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.

Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit

moribito

Title: Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit
Japanese Title: 精霊の守り人
Author: Uehashi Nahoko (上橋菜穂子)
Illustrations: Yuko Shimizu
Translator: Cathy Hirano
Publication Year: 2008 (America); 1996 (Japan)
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine
Pages: 260

To hold the book Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit in my hands is something of a nostalgic experience. This may be because the book is published by the Arthur A. Levine imprint of Scholastic, which is also responsible for the beautiful hardcover editions of the Harry Potter books. Like its famous cousins, Moribito features beautiful binding and page design, as well as detailed and dynamic illustrations provided by the chic young illustrator Yuko Shimizu. At the end of the book is a list of characters, a list of places and terms, and a short yet intriguing note from the author. In other words, in terms of sheer physical beauty and craftsmanship, Moribito is a pleasure to read.

Thankfully, the actual content of the book is just as appealing, both to younger and to more mature readers. There is action, adventure, magic, intrigue, and a touch of romance with none of the pandering to adult sensibilities of what children should and shouldn’t read that generally clouds the narratives of Western children’s literature. Equally refreshing is the change of scenery from a whimsical fantasyland inspired by Western folklore to a fictional yet strangely believable setting drawn from East Asian (especially Japanese) geography, history, and mythology. Gone are the kings and knights of Western fantasy; in their place are the emperors and scholars of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese tradition.

One of the reasons why I personally like this book, however, is its strong female characters. The plot revolves around a young prince, Chagum, who is being hunted by his father, the Emperor of New Yogo, because he carries the seed of the land’s destruction within him in the form of a magical egg from Nayugu, a realm of spirits that overlaps the physical realm of humans. In order to save her son, Chagum’s mother enlists the services of Balsa, a spear-wielding bodyguard with three decades of fighting and hardship behind her. Aiding Balsa in her mission to protect the prince and discover the secret of the egg are Torogai, an old woman well-versed in lore and shamanistic magic, and Tanda, an herbalist and childhood friend of Balsa who heals her when she is injured in battle. Both Torogai and Balsa are extraordinary characters who have lived extraordinary lives, and they easily qualify as two of the most realistic yet appealing female characters I have encountered in literature. They are nothing if not the equals of the men they encounter, and it is their actions that drive the majority of the plot. This is not to say that the male characters are downplayed in any way; rather, the female characters are not driven into any stereotypically “female” behavior vis-à-vis their male counterparts.

Uehashi’s Moribito is courageous not just in its portrayal of female characters but also in its questioning of the Japanese myths of national founding and the imperial system. Even more than fifty years after Hirohito proclaimed that the Japanese emperor is not a god but rather the symbol of a nation, a great deal of controversy still surrounds the imperial institution in Japan. By uncovering the surprising reality behind the myths surrounding the creation of New Yogo, Uehashi indirectly encourages a more critical attitude towards Japan’s own national mythology.

Both children looking for entertainment and adults looking for something more will heartily enjoy every page of this book. And, should the reader decide that he or she wants more, there is a 26 episode, beautiful anime series (released in America by Media Blasters) that follows the events of the novel, as well as several other volumes in the series, the second of which is slated to be released in an English translation on May 1, 2009.