Death to “Strong Female Characters”

(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to Firefly, The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Tangled, and Frozen)

I’m not the first one to say this, and I’m probably not going to be the last, but it just keeps coming up.  Whenever someone asks about how to write a strong female character, I die a little inside.

It’s not so much the question as the ensuing discussion.  Someone always seems to take the badass torch and run with it, proceeding to completely miss not only the main point, but the connected ones as well.  There’s a problem with representation in fiction, and conventional wisdom is that strong female characters are the solution to that problem.  But see, English has a pesky habit of assigning multiple meanings to the same word, and “strong” is a prime example.  So while this buzzy phrase gets tossed around ad nauseum, it frequently seems like no one knows what it actually means.

So really, who is a “strong female character”?  Let’s look at some examples.

imageZoe Washburne is a classic “strong female character” in the sense that most people seem to accept, meaning that she can kick your ass six ways from Sunday.  But aside from being able to call you an idiot while casually saving your life, what are her character traits, really?  What are her motivations?  Her dreams?  Seriously, go back and watch Firefly again.  From that angle, Zoe comes up surprisingly short.  She’s loyal to her husband and loyal to her captain, and that’s about the extent of it.  Her character is static, not showing any particular change or growth, and also not really making any choices that affect the direction of the narrative.

Now, would she have gotten more development had the series lasted longer?  Perhaps, although I’m not entirely convinced.  See, Zoe also stands as an example that weak characterization is not always a bad thing.  Not every character is going to be a protagonist.  Zoe has a strong personality and works really well as a support character: she’s there as a foil for Mal, providing a crucial voice of dissent and a check on his actions, but she’s ultimately his second in command and damn good at her job.  She’s just interesting enough for the amount of screen time and story that she gets, so she’s a successful character even if she’s not ultimately a very deep one.

imageBlack Widow, like Zoe, is an ass-kicking woman who takes a supporting role in both the organization within the story and the narrative itself.  But unlike Zoe, she has clear and strong motivations, and she takes an increasing role in advancing the story, growing from mere SHIELD minion in Iron Man 2 to full-blown deuteragonist in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

The thing that drives Natasha Romanov is atonement.  We aren’t given the explicit details of her past, and we don’t really need them.  It’s enough to know that she has done Very Bad Things before, but is now a white hat and trying to make amends.

In The Avengers, this drive is embodied by Hawkeye.  Clint Barton’s choice to bring her into SHIELD as an asset rather than a corpse was the crucial factor in turning her straight, and she owes him for that.  The need to return that favor and save him from Loki’s control is what brings her onto the mission at the outset, what prompts her to question Loki and discover his plans, what gets her back on her feet and into the fight after she’s been terrorized and injured by the Hulk.  If you were to remove her, the choices she makes and her reasons for making them, you would have a narrative that plays out very differently.  She’s not necessarily a protagonist, but her actions matter.

Fast forward to Winter Soldier.  Her motivation in that film is failure.  Once again, she’s making mistakes and wants to rectify them.  She previously failed to thwart the Winter Soldier and protect someone.  She fails to protect Nick Fury.  She fails to see the influence of Hydra within SHIELD.  These mistakes consume her and prompt her to team up with Cap and try to put things right.  She’s still secondary to his story, but only just.  They’re a pretty equally balanced partnership, each in it for their own definitive reasons.  And, as her exchange with Pierce near the end indicates, she’s still seeking that atonement for her shady past; she’s willing to expose her own secrets if it also means exposing Hydra.

imageRapunzel isn’t quite as lethal as the other ladies mentioned thus far, although she can wield both her frying pan and her hair competently and effectively in a tight spot.  Her biggest weapon is her charm, using her sweetness and friendliness to turn Maximus and the Snuggly Duckling gang from enemies into staunch allies.  Indeed, it’s notable that, while she is the princess in the tower, she saves Flynn’s ass a lot more than he saves hers.  However, unlike Natasha or Zoe, Rapunzel is very much the protagonist, and it’s Flynn who’s in the supporting role.  She’s the one with a dream, and her determination to see it fulfilled is the plot, every step of the way.

