(Strong) (female) characters
People have been throwing the phrase 'strong female characters' around for years now, and yet there still seems to be a lot of confusion about what it means. So just to add to the melting pot of misapprehension, here's my contribution to the debate. Because as far as I can tell, there are two very fundamental aspects of the phrase that contribute to the general crossing of wires.
1. The word 'strong'
It's natural to assume that 'strong' means 'physically strong'. So a whole bunch of writers see the demand for 'strong female characters' and think right, all we have to do is write a woman who kicks ass. But that's not what strength means, not really.
First of all, there are hundreds of ways to be strong. Why prioritise one (traditionally 'masculine') strength – the ability to wipe the floor with someone in a fight – over all the many other kinds of strength out there? Compassion is a strength. So is endurance. So is forgiveness. Not being able to defend yourself against a more powerful assailant doesn't make you a weak person. Nor does asking for help. I realise we want to get away from the 'damsel in distress' who sits around waiting to be rescued, but that doesn't mean all women have to be able to slay their own dragons. After all, not all men can. What we really want to see in our characters, I think, is inner strength – and that's not the same thing at all.
Second, a really strong character isn't a perfect one. Which is why, again, the word 'strong' is completely misleading. A character who was nothing but strong – albeit in the varied ways I mentioned above – would be a bad character, because she would have no room to grow. It may seem paradoxical, but strong characters need weaknesses. And not just tacked-on faux weaknesses like 'clumsiness' or 'perfectionism', either. Real, honest weaknesses that give a character's inner strength a chance to shine through a gradual process of self-awareness and battling to overcome her own flaws.
So what we're really looking for isn't strong female characters – it's well-rounded female characters. Which brings me neatly to point 2.
2. The word 'female'
In my opinion, the focus on 'female' in 'strong female character' is another huge mistake. Which isn't to say that we don't need well-rounded female characters – of course we do. But by focusing on the 'female' specifically, the entire debate is framed under the basic assumption that writing good female characters somehow takes a different skillset than writing good male characters. George RR Martin says it best in this respect (I'm sure you've seen this plenty of times before, but I'm going to include it anyway, because it rocks).
The question shouldn't be 'why aren't writers writing well-rounded female characters?' It should be 'why are writers investing any of their characters (male/female, black/white, gay/straight, disabled or not, human or otherwise) with less than full personhood?'
There are a couple of possible answers to that question. One is that certain characters exist only as plot devices – they are there solely to allow the protagonist to achieve his goals. I say 'his' because in a certain type of spec fic this tends to be the case; the protagonist is male, and the female character is there to help him grow and reward him with herself at the end, without having anything like a fully developed inner life of her own. But male characters can also be plot devices. I've read plenty of romance novels where the male lead is a blatant attempt at wish fulfilment and, therefore, no more than a cardboard cutout.
Another possibility is that certain characters have been included as tokens. This is basically the lazy writer's attempt at diversity. Often this kind of character appears in a narrative because, y'know, people have been talking a lot lately about how there aren't enough characters of type X in movies, so hey, I'm gonna put one in my latest screenplay. The writer pats herself on the back for being 'diverse' and including 'variety', but doesn't bother to go beyond a stereotype. It's as if just labelling a character with some broad-stroke designation is enough. And to be honest, that's almost more offensive than ignoring the existence of certain groups: the idea that no further characterisation is needed for this particular character because he's Asian or bisexual or in a wheelchair and that's what defines him.
We're getting a little far from the point here. The need for more and better diversity in books and films is another topic entirely, and I certainly don't claim to have achieved it in my own work. (I know very well how easy it is simply not to notice the fact that one's characters, no matter how different and interesting and well drawn they are, are set very firmly within one's own sphere of experience.) So let's leave that for now, and return to our so-called strong female characters.
My point here is that the phrase is both misleading and limiting. I think what we all actually want is for the characters we watch and read about to be three-dimensional, no matter what kind of characters they are. Writers shouldn't be fixing on a particular kind of female character with a particular kind of strength. They should simply be focusing on making all their characters as realistic and well rounded as possible, without drawing on stereotypes or making assumptions. Writing a 'strong' woman requires exactly the same skills as writing a 'strong' man; same for sexuality and ethnicity and disability and even species (because not all dwarfs have beards). And in fact, the sooner we realise that people are people before they are whatever other definitions we apply to them, the sooner we might actually start to see more diversity in fiction, because we won't be afraid to venture beyond the boundaries of our own experience. We will simply write each individual character as just that: an individual.
