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I'm a man. Working on my sci-fi novel. It's meant to be a light-hearted heist caper. My main character is a woman. She's a strong and sassy character based on the women in my life, and the story follows all the rules about writing strong female characters. There are no men to save her, and the antagonist in the story is another woman who is her exact opposite.

However because the character swears, makes pop culture references and sexually objectifies men, some critics have commented that this makes it seem that it's a female character being written by a man.

I'm sure I'm not the only person who has gotten this criticism. Any ideas on how to fix this?

12 Answers 12

102

TL;DR: Try submitting with a female pen name. If the criticism goes away, there's your answer.

This is your character and you need not bow to anybody's tropes or nuances, or notions of how or why a female is. Justify your character's actions, outlook, language, interests with sources from within your character. Formative influences from youth and later on have their place, but those go into the character, not onto the page as such. As a reader, I do not so much care what happened to your character EXCEPT as far as it helps me to understand her.

So your character herself is the seat of anything she does, and your job as the author is to selectively show the reader what makes your character tick. I dated a girl who was a sysad on a university VAX system, she ran cross-country, she climbed mountains (for fun! -- ugh!), and she knew all about the music scene, criticized movies from a logic and plot point of view, and so forth. She was all woman, too.

Make your character live! Write her in your chosen voice, and keep working on things that you agree need working on. Don't take any "you write this female like a man would" criticism unless you can source it from a blind test.

In my own creative writing classes (long ago), we had a great demonstration of the frailty of most peoples' sense of the sex of the writer through anonymous submissions. It was revealing.

Finally, even when I do think that I can tell that an author is a man or a woman, it doesn't so much come across in the way the characters stick to sex-based roles, but in the overall writing. Yet only rarely do I get a chance to really blind test this, so YMMV.

You know your character better than anybody. Make this character work on her own ground, for who she is, and keep in mind that even the most perfect author (me., no doubt) still has to lump some criticism. Write to please a committee, and your voice will not be heard.

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    I'm a big believer in being true to your own voice and characters, but unless the OP is writing solely for his own enjoyment, I'm not convinced "ignore all criticism" is great advice. And even your "blind test" is flawed --people tend to reserve criticism when they perceive the source as authoritative. But if the authority is faked, legitimate criticisms may be suppressed. – Chris Sunami Jan 3 at 16:50
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    Brother, if I had said what you think I said, I would agree with you completely. Perhaps I could have been moire clear --- I do not mean to say "ignore all criticism", but to say that the burden remains on the OP to make the character work. If something is not working, that's his problem. I am just not convinced that the specific criticism he has received, and the implied (in the criticism) or explicit (in answers here) remedies are necessarily the right thing. I think that the OP is better served by using the criticism to sharpen his own game rather than play at somebody else's. – Haakon Dahl Jan 4 at 5:28
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    I wonder if another critics will come up with "your main female character sounds like she was written by a lesbian"... – Evargalo Jan 4 at 7:15
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    The "submit under a different pen name" works wonders. I've written a short story about an amazon-like barbarian female, and I included some erotic overtones to it. I submitted it to my reading circle for appraisal. I was utterly destroyed for trying to write things relating to the "female way of thinking about sexuality". My SO submitted my story as hers to another circle, and she was praised by her courage in showing off how females feel regarding sexuality in a sincere way. This really rubbed me in the wrong way for quite a while. – T. Sar Jan 4 at 10:20
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    @ChrisSunami Of coruse a writer should not "ignore all criticism" but this particular criticism may be best ignored, especially if it comes from only a single person. If he hears this repeatedly then it may be worth either adjusting his style or adding more details about why this particular female behaves that particular way. – TimothyAWiseman Jan 4 at 16:58
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There appears to be a difference in how men and women speak and write.

Linguists have found that writing by women is more "involved", while writing by men is more "informational". For example, women use more pronouns, men use more noun specifiers. Women use "the" differently than men. If you are interested in learning about male versus female linguistic styles, you can research this.

What is important is that you need to recognize that your protagonist doesn't sound like a man because of what she says alone, but also because of how she says it, and because of how you write the non-dialogue narrative of her thoughts, emotions, and perceptions. You write like a man, and therefore if you write a female charater's first person perspective, she sounds like a man.

