I am attempting to write a relatively complex SciFi military novel following 3 primary characters. A male and female protagonist, and a male antagonist. So far none of those characters are aware of each other, but their individual paths overlap to create the whole story. Each chapter focuses on an individual character, often referencing events from other character's chapters that the primary of that chapter does not recognize as directly important. In a way it is more like 3 simultaneous stories that intertwine. The story is written in past tense, third-person with frequent present tense, first-person asides to act like an internal monologue by the main characters (I hope that makes sense).

I am roughly a quarter to a third of the way through the story and I am really struggling to write the female character well, likely because I am male myself. I am entirely expecting to completely rewrite some of her chapters if necessary. Here is a quick overview of the 3 characters. To simplify explanations a replaced the names of organizations with their closest modern equivalent as "Space _____".

  • Male Antagonist: Late 20s/early 30s (age undetermined). His mother was illegally immigrating from one planet to another and died mid-journey in childbirth. The smuggler kept him as his own son which eventually led to his membership in "Space Illuminati" intent on destroying the current unified government, which he blames for the hardships of his life. He has undergone extensive surgeries (to the point of being a different person in nearly every way except retained memories) for the purpose of infiltrating military intelligence. Infiltration failed almost immediately due to unforeseen circumstances, but during his escape he nearly destroyed the "Space Pentagon". This has propelled him to the upper echelon of the organization, but many feel he is not worthy of his authority. He is highly intelligent despite only receiving formal education in his adulthood, but suffers from a stutter and inner aggression issues that sometimes border on psychopathic.
  • Male Protagonist: 27 years old. Highly skilled military officer who is regularly promoted and put in various positions of authority, despite lacking very much self-motivation. Superiors confuse his perfectionism and controlling nature for discipline. He originally trained as a drone pilot at military academy until his father inadvertently caused the death of his pregnant fiance, which was then covered up. He continued in military service as a tactical officer for the simple purpose of staying away from his father. He was recently promoted to Executive Officer of a Destroyer and is nine years younger than the average for his rank.
  • Female Protagonist: 22 years old. Engineering officer with a genius level IQ and temper issues. She prefers dealing with machines over people, and struggles to make genuine connections. She struggles with economic and racial prejudice against her as she is from a planet that enjoys numerous health benefits caused by the environment and is wealthier on average despite not being economically important. Her position is often looked at as a perk of her birth rather than her actual ability. In her last year at the military academy she was recruited by the "Space CIA" as a potential asset because the "Space Illuminati" is likely to try and recruit her because of family ties. Her motivations lie in uncovering why her late grandfather, a vice admiral in military intelligence, committed treason and aided the "Space Illuminati".

My main issue is that I feel like I should have enough to build a strong female character on par with the male characters, but when writing her I tend to describe the environment or give more backstory than actually describing what is happening and what she thinks. I have transitioned from originally intending her to be in her late teens, but it started to seem too much like a young adult novel, and I really didn't want her to turn into Catniss/Triss/Clary from those associated books.

From what I have written above, what should I focus on with the female character to help give her more depth and improve my writing?

Please let me know in the comments if you have any questions or want any more details. I am also totally willing to let you read some of the completed chapters if you think it might help.

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    If you think that you cannot determine if you written the female character well enough. Then why not let someone close to you read the parts where you are uncertain and ask for his/her opinion? So instead of focusing on depth and writing, you should focus on receiving feedback of your already written parts. We cannot really give you any help based on character bio. Nov 27, 2018 at 8:30
  • "I have transitioned from originally intending her to be in her late teens, but it started to seem too much like a young adult novel, and I really didn't want her to turn into Katniss/Triss/Clary from those associated books." Glad to see someone else who thinks that those three are terrible protagonists.
    – user29299
    Aug 8, 2019 at 4:01

4 Answers 4


Get out of your own stereotypes, and stick with actual science.

When any male tells me he can't write females, I think they need to break through the false stereotypes of male and female roles.

There are only a handful of actual gender-related differences between males and females, and even those can fall on overlapping probability distributions. The rest is cultural.

