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Writing Women: 5 Lessons From Shakespeare


I’ve said it, countless times now: I’ve seen NO correlation between gender of writer and how “well” s/he writes female characters. In my experience, a male writer is just as likely as a female writer to write a GREAT, complex, flawed character who just so happens to be a woman. ‘Cos that’s what we’re aiming for, right? RIGHT.

“Shakespeare’s a dead white guy, but he knows his shit!”

YES, Shakespeare is well old and NO, he’s not PC because he was writing a trillion years ago, but he STILL managed to pull of complex female characters who were a helluva lot more than wimpy damsels, hanging about in lovely white nighties crying, waiting to be rescued.

Were you one of those kids who hated studying Shakespeare in school? That’s a shame, ‘cos there’s plenty he could teach you about writing women! But no worries, ‘cos here’s my potted versions of five of my Shakespeare faves, just for you. I know, I know, I know … I’m too good to you all. No need to say anything my friends, your tears say far more than words ever could! Hang on a sec, WTF am I saying? We’re writers, we’re all about words! So:

Katherina: Miss Utter Bitch

DYK? You should obey your husband! (Hahaha yeah I just actually typed that. WHATEVS LUV).


So I read the bitch character A LOT in the spec pile: she is probably the best represented female of all amongst spec writers, whether screenwriters or novelists! Whether she’s crazy, vengeful, ambitious, kickass — yup, you know it, she’s got a sharp tongue and she ain’t afraid to use it! And guess what: she’s usually one dimensional with it, as we’re meant to HATE her and sure enough, somewhere along the line she’ll get her comeuppance and HAHAHA SERVES YOU RIGHT, YOU WOMAN YOU.

Yes, yes The Taming Of The Shrew might well be a load of misognyistic codswallop in terms of plotting/story (and oh! that speech from Katherine in the end about obeying the man in your life! EEEEK!), but concept-wise it’s GOLD:  if you don’t know it, there’s two daughters and the youngest  can only marry when the eldest, Katherina does … but no one wants to marry Katherina because she’s so UTTERLY VILE.

Actually, by today’s standards, Katherina’s not that bad; she just knows her own mind and doesn’t suffer fools gladly … But in Shakespeare’s time she was probably enough to shrivel up any guy’s dick. In comparison, Kat Stratford in TEN THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU was a masterly modern take on the “shrew”: she’s absolutely horrible, but SO horrible we kinda like her for it, especially because she’s FUNNY with it (something male characters are often celebrated for, especially if they’re written by Aaron Sorkin, yet we don’t see as many female characters tilling this ground).

Now, we can’t know for certain if Shaky meant *his* original character to be taken this way, but I would bet real money he did.

TO WRITE A BITCH WELL: Character and story are inextricably linked, so don’t just randomly make her a bitch; then we just hate her for it. Instead, cement her characterisation INTO the story, like Shakespeare does – you CAN’T have The Taming of The Shrew, without a shrew!! LE DUH. Oh and give the other characters a reason to interact with her too, otherwise we wonder why they don’t just avoid her. MORE: 10 Reasons Kat Stratford Should Be Your Number 1 Heroine

Cordelia: Miss Goody Goody 


Second to the bitch character in the spec pile, is what I call Miss “Goody Goody”: she’ll usually be in the hero’s corner, often facilitating his emotions or helping in some other way. She’s stoic, she’s dependable, she can be counted on in a crisis and goddammit, she is JUST TOO GOOD. I wanna vom, seriously!

Look, I get that you want more positive representations of women, but SERIOUSLY? Have you even met any women lately? We’re not bloody ANGELS, we’re real people with real problems and no, we are NOT perfect!! Even if we’re GREAT PEOPLE, we still have FLAWS.

So, Cordelia from King Lear is a VERY positive representation: she’s virtuous to a fault – literally! Even when it’s to her own detriment and gets her thrown out the kingdom (Thanks Dad!!!), she will still be honest; it’s a non negotiable with her. But crucially, though being honest absolutely ruins her, it also pushes the story forward: impressed with her honesty, The King of France marries Cordelia anyway and of course, in doing so, helps Cordelia lead the attack against her sisters. Okay she loses and dies and everything gets fucked up even more, but c’mon, it IS a tragedy, what did you expect??

TO WRITE A GOODY GOODY WELL: Just like we don’t respond to random cray bitches, make your heroine TOO good and your reader or audience will want to spew all over the joint. If your heroine is too good to be true, build it into the story somehow by making her PAY A PRICE for her virtue, like Shakespeare does. MORE: The Ultimate Miss Goody Goody: Elle in LEGALLY BLONDE, plus 5 Credible, Likeable Superstar Role Models

Ophelia: Miss Tragic


So after the bitches and angels, in at number three in the spec pile are the Tragic Heroines …  Yes life sucks for these women and it’s usually a MAN’S fault!! (Quelle surprise). Goddammit marriage is miserable and women’s lives are one heartbreak after another and Ophelia is probably the epitome of this character. But in comparison, tragic heroines in the spec pile are usually barely peripheral: they’ll make various pleas to their male counterparts stand or sit around crying the rest of the time. WTF??? Remember, Ophelia was TRAPPED by the times and her potential marriage; she has no choice but stay betrothed to Hamlet even as crazy as he gets, which in turn makes her lose her mind as well: yet losing one’s mind can be an active state, it doesn’t have to mean simply sitting about sobbing in a supposedly “ladylike” manner! So Ophelia *is* tragic and trapped, but she has an air of the flamboyant too: she didn’t just kill herself, but floats off down a river!

