When I’m building female characters, one of my aims is to make them anti-Smurfettes.
The “Smurfette Principle,” for those who haven’t heard of it, is the trope in which an ensemble cast has a bunch of dude characters who are all differentiated by salient qualities—the Smart Nerd One, the Rough Army Veteran, the Handsome Smooth-Talker, the Thief, and so on. Then the ensemble will include one woman, but her defining quality will be her femaleness. She is The Girl.
A huge part of the problem with Smurfettes is, of course, the paucity of female characters itself. But hand-in-hand with this, I think when a demographic is not well-represented, creators strive to make the character inoffensive. “We can’t do that with our female character, because what are we saying about women?!” Nothing, of course, if there are enough other women in the cast! If the Smart Nerd One and the Rough Army Veteran are women too, it relieves the pressure on The Girl to be a “strong female character” who is competent in all ways but never extreme enough to raise an eyebrow. The common wisdom nowadays is to counter this problem by pushing for more women, all types of women, which I fully agree with—but I want to go a step further.
I want women with sharp edges. Female characters who are risky, extreme, gross, strange. Geniuses who are too smart, killers who are too vicious, monarchs who become legend, people who yell too much or cry too much or sacrifice too much of themselves.
Female characters you remember even if you don’t like them. Who, if they were missing from the cast, would take all that character force with them.
I think creators feel a certain freedom writing male characters that they don’t feel when writing characters of more underrepresented genders. On the one hand, it’s good to be mindful—after all, if you get something wrong writing a cis dude, it’s not exactly going to perpetuate damaging tropes about cis dudedom, whereas the same is not true when writing nonbinary or female characters. And I don’t want people to discard that mindfulness. But it’s also possible to go too far with good intentions and flatten out anything that might make a character interesting.
And I do see this as an equal and opposite way to devastate the Smurfette Principle: even if a character is the only female main character in a particular scene, I want to make her just as sharply drawn as the men. She’s going to be just as much of a force and get just as many good one-liners, and she’ll have as much personality as I can give her, even if parts of it aren’t “strong” or “likeable.” I want her to be one of the people bringing color and life to what’s happening.
When I was building my lead character for Zero Sum Game, it was a very conscious choice to give her a lot of sharp edges. She’s smart and snarky and devastatingly effective, and also egotistical and impulsive and terrible in so many ways. I want fans to be able to argue about her, dig into her, write fics in which she learns things or ship her with serial killers. I want her to be the most fascinating, frustrating character in her own story.
Who knows if I succeeded, but I do know one thing: she’d make a terrible Smurfette.
This article was originally published on the Tor/Forge blog.
Read an excerpt from S.L. Huang’s Zero Sum Game here.
S.L. Huang has a math degree from MIT and is a weapons expert and professional stuntwoman who has worked in Hollywood on Battlestar Galactica and a number of other productions. Her novels include the Cas Russell series (formerly known as Russel’s Attic). Her short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Nature, Daily Science Fiction, and The Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy 2016.