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On Writing Strong (Female) Characters

Every once in a while, the question makes its way around the writing circles: how to write strong female characters?

Well, I’m a guy, so I probably shouldn’t be the first person you ask. In fact, definitely not. But, because I’m a guy, here comes my opinion anyway. (Right away with the gender stereotypes — buckle up!)

Often, some wiseacre will reference the acidic, sexist crack from Jack Nicholson’s character from the movie As Good As It Gets: “I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability.” This is best used ironically, or not at all, as it’s not really constructive. It’s also wildly sexist. So there’s your example of What Not to Do, I guess.

Also on the list of smartass responses is this comic strip by Kate Beaton, which takes a swing at the tropes some writers seem to think make female characters strong, but actually really don’t. (I particularly like the lengthy justification of the boob armor, which I’ve seen in many an online argument about revealing superhero costumes.)

OH JOHN RINGO NO

If you look at your typical urban fantasy cover, the answer seems to be “crop top, big knife, and tattoos.” This is a pretty hoary complaint by this time, and I feel a little self-conscious even making it, but seriously, show me a bad-ass vampire hunter with her midriff covered, and, well… I’ll be mildly surprised. Not that this is a bad thing in itself, beyond being something of a cliché at this point. But it does seem to reinforce the idea that “violence = strength.” Not that I mind ass-kicking characters, but groin-punching is a behavior, not a personality trait. The most iconic modern-fantasy female of them all, Buffy Summers, much more going for her than just beating monsters senseless.

The question’s also been kicking around the blogosphere recently. Oh, I just said blogosphere. I’m sorry. Anyway, for example, “The Fantasy Feminist” by Fantasy Faction (say that five times fast), points out some of the most common gaffes in writing female characters:

These issues are, at their core, character issues. The problem isn’t the warrior or promiscuous personality in itself; rather, it’s the idea that to be a strong character, a woman must act like a man or shun feminine things or use her body to manipulate people or some other misconception. And even then, it’s really only a problem if the writer believes that the character must act that way to be strong. If the character believes it, then the writer has taken a first step toward creating a multi-layered person.

Michel Vaillancourt, author of The Sauder Diaries: By Any Other Name, relates how he carefully researched and constructed his female characters. Vaillancourt sums up the problem neatly: “Within our North American pop culture, we have built a mystic divide between the principle genders.” What’s most interesting about this post is the mixed reaction Vaillancourt got from female readers  — proving that there is no One True Way when it comes to writing characters, nor should there be.

My favorite answer to this question, however, came from a recent Google+ thread in which a writer asked, “how do you write female characters?” and someone answered:

1) I think of a character.
2) I make them female.

I love this answer, because I think it gets to the heart of the issue: gender plays very little part in what makes a good or strong character. So why start with gender at all?

What It Takes

So what does it take to make a (female) character tick?

1) Agency. The character makes things happen. They move the plot forward. They make choices — even if they are bad ones — that propel the story. They make a difference. They do not wait for the story to happen to them. They do not wait to be rescued. They do not let somebody else handle the hard stuff. If your character is sitting around the house gnawing their knuckles and hoping everything will work out okay, you need to punt them into the middle of the action.

2) Relatability. A character doesn’t have to be likeable, but they do need to have distinct goals and desires  — in short, the things that make us human. Female characters in particular seem prone to fall outside these boundaries — they’re presented as mysterious, otherworldly creatures, their actions random and without reason — basically, all the worst parts of some stand-up comic’s outdated “women want the toilet seat down” routine.

If you’re putting this kind of thing in your writing, please, for all our sakes, knock it off. Women aren’t magical creatures from another planet. Stop writing them like that. Give them human hopes, fears, and motivations. It’s not that hard. A female character shouldn’t be measured by her sexuality, or the cut of her clothing, or how many people she can wheel-kick in sixty seconds to prove she doesn’t need a man. Violence doesn’t make a character strong. Neither does sex. Not by themselves, anyway.

3) Integrity. Look at the list of characters in your latest work. Describe each character in a single, short sentence. If the words “love interest” appear anywhere in that sentence, chances are your character is a bit crap. Look, it’s nothing personal. I’m guilty of this. I’ve created the character who exists only to be dated, desired, or unceremoniously boinked. Is there a place for such characters in a story? Maybe — if, as Michel Vaillancourt says, they’re strictly a plot device. But you could probably do better. If your character’s sole motivation is to be someone’s girlfriend, you can’t pretend they’re well-rounded and still keep a straight face.

Characters must also have integrity of motivation — not from stereotypical gender expectations. A common example of this is Ripley going back to save the cat in Alien. I’ll be the first one to say that while Ripley in Aliens is a great example of doing a female character right, the first Alien drops the ball in a few places. Do you think Hudson or Hicks or one of the other badass space marines would have gone back for the cat? Yeah, me neither. Chances are they wouldn’t strip down to their underwear in the final reel either, but whatever. My point is, characters should make decisions based on their character — it doesn’t matter if they’re bad decisions, so long as the reasoning isn’t “well, she’s a woman and women are so crazy so she did the crazy thing.”

Is That All?

Well, no.  Because I won’t pretend for one second that there’s one true formula for writing characters of any gender. People are different. And, like it or not, while men and women might not be from other planets, they’re not identical either. They process emotions differently. They’re shaped by different societal forces.

There’s a danger in writing against stereotypes without going deeper than just defying the stereotype. A female character can ask her boyfriend to open the pickle jar, or hate taking out the trash, or follow her intuition when her brain is telling her a different story. That doesn’t magically make a character weak. What makes them weak is defining them only by that sort of thing. But take that too far in the other direction, and you may end up with a bunch of stereotypical male traits… the proverbial “man with breasts.” You’ve essentially traded one set of cliches for another at that point.

So, as usual, the answer is somewhere in the middle. The most memorable female protagonists (the ones that come up constantly in conversations like these: Buffy, Ripley, etc.) show us that they can feel terror and charge into peril anyway. That they can love, or grieve over love lost, without pining forever in their room. That they can hold their own without being invincible.

“Strong” does not mean “flawless,” because invulnerable people with no weaknesses are the most boring characters imaginable. There’s a big difference between characters flaws and a character who’s just written poorly. To quote from the blog 42nd Wave Feminist:

I think many of Mr. Whedon’s critics think that because he is a professed feminist who supports Equality Now and has been honored by them, and because he enjoys writing strong female characters, that somehow every female character he writes should fit some sort of feminist ideal. I think that’s a ridiculous expectation and would most likely result in colossally boring television.

This is a complicated issue, and I could probably go on for several more paragraphs, but I’m not going to. In short, if you want to write good characters, then start with character — not with gender. Write human beings, not stereotypes or sex object. It’s not rocket science.

Your turn. Tell me your thoughts. I’d love to hear them.

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