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03 June 2009 @ 10:48 am
Strong Female Characters  
You know what's a problem? Strong female characters. First of all, why do we have to specify "strong" when referring to "female characters?" Why is this not a given? The default for male is not "strong" or "wusstastic," so why do we have to be so specific about the chicks? It just creates complications, especially when the writer of a book or movie realizes it's time to put in their heroine. "Clearly we can't just have a damsel in distress. That will alienate 50% of the population, so I must make her strong. Let's see... she shall be small and lithe, and hella sexy, and able to beat up twenty men who each outweigh her by 150 pounds without messing up her hair! YES! This is so brilliant and unexpected!" The end result is that not only is she completely unrealistic, but such an emphasis has been put on her strength, which is entirely based on her physical attributes, she winds up completely devoid of personality. She exists to look pretty and hang around with the boys, but because she's strong, we're not supposed to notice she never actually does or says anything worthy of note.

On the other hand, and more frequently an issue in recent fiction, is the strong female character who, instead of impossibly kicking everyone in the head with more force than anyone else on the planet, becomes a confrontational, abrasive jerk. Why anyone spends time with her is a mystery, because she's incapable of treating anyone well, especially her friends. But, you see, she's so strong in her inability to be a pleasant person! Because a person with redeeming qualities is clearly just waiting for someone to stomp all over them, you know.

And let's not even get into the whole Mary Sue issue. When she's got everything, she's not really strong, is she? I mean, where's the struggle? What is she fighting against? Nothing really, she's just there either as an author wish fulfillment or the token female of the group, who like the physically strong female character, suffers from a lack of personality due to her natural ability to do everything.

I think a big part of the issue is that we focus too much on the "strong" part of "strong female character." So forget about the qualifier, and replace it with something else. I want to see quirky female characters. Or interesting female characters. Or flawed female characters. My all-time favourite male character archetype is the cute and geeky sidekick (intelligent, witty, often a bit socially awkward), but aside from Harry Potter's Hermione Granger, I can't think of much in the way of a female equivalent. Why is this? Seriously, there aren't a lot of "strong" female characters who don't fall into at least one of these traps, and I'm sorry, but I'm not interested in reading about a woman who falls apart the instant anything bad happens.

Alright, give me a shout. What interesting or quirky female characters can you think of? Who manages to be strong without sacrificing character for their vaunted strength?
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Katastrophic Katkat_nic on June 3rd, 2009 05:27 pm (UTC)
I nominate Kerowyn from By The Sword. I think she's the most believable female fighter I've ever read. She is not some perfectly coifed waif with a sword, she gets down and dirty with the boys (and other girls, by the way), and wears real armor, not some metal push up bra/girdle thing. Plus I like that it starts out with her as an adolescent, so we get to see what made her choose the life she did (mercenary) and watch her grow and change, as opposed to starting the story when she's already a kick ass merc. Please don't let the hideous cover art dissuade from you from reading it.
Tracy Faultracykitn on June 3rd, 2009 11:27 pm (UTC)
Yes! I second this! Actually, a lot of Mercedes Lackey's female characters are a bit like this--I quite like Talia from the Queen's Own series, and Tarma and Kethry as well. They all had flaws and foibles that made them appear that much more strong and appealing when they overcame whatever was in front of them despite, or even because of, what they'd suffered through.
Caffyolaycaffyolay on June 3rd, 2009 06:59 pm (UTC)
I really love Patricia Briggs's Mercy Thompson. She's a garage mechanic who consorts with werewolves but she herself 'changes' into a coyote. And she's normal with weaknesses and fears but is strong in the fact that she's very brave. I love the series - Moon Called is the first book.
Young Geoffreyed_rex on June 3rd, 2009 10:38 pm (UTC)
Why stop at one?
I'm pretty sure I've mentioned the series to you before, but what the hell — I'll do it again.

Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy is chock-full of not just strong, but well-rounded female characters. Smart, talented, humourous, observant, flawed, neurotic, passionate ... more or less the full gamut of humanity's strengths and weaknesses.
Erica Hayes: princefaerylite on June 3rd, 2009 11:07 pm (UTC)
Oh, yes, I really don't like 'strong heroine' == 'snarky bitch'. If a male character behaved like that, no one would hang out with him.

The heroines in Anya Bast's Witch series are interesting people without needing to kick ass or give snark all the time. But that's a different heroine for each book -- I think it's harder to keep the same MC interesting for book after book.
the mirror crackedtirra_lyrra on June 3rd, 2009 11:45 pm (UTC)
This! I can't stand female characters who are supposed to be badass, but are really just brats with a bad attitude.

What about Brienne from Song of Ice and Fire? She's good in a fight and hangs out with the boys, but gets solidly mocked for it and treated like a freak of nature. Despite being treated badly, she has more heart and integrity than most of the other characters in the books.

Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel, maybe? I've only read the first couple of books, so I don't know how the character turns out. But in the first one, especially, she knows what she wants and goes after it, using all the tools available to her...but especially her guile.
Christinachristina_reads on June 4th, 2009 01:33 am (UTC)
I like Aerin from The Hero and the Crown and Harry from The Blue Sword. They don't go around shouting "I am strong!" and are in general quite concerned about their weaknesses and flaws. However, they are strong as they take down the forces of evil - and they're not afraid to (gasp!) ask for help.
(Anonymous) on June 28th, 2009 03:43 am (UTC)
I love Harimad...even though i have that book in hardcover, I went out and bought a paperback when my copy went missing, because I loved the cover art. And I loved when she's saluted near the end of the book, thusly: "Hail, Harimad-sol, tamer of wizards, hurler of mountains." And her reply: "Oh, dear."

I also rather like Ylia, from the Tales of Nedao by...umm...Ru Emerson?
Jos: K - Stage Beautyenchantedskies on June 4th, 2009 05:39 am (UTC)
i just read The Summer Country by James A. Hetley. His female character was flawed beautifully, still being "strong". the girl was insane, literally, and has her issues, but was still there enough to get through. (and use these issues to her advantage.) Now, that's what i call strong.

Also, some of de Lint's female characters arent the typical "Strong". they have their strengths, but they also have their weaknesses, their problems, and their pasts.
exquisitedeath: Hatexquisitedeath on June 4th, 2009 06:44 pm (UTC)
REID!! ......He really has nothing to do with strong women, but, well, REEEEEID!
tsheehan on June 5th, 2009 02:52 am (UTC)
Oh lord. I have ranted at length about this. I think (in high fantasy) the trouble is women have to be off the charts in order to move around the world without being preyed on. They either have to be very high status, or be incredibly powerful (in terms of physical intimidation ability - magic or proven combat skills) or else they're going to get (i) committed to an asylum (ii) nasty things done to them or (iii) they'll be brought back to the castle by their lord fathers and told not to do it again, then married off at the first opportunity.

Let's face it. Good girls in the ancient world were supposed to marry young, pump out two sons and then die in childbirth. Some women had amazing adventures, like St Hilda, but those women were the exceptional of the exceptional. If you're trying to write a farm-kid-makes-good story it's way easier to pick a guy and not have to deal with endemic sexism all the way through your book. Particularly if you deal with it in life all ready.

(I was on a panel about this at VCon and I fear I made an ass of myself, but I maintain it's hard to write plausible (high) fantasy with women as the primary characters. IMHO: Everything is against you.)

But, on to recommendations. I adore Pat Rothfuss's Denna (Name of the Wind) because she's a mix of all the cliches and in being that, she manages to transcend them (sort of cheating here - she's not the main character, but she figures big). And I'm a big fan of Terry Pratchett's witches. But... well... I think that's almost it.

…And on this topic I have a book for you. It probably won't be out till fall, but I have a book for you.
bright_lilimbright_lilim on June 5th, 2009 06:49 pm (UTC)
Perhaps substitute "interesting" with strong? But a sad fact seems to be that if a female character isn't physically (or magically) strong, she's a victim.

Female characters which are interesting to me, at least:
Patricia McKillip: "The Forgotten Beasts of Eld". Admittedly, Sybel is a strong enchantress but her powers aren't physical but mental. McKillip has also other non-snarky females.
Anne Logston: "Shadow", "Shadow Hunt", and "Shadow Dance". Shadow is a female elven thief character which a pretty carefree attitude.
Matthew Cook: "Blood Magic". Kirin is a hunter and a magic-user who has learned not to rely on others.
I'll second Aerin from McKinley's "Hero and the Crown". McKinley has also other non-snarky female characters such as Beauty and Harry (from the Blue Sword).
I'll also second Phédre from Carey's Kushiel books.

All in all, I think that the snarky heroine phenomenon is pretty new. The older heroines aren't nearly as, er, challenged by their attitudes. Of course, snarkiness is also in the eye of the beholder. I've known male readers who think that Catti'Brie from Salvatore's Drizzt Do'Urden books is a snarky bitch and I think that Catti'Brie is as meek as a fighter woman can be.
Stacia Kanestacia_kane on June 7th, 2009 05:18 am (UTC)
Oh, I totally agree! How sad is it that so many people seem to have a hard time writing strong female characters who aren't bitches?

Why are we equating strength in a woman with miserableness and the inability to behave like a human being? Can't we make women strong by virtue of their brains and hearts, by doing the right thing even when it costs them, as well as physically or through whatever powers they may possess?

We never look at a hero and say he's weak because he's nice to people. Or because he picks his battles. We never have a problem creating heroes who also have vulnerabilities or are simply fully rounded people. So why the trouble with women?

I can't write those kinds of characters. Characters without real flaws don't interest me, and I think with heroines like those there's a tendency to simply throw some Hidden Pain in there as window dressing but it never seems to really *affect* her.

