Elizabeth Bear has long been one of my favourite writers, as readers will know; her upcoming novel, Karen Memory, is one of the books I am most looking forward to in 2015, and comes out on February 3rd. Given Bear’s outspoken feminism and her tendency towards female protagonists, I’m delighted to be able to present to you a piece by her on the strong female protagonist, and the problems thereof.
Hi. I’m Elizabeth Bear, the author of Karen Memory, a new steampunk Weird West novel out from Tor. And I’m here to talk about failure modes in the theory and practice of creating the “strong female character,” specifically as it relates to female protagonists in science fiction and fantasy.
Or possibly, to rant about very concept of the “strong female character,” because it’s a catchphrase I’m starting to get really tired of. (I think Kate Beaton sums up why pretty well here)
Specifically, my problem is that the idea that a female lead must be a “strong female character” leads to a whole complex of other problems. So here’s an inexhaustive survey of some of them, and some suggestions on how to avoid the traps.
There’s the “She’s not like other girls” problem. (One of the things that I liked very much about Buffy the Vampire Slayer is that while the protagonist is a Chosen One, part of the point of the narrative is that she is like other girls. She just, you know, has superpowers. I have other problems with the show, but that’s neither here nor there.) This is related to the Smurfette problem—where there’s only one female character in a male ensemble, and so that woman has to be all women, and exemplary in every way. (There’s usually one black guy, too, who stands for all black people everywhere.)
These characters never seem to have female friends, somehow. Possibly because they just can’t relate to other women with their hair and their nails and their silly giggling.
Then there’s the brittle-and-mouthy problem, which is particularly epidemic in urban fantasy, and has to do with writers attempting a sarcastic noir voice and a hard-boiled protagonist who takes nobody’s nonsense—and winding up with somebody who you would chew your arm off to get away from at a cocktail party. Except they would never be invited to a cocktail party, because they tend to provoke a fight in any conversation they get into, since it’s a cheap way to generate tension. These characters wind up making most of their own problems, frankly, because their only means of interpersonal communication is getting in people’s faces.
These characters never seem to have any female friends, either. Or maybe one. Somebody who enables their undiagnosed and untreated personality disorders.
(It is perfectly possible to write a female character with an attitude problem and have her work quite well. Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski leaps to mind as an example: she’s defended and sharp-edged and patrols her boundaries ferociously. But she’s also capable of realizing what she is doing and making a conscious effort to step the hell off. Self-awareness fixes a lot of characterization ills. And she has a number of female friends. 😉 )
Next on the list, there’s the thing the internet has dubbed Trinity Syndrome, which ranks as the characterization trope I hate most in the world. It’s generally identifiable when a totally cool woman shows up in the first act, is awesome and competent, mentors the ineffectual male hero, is generally better-suited for his job than he is… and by the end of the third act has lost all purpose in life except to hang on his arm and step aside so he can have her job. It’s the GIs coming home after WWII all over again. How to Train Your Dragon II, I’m looking at you!
These women never have any female friends because they are usually the Smurfette, too.
Last but not least, there’s the ever popular madonna/whore dichotomy, where women are either pure and innocent and defined by men, or self-actualizing and evil to the core. You can google that one if you want more information, because even typing “madonna/whore dichotomy” makes me tired to the bone.
They never have any female friends either, unless they’re mothering them.
So. You want to write about women, and you want to avoid falling into these traps. How does a well-meaning person go about it? (And it’s not easy! These roles and tropes are ingrained into the very fabric of our society, into the stories we grow up learning how stories work from. They feel superficially satisfying because we’re programed to expect them on a deep cellular level! No blame, as the I Ching says.)
Well, to escape the trope, we must learn to interrogate the trope. We have to stop thinking of our female characters as Strong Female Characters and let them be people. And more, let them be people on equal footing with the male people—in terms of agency and desires, at least, if not in terms of social expectations. (Heck, one way to show a woman’s strength is to show her dealing with the exhausting nonsense and the extra work that comes as part and parcel of being a woman.) (And heck, let’s see some roles go to strong characters who are trans, or who reject gender binary completely.)
There’s no particular magic to writing a Strong Woman that doesn’t apply to writing all people. The end.
Let’s have Strong Characters, by which I mean strongly characterized characters, people with foibles and strengths and bad habits, regardless of their gender and their sex.
Thanks Bear, for that amazing piece of writing, and excellent guide to how (not) to write female characters!
Elizabeth Bear was the recipient of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2005. She has won two Hugo Awards for her short fiction, a Sturgeon Award, and the Locus Award for Best First Novel. Bear lives in Brookfield, Massachusetts.
Set in the late 19th century—when the city we now call Seattle Underground was the whole town (and still on the surface), when airships plied the trade routes, would-be gold miners were heading to the gold fields of Alaska, and steam-powered mechanicals stalked the waterfront, Karen is a young woman on her own, is making the best of her orphaned state by working in Madame Damnable’s high-quality bordello. Through Karen’s eyes we get to know the other girls in the house—a resourceful group—and the poor and the powerful of the town. Trouble erupts one night when a badly injured girl arrives at their door, begging sanctuary, followed by the man who holds her indenture, and who has a machine that can take over anyone’s mind and control their actions. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the next night brings a body dumped in their rubbish heap—a streetwalker who has been brutally murdered.
Bear brings alive this Jack-the-Ripper yarn of the old west with a light touch in Karen’s own memorable voice, and a mesmerizing evocation of classic steam-powered science.
Karen Memory came out February 3rd. My review is forthcoming.