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Stereotypes are a cheap way to write characters. Megan Leigh at SFWA argues the need for more strong female characters and by strong she means complex, not she-hulks. As a long time Sci-Fi fan, I do think it has gotten better. I fell into Tolken, who has only a few (strong) female characters, but at least women were not objects to be possessed featured on the cover as scantily clad as the publisher thought they could get away with.
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Dispelling the Myth of Strong Female Characters
by Megan Leigh
When it comes to equal representation in fiction, women have a long way to go. There simply aren’t enough female characters in books and that’s counting those that appear only as romantic interests, victims to be saved, or someone’s mother. Is it really so much to ask for an equal number and variety of well-written, three-dimensional female characters?
What is a ‘strong’ character?
It is important to understand what we mean when talking about strong characters, be they male or female. This isn’t physical strength or the strength of their convictions. A strong character has strong characterisation. They are flawed, complex, varied, fallible, and realistic.
A common issue with novels claiming to have a strong female character is the creation of an arbitrary distinction between strong and weak, useful and ineffectual, passive and active. In such cases, women are often pigeon holed into stereotypes – the weak woman is caring and vulnerable, overly emotional, and concerned with domestic issues, while the strong woman is aggressive, abrasive, violent, and has difficulty connecting emotionally with others.
When critics cry that there aren’t enough strong female characters, they aren’t talking about women adhering to the masculine warrior stereotype. Instead, what they are looking for are female characters who have as many varied personality traits as their male counterparts.
The fallacy of the exceptional case
The chosen one is one of the most common tropes in SFF. The chosen one, by definition, must be exceptional. If the narrative involves a chosen female, many writers – and readers – will, by default, exclaim that they have found an example of a strong female character. But simply being the prophetic wunderkind does not make a character strong by default.
If your story hinges on this particular woman being special, an exceptional member of her gender, it is easy to brush off the majority of women as ‘weak’. While stories involving such characters often involve men slowly realising they shouldn’t be so surprised that a woman can handle herself so well, the very framing of the narrative in a way that has men writing off most women as incapable is an issue unto itself. If only one woman is ever shown to be capable and is presented as an exceptional case, gender equality has a long way to go.
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