Take the 2-minute tour ×
Role-playing Games Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for gamemasters and players of tabletop, paper-and-pencil role-playing games. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I rarely play characters of the opposite sex, and I find that I'm not very good at it, at least in my own estimation. This is hampering when I GM because it limits my range, and makes things hard when I do role-play a female. I'm comparing my depiction of females to how I would play a male character, and I'm not seeing any difference, besides the bad falsetto. Women do make different choices and have a different way of arriving at a conclusion than men, but I'm not very good at mimicking that.

How can I improve this ability, and how different should I really make female characters than male? Is this dependent on culture?

share|improve this question
3  
Just read a good article on Stuffer Shack on experiences with men playing female characters. stuffershack.com/… –  mxyzplk Apr 26 '11 at 4:18

9 Answers 9

up vote 62 down vote accepted

On Going Beyond Stereotype

One of the ways the authenticity of female characters in movies are judged is called the Bechdel test. Essentially, if a movie has only one female character, or if it has more than one but they only talk to each other about men, it fails the test.

This is a good lesson to keep in mind when trying to fairly portray women in a roleplaying game, too. Unless you're playing a costume drama where words like "chattel" belong, your character will not be defined merely or even primarily by her relations to men, and she has many ways to be a woman that don't have to do with flirting or being hit on.

When you're GMing you're going to be playing a lot of women. You can use this to your advantage in doing convincing portrayals of women because you're going to have a variety to play. With one female character it's hard to play convincingly without overplaying it and stumbling into stereotype, or underplaying it and having gender fade out of view. With many female roles to switch among you can show off the variety of half of humanity (or elvenity, whatever):

  • Play some female NPCs no differently than men
  • Play some as stereotypes
  • Play some as detailed personalities that are enmeshed in the cultural role of women in your game
  • Play some as detailed personalities that reject the cultural role of women in your game
  • Play some as mixes of two or more of those.

As the GM, by showing that your female NPCs are not all just the same cutout stereotype, you'll make all of your female NPCs much more convincing in the eyes of your players. If one NPC is (e.g.) a stereotype, then the variety will make it obvious that it's the character being an unfortunate stereotype and not just the GM being unable to play a more authentic character.

On the Differences Culture Brings

Undeniably, most cultures treat women and men differently, and as a result those women and men conduct themselves and behave differently in order to operate effectively in their culture. You'll have to make a decision for each of your cultures as to how strong the cultural pressure is for men and women to act differently, and for each character (both male and female) you'll have to make a decision about how strongly they accept or reject the explicit and unspoken rules their culture pushes on them. Using a technique like Lynn's answer about cultural cheat-sheets can be useful to zoom in on the defining attitudes of the culture, and to keep them present in your mind during play.

There are all kinds of great character details you can get out of this, and not all of them are going to be just about the differences of the genders either. (For example, thinking about characters this way might lead you to wonder what happens when an upstanding person nevertheless is outspoken in their rejection of the official religion.)

If you decide that the cultural pressures are slight to non-existent, you're going to have a very different set of characters—male and female—than if you decide that culture has moderate pressures to differentiate the genders. A culture with strong pressures is going to result in a very different set of characters again. (And in each of those, you'll get yet another very different set of characters if you decide to invert the way men and women are differentiated compared to our own culture.)

Finally, (assuming one of the cultural choices where women and men are somewhat to significantly distinct) there is a good article on portraying women as distinctly-gendered without leaning on stereotype or their relationships with men, written from the perspective of an avid female roleplayer: Saving Throw for Half Cooties: Gaming and the Femininely Advantaged.

For making female characters the article has sections on common creation mistakes to avoid, how growing up female makes a difference, and how the relationship influences of women are distinct from those of men. (It also has another half of the article about women as players, which is very worth reading but tangential to this question.)

The article also makes one of the best points for caring about how you portray women when roleplaying:

Often it is not a serious problem if gamers don't quite understand their character's mindset or fudge the details on behavior. It is just a game, and rarely will a real Mafia hitman or elven wizard be watching and criticizing the level of realism.

But when playing a character (or NPC) of a different gender/ethnic background than yourself, the line between poetic license and offensive stereotyping thins, especially if someone of that gender/ethnicity (or someone who is dating one) is sitting right across the table.