My first suggestion is to presume that if people are not thinking anything sexual, they all think alike. Her thinking about engineering issues, politics, missions, entertainment, fine food, or anything else unrelated to romance or naked sport can be the same as a man's. You're in space, presume gender-equality is a done deal and embedded in the culture, that for 99% of jobs, physical strength or body size no longer matter -- and when it does matter, it is tested for, and either gender is truly acceptable if they pass the qualifying test.

This is not to say you must ignore all issues related to romance or having sex. Here are two wiki articles that cover most of the bases; Sex Differences in Humans and Sex Differences in Psychology. In both cases (for the purpose of being an author) assume any ambiguous experiments claiming a difference between males and females is flawed, and NOT due to genetics or hormonal differences but due to cultural differences, so as an author you can eliminate that difference and make it easier to write your female.

On the sexual front, sexual dimorphism is real (differences in the body due to gender). Males are, on average, 25% more massive than females. In the vast majority of animal species on Earth, females bear all of the risks and physical burdens of pregnancy, and males bear (effectively) none; they need only be involved for a few minutes. Thus in most non-human species, what we see is males competing for females, aggressively, often in fights to the death. We do not see (in non-human species) females competing for males; they watch the males fight it out and mate with the winners.

Likewise in many species, females choice is obvious: Particularly in birds but in many other species, males tend to be flashy, larger, more colorful, and females smaller and drabber; the obvious conclusion is that males must not only win the competition of strength and violence against other males, but can also be rejected by the females as mates, if they don't look good doing it!

Finally, this sexual dimorphism makes men expendable, and this enters into our psychological differences as well. (See Roy Baumeister's non-fiction evolutionary psychology book, Is There Anything Good About Men?. Basically this argument is about reproduction of a group: If a tribe of 100 men and 100 women loses 90 men (and no women) in a war, the next generation of that tribe is not threatened. Even one man can impregnate all the women. But if they lost 90 women in a war (and no men), the ten women left cannot have as many children as 100 women, and the tribe goes extinct. In this sense, men are expendable, because in a lifetime one man can father hundreds (or thousands) of times as many children as one woman can bring to term.

This does translate to our baseline psychology, and may be important, and may be why we see men being more aggressive, combative, and competitive, particularly with other men. That may have a biological basis; evolution works over millions of years and it would be strange if our bodies reflected this competition (in greater size and muscularity on average for males) and our psychology did not evolve in lockstep with it.

This is not a matter of intelligence, there is no net difference to be found there, but there may be a difference in non-sexual interests, and sexual dimorphism likely also produces a difference in sexual attitudes, particularly there does exist an average difference in willingness to be promiscuous between men and women, even if women feel certain they will not actually get pregnant.

Like the birds (and many other species), females choose amongst male suitors, and the opposite is seldom true unless, in humans, a male has particularly high social status (in wealth, fame, political power) that would have made him the clear choice in any competition anyway.

There is a basic psychological reason male celebrities have female groupies and will have casual intercourse with hundreds of them, while female celebrities, although they have even more volunteers, will still typically have longer term sexual relationships (measured in years, not hours) with one man at a time. (Again, talking averages, not specific cases).

However, I hasten to say this only applies to sexual attitudes, thoughts, and scenes of sexual intercourse. Many stories can get away without including any of that. And further you should assume a girl in the sack need not be any less aggressive than a male in the sack about what she wants to happen. Presuming the lust is consensual, if she is there she has made her choice.

My general advice, as the headline says, is when it comes to sex, read up on the actual science and psychology of sex. And as an author doing research, sustain a bias on the side of equality, unless the reasoning for disparity seems convincing to you.

That's how. Now, What.

Your female needs something to pursue, step by step. You have given her a goal, understanding her grandfather's treason, but I think this is too amorphous: What is her plan for understanding this? What information is she pursuing? What is she doing off-book or contrary to orders in order to pursue this information? How will she investigate the treasonous incident to accomplish this personal mission?

In particular, why would she become an engineer to try and understand this? What advantage does that give her? What can she sacrifice in pursuit of this understanding? Promotions? Cushy assignments? Is she trying to get transferred to her grandfather's ship so she can hack the systems? Or is she aiming to get posted at headquarters, for the same thing?

