Friday, April 3, 2015

On Strong Female Characters

Oh boy. Time to talk about something controversial.

Wait. Strong female characters are controversial? WHY?

Oh yes, not only is it controversial to talk about strong female characters, (or apparently anything relating to women and equality nowadays), but it is EXTREMELY so. The sheer amount of negative reaction that pops up around even casual statements relating to feminism is simply brain numbing. It's kind of like watching someone clearing their throat to make a statement, and suddenly the nearest thirty people pull out machine guns and empty the magazine into them. It's that level of absurdity.

I can't even comprehend the irony of how the very same men who are screaming that gender equality isn't an issue and women are blowing things are of proportion, getting all emotional over nothing...are the very same men who are sending rape and death threats to their fucking home, friends and family. This is as over-the-top as someone walking around, completely engulfed in flames, claiming that fire is a myth.

Now that I've got that out of my system (ha, not even close), let's get a few things out of the way.

I'm a feminist. And no, not because I'm trying to laid, nor because I'm married to one. It's because, shockingly, I came to the conclusion that women should be treated equally all on my own. (Crazy, right!?)

The second thing that's relevant: I'm one of those boring, straight white men. (Seriously, I am boring.) And yes, I understand that I'm playing life on Easy. Was my life difficult? Debatably, not really. I have no crippling mental or physical illnesses or injuries (that I know of, fingers crossed), I've never been homeless, I've been given lots of opportunity and there are people out there who care for me. But that doesn't mean I wasn't fucking miserable enough to be declared a danger to myself at some points (I wasn't, but, looking back on it, I really did have a lot of red flags for such behavior). Despite this, I'm aware that my life was a lot easier on the simple basis that I was straight, white and male. People didn't give me shit for my sexual orientation, my gender, my religion or the color of my skin.

Man, I am getting way off topic. Sorry.

Okay. Strong female characters. If you've read my books, you can say that I'm not exactly the greatest portrayer of these such characters. But I'm no slacker either. I'll admit that I'm still afraid to tackle the role of writing a straight-up female protagonist. It seems like a daunting task. But the more time goes on, the more I find myself asking 'why?'

My biggest fear is that I'll do something insensitive without realizing it in the course of creating a female protagonist. Basically, that I'll fuck it all up. God knows I've done enough of that in my life. I have similar concerns when writing not-white or not-straight characters. But I've discovered that it's better to try it out and fuck it up than do nothing at all.

Anyway, in the course of researching 'what makes a strong female character', I've come across a few strange things. Everyone seems to point to Ripley as the ideal Strong Female Character. She's tough, yet sensitive. Badass, yet nurturing. Watch as she takes on the Alien Queen like a fucking boss, and then takes care of terrified, young Newt.

On the surface, this makes sense. But if you dig even a little deeper, it becomes apparent that...something isn't right. And when I dug a little deeper, I discovered a fundamental flaw in the search for the Strong Female Characters.

What makes a woman a woman?

The argument that Ripley is a good strong female protagonist because she is both badass and nurturing is an inherently flawed one. Are all women nurturing or motherly? Are they all badass? Is it a requirement? I know plenty of women who are great, but have no interest in raising children. Does this make them not women? I sure as hell don't think so, no matter what the religious nutjobs say. (I'm not a fan of religion, can you tell?)

The depressing fact of the matter is that writing strong female characters is the same difficulty level as writing strong characters. A woman doesn't need to be beautiful to be a good character. A man doesn't need to be a hardass to be a good character. A character isn't a good character because of their gender, they're a good character because they're well balanced and well written. Or maybe because they're totally insane and compelling.

I've written several different prominent female characters, so I have some examples to draw on.

In Dead Ice, I had three distinctly different female characters. One was a tough, competent individual who was better at handling stress and taking control of the situation than the main male protagonist was. Another was often grim and  humorless, facing down her own death with a surprisingly rational calmness. Another was a terrified, antisocial hermit who was prone to panic and crumbled under stress. The important thing I kept in mind was that these characters were the way they were, not because they were women, but because this is who they grew up to be, because of the events in their life previous to this.

