Wednesday, October 16, 2013

How to Write a Strong Female Character

So you've decided to write a strong female character. Maybe she's your lead, maybe she's a secondary, or maybe she's the villain. Whatever role she fills, you want to make absolutely sure your best foot goes forward as a writer as you create a woman the likes of which no one will soon forget. The road ahead is paved with good intentions folks, so I suggest you get your hands on a good map.

Muscular Isn't Strong

If I were to say "She Hulk is a strong female character," would you know why?

Is the word "hulk" a clue?
For those of you who said it's because she can bench press a small tank, you may be missing the point of the lesson here. Jennifer Walters is Bruce Banner's cousin. She wound up with a blood transfusion that gave her many of the same anger-induced hulk powers as Dr. B., and over time she's been worked in as a member of the Avengers who can walk through a hail of bullets and rip apart alien war droids without breaking a sweat.

But you know what else? Jennifer is also a professional criminal defense attorney. She's a woman with great compassion, strength of purpose, and personal ethics. She is also not someone who, even stripped of her powers, will let you walk over her. While being a big green rage monster is certainly impressive, it's the latter characteristics that make her a strong female character. If you want a strong female character you need to examine who she is, what she wants, and how she handles both herself and the world around her. You don't have to be able to sword-fight a kraken or arm-wrestle a giant to be strong.

Aggressive Isn't Strong

There's a trend in fiction for women with attitude. It's not new, and in fact it's wormed it's way into quite a few sections of TV Tropes (stop in and take a look around if you have a few hours to kill). Strong female leads are snarky, rough, standoffish, crude, and more than a little harsh... or at least that's what you'll end up with if you're not careful.

The aggressive/bitch female character has been done to death, and she is roughly half the population of the paranormal romance genre. You've seen her, at least in passing. She's constantly talking down to people, cursing like a sailor doing a stint as an over-the-road trucker, and she's generally seen as rough-and-ready.

Ask yourself this question; if you made this character male, would he been seen as strong, or as just another posturing, preening dick wad?  I'm not saying these characters don't have a right to exist. By all means, write as many socially aggressive and foul-mouthed characters as you want! Just don't delude yourself into thinking that a "take no shit" attitude translates instantly to a pillar of strength. Mostly it just makes the character bitchy, regardless of the gender.

Violent Isn't Strong

This is sort of a sub-section of the "many kinds of strength" mentioned above, but I felt it deserved its own slot. Let me be clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a female character who mixes it up with the bad guys. Machine-gun-toting G.I. Janes, mysterious snipers, magic-driven sorceresses, and mutant power-houses are all more than welcome. That said, having the ability to kick the shit out of someone doesn't make you strong.

No, no, no, no... a thousand times no!
This archetype, which I recently found out thanks to Tumblr (follow me there if you're of a mind) is referred to as the fighting fucktoy. You couldn't have avoided this one if you were sitting under a rock with your eyes closed and your thumbs in your ears. In movies she's Elektra, Catwoman (the Halle Berry version anyway), Alice (of Resident Evil fame), and the list goes on and on. She's a one-woman weapon, covered in guns, resistant to damage, able to leap tall buildings at a single bound and beat a horde of ninjas to death with her bare hands. So why isn't she strong?

The reason is that it isn't about her; it's about the male audience viewing her. All you need as proof of that is what she's wearing. If a woman was a dedicated vampire hunter she would, I guaran-goddamn-tee you, be wearing body armor. She wouldn't have a bare throat, much less a bare midriff. She would have sensible boots, probably with steel toes, and none of this stiletto-spike nonsense. Do you know why? Because if she were this kind of hardened warrior, even if she were indestructible for some reason or other, she would not go into the field in fetish gear. It's impractical, and it goes directly against the grain of the sort of character that's being portrayed.

There's a lot wrapped up in this, from endless arguments about boob armor (yes they exist), to why female superheroes dress so skimpily, to just how much attention should be paid to a female character's outfit during a fight scene. So, I'll cut through all of that and just say this instead. If you are writing a woman warrior, switch her gender. If she looks, sounds, or acts ridiculous, chances are it's because you tried to make her strong and sexy, but failed at both.

Sexy Isn't Strong

Feminine wiles have been used in stories ever since oral history. Whether it's the Black Widow seducing secrets out of world leaders, or the exotic dancer who dangles men like plot points from her fingers, sexuality and the embracing thereof is supposed to be a sign that a character is strong. It's not. It just means she's sexy.

In all fairness, there are worse things to be.
Sex and sexuality is an important part of who a character is and what she does. If she uses sex as a weapon or a tool, then that is a part of her character. If she's promiscuous, then that is also all right. She could also be a temple virgin, a medieval nun, or a happily married housewife. Sex doesn't make you strong either by its presence or its absence.

Masculine Isn't Strong

I'm not even going to grace this section with a picture. There's this idea that in order to be strong, a female character can't be feminine. This is hypocrisy at its finest. An author who falls into this trap strips away anything feminine from a character; she won't use makeup, she'll dress in masculine clothing, she'll use blunt language, and in many circumstances she'll even approach sex from a more traditional masculine perspective. Often the mysteries of the feminine confuse her, such as getting her hair cut at a stylist, wearing dresses, or the finer arts of seduction. This is not inherently wrong, as there are occasions where a woman might not have been exposed to these aspects of culture. It doesn't make a character strong, and if taken to extremes it can make your character seem outright ridiculous.

The Secret of Strength

Okay, so now we've covered what a strong female character isn't. So how do you do it? Start by listening to this man.

Who were you expecting?
I am not saying here that George R. R. Martin is the greatest writer who ever lived. Nor am I saying that you should imitate everything he does. However, to paraphrase him, when George was asked how he writes strong female leads his response amounted to, "I was always had the weird notion that women are people."

There you go.

The idea of a strong female character is flawed premise; simply write a strong character. That character should not be wholly defined by gender anymore than he or she is defined by ethnicity, profession, familial upbringing, or anything else. These and a thousand other things will shape the character into who he or she is, but no one factor should be given the absolute power to define everything else.

Writing strong characters isn't easy; if it was then everyone would be doing it. But much like getting six-pack abs or winning a golden globe award, there are no short cuts. You have to practice, research, and constantly ask yourself who your characters really are. Only then will you be able to create real, believable characters regardless of their genders.

As always, thanks for popping in on the Literary Mercenary. If you'd like to follow more of my writing then fan my Facebook page, or check me out on Goodreads. For those gamers in the audience my blog Improved Initiative tackles a wide variety of roleplaying game issues, offering tips and tricks to make your game that much better. Please spread the word, and remember, this page runs on your ad clicks!

No comments:

Post a Comment