Interlude: Writing female protagonists

Here’s an interesting thing I saw this morning.

An author kicked up a bit of a storm (oh, to have a share-fest viral outbreak like this… *wistful sigh*) with a tweet about a guy who hilariously failed to write a female character without talking about her physiology in a very specific way.

It kicked off a fun thread where women described themselves “as a male author would”Well worth a read, there’s some funny shit there and definitely a lesson to us wordslingers.

And I’m aware that there was also a ton of butthurt, and probably a #NotAllMaleAuthors hashtag and everything. I don’t really care. Obviously, some authors are better than others. Some male authors are great at writing female characters (and some female authors are great at writing male characters … and some female authors are just as tragically awful at writing female characters as the bad male authors are), but of course I’m not stupid enough to start naming names and I definitely don’t count myself among the great ones (although I like to think I’m okay). I considered this to be one of those “teachable moments” people are always talking about.

I’m also aware that I’m a male author and as such any stance I take is likely to be questionable, or seem defensive even if I’m just trying to take something from the debate. That’s fine.

Okay, so it looks like this guy’s first mistake was to claim he was “proof” that male authors could write authentic female protagonists. No, actually that was his second mistake. His first mistake was to describe a female character self-describing her set of curves. But for real, I’ve just quit reading a book series to Wump right now (actually on Wump’s request, because at seven-and-a-half years of age she realised it was crap) with comparable female-protagonist descriptions. And worse male ones. It’s fine. These things happen. Teachable moment.

Still, this story did lead me (of course) to think about my own writing, and my own character descriptions.

And to be honest, they’re still not great. It’s difficult to describe somebody’s physical appearance without cataloguing them anatomically. I don’t really go overboard with my physical descriptions either way, at least for humans. Humans all look alike, they’re boring. Let the reader decide what the characters look like.

However, I had an advantage. In The Final Fall of Man, the main characters were loosely based on dear friends of mine. So I could not only take physical descriptions from them, but I was also aware that they would be reading the stories (heh, in theory), and judging me based on my descriptions. Which is actually a really good mind-set to put yourself in when describing any character. Just pretend they’re listening, and might punch you in the dick if you start talking about their boobs or how hot (or not) they are.

So yeah, I left it up to the reader, and provided what I considered the important physiological background for each character.

I’ll paste a few here, as examples. And keep in mind, a lot of this had to be assembled from assorted places, because I didn’t immediately physically describe each character. They were referred to by other characters, then they appeared and did some stuff, and got some more descriptions of their behaviours and attitudes (which I consider to be more important anyway). Then the physical stuff, and even then it’s interspersed with non-physical characteristics.


She’d never say so herself, but Sally – five-feet-and-change in her jackboots, scarcely taller than Janya, plump and round-faced and topknotted and usually-smiling – was probably the most formidable, most magnificent example of humanity left in the galaxy.

She’d always remember what her father had said to her when she was a young child, growing up in Gífrheim. “You will be like life in the Last Days of Earth,” he’d told her. “Bright, brutal, beautiful and short.”

Sally’s mother, if possible even more cynical than her father, had usually added “and pointlessly, hopelessly circular” to that heart-warming simile. Being of much the same compact build as her daughter, she’d felt it was her place to inject realistic expectations wherever necessary.

Janya Adeneo

It was said of Janya Adeneo that she was as big as she was stupid. And this was true. Admittedly it wasn’t said of her very often, because it was something of a one-off joke and when there were only ten people in one’s sphere of interaction – ten people and six hundred and twenty-eight decidedly sketchy facsimiles of people, to be specific – the number of any sorts of jokes you could tell to or about one another dwindled sharply. But it had been said.

Janya was smart. Janya was terrifyingly, unnaturally, ridiculously smart. Like all unspeakably smart people, however, it was an intelligence confined to just a few key topics, narrow and rarefied and inapplicable to a lot of areas of endeavour to which other people seemed to think the same level of intelligence would simply extend. It was the false logic that made people insist that an expert in xenoarchaeology would be able to read Ancient Terellian, or a doctor of linguistics would know everything about sociology. It was the logic that insisted a professor of Twin Species or Pre-Fleet Molran architecture would know the first thing about setting up a mobile materials analysis lab.

And it was the self-same logic that had placed Janya Adeneo in charge of the entire research and analysis quadrant.

And, like all such academic people – and as was also invariably ignored by everybody at every level of intellect – Janya’s highly-focussed intelligence was accompanied by an equal and opposite gaping vacuum of knowledge in many other areas of human endeavour. For example, knowledge of sports. And what to safely say when someone asks “how are things?”.

How were things, anyway?

These, then, comprised the first three characteristics anyone noticed about Janya. She was tiny, she was ferociously intelligent, and in an age when skin and bone and organs could be replaced and all but the staunchest Zhraaki removed even their umbilical scars, she wore the faint pale stripes left behind on her face and hands like the badges of honour they were. She had, however, had her missing pinky finger repaired with a slightly-mismatched replacement, because it was one thing to make a statement but one had to be rational.