I just find it sad.
garridon.wordpress.com on June 7th, 2009 11:33 am (UTC)
I so agree! When I was growing up, I wanted to action novels with women or girls in it. The best I could do was Nancy Drew, who was smart and thought things through--but still needed to be rescued by Ned when she ran into trouble. In the rest of the books, the girl would get into trouble and do utterly nothing to help herself. She would stand against a wall in horror and wait to be rescued.

But I don't like the trend I'm seeing now. These new heroines walk around the story insulting everyone in sight for no apparent reason. And when it's time for trouble, the writer makes her nearly invincible and gives her incredible powers instead of doing the harder thing--giving her weaknesses that they need to work around. In one of the series I'm reading, the heroine keeps getting new powers in every book. C'mon, please!

L.M. Adams
FIERCENESSpolymexina on June 12th, 2009 06:14 pm (UTC)
do you mind if i crosspost this to www.thehathorlegacy.com?
Anna_ocelott_ on June 12th, 2009 06:18 pm (UTC)
Not at all! Just link back here if you can, please.
Damned Colonialdamned_colonial on June 19th, 2009 09:42 pm (UTC)
(Here via Hathor Legacy)

This is an awesome rant. Thanks so much for posting it. I've linked it on the Geek Feminism Wiki at http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Strong_female_characters
Anna_ocelott_ on June 20th, 2009 02:25 am (UTC)
Thank you!
mechanicaljewelmechanicaljewel on June 20th, 2009 11:47 am (UTC)
I think part of the problem is that people seem to think that when you say "strong female character", you mean that the character herself has physical strength, when really what is mean is exactly what you just said: the character is "strong" in the abstract, literary sense (i.e. they're compelling, complex, well-written, etc)

Anyway, the answer is Leela from Futurama.
Godzilla McMurphy: house md: ambermrsfrankenstien on June 21st, 2009 06:27 pm (UTC)
Thank you for writing this!

About a month ago, I was trying to explain to a (male) friend of mine why "strong female character" has become almost meaningless to me. He didn't get it, even pulling out the old "Well, male characters are unrealistic too!" defence. I may have to link him here.

I'm at the point where I don't want Strong Female Characters. I don't even want Female Characters. I want characters who are female, if I'm making sense.
scottyquickscottyquick on June 22nd, 2009 03:56 pm (UTC)
Have you ever seen Futurama? Leela can kick ass, but she's also incredibly geeky and neurotic and unpopular, but is also a good person.
Amberdescant on June 23rd, 2009 05:11 am (UTC)
PLENTY of amazing, well-rounded, human characters (who happen to be female):
- Jo from Little Women
- Jackie from Nurse Jackie
- Paul Dini's Catwoman
- Jamisia from This Alien Shore
- Rois from Winter Rose (or any character by Patricia McKillip)
- Any character by Melanie Rawn
- Eliza Doolittle from "Pygmalion"
- Tenar from the Earthsea series
- Major Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell series (TV/film more than manga)
- Chihiro from Spirited Away
- Nausicaa from Nausicaa
- Red from Fraggle Rock
nicolealleenicoleallee on September 27th, 2009 02:18 am (UTC)
I have to second the Tenar and Jo comments.
I picked up a cat.: Danbo ⇢ I love the whole worldshoats on July 24th, 2009 11:35 pm (UTC)
Yoko from the Twelve Kingdoms novels. Also, Kino from Kino no Tabi/Kino's Journey.
nicolealleenicoleallee on September 27th, 2009 02:17 am (UTC)
Harriet Vane? Troy Alleyn? Granted, these two are from early British murder mysteries, but they manage to be clearly described, secure in their own skin, characters.

I also like Cordelia in Bujold's Shards of Honor and Barrayar. She struggles with how to be an adult in a young person's world and how to stay honorable when your perception of your home culture shifts.

Rachel in the urban fantasy series from Kim Harrison. She's a mess, but she perseveres.

Sookie Stackhouse in Charlaine Harris' novels stays quirky and develops an increasingly wide stubborn streak throughout the series.

Surprisingly, I like Eve Dallas in the JD Robb (Nora Roberts) "sf/mystery" series. She reminds me strongly of my college roommate.

Patricia Briggs did a remarkable job with her heroine in the Raven's Strike and Raven's Shadow duology. She's prejudiced and conflicted and loyal and fascinating. Mercy and Anna are pretty interesting, too, in her urban fantasy series.

Sharon Shinn sometimes manages memorable, interesting heroines: Rachel in Archangel; Kirra in The Thirteenth House. Sometimes, she just copies Jane Eyre and rebrands it in space, though.
(Anonymous) on September 8th, 2010 09:31 pm (UTC)
Haha, one prototypical example of a "strong female character" - who is invariably a confrontational bully - that popped into my mind is Radha, from the Magic The Gathering novel series.

Yes, I read Magic the Gathering novels. I'm geeky like that, lol