You have likely written more than I can see, I know, but I think you are focusing on the backstory because you don't have a front-story, you need something for her to be doing or she is not actually being motivated by her desire to understand, she is just idly wishing she knew, making her a passive character, instead of an active character with an agenda.

  • 1
    So I actually completely agree with everything in this answer. I have been heavily avoiding stereotypes as much as I can. I do think though that the last part of your answer sort of hit the nail on the head though. I do feel that I write the female character much better in parts where she has a specific objective to reach or I am working towards a specific event. Outside of that, her character mostly just goes about her daily routines without anything really happening. Part of it may also be that I am struggling with the idea of whether or not I should introduce a romance scenario at all. Nov 28, 2018 at 7:59
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    Then, you need to make her busier. More work stress while trying to wedge in her investigation on the side. Or, she is romantically involved, or too busy for romance, but young and engaging in casual sex with a crew mate. That could be a stereotype breaker too: He wants more of a romantic relationship, she doesn't have time for that and just wants some naked diversion once in a while to relieve the stress she is under. Not with just anybody, but she likes this guy. This is a conflict (90% of things are not easy for your MC!) you can use to create tension, arguments, disappointment and tasks.
    – Amadeus
    Nov 28, 2018 at 14:54
  • What you say is "confirm the stereotype" studies while very many studies are ambiguous and controversial, conflicting each other. There is a study saying women are more sexually jealous during ovulation. Also, the idea that a man does not need to care about his offspring in terms of evoljtionary advantage is somewhat ridiculous. It suggests that care for man's children does not increase amount of his offsprings. But this is a nonsensical idea because in hunter-gatherers a man hardly could have thousands of women to impregnate, so his ability is limited by women, not by sperm.
    – rus9384
    Nov 29, 2018 at 20:17
  • @rus9384 There are ambiguous and conflicting studies; like any science you have to pick a lane that makes coherent sense. As a full time research scientist, I have done that, and the lane is evolutionary psychology. Also, don't forget we are talking about fiction, our depiction does not have to pass peer-review and scrutiny of a journal's editor, it just needs to be good enough to seem realistic to the reader. As for men not needing to care; single mothers everywhere can attest to that, survival to adulthood is not impacted very much by a missing father, especially after the first 2 years.
    – Amadeus
    Nov 29, 2018 at 21:25
  • @rus9384 Here is an academic study to back that up; the effect of a father's death on the survival of a child is very small, to non-existent after the age of 4. I will say the father moving on is the equivalent of a father's death, roughly. Remaining and caring may improve well-being, both psychologically and financially, for the child, but in terms of spreading his DNA, the father's best bet is to move on; the losses caused by that are far more than offset by fathering even one extra child. I don't promote it, its how the math works. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4501914
    – Amadeus
    Nov 29, 2018 at 21:36

You are right: there is enough backstory to make a well built female character. I appreciated the contrast between the male protagonist, who lacks self-motivation, and your female lead, who seems to be struggling against prejudice.

but when writing her I tend to describe the environment or give more backstory than actually describing what is happening and what she thinks

The real question here should be: why? Why are you giving her more backstory than the others? Why aren't you describing what she thinks? You mentioning her having a short temper and being used to being subject to prejudice. This is really easy to characterize: she may see someone staring down at her and think "Geez, another one of those jackasses here judging me for my upbringing. I'm not saying you shouldn't explain why this happens, but generally you should put yourself in her shoes.

The first step to make is stop thinking "female character, and since I am male, I can't write her well". Treat her as any other character, for starter. Gender is not irrelevant, but it seems to me that its stopping you from "resonating" well with your character, so you are probably giving it too much importance.


Samuel Delany has excellent advice on this very question, which has to do with making sure your female characters don't exist just to serve the male characters or the plot (@wetcircuit did an great job of summarizing it here).

However, a good general piece of advice when writing any character whose experience differs from yours is to get the inside perspective from someone who more closely resembles that character. In other words, find a trusted female reader --or more than one-- and ideally one who has had similar life experiences. Failing that, do some intensive reading (fiction and nonfiction) by female authors. I'm sure a woman who has actually worked in engineering would be able to give you some good perspective and/or anecdotes that would add depth, richness and believability to your portrayal.

