not too tall, with broad, strong shoulders and arms, green eyes similar to hers, and long curls that almost touched his shoulders. And he was smart, though not in all things. He was reserved, and while he was easy to talk to, wasn’t loud or brash. He didn’t seem to swear often, which she thought of as a failure of imagination and proper use of language. But most importantly he seemed to love her, which was key to finding a long-term contract partner.

I wouldn't write a male character who thought that much about his feelings for someone (indeed, elsewhere Marko simply recognizes that he loves Celeste and doesn't really question why; it's enough for him that his love exists, though he could point to reasons for it if pressed). But I only suspect a woman would think this way, or, rather, that this description rings true for a way a woman might think.

Any feedback is appreciated.

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.

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    I don't know why you "wouldn't write a male character who thought that much about his feelings for someone". Of course, I don't mean particularly this character. But it's not that uncommon, I guess, for a man to think about his own feelings. And I don't mean love exclusively. Say, why would I be angry. – rus9384 Oct 11 at 8:01
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    To my reading you haven't actually written much about 'feelings'. What you've written is more like a fairly dispassionate appraisal of Marco and a recognition that her parents might have emotions. Which is fine, there shouldn't be any blanket assumptions that women are all about feelings and men aren't. As galastel says, current stereotypes about woman are strongly rooted in societal roles and experience. Take those away, as you have, and everything changes. What are societal norms and expectations for the sexes in C23? That's what you have to respond to, not innate 'woman-ness'. – Spagirl Oct 11 at 13:31
  • Would love to see your comment as an answer @Spagirl – wetcircuit Oct 11 at 15:26
  • @wetcircuit I think Galastel has covered my main concerns pretty well, I just wanted to flag up to the OP that they weren't perhaps achieving what they thought they were at the moment. Cheers though. – Spagirl Oct 11 at 15:52
up vote 4 down vote accepted

I'm going to agree with Galastel (write a person), and wetcircuit (Celeste sounds shallow). For the latter, when I think about my lover, I never take an inventory of their physical attributes. I have images in my mind that do not get articulated, if I was describing her feelings of Marko I would, instead of listing attributes that could be on a robot, say something like "Imagining him, she felt a compelling attraction, a desire to be beside him."

Obsession and a desire for simple non-sexual physical closeness, wanting to BE with their lover, is part of the nature of new love, for both men and women; and what Marko looks like doesn't matter in that equation, people fall in love with others of all sorts of appearances. Neither does the gender of the person; women in love have the same obsession, closeness and sexual desires, tunnel vision, hyper-sensitivity to relationship threats (e.g. a minor disagreement feels life-threatening), and flaw blindness that men experience. If the relationship survives this enamoration stage, it generally becomes a co-dependency.

Also, "most importantly he seemed to love her"? That is strangely analytical and computationally selective and self-centered. Is Celeste a psychopath?

The most important thing is that SHE is in love with HIM and cannot imagine her future without him in it; that she feels she will forever regret it if she DOESN'T make an effort to marry him and have a family together. And thinking upon that in this 14th century of short lives, she realizes that the sooner they do that, the better. (And given her long life, she can do her career after her kids are grown adults; I doubt the 23rd century society would make a huge distinction between a 20 yo and a 35 yo when people are having babies and raising them at age 70).

Note the same thought process could be felt by Marko; the most important thing for him is that HE is in love with HER and cannot imagine his future without her in it; and he feels he will forever regret it if he doesn't make an effort to marry her and have a family with her.

Females do not have to contemplate their feelings or motivations any more than a male does. IRL modern society, men still bear most of the burden of pursuing women and proving themselves worthy mates, while women still have the privilege of being selective of their suitors. That is a psychological evolutionary quirk rooted in disparate biology; namely that men are more expendable than women when it comes to reproduction: The next generation can be fathered by just a few men, so men lost in battle or dangerous labor are not missed, but every womb lost is a person not born. Thus men fight wars, men take risks hunting, or fighting for the right to lead, etc. (Roy Baumeister is an academic that has published a book on this topic, Is There Anything Good About Men?).

That said, in your post-woke society, that dynamic of social interaction should be toned down considerably. I think you don't know how Marko thinks, because you aren't from his time and aren't putting yourself in his shoes. Marko and Celeste should not be thinking like a "man" and a "woman", the only thing that differs between them is their sexual orientation; and that is all about feelings of attraction. He is physically attracted to and excited by females that look like her, and she is physically attracted to and excited by males that look like him. He is romantically attracted to women with her intelligence, humor and attitude, she the same for him. But these should be portrayed AS feelings.

