More about the “Strong Female Character”…

 

 

What is a “strong female character”?

This article has an opinion on it, and discusses how little of it there actually is out there, despite the lip service to the concept. Time after time we get a female character who is interesting,  rounded,  ALIVE, strong…and is then smothered in the male protagonist’s story arc because none of those attributes are considered to be important enough for her to be given her own rock to stand on.

A friend of mine  says we don’t need “strong female characters” so much as “female characters with *agency*”, that is to say female characters with the ability to form, understand, follow, and CHANGE their own stories.

The article speaks to the heroines of film – but when I comes to this particular syndrome literature can be every bit as bad.

In the article, they posit a questionnaire:

So here’s a quick questionnaire for filmmakers who’ve created a female character who isn’t a dishrag, a harpy, a McGuffin to be passed around, or a sex toy. Congratulations, you have a Strong Female Character. That’s a great start! But now what? Screenwriters, producers, directors, consider this:

  1. After being introduced, does your Strong Female Character then fail to do anything fundamentally significant to the outcome of the plot? Anything at all?
  2. If she does accomplish something plot-significant, is it primarily getting raped, beaten, or killed to motivate a male hero? Or deciding to have sex with/not have sex with/agreeing to date/deciding to break up with a male hero? Or nagging a male hero into growing up, or nagging him to stop being so heroic? Basically, does she only exist to service the male hero’s needs, development, or motivations?
  3. Could your Strong Female Character be seamlessly replaced with a floor lamp with some useful information written on it to help a male hero?
  4. Is a fundamental point of your plot that your Strong Female Character is the strongest, smartest, meanest, toughest, or most experienced character in the story—until the protagonist arrives?
  5. …or worse, does he enter the story as a bumbling fuck-up, but spend the whole movie rapidly evolving past her, while she stays entirely static, and even cheers him on? Does your Strong Female Character exist primarily so the protagonist can impress her?
  6. It’s nice if she’s hyper-cool, but does she only start off that way so a male hero will look even cooler by comparison when he rescues or surpasses her?
  7. Is she so strong and capable that she’s never needed rescuing before now, but once the plot kicks into gear, she’s suddenly captured or threatened by the villain, and needs the hero’s intervention? Is breaking down her pride a fundamental part of the story?
  8. Does she disappear entirely for the second half/third act of the film, for any reason other than because she’s doing something significant to the plot (besides being a hostage, or dying)?

If you can honestly answer “no” to every one of these questions, you might actually have a Strong Female Character worthy of the name. Congratulations!

So… I thought I’d take a stab at it, with my own characters. Let’s take it a question at a time, shall we?

  1. After being introduced, does your Strong Female Character then fail to do anything fundamentally significant to the outcome of the plot? Anything at all?

Emphatically no. My female characters more often than not are by definition fundamentally significant to their stories. Anghara Kir Hama of the “Changer of Days” books changes the foundation of her world and its beliefs.

Any one of the women of “Secrets of Jin Shei” can be singled out for “fundamentally significant” input.

Amais from “Embers of Heaven” takes on the weight of history and the burden of love, and tells the tale.

Even my YA protagonists stand up and shoulder the responsibility of their own story – Thea, of Worldweavers, starts out helpless, the Girl Who Couldn’t, but she learns better.

The stories which they carry are important, and they are never subsumed into any ”greater” tale that takes the focus from them and shines the spotlight onto any male character in the books in which they appear.

  1. If she does accomplish something plot-significant, is it primarily getting raped, beaten, or killed to motivate a male hero? Or deciding to have sex with/not have sex with/agreeing to date/deciding to break up with a male hero? Or nagging a male hero into growing up, or nagging him to stop being so heroic? Basically, does she only exist to service the male hero’s needs, development, or motivations?

Emphatically not. Yes, there are scenes in some of the books I have written where sex plays a part, where it becomes an integral building block of a plot. No, it is never arbitrary, and no, it is never to motivate a male hero. I use it when it is necessary and when it is “real”. And when my women think it is right. Yes, I created a male character who committed rape – he did it two times, to two different characters, in two VERY different sets of circumstances. And this made sense in the context of the story because it wasn’t just done for voyeuristic purposes, it was part of a horrendous price to be paid, and it WAS paid… but at no time was the woman involved in this situation just a passive receptacle who could be totally replaced with any other female warm body. If anything, the male character in this set-up was the one who existed to serve the development of my female character, not the other way around .

And by that I do NOT mean the tired trope of the Bad Girl Who Became Bad Because She Wanted Revenge For Being Sexually Assaulted When She Was Young – you know, the thing they used in the Lara Croft Tombstone Raider set-up where the kick-ass female plot-carrying protagonist had to be given a rape back-story to, you know, EXPLAIN where her ”strength” came from. My characters don’t need that kind of baggage. They exist on their own, without being a foil to any male plot needs.

  1. Could your Strong Female Character be seamlessly replaced with a floor lamp with some useful information written on it to help a male hero?

HELL, no. Not one of my women is a floor lamp of any description, no matter how illuminating their characters are to the plot of their stories. They have voices. They can speak for themselves.

  1. Is a fundamental point of your plot that your Strong Female Character is the strongest, smartest, meanest, toughest, or most experienced character in the story—until the protagonist arrives?