Now, that’s not to say that Flynn doesn’t get a lot of development.  His journey takes him from self-serving rogue to self-sacrificing hero.  Rapunzel’s arc is about breaking free of Gothel’s control and taking her rightful place in the world, both as a princess and as a person.  These stories are deeply intertwined, and at no point is one reduced to merely an accessory to the other.

imageAnna is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a badass.  Her contribution to combat is generally lots of running, and she’s a swooning romantic who’s about as far from our soldier or assassin as you can get.  Yet her femininity is neither her sole defining feature (like might be argued for some of the classic Disney princesses) nor an obstacle she must overcome (like Mulan, Pocahontas, and Merida), but simply is.  She makes no apologies for wanting her happily ever after, she’s just got some shit to take care of first.

Indeed, her desire for that fairy tale is what puts her at odds with Elsa and creates the main problem of the story.  Anna then sets off immediately to solve that problem.  She needs Kristoff’s help, but doesn’t need him to do it for her.  The climactic moment on the ice shows how far she’s grown since the opening ball and serves as a perfect reversal: she turns away from the consummation of romance she’s certain will quite literally save her life in order to protect her sister.  This choice provides the key to wrapping up every major plotline.  Elsa also has a distinct character arc, but her actions mainly just complicate the story, while Anna’s actions resolve it.

Four very different characters.  The word “strong” applies, and doesn’t apply, to each of them in very different ways and for very different reasons.

So why the fuck are we still using it?

We are not the goddamn Smurfs, people.  As writers, precision in language is pretty much our entire job.  The phrase “strong female character” has so many meanings as to become meaningless, and therefore needs to die in a fire.

If you’re looking for advice on how to write women who feel authentically female, say that.

If you want to discuss how female characters drive or don’t drive the plot, say that.

If you want to know if this is the kind of role an actress would be proud to play, say that.

Sometimes simplicity is the enemy of clarity.  Get specific about the things that are problematic.  If you don’t understand why a character or work is problematic, that’s a significant part of the issue right there.  You can’t fix something when you have no idea what’s actually broken.

Saturday Scenes — Valkyrie (part two)

It’s once more into the breach with Saturday Scenes at Google+!  There were some pretty wonderful contributions last week, so I’m looking forward to seeing what gets added this time around.

This week, we have another installment of Valkyrie, a work in progress that’s not all that in progress at the moment.  It’s told with alternating first person chapters.  Last week we started off with Val; this is Rick’s first chapter.  We meet him as he’s chilling in a bar.

As I scan the faces in the gloom, a new arrival catches my attention.  She has a long mass of dark, curly hair, and her confident, purposeful stride is hampered by an almost invisible limp.  Her near-expressionless face would almost be a perfect mask, but there’s something…  I don’t know, off about her eyes–something shaken, haunted.  She takes a seat a few stools down from the depressive handyman.  The bartender approaches with the same familiar smile that he gives all of his customers, whether they’re currently regulars or about to become so.  “So what time are you getting in tonight?” he asks.

She glances at her watch; it’s a plain, utilitarian black number, which seems to go along with her style.  “Oh, let’s say 7:00?” she says.

“No problem.  The usual?”

“Please,” she says.

I glance at my own watch–rather more ostentatious than hers.  I guess it’s the magpie in me, I do like to have a few shiny things in my life.  Right now, it’s just a touch shy of 8:15.  Now I’m definitely interested.  I drain the rest of my drink, leave my usual comfortable seat, and sidle over to the bar.  She gives me a flat look as I take the seat next to her.  But I’m not a complete innocent at this sort of thing.  I catch Tom’s attention from where he’s fiddling with the cappuccino machine.  “When you’ve got a minute?” I say, giving my empty glass a demonstrative jiggle.

“What, you’re not driving tonight?” he asks.

