March 14, 2013

On strong female characters

I feel pretty weird about people saying my stuff, to any degree, contains a “strong female character.”

Part of this is because I don’t know what the hell a strong female character is. The first thing that springs to mind is this. This is satire, but it adheres close enough to the bone that it’s sometimes hard to tell.

The truth of it is, I don’t go into any story identifying any one character as strong, because this term is meaningless: for a character to be good in any way, they usually must be strong in some parts and weak in others. Generally speaking, a character is good if:

  1. They have a defined (and preferably interesting, if not ironically contradictory) set of beliefs and goals in relation to their world
  2. They act in adherence to these beliefs and goals
  3. The world tests their adherence to these beliefs and goals (that’s the “weak” part, y’all)
  4. The character re-evaluates and possibly changes their beliefs and goals after new experiences in their world

And that’s really all I think of when I go into it. If a character does not meet those requirements, then I hope to god they’re a background character – who does not have to be a good character any more than a fantastic prop in a movie has to have dialogue.

Am I successful all the time? Probably not. I hope I’m mostly successful, naturally, but I don’t expect to deliver 100% of the goods to 100% of the readership. (Because this is impossible.)

The point of this all is, I rarely go into my characters with an agenda beyond the story: a character serves the story, not vice-versa.  Characters should not be fore-grounded, I think: they are, if anything, material that is molded and shaped by the machinations of the story.

So hearing that I’ve written a strong female character makes me feel weird. Because when people ask why I wrote one, the real answer is, “I don’t think I did.” Ideally, I wrote the character just like I’d write any other major character, and their gender wouldn’t have an effect on the flow of #’s 1-5 above more than any other feature.

This is a boring answer, but it’s a true one.