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

25 February 2015

From Tor.com:

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.

. . . .

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.

Link to the rest at Tor.com and thanks to HN for the tip.

Characters, Fantasy/SciFi

28 Comments to “Oh No, She Didn’t: The Strong Female Character, Deconstructed”

  1. …and in genre fiction in particular, women are depicted as alien beings, even when it’s with the best of intentions.

    Wait. You mean women aren’t alien beings?

    Sorry. Couldn’t resist 😉

    • Considering that no mere male has ever managed to guess what they mean by what they say or do …

      One of my stories even warns the male readers not to try to argue ‘logic’ (or anything else) with them:

      Alex chuckled with the rest of them when Garrek gave her a dirty look. “You forgot the third rule,” he said with a grin. At Garrek’s confused look, he said, “Neal warned us male types of the three rules to get along with females. Rule one, she is always right. Rule two, when they are wrong, refer to rule one.”

      “And rule three?” Garrek asked with a grin.

      “If you ever find yourself winning an argument with them, apologize immediately!”

      • Goodness, Allen, words fail me. Perhaps you should get acquainted with a few women – you never know, you might like them.

        • Well, I did kinda leave off what came before and after what I quoted you. 😉 :

          .

          “I feel I wear too many hats sometimes. The captain and quartermaster are done for the evening. As chief engineer, I’ve also checked over the repairs you helped the twins with, a very nice job by the way. With those ‘easy’ jobs out of the way, I’m just got the more challenging ones to do.”

          “And those are?” Windsong asked as shi put hir harp in its bag.

          “Mate, companion, father, teacher…”

          “Warrior,” Zhanch added.

          “Court jester when we need a lift,” Calmmeadow said with a grin.

          “Magician!” Holly said with a laugh. “We lost track of the number of jaw drops we got out of showing them Gulf.”

          “Do you regret having those other jobs?” Forest asked.

          “No… I just sometimes worry that I’m not giving them the time they need.” Looking around the room, Neal grinned as he added, “I’m just lucky my mates and older kids are as understanding as they are.”

          “In other words, we take turns!” Quickdash said with a laugh.

          “So whose turn is it tonight?” Goldie asked with a grin.

          Neal smiled. “I’m sure they’ll let me know.”

          “That’s always safest,” Garrek agreed.

          “What’s that suppose to mean?” Goldie asked, picking up a nearby pillow.

          “When we are at Mountain Glade I have little choice but to bow to vixen rule,” he reminded hir. “It sounds like the good captain has also found that to be the safest course of action.”

          Goldie nodded in agreement, but shi still bounced the pillow off Garrek’s head the moment he turned away.

          Alex chuckled with the rest of them when Garrek gave hir a dirty look. “You forgot the third rule,” he said with a grin. At Garrek’s confused look, he said, “Neal warned us male types of the three rules to get along with females and herms. Rule one, she, or shi is always right. Rule two, when they are wrong, refer to rule one.”

          “And rule three?” Garrek asked with a grin.

          “If you ever find yourself winning an argument with them, apologize immediately!” Alex finished with a laugh before being pelted by all available pillows.

          .

          While I have yet to find someone that would put up with my craziness (and/or me being able to put up with theirs), I do have three brothers of which two currently have SO’s and they have five ex’s between them …

          .

          A bachelor is a selfish, undeserving guy who has cheated some woman out of a divorce. — Don Quinn

          A woman is like your shadow; follow her, she flies; fly from her, she follows. – Chamfort

  2. Ugh! And the same would apply to women writing male characters?

    How well a character is developed has nothing to do with gender. It’s a matter of knowing how to write well. I good writer with some life experience can slip into either role convincingly.

  3. Honestly, at the end of the day I’m uninterested in strong female or male characters. I want real characters. Sometimes they’re strong, sometimes not. Whether they have testicles or ovaries is sometimes important to who they are, sure. But so much so that we have to have such discussions over and over again? It’s not that difficult a concept. Write characters that readers can identify with. If you can’t seem to do so when gender comes into play, maybe take some time to think about just why that might be.

    • It is possible to go too far with this, however. I recently read a very interesting, winsome story with many great characters. However, the main character (a guy) was only identifiable as a guy when he was doing things.

      Whenever the character began to think about life, suddenly he started to sound exactly like a woman. Exactly. It was very odd, particularly in a writer who was usually good with voice.

  4. This is annoying, these discussions I mean. Not because I’m a woman. We writers write what we write. I write competent female characters and competent male characters.
    Look, writers write, each according to his and her ability. Some writers manage to fully flesh out characters of either sex better than others. I don’t automatically read sexist into it if a female character is TSTL because I know plenty of women writers who consistently write TSTL female characters.
    And by the way, not all women are empathetic. A female character can be a sociopath and still be a fully fleshed out character.
    One does not need empathy, IMO. One needs solid powers of observation, at least some minimal experience, and a good imagination.

