As a reader, I’m almost always never happy when I read action scenes with women characters.  Male writers default the action to the male characters, or they make the women like men.  Women writers either make the women into victims or give them super strength and healing, ruining the suspense.

One of the workshops I attended at Ravencon was “Writing Action Scenes.”  The panel consisted of three men — what, no women writing action?  I asked what had been a popular question at Alan Baxter’s webinar last year: “How do you write action scenes for women?”  The guys all got queasy and uncomfortable and started talking about not wanting to do “men are from Mars and women are from Venus.”

But there are differences between the genders, which either makes a story believable or not to me.

When I was in the army, these differences were apparent on the physical training test.  The original test was tailored to men and broken down by age group, but when women came in, the army had to create different standards for them, probably because of how our bodies are built and that we’re shorter.  Talk to any of the men, and they thought the women are getting over.  Talk to someone like me, and I had problems keeping up with men with long legs on marches.

Those differences make action scenes a challenge to write.  I had a scene where the heroine had to escape from a room guarded by two armed men.  Even if she’d known karate or judo (Nancy Drew anyone?), she would have been outmatched and outsized by the two men, so a traditional method of escaping was out.   I was surprised at how difficult it was to come up with an alternative!

Women don’t have the upper body strength, and would certainly have trouble against any opponents who outweighed them by fifty pounds or more.  But women do have a lot of strength in their legs and hips.  Day Al-Mohamed said that women make excellent mountain climbers because of that.  So the legs can be used in an action scene.  Tools like guns could also be used, but again, that’s not a matter of giving the character a gun without paying attention to the gender differences.

But the women would also need to be clever, think fast, and come up with unusual solutions that plays to their strengths.  Does this character know chemistry, or how to swim?  Maybe she’s a doctor.  What could be done with that?  If she has a gun, why does she have it?  I think it’s a greater challenge to characterization itself, because all of these pieces need to be built in and developed throughout the story.  Some of the best action stories I’ve seen have resulted from getting creative with solutions.

What’s been your experience — either as a reader or a writer — with action scenes involving women?  What do books get right, and what really annoys you?  I’d love to hear your opinions!

About the author

Linda Maye Adams Linda Adams has been published in Enchanted Spark and Fabula Argentea and has a non-fiction story in the upcoming Red, White, and True from the University of Nebraska Press. She is a female war veteran from the first Persian Gulf War, and least likely to have been in the army.