“It’s still pretty early,” I reply.  “We’ll see if anyone needs a ride.”

“That’s a pretty shitty pickup line,” the woman says.

“Not if what you’re trying to pick up is a fare,” I retort.

“What, like a cab driver?”

“Exactly right.”

“So you just hang around in bars waiting for people to get too drunk to drive home?”

“In so many words, I suppose.”

“That’s…”  She pauses, and gives her head a contemplative waggle.  “That’s actually pretty smart.  Doesn’t your boss have a problem with you just chilling here all night?”

I can’t help but grin.  “No boss for me.  I own the car myself.  I take my breaks whenever I like.”

Tom returns with two drinks in hand: a foamy concoction in a coffee cup for the lady, and a brandy sour for me.  “Do you always come to bars for coffee?” I ask.

“I keep asking, but Starbucks won’t Irish it up for me.”

“Fair enough.”  I sip at my drink.  “So, do you come here often?”

She laughs.  “Seriously, you’re going with that?”

“You mentioned shitty pickup lines, I figured I might as well.”

“Mm-hmm,” she says, and sips at her brew.  For a minute, I think I’ve overdone it and put her off.  I told you I wasn’t a very good conversationalist.  But after a good long drag on the mug, she says, “I get over here when I can get a chance.”

“Really?  I haven’t seen you before.”

She gives me a sly, sidelong smile.  “You might say I’m good at not being seen.”

I have to admit, I’m completely fascinated.  Not by her beauty–although she’s certainly quite attractive–but by the heavy sense of mystery around her.  Everyone has a story to tell, true, but I’m positive that she’s got a doozy.  I offer my hand.  “I’m Rick.”

She hesitates a moment, then clasps my hand in a quick shake.  “Call me Desi,” she says.

“Very pleased to meet you, Desi,” I reply.  “So, what did you do to your ankle?”

Her relaxed demeanor vanishes, and she glares icily at me.  When she speaks, her tone is still casual, but strained at the edges.  “What do you mean?”

“Well, you were limping when you came in.  I guess I was just curious.”

She takes another long, meditative drink, her eyes dissecting me over the top of the white china cup.  I wonder what she sees.  “Tripped over the curb,” she says.

“Hard enough to limp?”

“I’m really clumsy.”

I put up my hands to ward off the daggers in her voice.  “Sorry to hear that, I was just asking.”

“Do you always ask this many questions?” she says.

Tom snorts from behind the bar.  I glare at him.  “Sometimes,” I say.  “Usually people just start talking.”

She eyes me skeptically.  “Do they.”  It should be a question, but it’s not.

“You’d be surprised.  Most people just like to have someone listen to them.”

“What, is that a cabbie thing?”

“I suppose that’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg question.”

“You mean you became a cab driver so you could listen to people talk?”

I give a modest shrug.  “You could say that.”

“What did you do before that?”

Now it’s my turn to be on the defensive.  I’m not ashamed of or unhappy with my previous work, I’m just… annoyed by it, I guess.  I used to be more open about it, but it tended to dominate the conversation, and I suppose I’m just not one of those people whose company I so value that are able to simply lay their entire lives bare for a stranger to peruse.  Perhaps it’s a bit hypocritical of me.  I’ve never said I was perfect, after all. “I was an office drone,” I reply.  It’s mostly true, I suppose.

“That sounds… interesting,” Desi says, with a tone that suggests anything but.

“It was terrible,” I say with feeling.  “Nothing but politics.  I couldn’t stand it.”

“So you’re living the dream?”

I shrug.  “I’m living.  I didn’t feel like I was before.”

She raises her glass to me in a brief toast.  I return the gesture, and we sip in silence for a moment.  Tom clears his throat a bit and catches her eye, giving his head a brief jerk toward the door.  My companion turns to see what he’s indicating, then spins back to the counter and drains her coffee cup.  “Well, Rick,” she says, easing off her stool, “thanks for the chat.”

