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A problem with strong female characters?

September 17, 2013

I admit it. One of my recent female characters is strongly influenced by Mary McCormack’s character in In Plain Sight. Her character’s sharp wit and equally sharp tongue amuses me.

I could have written that character as the guy. Instead, the guy is the steady one. And though both of their world’s fall down around them, he takes a slightly harder hit, and she comes off, at least in some ways, as the stronger one.

So when I say reference to a blog post called I Hate Strong Female Characters, I looked twice, particularly since the link was posted by author Christa Faust, whose Facebook persona could accurately be called bad-ass.

It’s not the characters themselves that cause Ms. Faust and the piece’s author, a woman named Sophia McDougall, to girt their teeth. Ms, McDougall gives high praise to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s Zhang Ziyi’s Jen. Her point is that no one ever considers a male character–particularly a protagonist–to be strong. It’s just assumed. Another point is that strong female characters are almost too obvious–the literary equivalent of loudly proclaiming but I have friends who are black/gay/whatever. They are token strong females, while there are a lot of other strong characters who can pee standing up.

In short, it’s Strong Female Characters who are the problem, not strong female characters. It’s the branding of them, their separateness. It’s the ratio or male-to-female characters that allows male characters to be strong by comparison to other male characters, while the female characters have to be strong by being over-the-top cocky, violent, or snarky.

In fairness, of the major characters in In Plain Sight, three of them–Mary, her sister Brandi, and her mother Jinx–are women and two–her partner Marshall and her boss Stan–are men. She’s a snarky little smirk in a leather jacket (and a character referred to her as that) because she’s a snarky, little smirk in a leather jacket, not because she needs to be to carry her weight with all the men around her.

What do you think? Do you keep track of the balance between men and women in your work? Is your strong female character that way because that’s who she is, or because she has to be a Strong Female Character to keep up with all the guys?

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3 Comments
  1. September 17, 2013 12:04 pm

    Reblogged this on jbcultureshock and commented:

    I couldn’t agree with this post more–I really don’t think the separation helps. What do you guys think? Who are some of your favorite female characters?

  2. September 18, 2013 2:01 pm

    When I come to the conclusion that I am writing a female character strong, I just make her stronger.

  3. September 18, 2013 3:37 pm

    I suppose it is absurd to brag on “Strong Female Characters” as if they were some bold new innovation in the world of literature. New and improved with Technicolor…

    There is very much a prejudice against “weak” female characters, so I suppose some writers feel they must assure readers that “we don’t have those sorts of characters in our stories.”

    When we’re pitching or writing our cover blurbs, we need to describe our characters, but there’s probably a better way to do it than “strong,” which means different things to different people. As Liv Tyler said of her character Arwen in Lord of the Rings, “you don’t have to put a sword in her hands to make her strong.”

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