Thursday, February 5, 2015

Guest post with author Justin Woolley: Can men write strong female characters?

By the end of The Last Quarrel, I hope that readers will be debating who is the real hero of the series: is it Fallon, who desperately wanted to be a hero or Bridgit, who wanted nothing of the sort?

Now, while I have always endeavoured to have strong female characters in all of my books, there is an ongoing debate as to whether men can write powerful women, and vice versa. With three sisters, a wife of almost 22 years and a teenage daughter I think I have some  understanding f the female psyche.

My wife may disagree!

But it is still a valid question. One of the UK's greatest fantasy writers, the late David Gemmell, only wrote one book with a woman as his main character, Ironhand's Daughter. It was his least successful and, he admits, his least favourite.

I have invited fellow Momentum Books author Sophie Masson to consider this question from the point of view of women writing strong men and now fellow Momentum Books author Justin Woolley writes from the point of view of men writing strong women.

Can it be done? You be the judge ...


Justin Woolley has been writing stories since he could first scrawl with a crayon. When he was six years old he wrote his first book, a 300-word pirate epic in unreadable handwriting called 'The Ghost Ship'. He promptly declared that he was now an author and didn't need to go to school. Despite being informed that this was, in fact, not the case, he continued to make things up and write them down. 

A Town Called Dust, Justin’s debut novel was published in November, 2014 by Momentum Books.

In his other life Justin has been an engineer, a teacher and at one stage even a magician. His handwriting has not improved. 

You can find Justin’s website at or on Twitter: @Woollz.


After Duncan joined the author top 5 series I have running on my blog with his wonderful post about Hollywood’s top 5 epic fails in movie battles he asked me to write a guest post for his blog in return. We had a brief discussion about what I could write about. I’ve never been that great at thinking up interesting topics for blog posts, thinking about the intricacies of a post-apocalyptic Australian society, sure, creating an alternate timeline in which Nazi forces occupy England, no problem, writing a story about the fallout of an alien race crash-landing on Earth, yup, but coming up with blog topics, not so much. Duncan helped me out with some ideas and the suggestion that really resonated with me was a question that fellow Momentum author Sophie Masson had just tackled as well, can authors effectively write characters of the opposite gender?


We thought it would be interesting if Sophie came at the question as a woman writing male characters that I could be the other side of the coin, can men effectively write female characters? I think this topic is particularly interesting to me as my debut novel ‘A Town Called Dust’ has dual protagonists, Squid, a young orphan boy, and Lynn, a girl who is the daughter of a military Colonel.


Many of my readers – the majority of which have been female thus far – have commented that Lynn was their favourite character, that she had depth, was strong in her convictions and yet had heart. So from that perspective can men write successful female characters?




End of blog post.


Wait though. Perhaps it’s not that simple because what those readers are actually commenting on are traits of people, not specifically female traits. That reminds me of everybody’s favourite genocidal author George R.R. Martin when he was asked in an interview how he writes such great female characters and he said, “You know, I’ve always considered women to be people.” That’s what I would say too. I wrote Lynn as a person. She has feelings and desires and worries that are universal and resonate with people.


To be honest while I was writing Lynn I was thinking about her more as a sixteen year old than as a female. I created her to reflect issues and concerns that many teenagers face. Being a female is often at the heart of her struggles – not being allowed to join the army because of her gender – but this is meant to reflect the way teens often clash with authority.


An interesting thought I had was that I wrote Lynn in the third person. It seems to me that many books I’ve read written by a male but containing strong, well-rounded female characters are often written in the third person. Perhaps there is something in that. Perhaps it is easier to write a character of the opposite gender in third person as you do not necessarily have to narrate their internal voice. The next series I’m working on once The Territory series is wrapped up has a female protagonist told from the first person – this may be the jump that makes writing a convincing female character more difficult.


I am a man and although I have a wife, mother, sisters, female friends, am a feminist in the true sense of the word and ultimately feel that I understand women reasonably well I will never be a woman. I will never truly know how a woman’s thoughts and feelings are experienced in a different way to my own. Trying to hear and inhabit that voice will always be more difficult.


We should still try it though because creating varied female characters through empathy and understanding is what male authors should be striving to do. Hopefully we can reach a time when we don’t hear talk about ‘strong female characters’ not because they don’t exist but because we’ve reached a point that they are commonplace. Then maybe we’ll come to realise that deep down character has nothing to do with reproductive organs.

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