She realized that she hadn’t seen a glass window anywhere

I'd recast this in feelings too. Of course her slate doesn't work, she knows the cloud is hardware, radio receivers, etc. the word apparently is jarring.

She realized she hadn't seen a glass window anywhere.
"When was glass invented?" she whispered, almost silently. God she missed the cloud, the instant answers, the AI that always knew what you wanted and why you asked. It felt like she'd lost a chunk of her brain, the number of times she had to suppress the urge to ask the Cloud for a fact, a direction, a probability, from trivial to major. She bet Marko felt the same, [Now her thoughts turn to Marko].

  • Thank you. This has been extremely helpful. I work best with examples, so I can internalize this well. – J.D. Ray Oct 11 at 20:00
  • Also, now you have me wondering about my own psychology. :-| – J.D. Ray Oct 11 at 20:05
  • Damn, I can't love then (what a discovery /s). Or, ahem, I can't live if humanity dies, then I love the humanity as a whole, but never a person. – rus9384 Oct 12 at 0:24
  • But I just meant these treatings of love might be perverted. I can care about others. Even if I can imagine my life without them. Even if I would want to be with them. I would not commit a suicide if they are not with me. So, love is not a dependency. Otherwise we should use the term "drug lover". Humanity as a whole is the only example when I might commit a suicide. Because the life becomes meaningless. Love is not here. – rus9384 Oct 12 at 0:40
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    @rus9384 Not being able to imagine a future without somebody is not the same as dying without them; and it is a figure of speech. Implicitly it means one cannot imagine a happy future without somebody else being in it. I should think any writers, which are the audience for this site, could figure that out. I don't think I mentioned suicide anywhere. This description is not perverted, it is based on actual psychological studies of volunteers that have recently fallen in love. This is how people behave, and I think it is valuable information for authors that want to write about that. – Amadeus Oct 12 at 3:14

Women, like men, are quite diverse. Some are more introspective, some are less. Some think about their feelings, and why they feel a certain way, others are more concerned with their career and how to solve that problem in the lab. Don't think of writing a woman - think of writing a person. Find out who that person is, how they think, what concerns them, then write that.

Some elements are going to be different between men and women, in part because of cultural pressure, in part because of biology. Let's talk biology first.

If I want children, theoretically, ever, as a woman I know I have this ticking clock, because as I grow older, the chance of chromosome disorders increases. I also have to plan, financially and otherwise, for nine months of pregnancy, which hopefully will go with no complications, followed by maternity leave, breastfeeding and whatnot. It's a concern that's different from the concern of a man who wants children, theoretically, ever. (I might also not want children - that's my prerogative. Nothing about being a woman says I've absolutely got to have babies.)

Culturally, I might have been conditioned to think myself "unworthy" of certain positions, "unable to attain" something, "incapable of understanding", "undeserving", etc. But that's a state of mind you also encounter in lower-class communities. It has nothing to do with gender, and everything to do with the opportunities society gives or denies a particular group. @Amadeus recently mentioned that women are interrupted more - that's one way society teaches women that their opinion matters less. (Of course, while some women might absorb this idea, others might rebel. Both options are however different from not being faced with the notion in the first place.)

In your setting, you talk of complete equality, so the second concern no longer exists, and your excerpt shows the first concern doesn't exist either. With that in mind, all the more reason for you to go to my first point - people are people, regardless of anatomy. (Those concerns would, however, be relevant to secondary characters you write - those who live in a more gendered society.)

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    Yet, I'm unsure that biological factors are that much important in century 23. Who knows if children still will be beared by women and not specially designed mechanisms. – rus9384 Oct 11 at 8:04
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    @rus9384 J.D. Ray knows, its his C23! :) – Spagirl Oct 11 at 13:32
  • @Galastel, I take your points, and thank you. Specifically in this instance, the biology question is out, because she has a uterine implant that keeps her from getting pregnant (in this C23, pretty much all women have one installed at puberty and removed if/when they decide it's time to have children). – J.D. Ray Oct 11 at 17:31

Your worry is that Celeste expresses more feelings about their relationship's implications than Marko does, which could play into a "women have more feelings" stereotype. I assume Celeste is the protagonist, which to an extent gives us greater licence to get in her head than his, but your concern is still sensible. I think part of the solution is that there's a lot of telling rather than showing in your excerpt, which apart from its usual downsides makes the feelings seem heavier. It pays to aim for concision. You could go for something like this:

She stopped herself. Their children. She'd thought to wait till seventy for that. Mum seemed happy enough with the child she hadn't lost. Best bring her back, then. But Marko for fifty years? Not too tall, eyes like hers, and long curls almost touching strong shoulders. Quiet but easy to talk to, with enough vocab not to swear. But most importantly, he seemed to love her.

