As I write this, I’m stricken by a loss the world suffered. I won’t discuss it other than to mention the role that women can play in stories. I was basically raised in a house full of women. I had a few brothers that stayed with me on occasion, but the ratio in my house was always at least 2:1.
My mom raised me by herself for five years, and during those five years, I wasn’t very helpful to her. Because I know how strong the women in my life are, I look for female characters who are strong. There are different types of strength, and I’ll get to those, but for me, I hate any story that portrays a woman as anything other than a character who happens to be female. (For the record, I feel this way about religion, color, and ethnicity as well. Stories about race issues or religious issues are important, I’ll even write a few.) There’s a difference between a book about (in this case) women’s issues and a book that simply thinks women need men to exist.
There’s the Bechdel Test. But this only ensures the women have something to talk about. It’s a good test to put your characters through to prevent the issue I’m discussing, but I have a different challenge.
Develop your character. Determine everything you want to determine, then flip a coin to determine gender. Gender has a role in character. Men react differently in certain situations than women, but I’ve found that some stereotypes are mitigated when gender was determined after archetype and function in a story.
There are some amazing female characters in the world. Some that come to mind right away:
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Who I may want to argue is the greatest female character of all time).
Egwene al’Vere from The Wheel of Time
Vin from Mistborn (Who may give Buffy a run for her money, but I’d still argue Buffy would win…okay…I’ll have to post a blog about that in the future).
Lessa from Dragonriders of Pern.
I could go on, but I just wanted to throw out a few things to consider.
The Bechdel Test has its limits both good and bad. Imagine a book about a woman who’s an assassin. She goes through the whole book killing bad guys and just being awesome. I’d probably love this book, but it fails the Bechdel test. There’s not even a second woman for the first to talk to.
My adaptation to this is that if you have women (or a woman) in the story, make them characters. You’ll never make everyone happy, but the first thing to do to ensure you have (we’ll call them) non-weak women in your story is to give them a role in said story.
The Next step is then to give them strength. Now, all of the above characters are extremes. They’re LITERALLY strong women. They could kill people, but that’s not the only type of strength. It is one way. And if you’re working on an action fantasy story, ask yourself, “Is the only reason this character isn’t a girl because I’m a guy?” But if you’re writing science fiction and there isn’t a “magic system” of sorts, don’t worry. Other ways to make those characters strong exist.
The Mentor Archetype: I’ve recently given Supergirl a second chance. I’m glad I did. That show’s pilot was still one of the worst I’ve ever seen, and I have issues with some of the on-the-nose “cause” plots. But I submit to you this:
The strongest female character in that show is Cat Grant.
Supergirl (Kara) has all these powers, but notice how heavily she relies on every other character in the show (particularly Cat) to move forward in the plot. In fact, the only time she’s “strong” is when she’s fighting. (Yes, that’s a pretty mean thing to say, but I watched the first season, and that’s true). Now, Kara has her moments. She finds out who’s responsible for a certain death, and that scene is amazingly strong. She’s not weak, I’m just saying Cat is far stronger as a character.
Cat is who the women on that show want to be. Cat is who everyone turns to for advice. Cat is the one who gets people moving. They still deal with a lot of issues, but they’re issues that are unique to her character, not her gender.
Writers, it’s fine to make women “super” but that doesn’t actually make them strong. Strength, in my opinion, isn’t a measure of power. Power, is a measurement of physical capability. It’s my opinion that strength is demonstrated when one’s power is lacking, but one finds a way to succeed regardless. So don’t think “give them superpowers” is the answer. Instead, give them a role in the plot that isn’t “love interest.”
Cat is the mentor in this scenario.
Other non-super, but still strong, female characters include:
Cindy Thomas (from The Women’s Murder Club series)
Karrin Murphy (A great character study in and of herself)
Stormy Llewellyn (from Odd Thomas)
My point is that character should be strong regardless of their attributes. I’ve posted blogs about developing characters and evaluating their progress. In light of recent events though I felt this post might be particularly effective. No, I didn’t mention that character or the woman who played her. She, quite frankly, requires no mention. She altered generations.
Thanks for reading,