I would like to do away with the notion of Strong Female Characters. And if you’ve read my work before, this is not an MFA rant, but rather the delicious bait on the end of a pronounced hook.
Are you with me?
I am sick of the term Strong Female Character. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s overused. It’s a throw-away term used to win an argument. It’s become as bland as saying, “I like sitcoms.” To make matters worse, the term can mean any number of different things, which means it is none of those and therefore it doesn’t mean anything at all.
Don’t get me started on how dismissive and reductionist the term is.
And I’m sorry, but once something becomes a buzzword, it doesn’t mean anything anymore and might as well be marketing speak for ‘spend your money.’ (ask me about the word interactive)
Okay. That’s a lot of Ands.
So. Let’s start with the fact that it’s just a buzzword. People throw it around like it’s splenda or estevia. “It goes on everything. Look at me. I’m having a CNN sandwich. You know what it really needs? Some strong female sriacha.”
It also doesn’t mean anything. When you say Strong Female Character do you mean:
“Woman who shoots people with guns, just like a man?” (offensive)
“Woman who can lift things over her head, just like a man?” (equally offensive)
“Woman who doesn’t let her emotions cripple her decision-making, just like a man?” (so offensive)
“Woman who stands up for what she believes in, in the face of adversity?” (that’s called a protagonist)
“Woman who has agency in her own story.” (the version writers know)
The first three offend me. They either try to say women aren’t normally strong (gross), or that in order for them to be strong they must instead emulate the mannerisms of men. How did this happen?
(I’ll bet it was Sigourney Weaver)
This abusive use of the term is just as ugly as the reductionist manner in which writers use it to showcase characters who lack dimensionality. Maybe I should explain that.
One dimensional characters have surface traits and maybe a quirk. “Grog smash.”
Two dimensional characters have personal issues and/or some kind of personality. “Grog smash when he’s angry.”
Three dimensional characters have behavior and a world view. They take action when necessary. They have what writers call, ‘agency.’ “Grog smash when he’s angry to compensate for the self-esteem issues and fears he felt as a small man growing up in a world of bullies. In effect, now he is the bully.”
Notice how Grog’s physical strength is the side-effect of a larger character puzzle. He’s not running through the jungle shooting gorillas with two pistols trying to find treasure (hint: Lora Croft is the jerk version of Indiana Jones, without the charisma). Grog in that final example is a complicated character whose physical strength is actually a detriment. This makes him way more complicated than saying, “he’s a strong character.”
He’s a fully-fleshed out and realized character!
Let me take this to another level.
Perhaps my favorite character of all time is Meursault from Albert Camus’ The Stranger. I just like existentialism and brooding, uneven characters. But a very close second place would be Detective Sarah Linden from the TV Show “The Killing.”
I would never use the phrase, Strong Female Character to describe Linden. One, because of the reason I listed above. Two, because she is so damn complex, I’d rather talk about how she’s quite possibly a four-dimensional character.
If you’ve not watched the show, turn off everything and go on Netflix and watch seasons 1 and 2. Then, 24 hours later, come back and finish reading this. It’s that good.
Without spoiling anything, Detective Linden is supposed to retire from her job in the Seattle P.D. and move to Santa Rosa, CA to be with her fiance. On her last day, a body is discovered and her obsessive nature, mixed with police bureaucracy keep her in Seattle until the case is solved. To make matters worse, she’s already moving out of her house and her teenager is ready to leave school (yep, he already said good-bye to everyone). Compound this with a partner-trainee who she can’t trust, a compulsive disorder, and an unsolved crime that has been haunting her for years and Sarah Linden quickly becomes a character with so much on her plate, she can’t keep it straight. And the audience is stressed out by it too.
Now. At no point, have I reduced her character by calling her either ‘female’ or ‘strong.’ Nor have I bothered to describe what she looks like, what she does with her free time, or how she feels about cute boys. In fact, to address her gender at all, would only complicate things as we now get to explore her perspective of dealing with people who treat her differently because of her gender.
I could go on for a while about how complicated Sarah Linden is.
And by a wide margin, complicated characters are more interesting than strong ones. Characters who are plagued by inner demons are more interesting than those who can bend bars and lift gates. Characters who see the world in a different shade are more interesting than those who stab and shoot their way through problems. Characters who have human relationships that are complicated and need exploration/tending are more interesting than those who ‘hunt alone because what they do isn’t pretty.’
If ever someone said to me, ‘this female character is…’ my only hope would be that mentioning the character’s gender somehow inferred that it made the character more interesting. Not stronger.
Now. I get it. In the physical world, men have broad shoulders and their muscle mass is greater, etc. But unless I’m writing a story about barbarians and Vikings crushing their enemies with axe and sword, the physical strength of a character isn’t really a measure of anything. And certainly if I’m using the term ‘character’ I’m taking about someone inside a story, perhaps as a protagonist, and that character better have a way to solve problems, regardless of physical limitations.