As a solution I would recommend that you look at similar characters (the female marine/female engineer/tough girl) written by female authors and try to emulate their language.

Most authors are imprisoned in their own personal style, and experimenting with writing in the style of another author is a great exercise to make your own writing more flexible and to raise your awareness of the subliminal messages of your personal use of language. In this case, you unwittingly communicate "I'm a man". So learn to control that aspect of your writing by analysing and trying the styles of female authors.

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    While I think this is true, I also believe there's considerable overlap. For instance, in this paper, an automated algorithm achieved an accuracy of almost 80%, which is fairly impressive but still implies 20% of works were being characterized incorrectly. Humans seem to be a bit worse, as this study suggests . Speaking anecdotally, I've often seen people incorrectly guessing poster's genders online (usually assuming them to be male). – Obie 2.0 Jan 1 at 18:05
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    @Obie2.0 The studies you cite used formal writing (with a prescribed format and style) or tweets as sample texts (with a maximum of 140 characters). Both extreme brevity and formal rules will suppress gender markers. In another study, using informal communication, it was possible to successfully classify the participants by gender with 91.4% accuracy. Another study achieved an accuracy of 97%. I know of no study using novels. – user34178 Jan 2 at 16:34
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    @Obie2.0 90% accuracy in literary writing. – user34178 Jan 2 at 16:48
  • Interesting research. I definitely agree about brevity and structure. I think it's worth keeping in mind some of the limitations of those higher accuracy rates, though. To be specific, if I'm not misunderstanding the study, that impressive figure of 97% actually came from selecting a set of predictors that maximized accuracy on the given dataset, but might not have achieved that level of performance on a larger set of texts. – Obie 2.0 Jan 2 at 21:19
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    There is a difference "on average" - yes; largely because of the extremes. However you'll find that there's also a reasonable amount of overlap; in the same way that some women are stronger than some men; but there are no women in the top <x> strongest people... The fact that this woman is so aggressive makes it more likely she's a bit more extreme in other ways - leading to what others may perceive as male behaviour. Thus for this case; I don't think this is the answer. – UKMonkey Jan 4 at 16:17
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This critique is always complicated because of how nuanced gender actually is.

This is actually a frequent problem with male authors. We tend to have experience and methods of thinking that are typically considered "masculine" and take them as the baseline.

This does not mean, whatsoever, that your MC should spend time sitting in her cabin painting her nails (or that she shouldn't, if that matches her character). It does mean that you might want to think more about what it actually means to be a woman in this setting.

How would she have been raised? How would gender impact her treatment by other characters? Would she be as likely to opt for violence to resolve disputes? And if so, what form does her violence take?

One of my characters is similar to the "badass" women tropes, but with a few key considerations.

Firstly, she can only occupy this position because she has the backing of powerful, local, political figures. Without the sanction this power structure, she would have long ago been murdered or married off. Her ability to approximate this trope is a function of privilege, and she spends a decent character arc understanding how even her oppression doesn't compare to that of other women in her setting, and figuring out what this means for herself and the world around her.

Secondly, she inhabits this role because she was born into a social class defined by the use of violence. She is adopting a masculine social function because the alternative is even worse to her, and she has no other options.

Thirdly, she has no magic in a magical world. She cannot rely on being as fast, strong and durable as her adversaries. Her utility involves leadership abilities such as tactical planning that makes her simultaneously invaluable and builds social capital for her. She makes herself socially invaluable and financially lucrative.

Fourth, she is functionally suicidal. Because of the above, every conflict is a potential death sentence. She relies on her squad to survive and throws herself into situations more daring than what most sane people would consider. This builds further social capital because she's not only the most talented leader, but her death-drive is mistaken for bravery, and results in shocking and unique maneuvers.

Fifth, she is %<#]@*= terrifying. When she engages in conflict she must be as brutal and horrifying as-is humanly possible. She depends on reputation to avoid conflict. She depends on her persona to maintain the social capital that keeps her free and safe(r). And every conflict is for all-the-stakes. There are no second chances. She is small, and relatively weak, without any fancy magical power to save her. She wins, every time, or she's dead. So when she comes, she brings everything to the table.

Sixth, she has a macabre, black, and biting sense of humor. People from oppressed demographics or upbringingings often do. Its a tool that (we) use to remain sane, and to fight in contexts when we don't have the power to directly engage people higher on the social totem pole. It's also born of a deeply fatalistic worldview, given her omnipresent threat of death.

