Writing “Strong” Female Characters

Otoyomegatari

Yesterday afternoon, I received a brilliant comment on my post about “strong female characters” in the Final Fantasy series of video games. As the commenter says, “I would argue that strength for a female character is not necessarily limited to ‘becomes goddess, wields gunblade, kicks ass’ (no matter how gratifying), but may also include, ‘forms strong bonds with and serves as mentor / role model / leader for other female characters,’ without reference to the guys.” Since gender is an important component of any work of fiction, I feel that this is an excellent opportunity to clarify my own opinions about what makes a “strong” female character, with “strong” meaning “well developed” in a literary sense.

Here are some suggestions for writing a strong female character:

(1) Unless there is something seriously wrong with a female character, she should have interiority, which means that she should think things. If she’s not a point of view character, or if your third person narrator isn’t omniscient, or if you’d rather just show and not tell, then she should be shown taking actions that demonstrate independent thought.

(2) Is the character in question human within the context of the story? Does she dodge bullets that hit other people, and can she overcome obstacles that no one else can for no discernible reason? Does she always do the right thing; or, by her doing something, does that thing suddenly become the right thing? Does she exhibit mastery over skills with no prior training, qualification, or explanation? Flaws and challenges make characters interesting, and a character with no flaws who faces no challenges is not interesting.

(3) Pretend that emotions are a color palette. Female characters should exhibit emotions that fall outside of their primary color group.

(4) Different characters should hold different attitudes towards a female character. Not everyone needs to love or to hate her. In the same vein, not everyone needs to have an opinion about her or even be aware of her existence.

(5) If you have a choice between closing plot holes and making sure that a female character gets together with her love interest, close the plot holes.

(6) Sometimes people undergo severe changes in personality when they fall in love, have sex, get married, or have a child, but don’t take drastic personality change for granted when it happens to a female character. You don’t need to comment on it or have other characters comment on it if that’s not your style, but understand that it will be jarring and upsetting to the reader and should be treated accordingly.

(7) Is your character raped? Is it necessary that she’s raped? Is she constantly being threatened by rape? Are the male characters also raped? I do not subscribe to the school of thought that holds that rape is the worst thing that can happen to a human being, but it can have severe consequences for both the victim and the rapist and should not be treated lightly.

(8) If a female character is damaged in some way (physically, psychologically, or emotionally), is her damage treated with the proper respect (i.e., is it actually damaging), or is it just a fetish? Does the character exist on a level other than as a representation of her damage?

(9) If your story is a story in which food exists and people eat, female characters should eat food. If your story is a story in which people take showers and use the bathroom, female characters should take showers and use the bathroom.

(10) Just as some people don’t need an excuse to be good, not everyone needs an excuse to be evil; some people are just assholes. Still, if a character is evil just because she’s an older woman or more sexually mature than other female characters, that’s just as ridiculous as her being good just because she’s young and virginal. Remember that stereotypes are mocked because they’re stupid and boring. A character that exists solely for the purpose of overturning a stereotype is also stupid and boring.

(11) Unless it makes logical sense for it not to do so, your story should pass the Bechdel test. This means that female characters should have conversations with each other about things other than the male characters. If they have interior monologs, they should think about things other than the male characters. If there’s nothing else in your story for female characters to talk or think about, then your story probably sucks.

All of these suggestions also work for writing male characters!

In the above list, I deliberately avoided the term “empowerment,” just as I deliberately avoided the term “agency.” “Empowerment” is something that generally pertains to non-fictional people (for example, female readers can feel empowered by a character, or readers can interpret a character in ways that are empowering from a feminist perspective); and, in any case, empowerment is something that’s generally associated with emotional fortitude and some degree of ability to change the world. I want to avoid this latter connotation, because I don’t think a character needs to be powerful or exceptional in order to be well written and compelling.

Just for the record, it is absolutely not true that a writer has to be physically female (or identify as female) in order to write female characters who are interesting and engaging; that would just be silly.

Kushana

The character at the top is Amira Halgal from Mori Kaoru’s Otoyomegatari. The character at the bottom is Kushana from Miyazaki Hayao’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.