Is Charles Xavier a strong character? Is Tinkerbell?
Now. Let’s get to the less substantive kind of storytelling we are used to having this conversation about. Comic books.
I don’t read the DC Universe. I’ve not suffered any head trauma, so I don’t need to. But my guess is that Wonder Woman comes up a lot in these conversations about strong characters.
But, the comic book is unreadable. But not because Wonder Woman isn’t interesting. Far from it. I think she’s among the only interesting characters in the DC Universe. But the problem is that Wonder Woman is in the wrong playground.
The DC Universe is exploitive and suffers from the DragonballZ effect of bigger is better. (Why are there any other characters in the DC Universe when there is Superman?) Wonder Woman is just a cog in a very stupid machine that churns out stupid idea after stupid idea. If your complaint about Wonder Woman is that she’s treated like a sex object, you’re missing the 99% of the problem. Wonder Woman has agency. A skimpy costume. And… I couldn’t list a single WW villain. Seriously. Diana’s the daughter of Hera, right?
Wonder Woman is an icon of silver age of comics. A cultural figure that we all know. But I couldn’t tell you anything about her beyond her powers. I can tell you there’s been 16 Hal Jordans, everything you want to know about Batman, and maybe 200 things about Superman, despite hating him more than brussel sprouts. But I don’t know anything about Wonder Woman.
And you know why?
It’s not because she’s not strong or even interesting. The stories I’ve read where she makes an appearance are sometimes compelling.
But Wonder Woman is in the wrong playground. The DC Universe was started with a character who was indestructible and could do anything. Every character who came after was cut from softer clay.
(What? Wonder Woman was actually formed from clay? Oof. Way to ruin a metaphor.)
(Ed note: It’s actually a simile.)
No one in the DC Universe is interesting. Everyone is physically strong and break things in half. Wonder Woman is just another character that can break things. And she’s a fetishist’s dream (read up on the whole bondage thing if you’re interested). She’s not a fully-realized character. Complaining that she’s not strong or interesting or whatever those conversations become is like complaining that a koala bear doesn’t eat honey.
Superhero comics are not the playground for an intelligent discussion about strong characters of any sort. Comic books are re-invisionings of the mono-myth, told by people who think don’t know what the word mono-myth is. I can’t stress enough how utterly bankrupt the medium of comics is when it comes to content and context. You’re not going to find ‘strong’ anything here. Just spandex-wearing idiots written by spandex-wearing idiots.
Strong means Something Else
I think I’ve made my point pretty clear. Strong means too many things in this context to be of any value. Saying you want a strong female character is redundant. No one wants a character of any gender that can’t make it through the story without help. Well. Except Bridget Jones.
Female Characters need to be just as rich and complicated as male characters. Can we just start making rich and complicated characters? And stop treating books like Twilight as actually… well…. anything? If you want a gun-totting character, say that. If you want a gymnast character, say that. If you want a character who can lift luxury liners in the air, say that. If you want to complain about TV or Comics or Novels not having enough Strong Female Characters, join the club of people who think TV/Comics/Novels don’t have any strong characters at all.
And certainly not interesting ones.
King for a Day
I really hate it when people do what I’m about to do, but I kind of need to put my money where my mouth is. So, this is my self-promotional part of this thread. Regardless of how disingenuous it is to always turn everything one writes into “me me me,” this is how I choose to write
female characters for what I consider to be one of my stronger books.
I wrote something called King for a Day last year. It’s a fantasy-horror adventure/campaign/sandbox. In it, there are a number of interesting female characters, who (in my opinion) trump any of the male characters. They are complicated, rich, and at no time are they ever reduced to ‘just women.’ Now. Because they are characters in a roleplaying game product, they need to have some level of agency and some level of ‘help me’ written into them. Otherwise, what are the PCs doing there? That said, if this were a novel, they might be capable of writing their own fates without some outsider getting involved. Nonetheless, three of them have the best stories in the book.
Directly from the book, the text for these three is below, followed by a storyline GMs can include for the characters.
Kendra is the wife of Darius Hightower. She is the biological mother of their two young sons, and the resented caretaker of Darius’ older daughters. Kendra’s life has not turn out as planned. Her husband works all the time, the children take study at home with her, but spend all their fun time with the help. She feels alone in a very large, unwelcoming house that Darius fills with odds and ends. It is this empty feeling that may lead to an affair m Strangled Vines.
Despite being the catalyst for all of Darius’ accomplishments, Kendra doesn’t fit into her husband’s mind-space. When Darius is adrift with a deep thought, he can be lost for days, leaving Kendra more detached than ever. She is desperate to make friends and is happy to greet guests who are made to wait for her husband. In time, she may develop a rapport with someone, which could cure her malaise.
Kendra has been married before and even had children with her first husband. She left all of them behind when she met Darius, and he knows nothing of her previous life.
