(Also published on the blog of Luna Station Quarterly.)
Hello, Internet. My name’s Marion – perhaps more popularly known as “Maid Marian”, except I don’t use that spelling and I’m quite consummately married – and I’ve been most graciously asked by my author to tackle a writing topic she’s seen all over the web. That topic is female characters. And I chance to be a female character. (Ah, yes… it’s all coming together for you now, isn’t it?)
It has lately come to Danielle’s attention that writing girls/women/“members of the sex that produce ova or bear young”/whatever-you-call-us is challenging for her. She’s not sure why, though I’ve got my suspicions (among them, that women don’t inspire red-hot crushes in her the way fellows do and therefore interest her significantly less, and that she hasn’t the foggiest idea what it’s like to be a half-normal girl anyway). Well, admitting you’ve got a problem is the first step, and she’s been giving increasing thought toward how she might populate her stories with more female characters that she actually likes.
She likes me well enough, I’m happy to say. But then, I’ve got an “in”: I’m a Merry Man.
There might be some readers who cry “boo” at this. Why call Robin’s band the Merry Men? Isn’t that terribly sexist? Oughtn’t we to be the Merry People or the Merry Unisexual Outlaws or some such? I could take it up with my husband, if you like, but I warn you now, we’ll only both of us laugh it off and continue on as we have been since the Middle Ages. I take no issue at all with being a Merry Man. If anything, I’ve got the best of it, being a Merry Man and a Merry Woman both. Nothing to get offended about at all, though doubtless somebody will be. Somebody always is.
That’s the first thing to keep in mind when writing female characters: You can’t please everyone, so try not to lose too much hair over it. That goes for any character, any story world, any plot, any prose style, and we lady charries are no exception. …No, I take that back, we may actually spend a disproportionate amount of time under the critical microscope. No matter how we’re written, somebody, somewhere, will think we’re not good enough. Not strong enough. Not flawed enough. Not feminine enough. Not masculine enough. Really, I don’t know that even the readers are entirely certain of what they want, though they’re very good at deciding what they don’t.
Talking of strength, though, that does come up a lot: The Strong Female Character. Unfortunately, there’s no consensus on what exactly is meant by that, and so you end up with a lot of fictional women who — how did that post by Rewan Tremethick put it? —“have a left hook that could knock a bison over”, and who feel nothing beyond a cold anger that prompts them to out-swear every male character within a hundred yards… I won’t start a rant about it, but you’re bound to have seen what I meant all over books and the big and small screens; it’s a pretty rampant mess. Danielle avoids writing such characters, because she can’t stand them. Her idea of a strong female characters is— well, why should I presume to tell you? Author Girl, tell the good people: Your idea of a strong female character is…?
“Mm?” says Danielle, startled to find herself in a place to be quoted and narrated about as if she were the imaginary person, here, not her guest blogger. “Oh, well, the way I see it, strength of character is about being multidimensional and a person, not just a name and a role. It’s about the character having her own feelings and motives and self, beyond whatever the story calls for. That’s where I used to go wrong a lot, actually; I didn’t bother about who the girls were apart from what I wanted them to do. Frankly, a lot of the guys weren’t much better, in the beginning. I only improved on them quicker because I wrote more of them.”
Very nice, thank you. There you have one opinion on the issue. A cursory search online can produce countless others, but in the meantime, that’s our premise: Strength is more than muscles. Or superpowers. Or, I don’t know, political clout. And it’s certainly more than slathering the worst sort of male stereotype in lipstick and calling it a heroine. I’m not by any means the physically strongest Merry Man. For pity’s sake, the band includes Little John! Robin and Will are far from feeble themselves, and Allyn’s not even fair, he’s got otherworldly whatsits powering him up. I’ll never win an arm-wrestling match, with this crowd, never mind a stave match with Little John, a swordfight with Will Scarlet, or a shoot-off with one of the best archers legend’s ever seen. But with a lot of practice on my end, I don’t slow them down, and none of them yet can throw a knife like I do.
More importantly, though, I do more in the books than just poke my head in from time to time and say, “Oh, by the way, I’m a woman. Hear me roar. Carry on, lads.” I talk among them. I fight alongside them. I’m off living my own life, when adventure permits. I’m certainly not sitting about analyzing every action, wondering, Was what I just did girly enough? Or was it perchance too girly? Phooey, how do I balance this?… I don’t worry about balance, I’m just me. I don’t even have to take on the role of the sex symbol. (According to Will Scarlet, that’s what he’s there for.) I act and I react – not the way a man would, not the way a woman would, but the way Marion Hood would. Is Marion Hood a strong character? I would jolly well like to think so! Some will say yes, some may say no. Some won’t be satisfied until I yank the longbow from Robin and bark, “All right, gentlemen, enough’s enough. It’s my band, now, and things are going to change around here…”
Don’t hold your breath for that plot twist, readers. You ask me, real strength isn’t too intimidated to acknowledge the (occasionally superior) strengths of others. I’m quite happy to let Robin Hood be Robin Hood, with me as his staunch supporter slash lover. Because, let’s be honest about it, Danielle can write red-hot-crush-worthy male characters rather well.
