Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Strong Female Characters In Fiction

Strong Female Characters in fiction. One of my favorite quotes on this topic is from Joss Whedon. When asked why he writes strong female characters, he said, “Because you’re still asking me that question.” I think that that in itself speaks volumes as to the real issue, which is why this is even an issue in the first place. Or, more specifically, why this is still an issue. Because it really shouldn’t be.

What exactly is a strong female character? I’ve spent Gosh knows how long contemplating the answer to that question, because it’s important to me to include such characters in my work, as I believe it should be with every writer. What I find interesting is that there isn’t a lack strong male characters. Strong male characters aren’t an issue. Indiana Jones, Sherlock Holmes, Dracula – these aren’t considered ‘strong’ male characters. The fact that they are male isn’t really worth mentioning. Because being male doesn’t define them as characters. Yet there is a significant lack of strong female characters. Why is it that every other year Batman or Superman get a new movie, but no one can seem to get a Wonder Woman project off the ground?

When people talk about strong female characters, I don’t think it’s with reference to physical strength, although that can play a part. What I’ve gathered so far is that a strong female character is a character whose being female is not her defining trait. She is a character who cannot be summed up by simply saying she was ‘the girl’ in the story. Her function within the plot transcends her simply being a female. Being female is not her most important attribute. In short, a strong female character is a strong character who happens to be female.

Obviously I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with being female. That’d be stupid of me. What I am saying is that to sum up a character by saying she is ‘the girl’ of the story implies that there is some standard that being ‘the girl’ entails, which is totally not the case. It reduces being a girl or a woman to a set of preconceived notions, it implies that she is ‘the usual’, or ‘the typical’, which is damaging and limiting.

Take the ‘love interest’ for example, in this case ‘the girlfriend’. A love interest serves a function within a story, the same way that a foil or an antagonist does. So having a female love interest is not a bad thing in and of itself. The problem is how frequently this is all the character is ever allowed to be. When a female love interest has no real personality beyond being the thing the protagonist is after, has no goals of her own, or is a two-dimensional afterthought, it reduces said character to a mere prop. She is not a character, she is a trophy, a prize, an end. 

Something that bothers me is that I’ve heard it said that the reason there aren’t as many strong female characters as there are male ones is because most authors are men, and it is difficult for a male writer to write from a woman’s perspective and/or with a woman’s experiences. I personally think this is a lame excuse for lazy writing. Following this logic, a writer is limited to creating characters with experiences similar to his own, which would mean that all works of fiction should be semi-autobiographical at best. Creating a believable female character, as it turns out, is about as difficult as creating a believable male character.    

Does a strong female character have to be the main character to qualify? At first I thought so. I thought that without being the protagonist, any effort at creating a strong female character would be in vain, as the focus would still be on someone other than her. Characters like Xena, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennett, Laura Croft, and Kim Possible (yes, the cartoon) definitely qualify. But it is entirely possible to create strong female characters without them being the protagonist. Again, it all boils down to how well this character is developed. Does she have more than a superficial personality, likes and dislikes, goals and aspirations? Does she exist beyond what she looks like? Does she have purpose? Does she affect the plot? Is she more than a prop? Take, for example, Hermione Granger of the Harry Potter series. Strong female character? Yes. The main character? No. Other examples include Mariah Hill from the Avengers film, or Sarah Conner from the Terminator film series, or Chani from Frank Herbert’s Dune novels.

Granted, right now there are many positive steps being taken to include and create stronger female characters in fiction in all mediums. This is wonderful. However, much more remains to be done, and it is a goal of mine as a writer to contribute to equal gender representation in literature as best as I can, and I think we as writers – in particular – those who happen to be male have an obligation not to contribute to the sexism that is still very prevalent in our society. I’m still researching this very interesting topic, and hopefully I can post more of what I’ve gathered. I’d love to hear input from you all on the subject as well. All comments are welcome. 


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