You mention also that Marko does have these feelings, but doesn't mention them due to a lack of pressing. I assume that's not so much conveyed in your current draft as part of your "iceberg". So add incidents where he gets pressed! For example, if she has a quirk he finds delightful, he can stand up to someone who critiques it (or at least mention he disagrees, possibly before the relationship has even fleshed out). Again, try to convey the feelings (in his actions), instead of spelling them out.

The passage puts cart before horse. She fantasizes about having babies, and then gets around to trying to justify the man who is going to give her the babies, yet she doesn't sound like there is any sexual attraction to him. He just has some superficial traits (green eyes, curly hair) which presumably she would like her babies to have too. Then he is described in words that make him sound like an escort who won't embarrass her at a social event, and is the right height for when she wears her favorite pair of heels.

This woman is the opposite of "self-possessed". She doesn't center her desires at all, instead she is weirdly detached, and passively thinking of others.

If this was the only thing I knew about this character, I'd call her a Pondering Uterus. Her desire is to have babies. 2 other characters exist: one to give her the babies, and another Pondering Uterus who already had babies but also only thinks about babies. I don't learn anything else about this woman.

There is also a strange disconnect that she is there in the world but instead of experiencing the adventure first hand or talking with the people around her, she wonders about "looking it up" on a tablet while sitting in a quiet wineshop like a tourist in a cafe, yet you say she has been here for months. Is she an accidental traveler? It sounds like she'd be happier staying home having babies, and experiencing the world only secondhand through other people's accounts related through a tablet.

Being a woman in a medieval era, she would be forced to spend time around other women who would be very aware that most women die in childbirth, and half of all children die before the age of 5. From her 24th Century perspective, motherhood would be a sure and quick path to disease and death. Grimy babies would be nursing and pooping themselves, and crawling on the dirt floor among the bugs and chickens. There is no soap, medicine, or hygiene of any kind. Maybe she has gone to an idealized medieval world, but why would she be planning a family in such a hostile environment? It would be just as bizarre as being stranded on Mars or trapped in sunken submarine, and her thoughts wander to the topic of planning her family. A man could also be having these bizarre baby fantasies and they would seem just as out-of-place.

But it's all ok because he seems to love her. (steps away from keyboard to scream)

I have to wonder, do you honestly believe this passage is in-character for a "self possessed" person of any gender? I don't see it.

  • As you might imagine, there's description of this character before and after this passage in the novel. This is one passage that I picked out as an example of one that I'm concerned about, but not a complete representation of her. I chose not to include the passages where she considers, then acts on the physical attraction she has to Marko, nor the description of how their love for one another developed. Much of this was clear, I believe, in the original post. – J.D. Ray Oct 11 at 17:59
  • Also, she's from the 23rd century and finds herself in the 14th, when, by the way, soap making was a major industry in Europe at large, and particularly in this area, as it had been since the first century B.C. – J.D. Ray Oct 11 at 17:59
  • @J.D.Ray, that doesn't address any of the character points I made. It's up to you to try to work through this answer without the defenses of a creator. I only have you telling me that this passage is not representative, but that was hardly the question. If you feel you have balanced her out then why ask? Yes, this passage is problematic, and I think if you are being honest you will have to admit it too. – wetcircuit Oct 11 at 18:03
  • Also @J.D.Ray , in your other question you selected an answer that starts with this test. jowritesstuff.wordpress.com/strong-female-characters Do you feel this passage passes the test for your character? You posted this question to get some perspective. No one but you can make you follow up with the information offered. – wetcircuit Oct 11 at 18:19

As writers we create characters and a tale would seem odd if all characters were of the same gender. Others have said it before, but know who your character is and that gender is a characteristic but need not be a defining one.