I know this sounds painfully obvious, but I think a lot of people either A) Don't fucking care about stuff like this or B) Are at least trying to help correct the problem but don't really know how. They put a female character in their story and every time she's around, you can almost hear the author saying "LOOK! I WROTE A STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER! AREN'T I GREAT! I'M SO SOCIALLY AWARE!"

A lot of people seem to miss the extremely obvious fact that the way to have good female characters is not call attention to the fact that you're doing it. Let the character speak for herself. The same goes for LGBT characters. If, when I'm reading you book, I can practically hear you saying "OMFG! LOOK! I HAVE A GAY MALE CHARACTER! THAT'S SO UNUSUAL! I'M SO PROGRESSIVE AND FORWARD THINKING!", then you have failed in your task.

In the same way that being gay doesn't define you as a person, your gender doesn't define you. Or, at least, it shouldn't.

So, one of the key things I've learned in my two and a half decades of life, is that I bitch a lot. Anyone who hangs around me long enough knows that I'm easy to get going on a variety of subjects. Because I try to turn my weaknesses into strengths, I decided that instead of just bitching about something, I'd always try to at least try to fix it, no matter how large the problem is.

Misogyny is a HUGE problem.

A primary way I've found that I can combat it is by inserting (hopefully) good female characters into my stories. One of the biggest assets I think I have is that I am not writing books about strong female characters...I'm writing books about people with guns in space fighting monsters. Whereas typically the only type of people who go looking for books prominently featuring strong female characters aren't the type that need to have their brains adjusted, tons of people come looking for generic sci-fi/action. And by slipping in a good female cast and not drawing great amounts of attention to that fact, I can show regular readers that YES, you CAN have a third or half of your cast be female and it doesn't have to be a fucking 'chick book'.

Seriously, I once read a report about how guys thought a movie was a 'chick flick' or there was something wrong, a disproportionate amount of men vs women, if there were more than two or three women in the movie. THAT'S INSANE.

Here's a few pieces of advice I can give: 
  • Diversify. Take a look at your cast and make a minimum of a third of them female. If you're feeling brave, make it half. Because it's not like men represent 2/3s of the freaking world.
  • Mix it up. Make the female characters different. In your quest to make 'strong female characters', does this mean that you can't have any weak, stupid, petty, panicky, annoying, etc. female characters? Of course not. Just make sure ALL of them aren't like that. Make one of them tough and a good shot. Make another lazy who's only interest is in laying around toking up and eating pizza all day. Make another one a genius recluse. Make another one with positive body image, outgoing and has no qualms about casual sex. Make one a total bitch that puts down anyone else every chance she gets. A bodybuilder. A drunk. A pilot. A soldier. A bum.
  • Avoid man talk. It's shocking how many stories you can look at that have men and women, and the majority of what the women talk about is the men and how hot or ugly they are, and the men do all the plot stuff.
  • Go against the grain. Sometimes, it might be a good idea to go against what everyone else is doing. In Absolute Zero, one of the female characters was a huge, hulking, standoffish woman. I don't just mean that she had some muscles, we're talking a female Arnold Schwarzenegger here. This brings me to another subject. Don't have characters that go against the grain in terms of looks and then all you focus on is how unattractive they are. I've seen a lot of movies go down this path where the only unattractive woman is there for like comic relief or something. You can almost hear them saying "LOL LOOK! THIS CHICK IS REALLY BUFF! IT'S FUNNY CAUSE THAT'S NOT NORMAL!" The same thing goes for overweight female characters. There's too much fat-shaming as it is.
  • Just make a good character. Okay, so, to reiterate, when you're sitting down to design a female character, just do the same thing you do when you're creating 'normal' character, or characters you feel most comfortable creating.
Obviously, I'm not the expert on this stuff, I've just picked up a few things along the way. And if you've read my work, you know I'm not exactly the greatest writer that ever lived. But I'm interested in doing my part. And hey, if I ever get accused of writing a shitty female character, it won't be because she's a woman, it'll be because I'm just not that great a writer!

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