Writing female secondary characters: why it’s important and how to do it

This week, secondary characters:

  • Are most likely to default to male
  • Are important representation
  • Demonstrate the values of your society (and your writing)
Photo by Daria Shevtsova on Pexels.com

What do I mean by secondary characters?

Secondary characters are those who are not main characters.  They don’t have a POV in the narrative, they aren’t the ‘heroes’ and they probably won’t be in the whole story from beginning to end.

I am talking about secondary characters who are named (the family, friends and even acquaintances of the protagonists) and those who are not named (the crowds, the shopkeepers, the police officers, the teachers, the passers-by and that character who popped up to deliver a one-liner and was never seen again).

Robert Muchamore smashed this!

I recently read Robert Muchamore’s YA adventure story, Robin Hood: Hacking, Heists and Flaming Arrows (2020).

I wrote a whole blog post about how brilliantly he did this, so check out the blog post here.

It illustrates how to include female secondary characters, so if you want some good examples, head over there now.

Why secondary characters are most likely to be male

There are a couple of reasons why secondary characters are most likely to be male. 

The first is that we live in a society where women have typically been erased from history and public spaces, and the second is that this unconscious bias rears its ugly head harder with secondary characters than with primary characters.

1. Women have been erased from many aspects of history by our stories and our assumptions.

A lot of people writing about traditionally male enterprises make the mistake of assuming that, if they’re writing about men, there won’t be any women there.  Except the love interest.  She has to be female *rolls eyes*.

Taking the example of the Napoleonic Wars, the soldiers were generally male.  Most of the people employed by the army to transport goods and so on were male.  But there were women there.  In every town the soldiers passed, there were women.  Those male soldiers had wives and sweethearts and mothers and daughters.  Many of those women followed the soldiers’ camps across Europe and looked after their men.

Yes, the women’s roles were restricted by social convention and legal legislation.  But each of those women had a different personality and a different background.  And, importantly, they were there, making up 51% of the population.  It’s wrong for modern-day writers to erase women yet again by not including them in their novels.

Even in historical settings, women were there (unless you’re setting this in a male-only environment, in which case are you sure all the servants, etc. were male?) and should appear at appropriate moments.

2. Secondary characters are the ones most likely to slip through the cracks. 

Because they’re only in one scene in the book, or they’re only mentioned in passing, our writer brain doesn’t focus on them for very long.  That’s when all our unconscious biases come roaring up.

If we care enough about representation of different genders, races, ages, classes and bodies, we’re trying our best to be aware of how our characters fit in with those.  We spend time thinking about it.  We make sure that we’re not defaulting to whatever comes to mind first (or whatever society has instilled in our subconscious).

Secondary characters, though, don’t get that treatment.  They often suffer from a lack of careful planning.  We want a prison guard and we automatically assume ‘male’.  We want a cleaner and we write in ‘female’ without a second thought.  It’s these unconscious biases that come out in secondary characters.

If we want to erase (or minimise) our unconscious biases, we have to constantly challenge them until they are either not unconscious but conscious or, even better, no longer a bias we hold.

Why it’s important to write female secondary characters

Women and girls need to see themselves in these stories and performing roles and jobs that women perform in real life.

Men and boys need to see women in these stories to reflect that reality and to model how to behave when encountering a woman in that role.

It’s the way we live now, and it needs to be reflected in our art and stories.

Every time you don’t include female characters, you’re contributing to the notion that women are less important and less visible.  It will mean women and girls continue to learn that they should stand back and let the men take charge, be quiet when the men are speaking and be terribly thankful if they are ‘allowed’ into a male space.

Including women (just 50%, like in real life) will show your readers that women are an important part of society, they are valued and capable and can be seen.

How you can do it

These are 3 really great ways to make sure you are getting an even spread of female and male characters in your books, especially with secondary characters.

They’re easy to do, too, so there is no excuse for not putting the thought into it.

1. Keep a tally.

Literally tally up, on a post-it note or something, how many female and how many male characters you have so far.

You’ll be able to see as you’re going along whether one of the genders is starting to out-weigh the others.  And, more importantly, you’ll be able to correct that.

2. For every named character, come up with a female and male name before deciding what gender they should be.

This only works on named characters, not generic ‘guard’ or ‘police officer’ or ‘beggar’ or ‘doctor’ or ‘baker’ you have in the background of your scene.

What it does do, though, is force you to decide on a gender at the character-creation stage.  It will (hopefully) stop you defaulting to male for that ‘doctor’ if you specifically create the option of a female name.

Deliberately giving yourself the choice of a female or male name also helps to flag up as you’re going along whether you’re leaning more towards female or male secondary characters.  If you find yourself always choosing that gendered name, you know you have a bias in your writing or your worldbuilding (and therefore your writing).

3. Gender-swap all secondary characters at the end.

Once you’ve written your first draft and you’re entering the editing stage, you can gender-swap all the secondary characters.

You don’t have to keep them that way, but it’s a really cool exercise to do.  It will give you the chance to read through your story from a new perspective and spot any potential problems.

If you’ve gender-swapped your secondary characters and suddenly you have loads of women popping up everywhere:

  • Shouldn’t there be women there anyway?  Is having all these women there the way it should be?
  • Maybe you’ve defaulted to male too much in your first draft and now, wow, you’ve got a lot of women all over the place and maybe you need to even out that balance a bit
  • If you’re a man, particularly, you can suddenly see what it’s like for a woman to read all those male-dominated books where it’s like ‘oh yes, another man, and another, and another’.  Now you know what it’s like, you can consider changing that.

Another real benefit of this is that you can see if you’ve made your secondary characters fit gender stereotypes.  Even if you’ve included an equal mix of genders, you can spot whether you’ve got all the male secondary characters in positions of authority and doing physical labour, while the female secondary characters smile sweetly and bake bread and care for the home.

Like I said, you don’t need to keep your secondary characters gender-swapped.  You can change all or some of them back (depending on what you learned about your writing and what you want for your story).  At least you’ll be choosing their gender deliberately, though.  And that’s a start.

3 thoughts on “Writing female secondary characters: why it’s important and how to do it

  1. This post is very well written and I totally agree with everything you said.
    I’m writing a story and I’m going to definitely keep this in mind. Women should be shown having professions that they actually DO have in society. I read your post about Robert Muchamore’s writing of secondary female characters and that was also very true.


    1. Thank you so much!
      I’m glad this has struck a chord with you. I think it’s important and I’m really pleased my post has been helpful.
      Good luck with your writing – I hope you enjoy it and find success in whatever way you’re looking for.


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