I've read far too many TERRIBLE portrayals of minority characters by otherwise very good writers, who made the mistake of thinking what they could build believable minority characters from the "outside in."


Female perspective here! (The first paragraph is the most fundamental part of my answer, about creating a strongly written female protagonist. Also refer to Chris Sunami's answer and links. The rest focuses more on portraying a female character, or character of any marginalized group, in an authentic manner.)

Your female protagonist is the hero of her own story. Write her that way.

If you are in your character's head, you must write her as the baseline of her worldview, just like you would for any male character. This also goes for having a racially marginalized character, as yours is. She goes about her day just like a man would, and most of her thoughts have nothing to do with her gender or her race. She problem-solves and accomplishes routine tasks just like everyone else might. She has her own tastes and her own goals, and she can be selfish or introverted or musical or funny, just like any protagonist with XY chromosomes. She can enjoy interior decorating or hunting or video games. Let her be a person first.

To tie in with Amadeus' answer, make sure you aren't falling into the trap of ye olde stereotyped gender portrayal "Men act, women are". Male characters are usually given roles that drive the plot of the story, but too often female characters exist and have characteristics and follow routines but don't make meaningful contributions or have goals that are actualized as plot developments through their own agency. Make her and her wonderful brain essential to advancing the plot and resolving the crisis; she is an agent in your story, not an object.

Femininity vs. being female.

It's a bit unclear if you are having difficulty writing her as a feminine person or as a person who experiences society treating her as they treat women, but you can treat these as two different aspects of a character that are related but not an all-or-nothing bundle. Likewise, a person can identify with a certain ethnic group and may be treated as a member of that group, but there are levels to both of those, or a person can experience a disability that may or may not be visible to others or affect all aspects of their interactions with others. None of these are binary.

If she is "feminine" in your fantasy world, what does that mean? Does she conform to societal expectations for women? Does she spend more time with women than men, and do they bond over common interests? What are those expectations? What is normative female behavior? Like with men, this is a spectrum, and she can like pink and knitting but have no interest in babies and think cooking is less interesting than building robots. Treat it like your protagonist's tastes rather than her inherent personality. Note that most of what is "feminine" is strongly cultural rather than biological. Most people like being sexually appealing to others and make some effort to present themselves that way, but what is presented as feminine or virile or healthy or eligible can vary enormously by culture.

As for being a member of a marginalized group... The further from a societal norm she is, the more often and in more ways she will run into conflict with the expectations and discrimination of the majority/dominant view. The more she is forced to consciously confront and deal with societal marginalization, the more it will impact her life and worldview. Your character's goals are built upon a foundation of having the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. If she has these, she can go about building her life like any protagonist in a story. If they are lacking or impeded by societal bias, she will have to acknowledge that shaky foundation and either try to work around it by building a more precarious structure that defies societal expectations, or consciously fight to make her world better and more hospitable to her and others outside the norm and then build from a strong foundation.

So: if you want to consider your character as a marginalized person (especially in a fantasy society with rules you don't inherently know from experience), you first need to determine...

Exactly what is considered normal in this society, how much of a majority does does each normal demographic have, and how is it maintaining the status quo?

In our current western societies, men dominate the public sphere because it was traditionally entirely exclusive of females, and all of the norms are based on men and male expectations and male needs. There is entrenched resistance to change because when you have it all, change necessarily means ceding some amount of power and convenience. When accommodations have been made for women they've been implemented and often designed by men, sometimes merely paying lip service to equality and openness, and sometimes well-meant but lacking in practicality. Women have never made advances by asking politely; they have had to fight with all their numbers and political savvy and sometimes with bodily resistance to get what they need. This includes struggling against discriminatory hiring policies, sexual harassment, and even mundane details like repeatedly insisting that their workplaces stock personal protective equipment in smaller sizes. Ditto the able-bodied providing accessibility for those with disabilities, heterosexual rule-makers making accommodations for LGBT people, white people ensuring equal opportunities for people of color.