I have characters of both genders and before I write them in, I ask myself who this person is. What are their likes? Dislikes? Dreams? Fears?

Your Celeste is who she is, none other. She thinks how she thinks and can be surprised to find herself attracted to this man she barely knows. The idea of the story told to their children is also something that one holds onto to aid them in acquiring the future they desire. A story to tell the kids is one way of saying of course I will return to my time.

One character I have has such a great dichotomy between his personal and professional life that he has come to think of them in entirely different ways and almost becomes a different person depending on what he is considering. That works for him, but has others wondering if he might not have suffered a psychotic break.

You might have her conclude that her current feelings are influenced by the simple fact that he is the only one from her time and therefore the only one most likely to understand her. Upon their return, she could realize that the nice fellow who runs the lab has more interests in common and is more interested in her opinions than Marko might be. She could return to her plan A of postponing family and such until her professional life is secure and her life has taken her where she hopes.

  • Elsewhere in the novel, I'm trying to flesh them both out as full characters. To be clear, both of them are from the twenty-third century, and were out on an adventure date (basically out for a picnic and a hike) when they stumbled into a situation that threw them back in time. Perspective changes from one to the other, and they deal with the trauma differently. – J.D. Ray Oct 11 at 17:36

You said "elsewhere Marko simply recognizes that he loves Celeste and doesn't really question why; it's enough for him that his love exists, though he could point to reasons for it if pressed"

I find myself thinking that this may be part of the issue here. I don't think that love is likely to be any more easily verbalized by a woman than a man. You're having Celeste verbalize thoughts, but those thoughts seem to be purely logic-based. Her thought process seems to be closer to analyzing a purchase or a business partnership--the only real emotion I'm getting is her concern about her mother's potential grief if she doesn't return.

And that business partnership seems to be about having children, not about love or even sexual attraction--to the extent that I wonder why Marko is a candidate, because it sounds like she's going to wait a decade or three before she has children, so why would she waste her time with a man that she doesn't seem to be attracted to? That man apparently has the physical attributes and intellect that she wants for kids, but it doesn't feel as if he interests her in any other way.

None of which is to say that I don't find Celeste interesting. I absolutely do. She seems to be very guarded, to have her emotions under iron control, to act only for logic and not in any way based on preference or emotion--except for a brief soft spot for her mother.

I find myself wondering why. I find myself thinking that she probably does find Marko attractive, because she's finding excuses, really illogical excuses (Kids ten or twenty or thirty years from now? That's not a good reason.) to stick with him.

And it's not just relationship emotions that she has under control--she's in a really rather terrifying situation, and she's calmly calmly calmly (stay calm, damn it!!!) thinking about things like dates of inventions.

She's really interesting. But she's absolutely not an excessively 'feeling' person, as I read her.

  • Thanks, and thank you for liking her as a character with so little introduction to her. The short version is that she and Marko were thrust together by well-meaning family and they happened to click. They’re both of genetically altered stock (a few million people out of billions on the planet) who have centuries-long lives, and both raised “upper class” (wealthy, old money). They’re starting to fall in love when they find themselves thrown back in time. They react to the situation differently (she struggles to keep it together, he stuffs it). But their situation deepens their love. – J.D. Ray Oct 12 at 4:49
  • I’m working up to a situation where he basically falls into a deep depression, and it becomes her job to rescue him from it. But I need to figure out how to have her go through her own thing so she has the tools to help him. I’m not sure how to do that. – J.D. Ray Oct 12 at 4:52

"...How to write female characters as a male writer?..."

Who are you writing for? Here are your choices: Men / Women

Because if your audience is Men, then you don't need to emulate how Women think or feel, you need to emulate how Men think that Women think or feel. Get it? To sell, you need to pander to your audience. Authenticity be damned.

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    I disagree. I don't want to pander to either gender, and want my writing to appeal to the broadest possible audience. – J.D. Ray Oct 12 at 16:44
  • Hi Baruch! Welcome to Writing.SE. Please take a look at our tour and help center pages, you might find them helpful. With regards to your question, are you implying that one can't write for both men and women, that men and women wouldn't be reading the same books? – Galastel Oct 12 at 16:45
  • Galastel - Yes, that's what I think I said. Do you know of any books that sell equally well to both genders? I love my wife, but we read really differently. – Baruch Atta Oct 14 at 3:55

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