Seventh, when she can't avoid conflict, and she can't bluster her way out of it, and she can't plan ahead or end it quickly, all of this influences how she approaches violence. Namely, at a distance. Using the great equalizer: technology. If you see her, or are within arms reach, its because she screwed up. She'd much rather punch holes in you at half a kilometer away.

So. All of this is to say that I started from context and then built a character around the setting. This person could not exist as a man. Her twin brother is completely different, and is (actually) the local political power that allows her to operate. Everything about how they engage with their world would change if their assigned gender changed. I didn't start with the idea for a wisecracking pistolero, who hides some serious trauma with a black sense of humor. I started with a person in a specific context and thought: "How could a person with these demographic traits survive? What are the likely outcomes given these constraints?"

And then I got a character. If you're starting with a template, throw it out, and ask yourself why you made the person you made. Let them grow and reveal themselves to you.

And, it's important to note that this is only one of multiple core female characters. My MC is totally different, and has a son that infinitely complicates her decisionmaking. So it also matters what the different visions of femininity look like in your art. Without internal diversity, the piece will always feel like it lacks authenticity.

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    Where can we read this work? – KalleMP Jan 2 at 20:17
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    What a great way to advertise your own work without realizing it. ;) – noClue Jan 3 at 12:51
  • It's only half done :-) a round of edits and 40k words to go – user49466 Jan 3 at 13:13
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There is a certain social image of what being a woman "means" - there are expectations both of how a woman would act, and how a woman would be treated. A particular female character is bound to engage with that image, whether she accepts it, rejects it, does something else with it. You, as a writer, cannot simply ignore that image - the image is already in the reader's mind.

What does that mean?
Before you write a particular female character, consider women's place in general in your world. Are they limited in any way by society? Are they the group that rules? Is there truly no difference between men and women in how they are treated, in what options are open to them, in what is expected of them?
Next, what character traits are considered "positive" in your world? Violence or diplomacy? Individualism or or social harmony?

You have assigned to your character behaviours that are in our world considered typically male, and typically "better", "stronger". You have sort of subconsciously decided that "strong" female character means "character who exhibits typically male behaviours", and you do not engage with that idea in any way.
Compare that to @user49466's example: the character's behaviour is understood as "typically masculine" within her society, her behaviour is compelled by the realities of her world.

There are other ways your character can engage the reader's expectations: the character's behaviour might lead to negative results, presenting "typically male" behaviours as weaker than "typically female" behaviours, whether exhibited by a male or a female character. The character might acknowledge the fact that she is very macho-man - whether this behaviour is compelled, or she just likes it that way.

There is also the way society treats your character: is she considered "stronger" because she is "manly"? Is she treated negatively because she's "not feminine"? Or are women like her as common as men like her, behaviour no longer being "typically male" or "typically female"?

There are many ways in which you can engage the gender expectations. Writing under the subconscious assumption that "strong" universally equals "manly" doesn't engage those expectations at all, instead very much intrinsically accepting them, for both men and women. Which, I guess, would be why your critic made the comment he did.

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Slightly different angle from other answers...

"However because the character swears, makes pop culture references and sexually objectifies men, some critics have commented that this makes it seem that it's a female character being written by a man."

There is (to me) some kind of logical disconnect between "the character swears, makes pop culture references and sexually objectifies men" (i.e. the character behaves in a somewhat "unlady-like" fashion) and "it's a female character being written by a man".

As a somewhat "unlady-like" person myself, I don't see anything particularly problematic about the character's behaviour (sounds perfectly believable and relatable).

However, "female character being written by a man" evokes cringe-worthy memories of:

  • "strong" female characters who for no particular reason opt for absurdly impractical outfits (high heels, maximum skin exposure, etc.), and can't seem to keep their clothes on for more than 5 minutes (or, in a slightly tamer version, have the narrative camera longingly lingers on all their fully-clothed lady-bits at every opportunity)

  • awkwardly inaccurate depictions of basic female body functions (periods, pregnancy, child birth, etc?), and/or failure to take these into account plot-wise (e.g. unsafe sex has no consequences, not even at a psychological level, e.g. fear of unwanted pregnancy)

Sanity check: are you 100% sure the criticism is really due to the character's laddish behaviour (in which case, whatever...), and not to some of the above narrative mishaps?

