On The Subject Of The “Strong Female Character”
It’s International Women’s Day.
YAY WOMEN! WOO!
I’d like to say some things now from the perspective of a “writer with male parts,” and I’ll have you know that at first I hesitated to write this not because I was afraid of the response but because I am afraid I’d bungle it somehow. Sometimes people speak from a place of insensitivity without realizing it not because they are malicious but because they’re ignorant, and while I aim to dispel my ignorance at every given turn, sometimes we’re so damn deep in the mire of dumbshittery that it stops us from even seeing the ignorance in which we are trapped.
Just the same…
I figure to not say something because of fear is worse than saying something and accidentally coming across like a jackass. At least if I end up a jackass, I can be corrected, and we can all have a nice discussion. Ignorance sometimes must be dispelled by first putting it on display.
I’m a writer who, as noted, has dude parts.
I’m also a writer who writes a (here I’d like to add the description “fantabulous bestselling critically-acclaimed award-winning” but as yet I do not have the good fortune of such a language allowance) series of books about a character named Miriam Black.
Miriam is a character with lady parts.
As such, I get questions in interviews about me being a dude writing a lady and is that weird and what’s it like and so on and so forth. Further, I’ve read some criticism (sometimes reasonable, sometimes less so) that suggests that Miriam talks and acts like a man and so was clearly written by a man and a few have even gone on to suggest that men should not write women.
It’s surprising, in a sense, because to me Miriam was in some ways the embodiment of some of the tougher women I’ve met in my life and a refutation that female characters have to be particularly “feminine” — sure, Miriam has some aspects of me, though I don’t know they’re “male” aspects. She has some aspects of my wife, too, who is a foul-mouthed bad-ass who doesn’t put up with my shit or the shit of those around her.
Mockingbird carries the whole thing further, I think — most of the characters in that book are women, actually, as the book is predominantly set at a girl’s school.
Anyway, what happens then is I get that famous question:
What is a strong female character?
I never really know how to answer that question.
But, like I said, sometimes it’s worth talking and trying.
So, let me try.
A strong female character is a character who happens to be a woman or a girl.
“Strong” is not an adjective describing that character’s physical or emotional or intellectual strength. It is an adjective describing the potency and depth of the character — in the narrative, not moral sense. A strong character is complicated, flawed, compelling.
“Strong” is just a synonym here for “great.”
It’s tempting to say that the “female” part of that equation is incidental, and it is in the sense that it is not maleness or femaleness that creates this strength of character — or the “greatness,” if you dig that translation. But it’s also important to recognize that women have different experiences than men and to ignore those experiences is, I think, to do them a disservice by pretending those experiences don’t happen or don’t matter. The same difficulties women may have in the real world — the glass ceiling, the rape culture put forth by male oppression, a general lesser but no less significant culture of dismissal — can and sometimes should still be present in our fiction.
These female characters may be hampered and hamstrung not because they are women but because the society within the fiction treats women poorly — the “flaws” are external, not internal (though one presumes external pressure can eventually create internal flaws on the individual level, though when those flaws are translated to exist on the entire gender level we once more enter the realm of gender bias and, again, oppression).
Er, if that makes sense.
Sometimes in the discussion about strong female characters we hear those two words, “Bechdel Test,” which is a test to determine gender bias in a work of fiction by testing to see if the work has (a) more than two female characters who (b) have at least one conversation that (c) isn’t about men. It’s a rather incomplete way to check depth of character, however, not because the test is bad but because it’s far too limited and all too easy (checking those three boxes does little to create great female characters, in my opinion).
We must then ask, well, what? What do we do? As writers of any and all genital configurations?
Well, I dunno.
But I can hazard a guess.
I think you strive to write female characters as great as you would male characters. You make them as complex. As heroic. As flawed. As compelling. As powerful or as weak.
You do not ignore that they are girls or women.
Of course they can be flawed. They should be. Because great characters are.
But their flaws and complexities are not because they are women.
(Is “oh, it’s because she’s a woman” ever a good excuse to include any character aspect?)
You needn’t elevate them onto a pedestal.
You needn’t drop them into the pit.
You just need to make sure they and their experiences are represented. And fully-formed — not some caricature, not some cardboard cut-out, not some sex object or silly goose.
Women in this world, the real one, can do anything.
Make sure the women who populate your fictional worlds have that same opportunity.
Oh, and by the way, the same goes with writing any character of any persuasion: man, woman, gay, straight, black, white, Muslim, Christian, Republican, Democrat, transgender, fat, anorexic, and so on and so forth. Everybody has experiences bound to their culture (and where applicable, their choices) but their strengths and flaws needn’t be bound to who they are at the core.
I’ve gone on too long, probably.
Anyway, Happy International Women’s Day.
Don’t let anyone marginalize you. I aim to teach my son of your awesomeness.
(For a far more powerful and eloquent look at this subject, please click forth and behold Greg Rucka’s post about “Why I Write Strong Female Characters.”)