HOW TO WRITE A TRAGIC HEROINE WELL: Tragic characters need depth and authenticity, not to mention motivations we can relate to and empathise with. MOST OF ALL though, we must leave them with NO VIABLE ALTERNATIVES, otherwise we just end up thinking they’re saps who deserve all they get. Take a lesson from Shakespeare here and remember how trapped Ophelia feels and how suicide seems her only escape. When drowning seems a relief from living … now that really IS tragic. MORE: How To Screw Up Your Characters With Tragedy, plus Misery Loves Company? 

Titania: Miss Mad


So Titania was Queen of the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and basically spends a lot of the play enchanted and behaving in a well, mad fashion: she even falls in love with Bottom, a bloke with the head of a donkey (it’s her husband’s fault FYI, but then that’s hardly surprising, arf). Anyway, Titania made such a splash that just about every fairy queen, ever after has been named after her! But then this is the influence The Bard has, reaching across the centuries of produced work.

Yet mad, mischievous female characters are in VERY short supply in spec work I find: men may be naughty, or funny, or flagrant – but women? HARDLY EVER. What the hell is up with that??? Instead, if a female character is mad at all, it’s usually in a very tragic, dignified and ultimately QUIET way, as mentioned already. Women should be SEEN and NOT HEARD?? Do me a favour. Boooooo! (Also, note the differences between “tragic”, “depressed” and “mad” – they are NOT interchangeable!).

Madness IS difficult characterisation to pull off, whether it is an enchantment (as in Titania’s case) or realistic (in the case of the representation of mental illness). When something affects a character’s psyche, their actions may be at odds with other characters’, or even their own, so they lack narrative logic; other times, writers may fall back on tired ideas to make their point.

HOW TO WRITE A MAD CHARACTER WELL: Shakespeare introduces us to a strong, powerful Titania at the beginning of the play; she’s quite literally an independent woman. Yet when she is enchanted and falls in love with Bottom, Titania becomes a fawning shadow of her former self. Often a sharp contrast in a character’s behaviour in the story can work wonders in making an audience appreciate a character is “not herself”. MORE: 6 Stock Characters That Need Retiring By Writers, plus The Top 5 Female Character Stereotypes & 1 Tip To Deal With Them

Portia: Miss Cleverpants

portiaPortia is from The Merchant of Venice and has everything going for her: she’s rich, beautiful and clever. In fact, she’s so clever she spends a good chunk of the play disguised as a boy and fooling everybody she’s a lawyer’s apprentice called Balthazar … Which is just as well ‘cos it’s she who rescues protagonist Antonio from the knife of evil Jewish money lender Shylock (ANTI SEMITISM KLAXON!). What’s more, Portia does this by entirely legal means, finding a LOOPHOLE: she discovers that whilst Shylock IS entitled to his pound of flesh from Antonio (as per the agreement they strike at the beginning of the play), Shylock is NOT entitled to a single drop of blood! Uh oh. Do not pass Go. Do not collect two hundred pounds. UNLUCKY.

Yet, clever women in the spec pile are AGAIN hard to find and it’s this I actually find most shocking of all. After all, clever women in real life are ten a penny: I can rattle off the countless savvy women I know and I don’t doubt the average writer (male OR female) can as well. SO WHERE ARE THEY???

HOW TO WRITE A CLEVER CHARACTER WELL: Female characters often have very familiar words next to them in their character intros, the most common ones being “beautiful” and/or “vulnerable”. A WORLD OF NO, WRITERS! Look, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being beautiful OR vulnerable, but we’re not going to get diversity by writing the same ol’ shit every time. It’s not rocket science.


So, when you think “female character” simply add CLEVER and CUNNING and build that into the story!!! These are two words we never think twice of putting in a male character’s bio, yet for some reason don’t make it into a female character’s bio often ENOUGH. Don’t shoehorn it in for the sake of it, but do remember it’s one adjective that’s underutilised when writing women! MORE: 5 Ways To Write A COMPLEX Female Character, plus Lucy Vs. Gravity: Similarities and differences between two female protagonists


– Story and character are inextricably linked

– Great characters are part of great stories

– Don’t shoehorn stuff in for the sake of it

– Contrast can work wonders

– You’re going for authenticity and empathy, not necessarily “likeability”

– Don’t forget female characters can be HORRIBLE, FUNNY and CLEVER!

