If you ask readers what they require from a fictional scientist they’ll say she should first of all be a problem solver, bursting with intelligence and curiosity. Beyond this, there aren’t many expectations. Of course, one-dimensional characters are no fun and when an author builds a whole new world, it’s nice if the people who live in it are believable. What does it take to craft a multidimensional, realistic female scientist?
I surveyed female scientists about their defining traits and two rose to the top: passion and curiosity. And the scientists had other suggestions. I’ve combined their responses into the following twelve tips to help authors create an authentic female scientist:
- Passion runs more deeply than just for science. Because of the high correlation between a scientific personality and curiosity and openness, it’s unlikely for a scientist to be buttoned up and cautious when it comes to romance, no matter what the stereotypes might be. Some readers may expect the scientist to not be sexy but it’s just not true! (Although she’ll be skeptical and won’t jeopardize her safety.)
- She’ll be multidimensional. The scientist will most likely be passionate about life in general so give her a side interest. Many scientists like the arts, enjoy working with their hands, and find similarities between the lab and the studio. Others enjoy sports and fitness. She likes to defy expectations.
- Readers these days are so over Frankenstein and Dr. Evil. They don’t anticipate their scientists to be driven into madness by their creations, nor do they relate to evil intentions. Scientists combine passion and compassion. They see science as being a not just fascinating but a benefit to society.
- Balancing career and family is an important aspect of a female scientist’s life. Scientists would love to see more fictional characters who have kidsand to an extent, so would readers. Don’t be afraid to make her life way more complicated by adding family to the mix. Studies have shown that motherhood enhances problem solving ability.
- Readers are correct–problem solving is essential to scientists, but keep in mind that a scientist today will be highly specialized. She won’t know everything. She’s more likely to work as part of a team, too. The idea of one lonely genius working in solitude is outdated. In fact, working alone in lab is a violation of lab safety rules.
- She’s overcome a lot to get where she is. Prejudice, harassment, exclusion— these women are tenacious and they do overcome, often by cultivating a healthy sense of humor.
- Yes, she was a good student. Intelligence is a common trait among scientists. But it takes more than smarts to be a scientist. She probably had something driving her–the need to please a parent, to prove herself, or to overcome poverty or prejudice. Like many high achievers, reaching a goal brings pleasure, so much so that she could let relationships fall into disrepair if not careful.
- She might have her favorite jargon and readers expect it. Scientists have their words. It’s part of being in the club. But there’s an even better reason for science speak—it’s precise. Why say carbohydrate when you can say maltodextrin?
- MacGyver anyone? Yes, it’s true. Scientists fix things with duct tape and paper clips or a twist of copper wire. Scientists don’t mind improvising. And they like their scientific equipment.
- Power suit? It’s a lab coat. Studies have shown that those white coats make people perform better and make fewer errors.
- Under scrutiny. Peer review means that her work is critiqued by other scientists—a humbling experience and one that will keep her honest.
- Yes, she will be curious and find wonder in the natural world. Isaac Newton said that being a scientist is like picking up pebbles and shells on a beach beside the “vast ocean of truth.” Your scientist should be always questioning, always curious, with one foot in the future, her eyes on the stars or peeking through a microscope, and her passionate heart here on earth.
Yes, for the most part, reader expectations meet reality. However, realistic details can strengthen your story and gain female scientists as readers.
Catherine Haustein is the author of Natural Attraction, a Victorian Scifi Romance and Mixed In, a futuristic dystopia.