    • One does not need empathy, IMO. One needs solid powers of observation, at least some minimal experience, and a good imagination.

      And Julia drills it.

      Both of my books are built around young women. The first, a McFarland, USA-type tale, had my eldest daughter laughing about me channeling my inner teenage girl. Youngest daughter freaked and claimed I was inside her head.

      I got similar responses from my beta readers and then the folks that wrote to me after reading the books.

      I do think empathy helps, but I rely more on actually paying attention and digging deep into the well of imagination.

      • I was actually going to say something similar- I may not be a teenager but I have raised/am raising three teenagers. I watch, I listen, I learn.

    • Good. My current WIP (hopefully up and illustrated this spring) features a female Vietnam vet with severe PTSD and no apparent compassion. I’m falling in love with her despite her issues. Her serious issues. Based on my personal experience growing up with a Vietnam vet… but with this one, I can play God and fix her.

  5. 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.

    Exactly what some of us were saying in the comments to the other post. If you want to talk about characterization, great. But female characterization, as a separate thing, makes no sense to me. I see less discussion of how to write characters who actually aren’t human. How come no articles on how to write strong elves?

    • That, or how to write a “good” character that is actually complex and interesting. I get so tired of stories where the good characters are boring and the bad ones are compelling. (and no, just making a stupid mistake doesn’t make the hero interesting)

    • Yeah, it took me a while to come to grips with depicting strong elves – because they aren’t all Orlando Bloom, are they?

  6. Great article!

  7. When I first started writing and came across this sort of discussion I got very worried. Would I be able to write men well enough? And then I took a look around at the variety of people I knew – gentle men and aggressive women, gentle women and aggressive men – lots of different people and personalities.

    I think it is more important to show/explain why a character acts the way he/she does than to latch characteristics to a gender. If a man is very gentle because he’s been raised with certain influences it makes sense. If a girl grew up on the streets to become a warrior, it makes sense. That is the only rule I stick to.

  8. Why is this such an issue in sf/f?

    None of the romance or erotica writers groups have these kind of discussions about shallow male characters and men as aliens.

    Unless the guy really is an alien and introduces the woman to kinky extraterrestrial sex. 😉

    • Traditionally, SF has had cardboard female characters, because it was a story for boys and men about men doing manly stuff in a world based around the author’s neat scientific or technological ideas. If you read many stories by the writers of the 50s and earlier (and some later), you might imagine they’d never met a woman in their life. And it’s not like that’s just an expected trait of the genre, many readers have commented on it over the years.

      Today, though, it’s kind of a pointless discussion. I’m typically writing about people who’ve had decades, centuries, or millenia of genetic engineering, so they have very little in common with modern humans.

      And, sadly, my best-selling SF book in the last year was the one with the kinky extra-terrestrial fun. But I’m not admitting to which pen-name that is :).

      • Edward, I’m well aware of the looks I get from the twenty-somethings when I’d go to the comics shops or cons. This crap is the reason I did a blog post on why geek guys can’t get laid. 😀

  9. I wonder how far the GamerGate phenomenon will spread?

  10. I stopped reading the minute I saw ‘deadly tropes.’ Anyone who thinks (or approvingly quotes others who think)that a fictional trope is deadly has trouble with the definition of fantasy.

    • Excellent point, and I would expand that to most fiction. Delete all the tropes and cliches from your fiction, and you’ve got a book nobody wants to read. One major reason people read fiction in the first place is to immerse themselves in something familiar. The emotion or mood a novel evokes -whether it’s Murder on the Orient Express, Sense and Sensibility, The Time Machine or The Lord of the Rings- is the major draw.

  11. I don’t have this problem. I don’t write characters. I write people.

  12. I read this a few days ago, then (not really related), I went to see the movie “Jupiter Ascending”. I was really surprised that the title character, Jupiter Jones, was a strong character. I expected the male protagonist, Channing Tatum’s character, to have to jump in at the end to save the day, but he really doesn’t. Though being overwhelmed at discovering this new universe and her place in it, Jupiter learns the ropes and takes charge. Even when dealing with people thousands of years older and wiser than her, she holds her own. She’s not an a** kicker, but she is take charge girl. I really liked the movie for it.

    • So her parents named her for the Nero Wolfe of the Three Investigators?

      Well played. Well played.

  13. I find it a challenge to understand what makes men tick inside. Fair enough to understand how that might be a challenge for men to understand about women

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