“Any time,” I say.  I watch out of the corner of my eye as she follows a tall, burly man toward the back of the bar, where they maintain private rooms.  I give an internal rueful laugh that manifests itself as a snort and a small smile.  I probably should have guessed as much.

Case Studies: Supervillains with Nuance

Case Studies: Supervillains with Nuance

(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to Vicious by V.E. Schwab)

I don’t tend to feel the same nostalgia for ’80s and ’90s cartoons as many of my peers.  Oh, I watched and enjoyed several of them (Darkwing Duck was a motherfucking boss and we can’t be friends if you think otherwise) but even as a kid, I remember feeling vaguely annoyed by them.  It was the villains that bothered me.  I remember Rita Repulsa (and if you know who that is without Googling, we can totally be friends even if you’re wrong about Darkwing Duck) going on and on about how she was serving the forces of evil, and I would just roll my eyes.  No one actually thinks they’re evil, right?  I figured that out around the time I learned cursive.

So it always excites me when something really delves into the question of evil and the villain’s perspective.  When Vicious came to my attention billed as a supervillain origin story, I was immediately interested, and became enthralled with the discovery that there aren’t exactly heroes in this world.

Background: There are a few superpowered individuals (rather preciously called EOs for ExtraOrdinary, and yes it is always styled that way, she said through gritted teeth) and they each have one distinctive ability.

At the outset, Eli is attractive and devout and socially gifted.  Victor is pale, antisocial, and wears a lot of black.  Eli steals the girl Victor wants.  It all seems fairly straightforwardly setting up Eli as the hero and Victor as the villain.

But but but but but.  This story thrives in the but.  (That might have come out wrong.)  Eli becomes convinced that EOs are an abomination and that he’s divinely called to wipe them out, and Victor’s initial plans for revenge turn into a quest to stop his former roommate and friend.

The entire book is a meditation on Grey and Grey Morality, so the bit I want to discuss specifically is the use of powers.  The two men are, as great protagonist/antagonist pairings should be, two sides of the same coin in many ways, and their powers are part of that.  Both were studying pre-med at the time of their experiments, and their powers are both tied to medicine: Eli can heal, and Victor controls pain.

Those seem like pretty obvious good and evil powers, but (see?) they get explored in a way that’s truly fascinating.  See, Eli can only heal himself, and while Victor can certainly inflict pain, he can also take it away.  To unpack it a bit further, while Victor can control the pain of an injury, he has to live with the scars, the physical restoration process and the reminder of what happened.  Eli, on the other hand, is burdened with no such permanent tokens of his actions, his age, his past.  He experiences the injury, but it does not mark him.

Such a setup would make an interesting enough premise on its own.  The thing that elevates the story for me is how deeply this duality is woven into the character arcs.  Victor’s understanding of pain grants him an empathy he lacked as a student, whereas Eli’s invincibility and immortality completely robs him of any empathy he once had.  Victor may disdain Eli’s religious fervor, but it’s Victor who ends up sacrificing himself.  Eli’s only ally is a girl he would kill if she weren’t able to prevent him from even wanting to, while antisocial Victor is the one who ends up with his little pack of strays, a quasi-family that remains loyal to him even after his death.

I think it’s important for us as writers to keep these sorts of moral explorations in mind, even in stories where they aren’t supposed to be the entire point.  Every virtue can corrupt and be corrupted.  Every vice can be used to redeem.  Nuance helps create believable, compelling characters and situations.  Even a kid can tell you that.

Saturday Scenes – Valkyrie

Over on Google+, they’ve kicked off a neat thing called Saturday Scenes where people are posting snippets of existing stuff and works in progress.  Clicky click the link to check out the hashtag and read some neat stuff.

For my contribution, I went with Valkyrie, otherwise known as Two Awesome Characters in Search of a Plot.  It is a raging hot mess and I have no idea what, if anything, I’ll ever do with it, but I adore the opening, so here you go!

Well, maybe this wasn’t the best plan after all.

