As a reader, I want to read interesting, relatable characters . As a writer, I want to create believable characters my readers fall in love with. Men, women, teenagers, senior citizens – all people have stereotypes. Female characters do as well, and as a women, they can be incredibly annoying! We know when we’ve met a realistic character – Elizabeth Bennet, Hermione Granger, and Jo March – to name a few. But how do you create multi-dimensional female characters?
Stumbling Stones and Stepping Blocks for Female Characters
Confusing Warrior Zen
I don’t mind girls who can fight. I do mind characters who just want to fight. It’s probably the anti-thesis of feminism to create a character who simply fights, just because she can.
Women can be strong, emotionally and physically. Joan of Arc learned to wear medieval armor, riding into battle alongside other French Knights. Vera Atkins spearheaded British spy operations during WWII, running an entire network of underground agents. And I’ve heard an Air Force Colonel mention that the best fighter pilots he’s ever seen were young women.
But, there should be a compelling reason behind the desire to fight. A character choosing to work with her fists, simply because, is one-dimensional and dull. Tris Prior, from Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, is one example. Why does Tris crave violence? She’s had a normal childhood, there’s no outstanding reason evident to the reader to justify her violent nature. Tris leaving everything she knows, simply because she wants to join a cooler gang, doesn’t jibe with me as a reader.
A better example of character growth would be Ayra Stark from GRR Martin’s, A Song of Ice and Fire series. As the younger sibling, Ayra has been compared to her older sister her entire life. Stifled by domestic chores, she admires her zesty, athletic older brothers. While her brothers include her, Ayra is ignored and teased by her domestic sister. As a reader, you understand her desire to train with her brothers. We have all experienced isolation and longing to be included. While, I would probably not join a fencing club, Ayra training with a sword master is relatable and contributes to her character growth.
Ignoring Mental Acuity
Guys don’t win battles just with their fists. And neither do girls. Joan of Arc may have worn armor and ridden into battle, but she also knew how to strategize and think. Besides rallying the French troops to storm the English, Joan used her words to bolster the army’s morale and develop fighting strategies. An incredible feat for an illiterate 17-year-old peasant girl.
Creating characters who are athletically fit isn’t necessarily a problem, until authors ignore mental development. There’s a reason cop movies create stupid bad guys – they’re stupid, comic relief. But we’re not writing movie scripts. There should be no reason to create a physically rounded character, and then simply ignore her thinking skills.
Suzanne Collins created a strong character with Katniss Everdeen. She loved her family, giving her a compelling reason to learn to hunt, volunteer to die, and rebel to protect those she loved. But sometimes, I felt Katniss was spoon-fed, rather than thinking for herself. Perhaps that’s simply the trap of first-person narrative, but I often wanted to hit Katniss on the head. Caught up in her own emotional upheaval, Katniss rarely took time to think about the larger world around her.
This problem is not as evident in The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, as much as in the final book, Mockingjay. Perhaps the author was under too much pressure to deliver the sequel by a deadline. Whatever the reason, Katniss leaves thought to focus on external strength. Abandoning the chain of command to hunt down President Snow was reckless, thoughtless, and butchered her character.
If the reader is thinking ahead, and solving problems for the main character, there’s a problem with character development.
One character whose brain promotes the story, is Hermione Granger. Maybe Hermione feels like a know-it-all, an insufferable dictionary, who memorizes books simply because she can. And, yes, learning to go back in time to take twice as many classes in one day is a bit much.
But, Hermione’s mental acuity is an integral part of the story. She’s not afraid to use her learning to fight, help her friends, and stop villains. As a trivia person myself, I love the constant use of Hermione’s knowledge to propel the story. Not only is knowledge integral to winning battles, but is key to the story’s growth. Part of Hermione’s character development is learning to not show off or expect her friends to care as much as she does about scholastic knowledge.
Swapping Sexuality for Emotional Devolopment
It feels like authors are scrambling over each other to create feminism-worthy characters. No-one wants to be accused of writing paternal, anti-women stories. In this haste, readers and authors are trading in femininity for cheap sexuality.
I recently read Sarah J. Maas A Court of Thorns and Roses series. While I love the world building, the fantasy and characters, the feminism falls flat. Why? Because strength is confused for sexuality. The main character, Feyre, is strong. She overcomes emotional roadblocks, manipulation, and physical deprivation to save those she loves.
And while the cast of characters does appreciate Feyre for this strength, this appreciation is overwhelmed by sexuality. Sure, men can be attracted to women. Sure, lust and rape exist. But, please, don’t make it acceptable, even desirable in your story. Please, please, make sexual attraction secondary to emotional connection.
Sarah J, Maas’s story has a lot of good elements. There are emotional connections, but the overall sexual tension embedded in the story overwhelms the feminine strength of the main character.
On the other hand, Jane Austen is skillful at presenting feminism, without highlighting sexuality. Perhaps, one might think, it’s simply the culture at the time, upholding the expected standards of Regency manners. But there were risqué Regency novels, just as laced with sexual tension as anything published today. Risqué may be popular, but won’t be memorialized and reread a century later.
Austen understood – sexuality is secondary to feminine strength. Elizabeth Bennet and her wit, Emma and her matchmaking, Fanny and her humility. Character qualities – not physical attributes. But neither is the physical ignored. Darcy comments on Lizzy’s eyes, while we remember Emma as a vibrant blonde.
It’s a balance. Highlight character, not the physical. And don’t make a character rely on her physical prowess to propel a plot. It’s lazy, obnoxious, completely undeveloped writing.
Female Characters aren’t that Complicated, er, I think
As an aspiring writer, I’m creating my own set of characters. Right now, male characters are challenging. I’m rather certain I know what goes on in a a female brain and how to utilize that knowledge. Figuring out what makes a male character tick is another game entirely.
But it’s easy to fall in the trap of stereotypes. To forget to equip my characters with brawn and brain. Media likes to claim we’re a sexist society, but pop culture has certainly done it’s part to diminish female characters to mere cardboard cut-outs. As readers and authors, let’s redeem female characters.
Another time I may write about why love-triangles fall flat and why the chosen-one syndrome is stifling creativity. In the meanwhile, what’s your bookish soapbox?