Z-Lin Clue

If Glomulus Cratch hadn’t been on board, Z-Lin would have had no recourse but to accept the descriptor ‘skinny’. As it was, she was free to revel in ‘slender’, ‘lean’, ‘slim’ and sometimes even ‘lithe’. In a weird way, then, she supposed she should have been grateful the Rip had survived The Accident.

Z-Lin was, with the dubious exception of the Captain and the even more dubious exception of helmsman Zeegon Pendraegg, the only Academy-trained crewmember on board, in any weight category. And she was ninety percent sure she was the only graduate.

I suppose a lot of these are needlessly focussed on the physical. Do we need to know Sally is small and round, or that Z-Lin is skinny? No. I don’t suppose we do. I guess that’s up to the reader to decide.

My descriptions of male characters are pretty similar, if you’ll indulge me a little more. Waffa, for example, is pretty bland but still gets a description of his physique.


A tall and well-built man – albeit not quite as impressive a physical specimen as an eejit himself – he looked at his short, tousled, greying blonde hair and weary face in the mirror and fancied he’d been compressed a few cubic inches by the pressure of his life since The Accident.

Glomulus Cratch

“Righto,” Cratch said in his jovial voice, clapping his hands and rubbing them together as he stepped out into the medical bay proper and smiled at his blank-faced nurses. He reached up and, with a light clink-clink as his smooth metal bracelets tapped together, tied his straw-blonde hair back in a lazy ponytail. “Let’s see what we’ve got here.”

The bright-eyed, pale-skinned, stick-insect-thin doctor didn’t drop the friendly little charade when he realised he was the only human in the wide, sterile blue-white room.

Well, anyway. That’s my offering. I don’t want to veer too far into #NotAllMaleAuthors territory – like I say, I still consider myself guilty to some extent and can always stand to learn more about what readers want, what they like and what they don’t like.

For clarity, in 3,150 pages of The Final Fall of Man, I use the word “breasts” zero times. But then, I don’t really have explicit sexual descriptions or sex scenes either, and some readers found it off-putting.

I did, however, refer to Sally’s boobs once. Or at least to her left boob:

There’s more going on here. Something else. And if it’s not about the darkerness getting inside people, I’ll eat my left boob. Because that was when he chose to speak up, wasn’t it? When Bruce made that comment about the Boonie’s crew.

“I will kill you all! I will destroy you! I will cast you into the darkerness for all time! I will feed you to them! You have no idea of the horrors that await you! Horrors I would have spared you, had you but taken your places and followed where I led! Had you but listened to me! I would have protected you! But now you are theirs! You are theirs for all eternity! You will – ”

“Glad I won’t have to eat a boob,” Sally said cryptically.

“Let’s none of us eat a boob,” Z-Lin agreed loudly.

And then I talk an inordinate amount about cunning booby-traps of doom. But those aren’t actual boobs.

In conclusion, San Dimas High School football rules.

About Hatboy

I’m not often driven to introspection or reflection, but the question does come up sometimes. The big question. So big, there’s just no containing it within the puny boundaries of a single set of punctuationary bookends. Who are these mysterious and unsung heroes of obscurity and shadow? What is their origin story? Do they have a prequel trilogy? What are their secret identities? What are their public identities, for that matter? What are their powers? Their abilities? Their haunted pasts and troubled futures? Their modus operandi? Where do they live anyway, and when? What do they do for a living? Do they really have these fantastical adventures, or is it a dazzlingly intellectual and overwrought metaphor? Or is it perhaps a smug and post-modern sort of metaphor? Is it a plain stupid metaphor, hedged around with thick wads of plausible deniability, a soap bubble of illusory plot dependent upon readers who don’t dare question it for fear of looking foolish? A flight of fancy, having dozed off in front of the television during an episode of something suitably spaceship-oriented? Do they have a quest, a handler, a mission statement, a department-level development objective in five stages? I am Hatboy.
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21 Responses to Interlude: Writing female protagonists

  1. stchucky says:

  2. stchucky says:

    Also out of interest, with that physical description and with an admittedly tiny sample size of readers and reviewers, Sally has emerged as the sex symbol of The Final Fall of Man. And I can’t argue with that, even though of course as far as I’m concerned Janya is totally the hottest.

  3. brknwntr says:

    Ask Mrs. BRKN to describe her appearance, it always starts with “I have great tits.” Not even a lie.

  4. dreameling says:

    Just pretend they’re listening, and might punch you in the dick if you start talking about their boobs or how hot (or not) they are.

    This is genuinely great advice.

    In related news, you should read the shit I wrote in my AD&D campaign journal in the early 90s. Especially the part where my character meets his future wife, a smoking-hot dryad. I was 15 or so.

  5. aaronthepatriot says:

    That tweet about “if this were presented as satire I would 100% believe it” totally encapsulated my reaction XD

    I mean, honestly…is there much of a chance he genuinely thought he nailed it? Can ignorance at that level exist?

    I think your descriptions are fine. Giving an impression of BMI is hardly sexualizing men OR women. I kinda have the hots for Z-Lin so I can provide personal assurances you didn’t sexualize her, nor did you describe her figure in enough detail damnit.

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