I mean, it wasn’t really much of a plan. I was just coming in to talk, that’s all. Polite and civil-like. I even put on makeup, for chrissakes. I could practically be visiting the Queen. But I suppose that’s what I get for having a reputation for being dangerous: people react to me like I’m a goddamn bear or something, instead of a rational human being with impulse control and all that shit.

I risk a peek around the corner of the alcove where they have me pinned down. Three shooters, two handguns and one rifle. Damn ridiculous weapon for guard work. It’s kind of a bad joke to say that a guy who favors a big gun even when it’s totally useless is compensating for something, but in my experience… Well, all stereotypes start somewhere. It’s weird, though, I don’t recognize any of these guys. I thought I knew all of the muscle in town. They look young, too. Green. The Glock behind that hideous statue is about to piss himself. I hate going up against kids like this. I remember being that young, that scared. Watching my friends die.

I give my head a quick shake to clear it. Not the time for flashbacks, girlie. Jesus. I glance the other way down the hall to get a feel for the layout, get my bearings. The last time I was in this house, it was still Hamilton’s place. That dude couldn’t be bothered to do any sort of decorating, but I kind of dug it. He let the place speak for itself. That’s what you should do with old, interesting buildings like this. Minimalism, you know? Not this chintzy, fake antique crap that Blanchett has covered the place with. Crazy ornate light fixtures, boring oil paintings, suits of armor. Suits of armor! Who does that? You’d think a Frenchman would have better taste. I know this pad pretty well, but all this ugly crap cluttering the place up makes it hard to tell what’s what. Still, I recognize that old carved door at the end of the hall. Wine cellar. Groovy. The front door’s a little closer, but it’s probably more heavily guarded, and I have more escape options from the back anyway.

I bounce my piece on my palm. Probably about half full, and only one spare mag. Like I said, it was just supposed to be a social call. So much for that. Time to get moving. I lean out and take aim. Quick shots, one two three, and easy as target practice, they go down. I can’t help but feel satisfied as those ugly chandeliers crash to the ground, plunging the hall into darkness and creating a handy little obstacle course. Good fucking riddance. I should send Blanchett a bill for redecorating. The boys throw up their arms to guard their soft bits from the rain of shrapnel. Right now, I’m the last thing on their minds. They don’t even see me as I sprint down the hall under the cover of the darkness and debris. The floor plan unfolds itself in my head, clear as I had a map right in front of me. Left at the wine cellar, right at the foyer, down a short flight and out. Piece of cake. Mmm, cake sounds good. Bastards interrupted my dinner. I hate fighting on an empty stomach. At least I got in a decent cup of coffee.

I duck into another alcove and take out another brass monstrosity, then another. Chaos and noise unfold around me. The kids are yelling for backup, confused and scared. I wish I’d gotten intel on how big Blanchett’s crew is. Last I’d heard, he only had a couple of bodyguards, but clearly he’s beefed up security. A shot sails past me a foot over my head, the first one that’s gotten even close. Well, he’s tried to beef up security, at least. The cheap SOB never did want to shell out for any sort of training.

I don’t bother trying to take out the lights in the foyer — it’s far too well-lit, so it’s not worth the effort. Besides, the crystal chandelier here is actually pretty (original to the house, naturally), so I’d rather not destroy it. Which is a shame, because two more baby goons just popped out of the side door nearest me like some psychotic kid’s toy. Elbow to one throat, other nose broken. They haven’t even seen me yet. I slip one of their guns into my pocket and send the other flying across the room. A few more quick hits, and they’re down, boneless, twitchy piles of drab grey laundry.

A quick look around. The boys at the far end of the hall are still fighting their way past the rubble I left behind me. I duck behind a pillar and reload. Still clear ahead. I fly down the stairs. The plain wrought iron door to the patio is the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen. Too bad it sticks in the frame. A couple of good shoves. Glass shatters over my shoulder as the door finally gives. Their aim is improving.