Puddles vs. Oceans: The “Strong Female Heroine” Convo Continues

A while back, I posted a snippet of my thoughts on the whole “strong female heroine character” thing. Soon after, the post prompted a discussion betwixt me and another Danielle E. with whom I’m friends on Facebook, in which I feel some worthwhile things were said. So (with my fellow D.E.’s permission, of course), I’m posting a transcription of our chat here to join the ongoing dialogue re: female characters.

Why I personally think this is a conversation worth having: Because it really shouldn’t be this hard, guys. Female characters are just characters, so you’d think anyone who could write an awesome dude could write an equally awesome chick. Gosh knows there are cool chicks aplenty in the real world. So why are they so tricky to come by in writing? (And that’s me preaching to my own self, too, since I’ve taken note of this as one of my creative challenges.) Until such time as crafting satisfactory females comes naturally, then, the conversation goes on. Here’s what a couple of Danielles had to add.

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DEC: When I think “strong female heroine”, I don’t think physical strength; I mean “well rounded female character”, which is hard to come by. Doesn’t mean they’re strong, or brave, or that I even like them. Just means that they are as rounded and whole as any male character, which can be rare, and I value that.

I like to practice something when I create a character. I write them as both genders for practice. I ask myself, “Would changing so-and-so’s gender ruin them?” If the answer is “yes”, then that’s exactly what I do. I write them as the opposite gender. It really reveals a lot about them, and my own perceptions on how each gender “should” be.

DES:  It’s awful, but I find it less bothersome creating girl characters if I can manage to not think of them as girls. It’s not that I don’t feel I can have girl charries do as much as boy charries; I just… don’t generally enjoy hanging out with fictional females as much. In real life, I’m more comfortable chatting with girls. In my head, I much prefer guys. Have fun with that, psychiatrists.

DEC: I think that’s because there’s such a lack of likeable female characters in literature. I’m that way too. ‘Tis why I’m trying to change that in myself.

DES: Quite probable. After all, I know more about writing from reading than from living. Of course, then there’s the objection that it’s not necessarily a female character’s job to be “likeable” – that there has, perhaps, been more pressure on them to be likeable than male characters receive. The question then arises, are there as many ways for female characters to be likeable as there are for males? That is, how many variations of personhood can a character display and still be liked by the reader, and how do those numbers stack up for women vs. men?

DEC: I think for me the reason I don’t like female characters as much isn’t because they aren’t sweet … they’re TOO sweet. They feel shallow, one dimensional. There isn’t anything they’re hiding … no darkness. It feels like they are a puddle, while their male companions are oceans. That’s what I don’t like. I guess I don’t like them because the creators are trying too hard to make me like them? XDDD

DES: *nods* Puddles vs. oceans. I think you may be onto something.

How many fathoms below can we go?

How many fathoms below can we go?

DEC: Even if they’re NOT sweet, they’re still shallow. It’s like they can only be one thing … either they’re sweet and dumb, smart and sassy, or tough and cold. In reality, a woman can be all of those things, wrapped up in a complex package.

DES: Analogy that popped into my brain: “Women aren’t just Lizzie Bennett. They can be Mr. Darcy, too.” That man came off as cold and rude, then gave a total #fail of a love confession, and in general kept people wondering, What in the world is wrong with this jerk? But by the end, reasons were provided in such a way that readers everywhere swoon at the mention of his name. Women characters, mayhap, are less frequently provided the sort of context that (at most) excuses or (at least) explains their behavior. They’re just made to be whatever the author requires of them at the time; are more devices than they are fully understood people. And readers can feel that, even if they can’t consciously articulate what’s going on.

DEC: YES, THANK YOU. Women and men, we’re both equally complex, both equally persons. I need to see more of that in literature.

DES: I’ll try to work on it. X)

DEC: Me, too; I’m certainly not innocent, ha!

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Any thoughts from you, readers? It’s open mic time; join the conversation in the comments!

