Let’s talk about (writing) strong female characters
Female characters is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, as I have a whole bunch of female characters in the novel I’m writing for class and also because I saw several articles about it online.
I don’t know if all these articles I’ve been seeing on female characters lately are triggering each other (they do tend to do that, after all), or if I’ve just been paying more attention to it, but it’s uncanny how many articles there suddenly are. Here’s one of them, probably the best of the ones I read.
Now, it’s unfortunate that this is something we still have to talk about, but that doesn’t change that it is still necessary. We can argue about the impractical clothing choices of female heroines in comic books and video games and we probably still won’t get anywhere. We can argue all day about what makes a fictional character strong (or even what makes a real person strong) and we still won’t get anywhere. There are too many opinions and too many angles to look from. However, I still think it’s important to talk about these things. When, several decades ago, women, people of colour and people outside the heterosexual norm started discourse to break out of their marginalisation, it was called “breaking the silence” in literary terms. So let’s continue to break the silence, because this war is certainly not over.
So, as I said, I’ve been thinking about female characters a lot lately, because of the novel I’m writing for class. For this story I have two women in the spotlight. Actually, women are definitely in the majority in this story. This is not a combination I have ever written before and obviously this led to me overthinking everything. I’ve always been obsessed with writing boy/girl platonic friendships in my stories, probably because fiction’s idea that a male and a female cannot be just friends is one of the things that annoy me most in this world. This time round I decided to explore the friendship between two women.
Obviously I want these two women to be strong, admirable characters. What makes this complicated to write, for me, is not trying to decide what makes a person strong. The complication is that my main character has been traumatised and this is something that can easily make people see you as weak. People will tell those with psychological problems to “snap out of it”, while the issue actually runs much deeper than that. The woman with psychological problems has a long history of being marginalised in fiction. She becomes just “the neurotic wife”, who keeps to her room and occasionally tries to burn or poison her husband. She seldom has agency and almost never a character of her own. She is defined by her problem and not characterised properly. She doesn’t have a voice to speak for herself.
I want to write in against this tradition with this story. I want to demonstrate that my traumatised character is not weak and I want to show her fighting her problem. I had to sit down and think how I would characterise her and how she and her friend would gradually grow to realise her strength.
Then I realised that it wasn’t about what makes her, as a woman, strong. Trauma can affect anyone. There are people who are more susceptible to it, but it can really hit anyone. Statistically, it affects more women than men, but this might be inaccurate because the statistics can only include those who get reported and/or go for treatment.
My search for what makes my character strong is essentially about what makes a person strong. This does not discriminate between genders. What makes her strong is essentially not any different from what would make a male in her position strong. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always considered inner strength, determination, loyalty and getting-up-after-a-fall way more admirable than the ability to kick someone’s kidneys out through their ears. Like that article I linked up there said, it is not violence or the ability to manipulate others sexually that makes a woman strong. What makes a woman strong is being a person. She should be allowed to cry, but she should also be allowed to stand up for her beliefs. She should be allowed to get angry, but she should also be allowed to enjoy the sweeter things in life. A real woman can do all these things and still be a real, strong woman. Therefore, a fictional character should get the same treatment.
(I recently wrote a little thing which I consider to be “Strong Female Character – doing it right”. It’s right here, if you’re interested.)
Something useful that I once read in a creative writing manual said that if you are not sure if you are writing your character by gender stereotypes, rather than by them as a person, genderswap them and write your piece again. Then you will be able to see how much the character’s gender influenced you in their characterisation.
But enough of this! If any of you are wondering how my novel-writing is going, I now have three chapters and presented them all to my class. Also, my anxiety is much, much better. This week I spoke to the class without clutching my stress ball (well, I had no choice. I forgot the darn thing at home). I realised that I don’t need it any more. I’m not overcome with trembling any more. I’m still very nervous, but I can handle it.
Also, my bottom lip has been completely healed for almost two weeks now. This hasn’t been the case for at least the last ten years. Yes, I’ve finally managed to quit the lip-biting. Gross as it is to say it, I would tear strips of skin off my bottom lip with my teeth until I drew blood and sometimes beyond. (This is a manifestation of anxiety and related to self-harming.) I’ve done this since my pre-teen years and I’ve never been able to stop because as soon as I felt anxious (which was all the time) I would chew my lip.
I can finally wear lipstick!
Yesterday I saw a really great method of novel-planning on Pinterest so that’s what I sat down to do today. This is the result:
It worked kinda awesomely. I think I’m always going to use this method now. I’m really bad at planning (as you can see, only the first four squares have answers yet), but I still need to do it. I’m a pantser by nature (a writer who writes by the seat of their pants).
What about you? Are you a planner or a panster? (This is always the most important question asked at the start of each NaNoWriMo.) And what do you think of strong female characters in literature?
This entry was posted on September 13, 2013 by Elana. It was filed under Meta-writing and was tagged with characterisation, creative writing, feminism, literature, metawriting, strong female characters, writing.