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.

  • 4
    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. – Totumus Maximus Nov 27 '18 at 8:30

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.

  • 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. – TitaniumTurtle Nov 28 '18 at 7:59
  • 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 '18 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 '18 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 '18 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 '18 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 excellent 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."

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