We can't be perfect, of course, but caring enough make an good effort is enough in most people's books that imperfections will be forgiven, and you'll end up with a convincing female character despite being male yourself.

share|improve this answer
  1. Don't worry about it. Relax.
  2. Work out the character's motives, likes and dislikes.
  3. Ask your girlfriend or friend who is a girl to review.
  4. Never try to do a voice ;)

I believe that regardless of gender if you give an NPC realistic motives they will appear a realistic character. Good luck :)

share|improve this answer
17  
Yeah, never try to do the voice :) –  gruszczy Nov 4 '10 at 20:37

I play female characters about 25% of the time (and about 100% of the time as a GM), so this is something I've worked on/thought about over my gaming career.

Depicting Your Character

First, there's the general "How do I depict anything different from myself at the gaming table?" This is often a problem not just with crossgender play. I remember an activity I did for one long term campaign, I had the players draw the other characters as they saw them. One player, Laura, drew Dave's character as a scrawny little guy. In reality he was a huge buff bodybuilder type. His "big fighter" character had converted and become a cleric before Laura joined the group, and so all she knew was how he presented himself now, which seemed bookish to her. He had established his look with the original players but was failing to carry it through in-game such that a new player (not that new, she had been in the game like a year by this point) didn't have an accurate mental picture of him. He was miffed, but I reminded him that people only know what they see, and in an RPG they only "see" what comes out of your mouth.

So the advice I gave to him is equally applicable to crossgender play. Use opportunities to lift weights/flirt with boys/show off whatever is distinct about your character. Describe yourself from time to time in the third person - "I flex my pecs to show off" or "I toss my long hair and sniff at him." Make sure and reflect your physical form, gender, dress, and demeanor to the rest of the group enough that they keep it in mind. Props can help, sometimes players choose character portraits and make standees or whatnot so people can "see" them (I've used this specifically with crossgender play). Similarly, as a GM I often make character portraits to clip to my screen of NPCs, it reinforces their presence as well as physical details about them including gender. I think 9/10 of the issues with crossgender play in practice aren't "I'm failing to precisely emulate the female mind," but are "Frank looks over at me, sees a guy, and just up and forgets the character I'm depicting is a woman."

The GM can help players with this by "reflecting" the world/NPCs' views of the PCs back to them, which helps cross-emphasize identity across the group. This helps with a lot more than gender; I've lost count the number of times a PC who looks like a glowing gnome with ioun stones whizzing around his head and massive gaping wounds riding a magical beast just wanders up to some peasant and starts chatting them up. It takes them a minute to realize why the peasant shrieks "DEAR CUTHBERT NO" and flees, but then they realize it's because they're so badass looking and they tend to like it. There's right and wrong ways to do this, you don't want to have every night in an inn be "and here's the list of dudes that hit on Georgina." Talk to your GM and say "Hey, using narration and NPCs to reinforce my gender (or whatever!) with the other players would help." In Dave's case above I made a note to refer to his huge frame and muscles more often to reinforce it especially since his chosen role was less martial, and that worked out well.

Stereotypes

Now on to the deeper stuff. It can be hard to RP someone different, especially a woman, because a lot of folks are quick to criticize. Some people think crossgender play is "wrong" or "weird" in the first place somehow - I take a dim view of the hangups such people must have, but you have to take it into account. But when you do, you can get a lot of criticism that you're playing wrong or making the character a stereotype.

Now, depicting a stereotype isn't always bad, depending on your game style - heck, if you're playing Feng Shui, for example, all the characters are MEANT to be stereotypes you see in action movies. And if everyone's basically playing characters no deeper than the usual SyFy special starring Eric Roberts, then IMO you're fine to go "hooker with a heart of gold" or "killer vixen" or whatever stock personality the latest Hollywood blockbuster contains. In these cases, you are making female characters (usually) "more different" because stock characters are all about overemphasizing whatever their distinctive points are (think a lineup of anime characters, the "big guy" is always unrealistically like 2x everyone else's size, etc.) "I'm the dark and brooding loner!" Stereotypes are often in scope in gaming.

Draw On Real Women

But let's say you're playing a more "realistic" (for a variant definition of realistic that includes dragon turtles, of course) game and you want to play a person, not a stock character. There, you don't want to "different them up" as much. My primary technique is "observe the women in your life, and respond as they would." (I've lost count of the number of times I've done this and been accused, by a man, of course, of acting out a stereotype, even though I am drawing from an exact real-life situation where the woman I knew did X... But I digress.)