Now, go see some of these plays … What??? You didn’t think you would get away with it, did you! Call it research. BUT GO.

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2 thoughts on “Writing Women: 5 Lessons From Shakespeare”

  1. Fascinating! It proves I haven’t read nearly enough Shakespeare, but I get it because, well… I probably should have seen this over 2 years ago. Actually, I managed to win third place in the FIRST national short script competition I ever entered with my FIRST serious short script, but it was by no means an easy write nor an expected win (even third place, which ain’t much). First off, I’m male, disabled and in my mid-30’s. The first draft was written in 2012 and was passable, I suppose, but the second draft written 1.5 years later was the winner. The story is a fictionalized take on the true story of Count Carl VonCosel, a 50+ year-old bacteriologist who, in the early 1930’s, fell in love with his 22 year-old TB patient Elena Hoyos and treated her with experimental treatments before she died a year later in 1931. In 1933, he robbed her grave (a mausoleum he had commissioned), pieced her body back together and kept it for 7 years before being caught. I’ve been intrigued by the story since first discovering it in 2010. On the surface, it’s just about this crazy, sick old man, but what interested me was how much of the general public actually sympathized with and even admired him as a romantic once it was over and the story got out. Remember, we’re basically talking about a real life mad scientist (though he was deemed sane for the sake of the Key West courts) at a time when the still entertaining, yet now-quaint monsters played by Lugosi and Karloff were allegedly so scary to audiences at the time that James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN actually had a disclaimer at the beginning. Yet, this same general public seems to have had little or no real problem with VonCosel or what he did and, in fact, he went on to publish his story in a pulp magazine and more or less live off of his reputation, posing for photos and such until he died in 1952 near Tampa, Florida, I believe.

    Otherwise, it’s admittedly an “incident,” not really a story, and where it relates to this article is in the fact that Elena was SO young when she died. Combine that with her having been part of a Catholic, Cuban-American family in the early 20th century, never having left home except for a short, yet failed marriage, and writing this without making her out to be little more than a (sometimes) pretty doorstop becomes almost impossible. Misogyny was almost beside the point because it just wasn’t interesting AND it actually hurt the VonCosel characterization and, thus, the whole script because it leaves audiences scratching their heads as to why this guy is falling into romantic obsession (over a corpse, ultimately) and doing all this in the first place. The only way I could even convince myself that I had managed to change that was with some misdirection, which is where the fiction comes in. VonCosel convinces himself that she has actually conspired with him to fake her death and, in those few, brief scenes, I tried my best not only to give the two characters some actual, meaningful time together so as to build the semblance of an actual relationship, but to give her some depth and some of that cleverness you talked about. Only at the halfway point does VonCosel literally wake up from his first delusion and remember that she died, which then becomes the catalyst and, in a way, the justification for what happens next, which is largely based on fact. The point is that if one is willing to play with the facts (a lot), she can be clever, tragic, and “goody-good” all at the same time, but again, it’s difficult because, well… she was only 22 and almost unavoidably sheltered and naive, which is exactly as those who knew her in real life basically described her (their word was “childlike”).

    In conclusion, I know and RESPECT the challenge(s) laid out here and appreciate you for writing this article. After the VonCosel short, I wrote a feature which mostly centers around a male character, but it’s a male, religious veteran who ultimately has to rely on his atheist ex-girlfriend and private investigator to help clear him of murder. The challenge there was that, for the most part, I wanted her to save him – or, at the very least, be the one without whom he gets sent up the river an innocent man – yet not fall prey to the traps you describe so well. Also, I would add to those traps the one in which a female character becomes SO MUCH of one thing – i.e., strong, independent, aggressive, etc. – that it hurts the character’s and material’s credibility, taking audiences out of the story and really defeating the purpose, if it’s there, of presenting a more nuanced or against-the-grain female characterization. That might work if you character is, say… a female lion, which generally does most of the hunting.. but not always for humans. I hope you agree and also hope to read more of your articles in the future. 😉

    1. PS: It occurs to me that while there are plenty of one-dimensional MALE characters and archetypes onto whom readers and audiences have latched – like the shining knight, cowboy, patriotic and self-sacrificing soldier, etc., who even become “role models” despite their one-dimensional nature – one-dimensional female characters are usually only successful as eye candy and tools for the story and plot and to give the male character(s) one or more “object(s) of affection.” Even then, they become easily dismissed and forgotten while the similarly shallow and simplistic male characters endure. Frankly, I think this speaks to just how complex women are because, well… what else explains it? Even misogynists expect women to be more than one thing. The prototypical 1950’s housewife is still a: 1.) Mother/ Nurturer, 2.) Cook, 3.) Seamstress, 4.) Lover, etc. – all of which require skills which, if not always different, can exist independent of and without one another. Not all good mothers are good cooks or seamstresses nor are the latter always good mothers or lovers. More than just political correctness and diversity, I think, should motivate people to take your advice.

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