I.e. how does your male gaze affect the way you talk about her female body? Does your attraction and/or lack of first-hand experience show somehow? (and if so, how much?). Conversely, maybe, being a true gentleman (and/or out of "paternal" love), your writing cautiously glosses over the fact your "female" character actually comes with a female body?

And if so, in either case... does it matter? (partly depends on the intended audience, I guess?)

Perhaps simply check how often her body is mentionned, and how? (is the reference more sexual, focusing on attractiveness, or practical? E.g. basic issues like pain, hunger, tiredness, physical comfort, etc.)

There's no clear-cut right or wrong, but you need to find a balance somewhere. In my (entirely subjective) opinion, a bit of objectification is not necessarily bad, as long as the overall humaness prevails in the end. You can contrast the two for comedic effect. E.g. sexy outfits are far less glamorous if you mention all the pre-requisite grooming involved, the subsequent blisters, etc. You can also contrast appearances and societal expectations with inner thought process. E.g. she normally prefers practical clothing, but may occasionally opt for a sexy outfit as a tactical decision (worn as "camouflage" to infiltrate a social event). You can alternate between external perspective ("phwoar!") and internal perspective (rational behind the decision, preparation required, etc.) for a well-rounded overall impression (making the gender of the author harder to guess, or at least less relevant).

More generally, alternating between different viewpoints in your narration (internal, external, through the eyes of different characters, omniscient, etc.) may help divert the reader's attention from you (the male author).

Finally... If your character's personality really is the main issue(?) here, maybe you can incorporate some of that criticism in your writing (have other characters, e.g. the antagonist, comment on her unlady-like behaviour), to show that you are aware it goes against certain societal expectations (you can also turn it on its head and make such "unlady-like behaviour" completely normal and expected in your story's setting, and paint the criticism as hopelessly old-fashioned...)

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As a male writer who's had female protagonists, and plenty of female characters regardless of the protagonist's gender, I've not been told a female sounded like a man wrote her, but I have been told one could easily have been male, and that speaks to many of the same concerns. There were two main issues I had to fix in that instance.

Firstly, her traits were perhaps characteristic more of males than females, insofar as they were gendered at all. I usually write characters without trying to choose gendered traits for them - in this example, she was a young genius with a scarring past and dark streak - but that's not always a good thing. (I think it mostly is, though; it results in a work that needs tweaking after beta reader feedback, but so does anything.) Just to give some examples:

  • She made two comments about masturbation. The first was her refusal to describe her cousin's beauty in detail, in case a reader fantasised because of it. The second was a clarification a phrase of hers didn't have risqué intent, as a reader might have thought it did if they'd noticed an extremely subtle but unintended pun. I deleted the first because, as part of other improvements based on feedback, I did include a description of the cousin anyway. This is because one of the main ways gender would affect my protagonist is her awkward relationship with that cousin, whose response to gender roles is more affected by puberty. As for the second, I kept it (albeit with a slight edit) because it underscores the character's ability to out-think most readers.
  • She doesn't focus on being girly. A reader wondered whether she giggles, and what she thinks of make-up. I ultimately worked into the character's description of her cousin signs of envying her more straightforward femininity, which she mostly wraps in a transparent criticism of the effort.

Secondly, she didn't sufficiently address the consequences for her of being female in her society (the contemporary US). Ultimately, the problem women face is that people underestimate them. (You're welcome to dream up a fictional world where this isn't the case, but there are bound to be characters that would be underestimated, so it switches the question to how to write group X properly.) How should you, as a writer, make sure it's obvious a character endures this and understands that they do? I can't answer, because it depends on the character. In my case, she'd see it as a make-lemonade-from-lemons situation: if people underestimate her, she'll take advantage of that to trick them. That's the kind of person she is, someone who thinks her brain's job is to control people, not to show off all the maths she can do. I guess what I'm saying is: find what facts about your character reflect her reaction to being a woman. Her reaction, not that of the male writer who created her, but also created the world that makes her who she is.

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Get some trusted female beta readers and listen to their advice. As a male reader of fiction, I've read books by otherwise good female writers where the male characters didn't come across as authentically male, and it definitely lessened my enjoyment of those books.

