There was some discussion this week about what makes a so-called “strong female character,” and since I’m often touting that I want that very thing in a novel, I thought I’d offer my two cents. It all started with Natalie Whipple, YA author and my former fake-battle-of-the-band nemesis. She blogged on Wednesday that she hates the term “strong female character” because it usually implies that there is only one way to be strong. In response, and further elaboration, Sarah Jae-Jones examined what it means to be feminine and the variations of “strength” it indicates.
I call myself a feminist and I don’t understand how anyone, male or female, can say they are not one. Feminism is the belief that women are equal to men, and that women have the freedom to make their own choices. That’s all it is. We are not militant radical hairy-legged man-haters intent on ridding the world of all things male. The thing about applying labels to yourself is that, suddenly, you become every negative connotation that label has ever represented.
Another example, though on a far less ideological scale, is the casual science fiction fan. Say you like sci-fi or fantasy to the average person and you become pegged as a Babylon 5-loving, Dungeons and Dragons-playing, convention-attending fanatic. (How many times have I experienced the “judgmental nose crinkle” after one hears my favorite show has the word “vampire” in it? Yeah, a lot.)
The point is, it’s easier to generalize; the extreme of a situation is always more fun to consider than the reality. To me, real strength is rising above those labels and bringing their original meaning back to the forefront. (And yes, I am attending the Rally to Restore Sanity.) Strength is not the ability to be sassy, independent, or fall out of gender roles. (Sorry, but I buy impractical shoes and paint my nails and am afraid of spiders – and I like to think I’m pretty damn strong.) Strength is the ability to be yourself and be comfortable with that person. There are characters who are less self-assured and still considered strong, but we’ll get to that later.
So what do I mean when I say I’m looking for strong female characters? Well, it’s the same as what I mean when I say I want strong male characters. “Strong” women are not necessarily the single-and-proud modern femmes made popular by Sex and the City. Of course, those characters were strong, for the most part. That is, until the movies showed up and demanded Carrie needed a marriage license in order to be happy, even though the person she married was horribly emotionally abusive to her for over ten years.
But I digress.
Actually, it’s not digression. By making Carrie get married, her character was weakened. She represented the “It’s OK to be single!” crowd (started a movement, even!) and making her marry Big instead of just living monogamously ever after or (gasp!) remain “happily single” the way she did in the book, basically lobotomized her. Yet, making a character like Charlotte remain single would’ve just been upsetting. Her whole purpose was to find love and marriage and have babies. Not giving her that happy ending would have weakened her too. It would have said everything she worked for was all for nothing, and that her dreams were meaningless.
The ladies of SATC were by no means the originators of ambiguously happy endings in the form of marriage. Elizabeth Bennett wasn’t suddenly in less control of her life because she married Darcy at the end of Pride and Prejudice. What made Lizzie strong was her intellect, wit, and refusal to adhere to the restrictions of her time. We’d root for her no matter what she’s done because of who she is. If she ended up single at the end, she wouldn’t be tragic or a martyr. She’d still be Lizzie, who got there on her own terms.
There is also what I’ll call plot-based strength. Think of Ryan Bingham from Up in the Air (made famous by George Clooney in the movie). In Ryan’s case, independence and freedom are not always positive strong points. He is solitary and convinces himself he wants it that way. Then we see how lonely that life is, and just when we think he can finally connect with someone… he doesn’t. The ending is incredibly sad, but the novel sets it up to be that way. Sad endings aren’t always deep and happy endings aren’t always an easy way out. But, in Ryan’s case, his sad ending existed to make the reader reflect. Like Lizzie, it almost didn’t matter if the character found happiness through another human being or whether he decided being alone is what he really wanted. It was his time, place, and circumstances that made him who he is. If we knew him in real life, would we consider him a strong, confident man? Maybe not. But he does make for one strong character.
Back to my original question, now: what do I mean when I say I want strong characters? I want people who transcend the labels, who are multi-dimensional, and who’s endings are in keeping with what they want or deserve. Words like “strong” or “weak” only apply to how you write your characters and what types of lives you want them to have.
To me, the weakest character in all of literature is Bella Swan. She is passive, unremarkable, and has no purpose other than to be the object of crazy-stalker-boyfriend’s affection. She is the poster child for low self-esteem and teaches girls all over the country that it’s OK to be controlled, bitten, and obsessed over, as long as the boy is cute enough. (Oh, and it’s perfectly fine to carry his claw-happy offspring, as long as you wait until marriage and give up your humanity.)
The reason all of this makes Bella weak, other than the obvious, is because through it all, we’re still supposed to think of her as our heroine, and not as the tragic figure she really is.
Writing good characters, like feminism, is about choices. Whether your character is male or female, ask yourself if they were responsible for their story’s conclusion, and, if they weren’t, can it be considered redeeming or poignant.