As I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, I am a writer.
I am also a feminist. I believe women should have equal rights to men and that they shouldn’t be unfairly judged for how they dress/act/etc. (I admit, there was a dark age where I thought feminism meant you had to hate men and burn all your bras and refuse to shave your legs. But … luckily I have learned the error of my ways.)
Especially over the past couple of years, as I’ve become more educated about feminism, these two aspects of my life have started to merge together more and more. Spending time on Goodreads has helped me discover a lot of reviewers who are concerned with how female characters are portrayed in books. The more I’ve read about these concerns, the more I’ve noticed them myself.
(A brief side note: This is mostly concerning YA books because that’s mostly what I read, but I’m sure these problems are present in a lot of adult books as well.)
I think there are two major problematic female archetypes. Obviously I’m generalizing a bit here, but I feel like a lot of heroines fall into either category:
1. The Mary Sue: This is a female character who is basically flawless. (The male equivalent is a Gary Stu.) She may have a few “quirks” that are passed off as character flaws––for example, being awkward and/or clumsy. But she doesn’t have a true personality or any actual, consequential faults. She is often very beautiful––even if she doesn’t realize it––and practically everyone falls in love with her. She is kind of an empty vessel in which the author (and the readers) can insert themselves and fantasize that they are living her life. It’s a bit more complex than that, but that’s the gist of it. To find out more about typical Mary Sue traits, I suggest checking out the Universal Mary Sue Litmus Test.
2. The “Badass”: Technically, I think this type of character could also fall under the Mary Sue umbrella. But, it’s a slight variation. After there was a huge paranormal romance craze in YA literature plagued by Mary Sues, it was followed by an apparent backlash in which a lot of weapon-wielding heroines started showing up. It seemed that a lot of authors interpreted the demand for more “strong” female characters as physically strong characters. The misunderstanding seems to be that you can take a boring female character, give her a weapon and some kickass fighting skills, and that automatically makes her more compelling. But … that’s not how it works. The “badass” female lead is often just as flawless and dull as a Mary Sue. She may at least take action more than a Mary Sue would––but she’s often unrealistically good at kicking ass, and can get through countless fights without getting a single scratch on her body.
Either case, I think, is due to laziness on the part of the author. The problem with either archetype is that they’re boring and unrealistic. But I think what’s the biggest problem is that they have no true flaws and they don’t suffer the consequences of their actions.
Regardless of gender, characters should not be flawless. When asked how he’s able to write female characters so well, Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin said, “You know … I’ve always considered women to be people.”
As obvious as it may seem, that’s a good point. Women are people. People are not perfect. Real people:
– Have faults. They have weaknesses––either physical or personality-wise.
– They are sometimes selfish and/or unkind to others.
– They are not perfectly beautiful and they don’t make everyone fall in love with them.
– They sometimes lose fights.
– They suffer phobias and traumas from their experiences.
– They question their actions and sometimes realize that they were wrong to do something.
– They have to face the consequences of their actions.
Of course, this applies to characters of any gender. And don’t get me wrong––there are plenty of horribly-crafted male characters out there as well. But I think we should be especially concerned with how we portray women in literature and how we should make them compelling.
As I’ve already touched upon, giving a female character a weapon isn’t going to automatically make her a better character. Could she be a great character? Absolutely! But is she “better” than another female character who prefers trying on dresses at the mall over shooting people? Well … she could be, but not necessarily.
To quote Sophia McDougall, from her article “I hate Strong Female Characters”:
“What do I want instead of a Strong Female Character? I want a male:female character ratio of 1:1 instead of 3:1 on our screens. I want a wealth of complex female protagonists who can be either strong or weak or both or neither, because they are more than strength or weakness. Badass gunslingers and martial artists sure, but also interesting women who are shy and quiet and do, sometimes, put up with others’ shit because in real life there’s often no practical alternative.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself. Women who kick people in the face can certainly be interesting, but the shy and timid women can be interesting, too. As McDougall points out, female characters are often judged based on how “strong” they are, whereas people aren’t generally as concerned with how “strong” male characters are as much as how interesting they are. So, shouldn’t we have the same standards for female characters? Shouldn’t we focus more on making female characters driven and complex than just on making them “badasses”?
McDougall also goes on to say that compelling heroines aren’t enough; “I want to see women in as many and varied secondary and character roles as men: female sidekicks, mentors, comic relief, rivals, villains.” And that brings up another excellent point, which I think often gets overlooked: It’s not just a matter of making the main heroines interesting, but also the secondary female characters.
In my opinion, one of the more troubling things about the portrayal of female characters is the relationships between them––that is, the relationships between women. There are plenty of “bromances” out there, but how many books truly focus on a friendship between two women?
In a lot of YA books I’ve read, there seems to be this disturbing tendency to set the female characters against each other. They’re not friends; they’re competitors. The main character strives to be better than all the other girls and constantly bashes her female peers for being shallow, for being “slutty”, for putting on too much make-up or not enough clothing. Sure, a lot of female main characters have “quirky best friends” who make an occasional appearance, but they’re usually not central to the plot.
A little over a year ago, I picked up Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein––which is a wonderful book about the friendship between two teenage girls during WWII. No competition, no romance. Just friendship. And that felt so new to me. I couldn’t think of a time I’d read a YA book that focused on a friendship between two young women that way.
Reading Wein’s book really inspired me to pick up I Chose the Monster again. It was a project I’d started months ago, and I had originally intended for it to just be a short story, but the idea continued to haunt me even after I had “finished” it. I’d wanted to write a more atypical zombie apocalypse story where the main characters were two heroines rather than the usual hero-and-heroine duo. To be honest, I don’t think I’d ever worked on a novel before that didn’t have some kind of romance in it––even though I’d always wanted to try it at some point. And I’m really glad I finally gave it a shot and that I decided to continue with the story. I’ve found that writing about platonic friendship between women can be just as complex and exciting as writing about romance. To steal a quote from Code Name Verity: “It’s like being in love, discovering your best friend.” And I think that’s absolutely true––that friendship can be just as intense and emotional as romance is, and I wish it was something that was explored in books more often.
I’m sure I could go on and on about this forever, but this post is getting a bit long so I think I’ll cut it off here. But this is definitely a conversation I’d love to continue in the comments, and I’m sure you all have a lot to say about it as well.
So … tell me what you think. Are you concerned with how women are portrayed in books (and the media in general)? How do you go about developing your female characters vs. your male characters? What are some of your favorite female characters? What are some of your favorite fictional friendships between women?