Thursday, January 5, 2012
How to make a strong female character: Breaking past the stereotypes
The career-driven lawyer, the teacher with commitment issues, the rogue bounty hunter who’s trying to avenge a loss without getting close to anyone. All of these roles and more show up in movies and books featuring strong female characters. More often than not, during the bulk of the movie or book, the strong female character won’t give into love or won’t become allies with another person (insert any scenario) because of a career (No Strings Attached) or some other single-minded goal (A Woman Called Sage).
In the typically movie set up, the strong female character in question falls in love with the man, saves the day, escapes capture, ect. and at the end is suddenly a “female.” Now it’s okay for her to want kids. She can’t have any desire to be a mom before the end because that’s just not part of the stereotypical strong female definition. She’s allowed to marry, wear a nice dress and heels and have a massage. The stereotypes demands that the woman acts hard, cold and even the ever insulting, ignorant phrase “PMS-y.”
Because it’s okay for men to have mood swings, but not women. If a man freaks out on someone, he’s stressed or dark. If a woman does it, PMS. No questions asked.
One book that managed to not only keep the lead female actually believable and made it so her resolution wasn't a complete 180 of her former self is A Women Called Sage by DiAnn Mills. Sage is a bounty hunger in the post-Civil War west whose husband and unborn son were murdered. She returns to her Native American roots on a quest to find her family’s killers. She lives off the land, refuses help from anyone and won’t entertain the thought of the future. Revenge is all that matters to her. At the end, she finds life again, but still maintains what made her the capable woman she was in the beginning of the book. She’s learned lessons, grown, but her core is intact.
When reading books or watching movies that boost a “strong female character,” I compare that person to the supporting cast. What makes the rest of the cast “weak?” (If that is what they are considered or how it's portrayed.) In the Stephanie Plum novels by Janet Evanovich, Stephanie’s mother, Ellen, is a homemaker and spends her days cooking. Does this make her a weak female character? What about Ellen’s desire to see her daughter in a safer job with a husband who loves her? Ellen appears as a weaker character on the surface due to stereotypes, but if readers look beneath the surface, they will find a woman who holds down her home no matter what is going on.
Often it feels as if romance, parenting or a trip to a spa is seen as a negative character factor for woman. When a woman says, “I love you,” she’s suddenly cast aside. What is it about love, family and female habits that make someone weak?
In the quest to make more female appealing characters, some authors and filmmakers are taking the wrong exit. When creating a female character, make her a woman. Don’t ask, “What would a man do?” in a situation. “What would that character do?” is the better question. If she has a fear of drowning, odds are that she would try to find another way around river than swimming across.
It’s far too easy to make a male character, give him a women’s name and call it a day. That doesn’t work. It’s the old sheep in wolf’s clothing bit. Something doesn’t look or feel right. Whether writing for a book, movie, video game or TV show, it’s easy to trap yourself into a set of rules regarding what the female characters can and cannot do. Becoming trapped often hinders character development. A character grows during the writing process. Stories evolve. That’s something good writers know and embrace. Setting hard rules as to what can and cannot be done only limits the story and characters, female or male.
There’s no formula or character sheet that gives the exact recipe for a strong female character. Rather than mold them all from the same mold, let them grow and adapt into something real, not mass produced.