On Writing Strong (Female) Characters

This post, by Daniel Swensen, originally appeared on The Surly Muse.

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.)

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?

 

Read the rest of the post on The Surly Muse.

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