Daily Archives: December 22, 2011

She’s a Hero: Writing Female Characters

In order to give myself some time to focus on my family and some much needed rest and comfort, I’ve decided to repost a few of the most popular blog posts from the last few months, to share with my newer readers as well as bring up some favorites of those of you who have been in lock-step with me this whole while.

Since writing this, I watched the documentary Miss Representation, which I highly suggest as an addendum to this post. It operates on the idea that while women may be proliferating in media, their portrayal is still unjust and stereotypical as well as grossly over-sexualized. A prolific demeaning image does damage. As creators of media, we writers hold a massive responsibility to represent women and other minorities in ways that break down social barriers and stereotypes, not reinforce them. We owe it to our readers, who are diverse and vitally important, to create strong characters from all walks of life and to endow our work with a sense of humanity and equality. This is more than possible to do without being trite or simpering. Write real people. Write real women. Words can change the world.

As I sat pondering what to blog about today, my gentle viewers, a little fork appeared in front of me. The one tine led to writing about language and completing the penultimate installation of The 25, and the other led down a rocky and somewhat divisive path. Naturally, I chose rocks and division.

So, gentle viewers, here we are. Notice how I chose to title this blog. Some of you might have remarked to yourselves that I omitted the -ine at the end of the word “hero.”

I did that on purpose.

I was watching The Hangover 2 yesterday with my husband, and I remember being struck not only by how not funny the whole movie was, but (again) by how the women were portrayed. You have the Nagging Wife: “Where are you? What have you done this time?” You have the Hot Fiancee: “I love you even though you disappeared, lost my brother who in turn lost a finger, and nearly crashed into the wedding in a boat. You’re perfect even with the stupid tattoo on your face!!!!!” …and that’s about it. The women in that movie fall into two categories: completely obnoxious naggers or obsequious fawning hot chicks. I’m sorry. That’s disgusting.

I read this article a while back, and while I don’t feel like going into it in huge detail, one point I wanted to bring up here was this: when women ask for strong female characters in books and film, we’re not asking for a stick-thin paper doll who has a few “masculine traits” (like fixing cars, fighting, or drinking dudes under the table) but eventually ends up being the damsel in distress all over again. We aren’t asking writers to inject their female characters with super-strength just to make the shlubby everydude look even better when he rescues them at the end of the book or movie. No. And the more I see that, the more frustrating it is.

While some dudes might be looking for this:

Strong female, not a strong character.

What I want to see more of is this:

Because the above image comes before Buffy does this:

Strength is coming back to beat what beat you before.

Want to write strong characters who are women? Get to know Buffy Summers. Hell. Get to know some women. This is what I know about women. For a moment ignore the stereotypes, ignore the media. If you want to write women well, especially if you want your female character to be a hero, listen up.

The same things that make male characters strong are found in women. Real women.

Perseverance. Courage. Intelligence. Ability. Resilience.

Strong characters have weaknesses. I can’t stress that enough. The best male characters in literature and film have all had their weak spots. Maybe it’s arrogance or unrestrained candor. Maybe it’s a stutter or some weird psychological blind spot. They all have them. Strong female characters have them too — and no, if you want them to be real people, they shouldn’t be stereotypical weaknesses like fainting at the sight of blood or crying constantly with little provocation. If you’ve ever known a mother, you should know that women can handle blood. And shit. And vomit. Because yours cleaned all of the above from your squalling body at some point.

We’re writers. We’re responsible for what goes out into world in print. Which means we have a lot of power. A lot of it. What we choose to show the world of women can change things. It can create role models for young girls and boys. It can teach girls that they can be scientists, fighters, mathematicians, professors, astronauts, soldiers, or whatever else they want to be.

My challenge to you is this: read through your work and look for things that are blatant tropes. Some very common tropes are damsels in distress, naggers, or fawners. Look for women who are only placeholders. If any of those exist, I implore you to think about real women. Think about the Maya Angelous of the world, the Harriet Tubmans, the Eve Enslers. Think about mothers. Think about single women making it on their own, paying their bills, getting ahead. Think about their qualities and how your placeholder can become three dimensional. Remember that in great fiction, women aren’t simply tools to make the men look better. Remember that women conquer obstacles in their lives every day.

It’s okay for the men to save the women sometimes, but remember that it’s also okay for women to save men. It doesn’t make men less to make your women strong and well-rounded. The key to writing female characters is writing them as people. As human beings. They should have strengths and weaknesses, goals and purpose.

Make them courageous. Make them dogged. Make them persistent. And whether you’re male or female yourself, if you write women, put the best parts of yourself into their characters. You won’t be sorry.

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