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12 thoughts on “Puddles vs. Oceans: The “Strong Female Heroine” Convo Continues

  1. I think what bothers me is when people treat characters – men OR women – as formulas. “They’re this literary stereotype, so they need to act in this way.” I think a lot of him a nature is lost when you take away the idea that characters can choose their fates, rather than follow the script.

  2. I think a lot of the time authors just panic and then fold under the pressure. I remember once spending a couple of hours reading up which was more ‘feminist’ – having my female MC wear a skirt or trousers. That was when I realised that, actually, it’s actually not that hard to define a well-rounded woman. She’s just someone that has her own views, tastes, opinions and flaws, and does what is within her power to resolve/fight against/flee a situation. It’s not misogynist to have your female MC cry – it’s misogynist to ignore the context of the story and her character and resort to gender stereotypes (like the fearless tribal leader who breaks down and cries because the villain tells her that her eyeliner makes her eyes look too big).

    • I know a fearless leader like that. Fortunately (?), he’s a dude.

      It’s true, though — just letting your characters be their own people goes a long way toward affording them strength.

  3. A really interesting discussion. I tend to have trouble with female characters as well. Like you, my male characters are just so much more compelling to me, more fun to hang out with, lol. And I hate reading the girl charries that throw a fit every time someone opens a door for them because they can do it themselves. Finding the balance between doormat of a girl and uber tough girl isn’t easy sometimes. I think one of the main issues I’ve seen (and I do it myself too often) is thinking of the female character as just the love interest / object of obsession for one or more of the guys. All the girls are dedicated to is wanting to land a man. While society does lead us to believe we are nothing if we’re not part of a couple, we have to be a full person ourselves with interests and foibles of our own outside our worth as a date. It seems a lot of female characters in books and tv are victims of the same bias.

    There’s a song out now that is raising similar questions in the country music field, “Girl in a Country Song” by Maddie & Tae complaining about how women are viewed in the recent flavor of country music. While the song doesn’t do much for me, they raise a good point. All those songs about picking up chicks and making out in your truck don’t exactly inspire us. And the few female stars really only get attention depending on how hot the latest video is.

    I don’t know the best solution — other than writing the best, most well-rounded female characters possible — and it’s not going to happen over night. But I am glad to see the discussions. It can only improve our writing, our music or what-have-you.

    • Oh yes, I have too often fallen into the trap of viewing my girls as little/nothing more than potential pair-ups for the guys. In my sorry defense, I’ve treated a number of guy characters the same way. -_- In either case, it’s a cheap way to go, and does no one any favors. It’s all very well and fun to play matchmaker, but to make one good couple, you’ve got to start with two whole individuals.

  4. Women readers and writers are hard on a female MC, because they want to feel as if they can identify with her, without compromising their own Weltanschauung. But they’re conflicted about this, because they’re also in competition with the love interest for possession of the heart-throb. It’s fun to write and read about the kind of man they’d like to have babies with, but it’s threatening to think about the kind of woman who is good enough to get him, because despite identifying with her, that woman is not themselves.

    • Hmm. I don’t know that I’m in touch enough with my personal convoluted psychology to make a quick judgment on how accurate this is for me, so I’ll continue to mull it over. Thanks for the food for thought. (:

  5. Wow, I really love the idea about rewriting them as the opposite gender. Personally, I hate reading female leads, I think because they are always so stereotypical. I almost stopped reading Mocking Jay because she got on my nerves so much, and I did put Allegiant down and never picked it back up for the same reason. The female lead was depressed and whiny. I don’t hang out with girls like that in real life, so why would I want to spend my free time doing so? Come to think of it, Breaking Dawn would have been just as bad, except the author was smart and skipped over that part of the heroine’s life in the book. Anyway, here’s an idea: one could brainstorm a personality trait list for the stereotypical female, and then turn it on its head when writing character. Come to think of it, that might make a good writing prompt. If I blog about it, do you mind if I link back to your post here?

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