I'm sure the problem is many times worse from the other side, since women are encouraged to see things from a male point of view more often than the reverse.

While your female character may not fall prey to stereotypes, she still might be mostly your fantasy of a strong woman.

5

A useful example to consider is the case of James Tiptree, Jr, the pen name of Alice Sheldon. She wrote her stories (especially the earlier ones) from a male viewpoint, and the impersonation was so successful that Robert Silverberg referred to the theory that Tiptree was a woman as "absurd", and no less an author than Ursula LeGuin refused a contribution to an anthology on the basis that contribution was restricted to women (this was in the relatively early days of feminism).

Judgement of authorial gender is (or can be) an exceedingly tricky business. In large part, it requires playing to the preconceptions of the audience. Sometimes you can get away with putting your character into situations where "acting like a man" is the only way to survive. Soldiering/combat is probably the best example of this. The required characteristics - aggression, unflinching toughness and apparent disconnection from emotions are all survival traits under this sort of stress, so it's easier to accept this sort of behavior.

Outside of these situations, you're in muddy waters. The best advice I can give is to read widely, observe people in everyday interactions (so far as they relate to your proposed story), and think very hard about what you've seen. In general (at least in our culture) women tend to be more passive, less overtly agressive, more socially active/involved, and more concerned with emotion/feelings than men. To do otherwise is to be accused of "acting like a man". And actually acting like a man will, in many circles, get a woman labelled a bitch.

Of course, delineating these differences can be tricky, too. There is an underlying behavioral/emotional/sociological thread which, if violated, will make your writing ring false. Worse, this thread is not constant among all readers. Compare the behavior of most women nowadays with that recommended in the book "The Rules", which was very popular 20 years ago.

Good luck.

  • It's funny, because I read the book in which Silverberg says being a woman is ridiculous (because of the military knowledge the author displays) and every story screamed to me that it was written by a woman. The way relationships, dialogue, and inner thoughts ran, the attitudes to sex, all of it. As soon as I finished the book I headed to Wikipedia and was not surprised at all to discover I was right and Silverberg was wrong. – Kate Gregory Jan 3 at 17:33
  • @KateGregory - You are dealing with an issue while ignoring 50 years of extraordinary cultural change. If you're interested, you should read "Her Smoke Rose Up Forever", a biography of Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree Jr. At the time, her acceptance of the strength of the male sex drive and its connection to aggression were unique and overwhelming. It grieves me to say it, but you should take a Women's Studies history course. Such a course has its own (severe ideological) distortions, but nowadays its about the only place you'll find a frank discussion of the cultural differences of the time. – WhatRoughBeast Jan 3 at 17:43
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    I am well aware of all that. That was in fact my point. That at the time everyone could be so sure the author had to be a man, and now it's so obvious that the author was a woman. So much changed in between. – Kate Gregory Jan 3 at 17:44
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This critique is valid and it’s not exactly your fault, here is why:

Implicitly, your character “swears, makes pop culture references and sexually objectifies men” without fear. There is a phrase used by feminists:

Men are afraid of being laughed at; Women are afraid of being killed.

This discusses the reality that women experience far more risk doing ordinary activities than men do—go to a party and have a drink, might be drugged; walk home alone, might be raped and killed; get promoted at work, suffer harassment for years from a man who thinks she doesn’t deserve it.

For your character to get to the point she is (in a society anything like ours), she would have had to wade through so much pain and fear that you as a man have not experienced. The female experience is so alien to the male experience that we miss the evidence of that fear even in our interactions with women we are close to—it takes a lot of work to start recognizing it.

If your character isn’t affected by the scars of such a life, then she has lived with male privilege which doesn’t make sense. Try adding in uncertainty, (unintentional) passive aggressive destructive talk from other women, (unintentional) passive aggressive destructive talk towards other women, anger, ptsd, and difficulty reacting strategically in response to casual sexism. This will be hard to do but will remove some of the male privilege from your character.