In this way you get away from playing women all the same, based on whatever your preconceptions of "what IS a woman" in some strange abstract sense. I tend to say "Hmm, I want this cybered up space spy to be about 70% my friend Laura, maybe 10% my ex-wife, and 20% Angelina Jolie from that one movie." Just like with any character, sometimes you have an internalized understanding of their motivations, and sometimes you just have them do things that seem like it's what someone would do, even if you don't "get it."

In the end trying to play women, or any kind of character, in an "agenda-driven" way isn't good. Every real person in the real world shares some aspects of stereotypes and differences that are "cross type" and then just have miscellaneous things about them that don't fit or contradict any "type." Trying to play female characters exactly like they're male is unsatisfying and a missed opportunity. If the real world was full of one homogeneous gender, it would probably be quite different. Gender and the tensions surrounding it are what generate a lot of the drama in epics, novels, movies, and every other form of art slash entertainment in the world and RPGs are no different.

Real Play Examples

Our current Pathfinder PC group has a female NPC along who is kinda-but-it's-not-real-defined the girlfriend of a PC. She's half-elf, he's a human. So they were in a town where there were a lot of cross-race couples and she used the opportunity for a "DTR" talk. I as the GM had to depict her well as a woman so that the relationship could develop in a realistic and satisfying way. "So, what do you think about mixed-race relationships?" "Gulp!" Or when they found out she'd been carrying a pair of designer shoes in her adventuring pack "just in case." Little bits like this, they don't have to be pervasive, but all the PCs think of her as both female and realistically complex and realized - even with her name being "Sam" and me not doing funny voices, I don't get any "tell him to magic missile the wraith..."

One of my favorite characters was a female, a cleric in the Curse of the Crimson Throne adventure series from Paizo. Sometimes she worried about boys, sometimes she took care of business. Sometimes she was kind and empathetic, and sometimes she was hard. She wasn't a stock stereotype, but none of the other players ever got confused that I was playing a man either, except once or twice, which to me is the sweet spot between acting too different and acting too not different. She ended up becoming Queen once we deposed the current crazy killy one, so I like to think she had a lot going for her.

My previous female character had been a hard-bitten cybered up con woman in a Silhouette game - they really didn't have much in common at all. I was drawing on different personality sources of course.

The Other?

Also, gender isn't the single biggest issue, being a cyborg or alien or elf or lost race or wildebeest is also a large component of your personality, don't make it all about gender. But the question's about gender so I'm focusing on that.

share|improve this answer

Model your female characters after women you know.

Hell, model your male characters after men you know, too. Or, if you want to make things interesting, model your male characters after women you know, and vice versa. No one will know what you're doing.

This is what I do. I choose friends, family, coworkers, celebrities, and fictional characters and I use them as my models for my characters. Play the old, male rogue as Angeline Jolie. Play the young, female wizard as Gandalf the Gray. Play the male barbarian as that guy you know in the accounting department.

By choosing a model for a character's behavior, you get a lot of things for free.

  • You can do their voice and you'll totally get it wrong, but that doesn't matter. You'll be consistent with the tone and mannerisms.

  • You can borrow personality quirks and interesting history from those models.

  • You can give these characters the illusion of depth; the depth, of course, comes from the subtlety of the real person you're using underneath the character.

  • Compassion and respect. Most of the time, you're going to model characters after people you care about at some level. It's hard to make the barmaid a stereotypical "girl" character when you're using your own mother as the model. Avoid using real people you dislike as models; you'll turn your characters into cardboard cut-outs.

Pro tip: Do not tell people who you are using as your models. This can only end in pain.

share|improve this answer
6  
"Do not tell people who you are using as your models. This can only end in pain." So true !!! –  paercebal Nov 6 '10 at 9:57

My answer would be to have a degree of separation from your character (and this, in my opinion, is desirable for ALL characters you play regardless of their gender). Cease thinking of your character as being explicitly your own. Create a character instead within the framework of a world. You are not a first-person narrator, but a third-person limited narrator. You know the thoughts and feelings of that character, but it is not you. You are assembling a collection of traits, tied to a history, which carries out actions and events within a narrative.

At the end of the day, this is a character. You want to be sensitive to stereotypes, but there is no quota of "womanly behavior" that you must meet to have a female character. In fact, you can fall prey to dozens of stereotypes in the attempt, such as being too effete, or too bubbly and flawless, or too defined by sexual attraction or physical appearance. Think of her as you would any character, or any person: motivated by desires and shaped by history and culture. Break outside the box: there are women doctors, women soldiers, women thieves, women politicians. There is a lot more room here than you seem to be allowing yourself.