What Is Moe?

This is a visual essay that I hope will help to answer some questions about the visual aesthetic often referred to as moe (pronounced moé). If I poke fun at this aesthetic in this essay, it is not out of a sense of disdain or relative cultural superiority, but rather because the particular otaku subculture that consumes moe images likes to poke fun at itself. An appreciation of how ridiculous these images is constitutes a significant part of their appeal.

I am drawing these images from the opening color pages of the August issue of the monthly manga anthology Dengeki Daioh, which is roughly the size of a New York City telephone book. Here is the issue’s cover:

This month’s issue comes with a double-sided pull-out poster. Here’s the front side:

And here’s the back side:

August (or early July, when this issue actually came out on in bookstores) is a great time for relaxing by the pool in a bikini and running around in a wet school uniform blouse in the rain, isn’t it? Ah, summer.

Anyway, this issue also came with another freebie, a large sheet of heavy plastic that calls itself a “leisure mat”:

I’m not sure what the purpose of this “leisure mat” is (and I’m not entirely sure I want to know), but I think it’s supposed to smell like strawberries. So what we have here is a person-sized illustration of a girl who looks to be about ten years old in hot pants with a gun against a backdrop of fish printed on a sheet of heavy, strawberry scented plastic. Okay then. Moving on.

Just to let you know, the freebie included in the next issue of Dengeki Daioh is going to be a full-color illustration book of the characters from the anthology’s manga in swimsuits. Awesome!

Moe isn’t all about manga and anime, though. The above image is the second page of a two-page advertisement for a moe-flavored collectible card game. The question of the Q&A section at the bottom of the pages reads, “But what if I don’t know how to play?” Apparently, there are guides both on the internet and included with starter decks, but I really don’t think actually playing the game is the point of these cards. Here is a sample card that was packaged with the magazine:

The card is titled, “The Crimson Sound of ‘Afternoon Sunlight.’” It features an illustration of a reclining beauty whispering, “Okay, I’ll go out with you.” Yeah! Action! Strategy! It’s just like chess! With cards! Anyway…

Did you know that Dengeki Daioh has a sister magazine called Dengeki Moeoh? Did you know that it’s on sale right now? You should totally get it, because it’s packaged with both a “special book” of swimsuit illustrations and an “X-RATED♥” body pillow cover. But that’s not all!

You can also go to the Dengeki Moeoh website to download cool screen savers for your tablet or smart phone, as well as digital manga stories!

And what sort of discussion of moe would be complete without mentioning visual novels?

Koi to senkyo to chokorēto (“Love, Election & Chocolate”) is a dating sim that went on sale at this summer’s Comiket. Apparently, it’s “the story of a boy yearning for true love and a girl hating chocolate.” But of course the male protagonist isn’t pictured in the promotional art, because that would be icky.

Hopefully these ten images from Dengeki Daioh, which has come to be accepted as the ultimate mainstream sourcebook for moe manga and illustration, have helped to give you some sense of the moe visual aesthetic. If you have been disgusted by these sexualized images of seemingly underage characters, don’t worry – you’re not alone. Such images (and the narratives that accompany them) have sparked huge storms of controversy in both Japan and America.

I think it’s important to keep certain things in mind, though. For example, is all anime and manga like this? Of course not. Do these pictures mean that all otaku are pedophiles? No, they don’t. Do these pictures reveal otaku attitudes concerning real women? I don’t think so. Are these pictures to blame for Japan’s low birthrate? I really don’t think so. Do female illustrators create these images too? Yes, they do. Can women enjoy these images? Of course they can.

After all, as René Magritte so famously suggested in La Trahison des Images, “Ceci n’est-pas une pipe.” And, as Neil Gaiman has famously pointed out, Americans have a “First Amendment right as [adults] to make lines on paper, to draw, to write, to sell, to publish, and […] to own comics.” The Japanese have the same right under their own constitution. And if the publishers, artists, and readers of Dengeki Daioh make use of this right by enjoying the moe aesthetic, good for them. Even if everyone agrees that it’s kind of ridiculous.