What is it like in your fictional culture? Just what percent of people identify as the majority for any demographic, and how oppressed are the minority groups? Has your society experienced any reformations or cultural revolutions? How recently? (Women are 51% of modern humans, but represented something close to 0% in public and corporate decision-making in 1905. Women were legally considered the sexual, economic, and reproductive property of their husbands in western society until scarily recently, 1970s in the US. Black people in the U.S. have been targeted for exploitation in as many ways as people could devise throughout history and still don't have enough legal protections to consistently develop financial security and generational wealth.) What rights are considered human rights, and what are regarded by the normative group to be privileges that can be withheld or rescinded? What methods are explicitly and implicitly used to maintain inequality and oppression?

What sets your character apart from societal normativity, and how would she experience these differences as external interruptions to her baseline worldview?


Her femaleness is not an issue unless someone or something about the world she's in makes it an issue. If sexism and misogyny are normal, your protagonist will not only have to deal with overt instances of it-- ones you, male author, can easily invent, recognize, and sympathize with-- but she'll also be sensitized to misogyny and feel a need to be on guard in situations where a male observer might not notice anything amiss. If this attitude is entrenched in her workplace, or her recreational haunts, or in places like parks and on sidewalks, it will color her thoughts and interactions. It's not about being feminine, it's about playing defense.

But there are so many other ways she may or may not match your own perspective! How are you handling these? Do they feel uncomfortable? How do these same questions apply to your male character?


This is exactly the same as above; just swap out race and racism. If you are constantly subjected to abuse, this will put you on guard all the time.


Remember, your character views herself as the baseline. Even if she knows she's the smartest person in her squad, she will still expect intelligent reasoning from the people around her until reminded through their actions or words that, in fact, people are dumb and she's an outlier. Others may look up to her as a genius, or the dominant view may be dismissive of nerds and wonks, or even hostile (think religious persecution of scientists). Does your genius protagonist have to watch herself?

Ethics, Values, Religion

If her ethical/moral/religious beliefs are not mainstream, she will routinely think of them as inherently correct and normal until something happens to remind her that people don't all think alike. If it's a constant bombardment (e.g., atheist in the Bible Belt), she'll be aware that she's at odds with others and guarded in her conversations.


Your character is not in the norm in terms of economics, but in this case it lends her more power. She has wealth, which makes her abnormal and perhaps hated, but in this case still more powerful than people in the norm. This power may shape your character's behavior more than being female, if your culture strives for egalitarian gender relations.

Side note: Effects of dominance vs. normativity

Note that if you are a member of a normative group you may be more likely to "flex" (show your strength or societal support) through microaggressions to exert your opinion, worldview, or desires in any given interaction, even completely unconsciously, without fear of societal repercussions on you. In my society, men constantly do small things that intimidate, belittle, or control women, even some that think of themselves as feminists, because it's an easy, sometimes totally effortless tactic to get things your way. Ditto white people with racial minorities, thin people to obese people. Microaggressions can be quite injurious, and those on the receiving end are often more aware of them than the ones doing it.

If you are in a position of dominance but not normativity, as with a person with substantial economic power when most people have far less, exerting your power gives you some control but without the inherent protection social approval, and may require a more strategic or tactful approach to avoid repercussions, especially if you are in other ways a member of marginalized groups.

Read female characters from female authors, and lots of them

I strongly support @Chris Sunami's suggestion of intensive reading of female authors writing female characters. While you're at it, consider their portrayal of male characters. Do they seem "off" to you? If not, it's probably because women are used to reading, sympathizing with, and considering the viewpoint of male characters as a normal baseline in all of those mainstream books by male authors. Thus, on average, they are much better prepared to write interesting and authentic male characters than male authors are prepared to write female characters. (Likewise, authors writing about any people seldom authentically represented in their reading material.) Immerse yourself in these books and characters. Try to get past the sensation of foreignness before you attempt to write in a similar voice.

  • 2
    Not expecting another answer almost a year later, but much appreciated. Although I still think the answer I already picked was more correct for my issue at the time, yours is a fantastic outline of concerns to keep in mind. I have written quite a bit more since, but had I thought about many of the situations with this in mind I might not have had to do so much rewriting. Definitely saving this. Aug 8, 2019 at 2:00

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