Was thinking of doing a post along similar lines but you've beaten me to it. The main problem, as you've said, is that when people think of writing women they don't think of them as characters, they think of them as tokens (Martin aside). This gives them the same weak personality as the damsel in distress and doesn't make them any better. You can make them martial arts experts or whatever; it doesn't make them better characters. This also stands the same for LGBT characters and ethnic minorities.
11/5/2014 04:40:21 pm
Thanks, Sam! You should write your post anyway. The more people who say these things, the better -- and I'm sure you have loads of points to make :-)
12/5/2014 12:57:55 am
I'm with GRR. I hope that the woman in my books are as well rounded as the male characters because they're people. Well... Actually, in my books they're not all people, some are Swamp Things, Grongles, Spiffles etc but I'm sure you get my drift. I have a post about this on the boil, too but I think I will write it because it's about why the heroine of my next book is gay. The fact she is gay isn't crucial to the plot, it's just part of who she is. I think that if the only gay characters in fiction are having issues about their gayness it skews the way lgbt characters are portrayed. If we accept gayness properly as normal, it's going to be no different to saying that the heroine has brown hair or is tall. Unless it's someone you want to make a pass at a person's sexuality shouldn't matter any more than that.
12/5/2014 04:16:38 am
Agreed, MTM! As it happens, the most traditionally kick-ass female character in "Darkhaven" is gay. And, as you say, it's just part of who she is. It's not a plot point or an issue or anything other than a straightforward characteristic. (As it happens, her sexuality does have some bearing on the plot, but no more or less than anyone else's. My characters just tend to get tangled up in relationships ...)
Maybe I read the wrong books, but I don't feel I run into this so often. Most writers that I encounter seem to be treating female characters equally well as male ones. I hope I have done so in my latest book.
12/5/2014 04:23:17 am
Maybe it happens more in films than in books. Hollywood is pretty bad for taking 'strong female character' at its face value.
12/5/2014 06:50:30 am
Absolutely! And I get turned off by so many butt-kicking ladies, unless the writer provides a truly legit reason why their female became such a butt-kicker. If they have futuristic military implants, great, I buy it. If she was dedicated all her life to some form of martial arts, I buy that, too. But too often there are just butt-kicking women for no believable reason. BTW, I'm not saying I don't also need justification for butt-kicking male characters, because I do; it's just more common for males to be physically dangerous. I completely agree with you about the meaning of strong female.
12/5/2014 03:50:13 am
Great comments AFE
12/5/2014 07:02:13 am
I know! I think Sansa totally has her own strength. She is a realistic product of the culture she's grown up in and she's forced to face the fact that everything she ever believed in is a lie, but she still manages to survive. I have a lot of respect for her.
12/5/2014 07:13:50 am
Precisely - and I can totally relate to your defensiveness over Oriana! It's not always easy to hear criticism of our characters, especially when we, as the author, know why they appear as they do - I guess the challenge is to make it apparent in our writing, which is not always easy when we also get challenged for providing too much "back story"...
12/5/2014 07:43:14 am
I wanted my character Zoya in my sci-fi thriller to have the typical rather passive character that I have met in so many Russian women, so that it gave her more room to grow once she decided to take action rather than give up. I'm not sure I succeeded in that well enough, though.
13/5/2014 02:37:27 pm
Great article, AFE. I've run into this problem a lot in YA books where the author was so determined to make her character "kick butt and strong" that the character came across as wooden and one-dimensional.
16/5/2014 03:34:02 pm
Fantastic article, AFE! I had intended to comment on this earlier this week when I still possessed some semblance of coherence, but I think everyone else has already said everything I wanted to say anyway. In any event, I hope my characters come off as well-rounded as I've intended them to be and not as cardboard cut-outs (although I'm not sure about a couple, but then I haven't finished rewriting them yet, either).
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