Vasya and Nadia are a pair of well-trained mercenaries. They have worked together for years. It is quite possible one of the PCs even knows them. Nadia is quiet and reflective, always listening and paying attention to what is going on. She is well-trained with many polearms, as well as the longsword. She is fairly attractive and comfortable in her skin. Nadia is not above approaching one of the PCs for sex, while keeping herself emotionally distant. Sometimes she just needs it.
The pair can be approached for aid in nearly any capacity. However, they are also competitors to the PCs, seeking work wherever they can find it. Use them to track down storylines that the PCs have ignored and/or provide support for the PCs when they are lacking manpower.
Rhonda† is the wife of Vromme and mother of Skye. She is nearly 15 years younger than her husband and maintains a healthy, buxom figure. She is considered the prettiest woman in Halford, but such claims are relative to the beauty of the weathered village. For Rhonda, such claims are flattering, but she doesn’t let it go to her head.
Although Rhonda has grown up among the peasant class, she’s never really had a hard life. Being pretty has its advantages of course, but marrying young to an already established wic-reeve, meant not having to struggle the same way other peasants do. She’s never developed a big-picture perspective on how things work, as a result. For a peasant, she is blissfully unaware.
She bore one child with Vromme and this has always bothered Rhonda. And while Vromme has never complained, he has clearly directed a lot of love and attention to his child. This isn’t an issue of contention between Rhonda and Vromme, mind you, but she does notice her doting husband.
Vromme runs the majority of functions at the mill, hiring on Putnam for some of the manual labor, leaving Rhonda to focus on baking bread and pies and turning the front of the gristmill into a bakery. But since Skye’s disappearance, even this is a struggle for her.
Rhonda and Skye have grown apart over the years. The last time they spoke, the pair had a particularly emotional argument, and Rhonda regrets the things she said. She fears for her daughter’s safety. And these fears lead to depression, which play out in m Someone Else’s Life.
Rhonda is willing to offer nearly anything to those who find her daughter, even things she doesn’t have. In desperation she approaches the PCs, regardless of trust and begs for aid.
† It is all too easy to make Rhonda a caricature of her own sorrow. Her behavior isn’t erratic and poorly thought. But the thought-process and sorrow are at odds. Rhonda’s hubris is her arrogance — she has made Skye’s disappearance about her and not about Skye at all.
Kendra, Nadia, and Rhonda are the heart of this storyline.
While none of these storylines have anything to do with the other, all of them (potentially) lead to thematic similarities.
Kendra, having given Darius what he needs by bearing two sons, wiles away the hours in the house, with nothing to do — waiting for death. So, after years of neglect, she seeks out a lover. This lover can be a PC (Trust level contingent), or a member of the Tumbercombe Caravan. Kendra has no intentions of having an affair with a local. This can have deleterious effects during w Hightower’s Folly.
Her affair helps her to feel young again, or at the very least relevant. It is not about hurting Darius.
The liaison starts simply, with the PC caring for Kendra’s needs, but soon a “relationship” grows, complicating issues. Kendra’s neediness grows. She sends notes secretly through taverns and other locales, and she worries when the PC is not close by, fearing the worst. Darius may grow suspicious or be too wrapped up in his own life.
Nadia is an uncomplicated woman of the world. She has needs and is unabashed about them. She can either approach the (physically) strongest of the PCs, or Vasya can arrange something for her, should the PCs have a better relationship with him. Either way, it’s only about sex. Should a PC reject her advance, she moves on to someone else.
Nadia approaches Brother Job Cross for intercourse, complicating issues with Rhonda. The gossip that ensues could ruin a lot of lives.
Rhonda’s depression leads an affair with Brother Job Cross when she can no longer turn to her husband. w Someone Else’s Life. The issues associated with this affair are complicated, especially since Rhonda does not see this as a calculated betrayal — on her part anyway.
Rhonda moves out of the house and makes her affair public. Gamemasters are free to calculate the repercussions on their own.
One might notice a great deal of sexualization going on here. This is relevant to the overall stories I’ve written into this 300+ page book (with a pagan god of fertility in the mix). It’s complicated and I can’t explain it away in the 3000-words this article has now become. What I can say is this… none of these women are victims, or window dressing, or punchlines to bad jokes. No one runs around telling them to “shut up” under the guise of ‘equality.’ They are complicated characters. They are still women in the historical sense of the adventure, taking care of family and so on. But they are not limited to these roles. Nor are they props for cheap jokes or costume fetishery.
I don’t have a good close here. I didn’t expect this article to go on so long. But, the subject matter is important to me and my damn keyboard wouldn’t shut up.
And now, wordpress is telling me I just broke the 3000-word mark.
I’m sure someone, somewhere is going to use this as ammunition to call me an elitist, sexist, or whatever other agenda-ist ad hominem comes to mind, rather than address the issue of the crappy work that passes for genre writing. My only defense can ever be this. I want female characters one day to just be called characters, so we can move on to the important work of slaying dragons together.