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    While I do like your answer, I'd like to point out fear may be relative. I grew up with people implying that I (as a young middle class woman) should be afraid of walking in the streets at night alone. I was never afraid, though, and neither were my friends. My town was a quiet one and I never once felt afraid for my life or my body (ie. a sexual attack). I was aware men will grope you, but, from seeing and hearing of it happening, I knew groped women could fight back (hit with an umbrella, slap, curse with the loudest, most withering obscenities) and... – Sara Costa Jan 5 at 14:00
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    ...the attacker would shrink away, laughed at by any onlookers. Of course, large cities were different and one should be more careful, but while I knew I should be cautious, I was never afraid. When I first read about American young women being harrassed in their own middle class neighbourhoods and carrying keys in their hands for self-defense, I was shocked. I was convinced that would only happen in the most dangerous neighbourhoods. It was only after some friends had some bad experiences with strangers that I started to actual fear. But, once more, only in unfamiliar places. – Sara Costa Jan 5 at 14:00
  • When I'm in my homeground, I'm free to act as I feel like. No fear, then. Because I know I cannot be attacked and, if that were to happen, I know I'd be promptly defended if I could not do so myself. Sorry for the rant. – Sara Costa Jan 5 at 14:01
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    @SaraCosta same thing for me. I live in a big city, but not in the US. I was shocked when I first learned that in the US a woman might get harassed at work, or just not get accepted, in this day and age. Same with walking home alone: not through bad neighbourhoods, but walking home alone was how one got home from a party, around 2am. And the walk could be an hour long. Never had anything to be afraid of, except visiting the US. (Several of my female friends decided to forgo postdocs in the US, in Ivy league universities, because of how women are treated there.) – Galastel Jan 5 at 14:36
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It's a real thing, but it may not be 100% language. I know a young woman who writes her men like girls.

General leanings which don't have to be adhered to but you do need to understand them:

  • Women tend to be more empathetical and less up-front aggressive.

  • Their antagonism is often plotted and discussed rather than flare-up "OY! You Slag!" sort of thing.

  • They will defend home base much more strongly than men who tend to go on expeditions and attack.

  • Women are typically more cautious as everyday life experience as 'underdogs' means 'a woman who stands her ground' is developed by others as 'stroppy bitch' and isn't productive.

The immediate answer to your question is to ask your readers for why they think she is male.

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    "...why they think she is male." They think she is a female written by a male. Not sure if this is the same thing like thinking she is male (oxymoron?). – Trilarion Jan 1 at 21:35
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Why would you want to "fix it"? The critique is absurd. If the only way to write literature would be to create female characters that MUST sound like if they were written by a woman, or male characters that MUST sound like if they were written by a man, it would be a damn shame for literature itself, since so many nuanced characters would be lost by the constant policing on how a male and female should sound in the text.

Is also a non-sensical critique, because it comes from the notion that there are only certain ways a person of a given gender can be... why on earth would we only want to read what is considered to be by certain critics a "truly whatever-gender-form" character?

All you need to worry about is if the character has true depth, if the storyline is well developed and if your story overall has a better than average artistic quality.

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    While I like the general idea of this answer, I think that it overshoots a bit, especially when telling the asker what to worry about. He may just be worried about the potential impact of this work. – Trilarion Jan 1 at 21:33
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Because a woman chooses not to be ladylike should not count against her.

My mother worked in a psychiatric hospital and met some fascinating people - one of the more intriguing ones was the wife of the heir to (let’s just say one of those families with well funded foundations) and she was very down to earth. She swore on occasion and was not what was expected from someone with that surname. She was a breath of fresh air.

Your character is a woman written by a man. I suggest you ask one of the women you trust to read it and see if they think her credible. You might get more helpful feedback than a man wrote this. Maybe there is something about the way you present her that seems off, which your friend could identify. If you agree, fix that point and keep writing.

Women come in a full spectrum of personalities and your character falls on it somewhere.

In my current work, I needed a kidnapper and gave her a name that could be either gender, but knew that this one had to be a woman for it to work. My character, because of her gender, knows she has to get the men she kidnaps to not think clearly. She uses her appearance against them as a distraction, while putting them off balance she strikes. She does her utmost to keep things non physical since, with equal training, the result is cast in doubt should the man choose to fight. She uses the force of her personality to get them off balance, coming across as a complete psychopath.

Her calm confidence that she will succeed coupled with her friendly advice to not resist is often enough to trigger a flight response, which she deals with quite efficiently. Once the prey is down, she binds them and takes them where they must go - all without anyone seeing a thing.

Were she a man, different techniques would be used. She has to outsmart those who automatically underestimate her while they still underestimate her.

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