Another typical part of the problem as I see it is that many people have one female NPC in a campaign where so far every mook, shopkeep and aristocrat has been male, and you're having the magnitude of "playing the one female in my campaign" on your shoulders. If you have a varied spread of characters in a game, then you can roleplay and develop them as their roles dictate much more easily: mooks as mooks, minor NPCs as minor NPCs, major characters as that. So try to introduce female and male characters together as mooks, as the shopkeepers, as the nobility, with thought befitting their importance (nobody expects a mook to have an extremely detailed or accurate personality). This way your sole female NPC doesn't become an event or spectacle.

share|improve this answer

You are overthinking it. Stop thinking of the character as a woman and just think of her as a person. There are some things that are realistically a little different, like the fact that linguists tell us that men interrupt women more often than women interrupt women. But such subtleties are not worth worrying about in games unless you are specifically trying to explore linguistics with your game. Think about who she is according to what are her strengths, weaknesses, abilities, interests etc, not who she is according to her gender.

share|improve this answer

As @Molly has already suggested I think the key is to play female NPCs in the same way that you would a man. Gender shouldn't influence their goals, motives, willingness for shady dealing or stand-over threats, etc. I have a few additions however:

1. Do 'the voice'

I would politely disagree with the suggestions that you don't try and characterise a female NPC's voice differently. I think this is actually the heart of the matter, because it's what the players hear and all characterisation is a good think, helping them imagine who they’re talking. This helps to get around all the other curly questions of gender stereotyping.

2. Mess with the player’s expectations

Say you’re planning on having an NPC who’s the head of the mercenary army. By making her a woman — brash, confident, quick to anger — and you’ll have an interesting character for them to interact with. To make the NPC even more intriguing, perhaps go against the mercenary captain stereotype and make them a thoughtful tactician who is book learned and reads aloud from the classics to her illiterate lieutenants...

3. Don’t make female NPCs ‘the exception’

Using more female characters in your games will not only increase your comfort with playing them, but also make your game world more believable. If you need that a cop to answer a few of the questions about the crime scene, why not make it a woman? Don’t forget to play with the male stereotypes too — hospital nurses, primary school teachers, secretaries and personal assistants are generally portrayed as women, but they don’t have to be.

share|improve this answer
5  
I'd say if you must do the voice, focus on developing distinct rhythms and modulation, not on falsettos. Tipping the pitch up a subtle notch can work, but don't go so high that it becomes comical. It is, as RPG Plotter says, the primary interface with the character—if it sounds inauthentic, it's not going to help the portrayal. –  SevenSidedDie Nov 9 '10 at 5:48
3  
A good point, and agreed. I lighten my voice and go for a different tibre. Avoid Monty Python-esque falsettos all cost (unless for limited comedic effect). The same can be said for accents, actually. This is no Hogan's Heroes or Python's The Holy Grail! –  RPG Plotter Nov 9 '10 at 6:16

Use contrasting characters.

It can be very hard to portray someone of the other gender AS someone of the other gender without falling into stereotypes (of either gender-role-acceptance or refusal, for example). But if you GM, you can use a stereotype NPC to show off another NPC.

I have had great success with an over-the-top (Exalted/Infernal) sexualized and slutty female character, especially because she contrasted so hard against the other NPCs. By having her overdo the bad action movie clichée, the other NPCs stood out when doing something typically female like wearing a dress, without feeling "contrived female", since the contrived actions were already in the hands of the stereotype.

And don't you know it, the stereotype developed into a three-dimensional character in time.

share|improve this answer

This is something I do for any character, but it works really well for female ones. I call it "quote mining" - I start to define their personalities by looking at websites or books with massive piles of quotations ... And then start picking out ones from females that sound like "something my character might say" on a given topic. Start dividing the quotes up into categories. Once you go through and start having a large amount of those quotes, you have sort of defined your characters worldview on a whole host of topics from love, to war, to religion - and as long as its a mix, it isn't necessarily a stereotype. It's a defined character with likes, dislikes and idiosyncrasies. And if you are just going through you end up defining things about the character that you never would have thought of in the first place - and if you draw mainly in female speakers you are drawing from the range of real world opinion and creating a genuine character instead of a cardboard cutout. If the fantasy culture reflects a real world culture, try to look up quotes from females of that culture.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.