Writing Women Characters

Women have long been neglected or mistreated in speculative fiction... and pretty much all across human culture, if we're being honest. The great thing about science fiction is that it is the literature of change - it provides a fantastic toolbox to be able to write about other ways of seeing things, other possible worlds, while enabling us to critique contemporary culture in new ways. What would a non-misogynistic culture look like? What will our future look like if we don't solve our contemporary problems re: bigotry, sexism, and Othering? Fertile ground - and important topics! - to explore.

Here are a some tips on how you, as a writer, can be part of the solution instead of the problem:

Here's a list of my favorite tests to see if your writing healthily represents women:


No woman assaulted, injured, or killed to further the story of another character.


The original test for female representation, considered flawed or insufficient by many (including the creator, Alison Bechdel, who first coined it in her comic, Dykes to Watch Out For):

Two or more women talking to each other about something other than a man.

A group of (mostly) women must work together to save themselves by rejecting - and taking down - the patriarchy. (Okay, not yet a known test, but needs to be, so putting it out there.)

Mako Mori

At least one female character has her own narrative arc that is not about supporting a man's story.

Roxane Gay Revised Bechdel

A six-part test:

1. A woman's story is being told. She is not relegated to the role of sidekick, romantic interest, or bit player.

2. Her world is populated with intelligent women who also have stories worth telling, even if their stories aren't the focus of the movie.

3. If she must engage in a romantic storyline, she doesn't have to compromise her sanity or common sense for love.

4. At least half the time, this woman needs to be a woman of color and/or a transgender woman and/or a queer woman because all these women exist! Though she is different, her story should not focus solely on this difference because she is a sum of her parts. She is not the token. She has friends who look like her so they need to show up once in a while.

5. She cannot live in an inexplicably perfect apartment in an expensive city with no visible means of affording said inexplicably perfect apartment.

6. She doesn't have to live up to an unrealistic feminist standard. She can and should be human. She just needs to be intelligent and witty and interesting in the way women, the world over are, if we ever got a chance to really know them on the silver screen.

Russo Test

Contains an LGBT character who must be tied into the plot in such a way that their removal would have a significant effect.

Sexy Lamp

A female character who cannot be removed from the plot and replaced with a sexy lamp without destroying the story.

The Smurfette Principle is in action when the cast is made up of a group of males but only one female.

"Strength is Relative"

Complex women defined by solid characterization rather than a handful of underdeveloped, masculine-coded stereotypes.


Great article by Tasha Robinson: "We're Losing All Our Strong Female Characters to Trinity Syndrome."

Why we need to write complex women rather than just strong ones:

"We see this even in films without an apparent political perspective. Consider Jurassic Park for a moment. Ellie's role as a professional woman who treats an ailing stegosaurus and who braves the raptors to switch on the power would seem to suggest a much more progressive view of women than is traditionally presented in mainstream film. This is quickly dispelled, however, when we look at Ellie's dramatic role in the film. She has no doubts, no hesitation, and no conflict or growth, so that her actions indicate nothing about her internal life. Instead, her dramatic function is to smile knowingly at Grant when he is around children, thus serving merely to mark his progress through the acts. While she is portrayed with the mannerisms of a feminist, her dramatic role is that of a static signpost against which we measure the male character's growth. It is worth noting that even though Jurassic Park is not advertised or thought of as a political film, it conveys, as do all films, a political meaning nonetheless."

- from Alternative Scriptwriting: Beyond the Hollywood Formula, by Ken Dancyger and Jeff Rush.

Does your woman character exist only to look hot while swinging a sword or hefting a pair of bazookas, only to become a secondary character as soon as a man shows up on the scene? Time to revise. Also check out the "Furiosa Test" I coined above - she's the main character of 2015's Mad Max: Fury Road, in which the title character (a man) serves more as partner or even secondary character to Imperator Furiosa's story.

back to Workshop resources page

Updated 7/5/2015