HELL, no. Can I introduce you to Xaforn of the Guard…? (She lives in “The Secrets of Jin Shei”. Go find her.)

  1. …or worse, does he enter the story as a bumbling fuck-up, but spend the whole movie rapidly evolving past her, while she stays entirely static, and even cheers him on? Does your Strong Female Character exist primarily so the protagonist can impress her?

HELL, no. In fact, it is often the case that my male characters tend to have to work extra hard to impress HER, my female protagonist, who is the one to render such judgment. But more than that – my characters, male or female, do not exist to “impress” or “be impressed by” anyone in particular. If it happens, it’s a result of who those characters are, what they do, what they say, what they stand for. If they’re impressive, they will impress others, men and women alike. If they’re not impressive… in some way, in ANY way… it is very unlikely that those characters will end up carrying the plot of any of my novels.  I don’t write “to impress” – and I don’t write girls and boys in order to dazzle the other. I write people. And if people impress other people, that’s an achievement entirely unrelated to their gender.

  1. It’s nice if she’s hyper-cool, but does she only start off that way so a male hero will look even cooler by comparison when he rescues or surpasses her?

It isn’t that I’m fundamentally opposed to anyone being rescued, or doing the rescuing – but I don’t start from the premise of the Princess in the Tower. Sure, my Anghara ends up in her big bad brother’s dungeons at one point – bit it is another WOMAN who does the real rescuing here, really, and the capture itself was only necessary to achieve a certain plot twist that I needed and lasted only long enough to accomplish that.

And far from being “rescued”, my young Thea of the Worldweavers universe does a heap of rescuing of her own. It’s like my friend said – AGENCY. My women don’t get into trouble and then sit down and cross their elegant arms and politely say, “help. I said, help.” First they’ll look around for a way out they can find THEMSELVES. And that might well qualify as “hyper cool”… but my ladies STAY that way…

  1. Is she so strong and capable that she’s never needed rescuing before now, but once the plot kicks into gear, she’s suddenly captured or threatened by the villain, and needs the hero’s intervention? Is breaking down her pride a fundamental part of the story?

The only storyline that remotely qualifies under this, in my oeuvre, is the thing that happens to Anghara Kir Hama at her brother’s hand. And yes, she was captured by the villain. And thrown into the dungeon, And yes, sigh, she gets rescued from there. But the tail end of this story is that she turns into a freaking GODDESS at the end of it. The capture-and-rescue sequence serves not to break her pride, but to break her chrysalis. (And even so… this was an Early Work ™ – I kind of grew out of that trope and its necessity quite quickly after I got it out of my system. I probably wouldn’t write that book the same way if I wrote it today.

  1. Does she disappear entirely for the second half/third act of the film, for any reason other than because she’s doing something significant to the plot (besides being a hostage, or dying)?

No. As I said, my women ARE my plot. If they disappeared, so would my book.

The article said that if I answered no to these questions, I might have a Strong Female Character worthy of the name.

I think I have a regiment of them.

I think they are needed.

I will continue to be their voice.

The article asks, at the end,

So maybe all the questions can boil down to this: Looking at a so-called Strong Female Character, would you—the writer, the director, the actor, the viewer—want to be her? Not want to prove you’re better than her, or to have her praise you or acknowledge your superiority. Action movies are all about wish-fulfillment. Does she fulfill any wishes for herself, rather than for other characters? When female characters are routinely “strong” enough to manage that, maybe they’ll make the “Strong Female Characters” term meaningful enough that it isn’t so often said sarcastically.

… and that opens a whole other can of tropes. I can see the kneejerk response to this being, but if you want to BE her, isn’t she a Mary Sue? A wish fulfillment character?

Is it possible, between the Scylla of creating a character who qualifies as a Yes to any of those questions, a damp dishrag of a foil for a male protag and no will or form or shape of her own, and the Charybdis of creating a character whose strength and agency qualify her for nothing more than being a wish-fulfilment fantasy (whether for her author or the reader who encounters her), to create a “real” female character who has a remote chance of being anything at all?

And my answer to that, as it has been on many a convention panel on “strong female characters” that I’ve been placed on over the years, is that what is important is to write STRONG CHARACTERS. Characters who are people, who are human, before they have to pick between the feminine and the masculine, between “being a lady” or being Conan the Barbarian.

Write strong people, and every story will be the better for it, whether a male or female hand guides it to its conclusion.

Filed under Alma Alexander, writing process. You can also use to trackback.

There is one comment. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. Laura

    For most of the movies I watch I will agree, strong female characters are a facade.

    However, the character Alice in Resident Evil 1, will fill all the requirements. My husband and I went through all 8 questions and answered ‘no’ to them.

Author Information

Alma Alexander

Alma Alexander is a novelist, short story writer and anthologist whose books include High Fantasy ("Hidden Quen""Changer of Days"), historical fantasy ("Secrets of Jin Shei", "Embers of Heaven"), contemporary fantasy ("Midnight at Spanish gardens") and YA (the Worldweavers series, the Were Chronicles). She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two cats. Visit site.

Topics

Archives

Browse our archives:

RECENT BOOKS