Oh No, She Didn’t: The Strong Female Character, Deconstructed

They should kick ass but have other talents; they shouldn’t necessarily kick ass because that’s been done to death; they should have agency; they should move the plot forward; they should be assertive but not obnoxious; they should hold positions of power; they shouldn’t be raped or die to give the hero incentive for his quest.

There’s been a lot of talk lately in the science fiction and fantasy community about “strong” female characters, with various authors weighing in about how to write them, what they are, and why the term is flawed in the first place. There are discussions of deadly tropes and how to avoid them. This is all fine, and I agree with the points made for the most part; the last thing we need is a rehash of eyerollingly blatant male fantasies. But with all the focus on writing techniques on the one hand, and political imperatives on the other, I wonder if we’re not losing sight of the big picture.

Just as I don’t imagine most women want to be thought of as “female writers,” the idea of “female characters” as a category for discussion seems problematic. That this category continues to thrive, and to spawn essays and blog posts—including this one!—points directly to the underlying problem: we are issuing prescriptive Do’s and Don’ts about the depiction of women as if they are a separate, exotic species. There is of course good reason for this—frequently in fiction, and in genre fiction in particular, women are depicted as alien beings, even when it’s with the best of intentions. The “kickass” female character who is in fact a sexual fantasy was brilliantly satirized by Mallory Ortberg of The Toast, and we all recognize this character—whether she’s kicking ass with her perfect legs on Alias or the Matrix. (Or even sitting her perfect tiny body down to write some code as in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Yes, I went there.)

There is an uncomfortable feeling in online discussions about how to write “female characters” that some are squinting hard in their attempt to see women as people, while others are approaching the subject with the dutiful submission we bring to a meal of thrice-washed organic kale. One subset wants writing tips on how to take on the otherworldly she-goddess; another wants to make sure we are doing feminism properly. The first reminds me of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, where through innumerable books and sexual experiences, the male characters never cease to lament their inability to understand women. As to the second, well, I think feminism is complex, and what constitutes a feminist character should be part of an ongoing dialogue, not a set of precepts sealed in blood. It is also individual: Lisbeth Salander annoyed the hell out of me, but for others she was empowering…and I’m not out to argue someone out of their empowerment. At twenty-one I found Joss Whedon’s Buffy empowering, and I know that is not for everyone.

What I think is missing from some of these discussions is: writing a fully realized character of any gender requires one trait above all others, and that is empathy. When a female character goes off the rails, it is often because the author experienced a failure of imagination; while he could imagine all the emotions a man might feel in a similar situation—and in the case of literary fiction written by men, this is often recounted in great detail—he has neglected to understand his female characters in the same way. Instead there is a hyperawareness of her beauty and sexiness even from her own perspective, such as in Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot; an inability to grasp how the character might experience life from the inside. I think when male authors make this mistake it’s because they forget we don’t see ourselves the way they see us. I don’t want to go so far as to call this a lack of empathy, but it is certainly a failure of imagination.

How about this: if writing a female character is difficult for you, try forgetting the character is a woman unless the fact is somehow relevant to the story. Heck, even if it is relevant, forget they’re a woman—or perhaps it’s more accurate to say, forget what you think you know about women. What has gone into the shaping of this person—what is their past, what are their skills, do they have a sense of humor? Do they chafe at societal restrictions or embrace them? If it’s the former, that can lead to dramatic inner conflicts if your book’s setting is restrictive to women—conflicts that can make for wonderful fiction, like River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay. There the female protagonist, Lin Shan, is a poet and intellectual in a culture that suppresses women’s freedoms. She doesn’t have the power to act as often as the male protagonist, but in my view her character is all the more compelling for that reason. Oppression can beget inner conflicts and these are a writer’s playground, offering endless character development opportunities. But not if the writer defines the character as a “female character” with a set of supposedly innate and fixed feminine qualities.

In a similar vein, I enjoy writing men because I get to ask questions—different questions for each character, of course, as there is no one trait or circumstance that is true for all men. How does it shape your perspective on the world when you are always the tallest and strongest person in the room? (I have a few friends like this, and can only imagine.) What is it like to have the quiet confidence of knowing—without any doubt—that your work is valued? In a culture that elevates men as natural leaders, what is it like to have to conform to the expectations which accompany that role? We see George R. R. Martin deal with this last question with the character of Jaime Lannister, who begins at the top in every way in his society, but later is bereft of the martial prowess which gave him value. Meanwhile we love Tyrion because he faces challenges similar to those of a female character—he is physically smaller and weaker than most men, despised, and treated as a pawn by his father—and responds to these challenges with wit and pathos.

I guess what I want to say is…go crazy! Have fun with it. Get into your character’s head. Forget about her body unless another character is looking at it. Forget any assumptions about what women are like. Let her surprise you. That ends up being a double win—for the reader and for you.

Ilana C. Myer has written about books for the Globe and Mail, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Huffington Post, and Salon. Her first novel, Last Song Before Night, an epic fantasy about poets and dark enchantments, is forthcoming from Tor in September 2015.

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