On Letting Female Characters Be Complicated

When I hear the descriptor ‘strong female character’, I cringe a little. Not because I dislike female characters– on the contrary, I often deliberately seek out  or create stories with a distinctly female perspective– but because it has become a catchphrase that describes a particularly cringe-making type of character.

The cringe is what happens when someone creates a physically strong, daring female protagonist and declares that nuanced character development is unnecessary because their character is ‘strong’. This usually results in either a character who consciously and ostentatiously rejects* the performance of femininity** as beneath her, or who in spite of her physical prowess falls into a number of questionable tropes (for example, giving up adventuring to settle down with the first guy who looks at her twice). These characters also have a high percentage of Mary Sues.

The other problem, which is not really the fault of the writer, is that female characters often get freighted with an impossible pile of conflicting audience expectations. Everyone seems to have a vision of the Perfect Feminist Character, and no one character is going to be able to embody all of them. Furthermore, a character who is the Perfect Feminist Character cannot be remotely realistic, as all humans are imperfect,  complex,  and well, problematic.

So first of all, stop trying to please your entire potential audience when you write your female characters. That way lies Mary Sue infestations and writer’s block. Let your female characters be flawed and messy and endearing and do their gender expression in a way that makes sense for both the character and the setting. This works way better if you write in lots of female characters. Heck, write an all-female story about the first Mars expedition or Dark Ages Italian nuns or whatever gets you inspiration going (besides, there’s a zillion works of fiction with all-male or male-dominant casts– time for some equality!). Whilst this sounds obvious, there’s a lingering assumption that any book that is predominantly about female characters is ‘chick lit’ and by association not a ‘real’ member of its genre.

*A character who is a transgender man, a nonbinary/gender nonconforming person, or is butch as genuine self-expression rather than a way to crap on ‘traditional’ femininity? Now that’s awesome. If that’s the character you’re writing, please do carry on.

**Usually, this is a late-Medieval/early-modern European upper-class conception of what ‘traditional’ femininity looks like; however, there is an Orientalist version too that emphasizes the oppression of women in Eastern and Western Asian cultures.

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