That’s where the authoress and I stand on the matter. If you’ve got aught to add – agreements, disagreements, mini-rants, links to other posts on fictional females, requests for my autograph or something – put it below. Ta-ta, Danielle, and thanks for the guest spot. Cheers, all!
Related articles: “Tossing Heads With Heroines” by There And Draft Again
“On Writing Women” by Elizabeth Gillian, Xchyler Publishing Blog
11 thoughts on ““Females” or “I’d Say ‘Y’know, the Ones That Aren’t Males’, But I Expect a Man-Contrasted Definition Would Breed Contention””
Reblogged this on samkatar27.
Very interesting comments touching on one of the most difficult issues for me as a writer and reader. You would think that being female ourselves, female characters would come easily, but like you, I spend a lot more time and energy with the guys — hey, it’s Robin Hood, who wouldn’t want to spend more time with him, lol? And I hate the stereotypical “strong” woman character, the Lara Croft kick ass angry girl types, or the all too common medieval tomboy who is determined to prove she’s every bit as tough as a man, usually by passing herself off as one. Not to mention the over the top sex kitten types. Just no.
But finding ways to make the character real, full and able to stand on their own is the key I think. Not easy, but necessary. I appreciated this blog and needed a good reminder of these issues. The heroine I’m working with is hard to get a handle on at times, and working on getting over her wallflower tendencies and general malaise. I’ve been trying to find her balancing point, and evolution into her true more heroic self. And it was a pleasure to meet Marion, who seems to be a most balanced and interesting character. Anyone who can hold her own amongst your merry band must be a heck of a woman.
Glad you found the post relevant! These are certainly reminders for myself as much as anyone; with these principles in mind and continued practice, surely someday awesome gals will come to be as easily as awesome guys…even if they’ll never be Robin Hood. (;
“Not in any version of yours,” Marion smiles at me. “But never doubt, there are lady Robins out there. Good luck trying to get me to marry any of them, though if their stories are written well, I’ll give them a read. A pleasure on my part as well, Laure,” she thanks you. “And you’re quite right: Keeping up with the Men I work with is not for the weak of character!”
[…] and y’all be able to read it). I wanted Fray to be a ‘strong’ female character (check out this post by Danielle Shipley about ‘strong’ female characters, and then follow my quote back to my post which explains why I keep using inverted commas when I […]
Reblogged this on The Ink Caster and commented:
“Strength is more than muscles. Or superpowers. Or, I don’t know, political clout. And it’s certainly more than slathering the worst sort of male stereotype in lipstick and calling it a heroine.”
What, then, DOES go into the making of a “strong female character”?
Here are some astute realizations, from the perspective of an arguably strong female character and her arguably strong female author:
I notice that in the picture, you positioned Marion surrounded by men on three sides. JUST WHAT ARE YOU IMPLYING??? That she needs MEN to protect her?
Or, you know, that you have an eye for artistic symmetry? 😛
“Or perhaps it’s a projection of the artist’s fantasies,” Marion says, eyes sparkling wickedly.
Maybe I fantasize about symmetry! Don’t judge me! X)
It does seem that folks use strong literally when they think of strong women characters, and it has nothing to do with physical strength in my humble opinion. It means they persevere through the difficulties (that at times are twice as hard cause lets face it, it’s a man’s world). To me, it’s all about strength of character. Thanks for the lovely post!
“From what I’ve seen,” Marion notes, “there seems to be a fear of making a female character physically weak, lest she necessitate rescuing somewhere in the narrative. Nothing activates some people’s gag reflex like a ‘damsel in distress’. Thing is, though, most people are in distress and in need of some manner of rescue at some point in life. (Particularly if you’re living in a thrilling adventure of a story.) Needing help doesn’t make you weak, it’s part of being fully human — just as having strengths is part of being fully human. And sometimes admitting your weakness and accepting the help you need is a huge strength in and of itself.
Thanks for contributing your thoughts, Millie. Much appreciated!”
“Hello, Marion. I’m Dillon Carroll, a character from the ‘Irish Firebrands’ sector. I wanted to share something I said about my leading lady, Lana: ‘I just wish she knew that if there were two persons, who were imperfect and they knew it, and they weren’t afraid to admit it – if those two persons cared enough about one another to lean upon one another, they’d be stronger together than they were separately – like a flying buttress and a cathedral wall.’ “
“How right you are, Dillon!” Marion emphatically agrees. “There’s so much strength to be found in numbers. Any one of us Merry Men could make a change on our own, but working together as a band? That’s how we made ourselves legendary! Nothing weak at all about knowing the value of giving and receiving help; far, far from it. My thanks to you for chiming in!”