Every once in a while, the question makes its way around the writing circles: how to write strong female characters?
Well, I’m a guy, so I probably shouldn’t be the first person you ask. In fact, definitely not. But, because I’m a guy, here comes my opinion anyway. (Right away with the gender stereotypes — buckle up!)
Often, some wiseacre will reference the acidic, sexist crack from Jack Nicholson’s character from the movie As Good As It Gets: “I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability.” This is best used ironically, or not at all, as it’s not really constructive. It’s also wildly sexist. So there’s your example of What Not to Do, I guess.
Also on the list of smartass responses is this comic strip by Kate Beaton, which takes a swing at the tropes some writers seem to think make female characters strong, but actually really don’t. (I particularly like the lengthy justification of the boob armor, which I’ve seen in many an online argument about revealing superhero costumes.)
If you look at your typical urban fantasy cover, the answer seems to be “crop top, big knife, and tattoos.” This is a pretty hoary complaint by this time, and I feel a little self-conscious even making it, but seriously, show me a bad-ass vampire hunter with her midriff covered, and, well… I’ll be mildly surprised. Not that this is a bad thing in itself, beyond being something of a cliché at this point. But it does seem to reinforce the idea that “violence = strength.” Not that I mind ass-kicking characters, but groin-punching is a behavior, not a personality trait. The most iconic modern-fantasy female of them all, Buffy Summers, much more going for her than just beating monsters senseless.
The question’s also been kicking around the blogosphere recently. Oh, I just said blogosphere. I’m sorry. Anyway, for example, “The Fantasy Feminist” by Fantasy Faction (say that five times fast), points out some of the most common gaffes in writing female characters:
These issues are, at their core, character issues. The problem isn’t the warrior or promiscuous personality in itself; rather, it’s the idea that to be a strong character, a woman must act like a man or shun feminine things or use her body to manipulate people or some other misconception. And even then, it’s really only a problem if the writer believes that the character must act that way to be strong. If the character believes it, then the writer has taken a first step toward creating a multi-layered person.
Michel Vaillancourt, author of The Sauder Diaries: By Any Other Name, relates how he carefully researched and constructed his female characters. Vaillancourt sums up the problem neatly: “Within our North American pop culture, we have built a mystic divide between the principle genders.” What’s most interesting about this post is the mixed reaction Vaillancourt got from female readers — proving that there is no One True Way when it comes to writing characters, nor should there be.
My favorite answer to this question, however, came from a recent Google+ thread in which a writer asked, “how do you write female characters?” and someone answered:
1) I think of a character.
2) I make them female.
I love this answer, because I think it gets to the heart of the issue: gender plays very little part in what makes a good or strong character. So why start with gender at all?
What It Takes
So what does it take to make a (female) character tick?
1) Agency. The character makes things happen. They move the plot forward. They make choices — even if they are bad ones — that propel the story. They make a difference. They do not wait for the story to happen to them. They do not wait to be rescued. They do not let somebody else handle the hard stuff. If your character is sitting around the house gnawing their knuckles and hoping everything will work out okay, you need to punt them into the middle of the action.
2) Relatability. A character doesn’t have to be likeable, but they do need to have distinct goals and desires — in short, the things that make us human. Female characters in particular seem prone to fall outside these boundaries — they’re presented as mysterious, otherworldly creatures, their actions random and without reason — basically, all the worst parts of some stand-up comic’s outdated “women want the toilet seat down” routine.
If you’re putting this kind of thing in your writing, please, for all our sakes, knock it off. Women aren’t magical creatures from another planet. Stop writing them like that. Give them human hopes, fears, and motivations. It’s not that hard. A female character shouldn’t be measured by her sexuality, or the cut of her clothing, or how many people she can wheel-kick in sixty seconds to prove she doesn’t need a man. Violence doesn’t make a character strong. Neither does sex. Not by themselves, anyway.
3) Integrity. Look at the list of characters in your latest work. Describe each character in a single, short sentence. If the words “love interest” appear anywhere in that sentence, chances are your character is a bit crap. Look, it’s nothing personal. I’m guilty of this. I’ve created the character who exists only to be dated, desired, or unceremoniously boinked. Is there a place for such characters in a story? Maybe — if, as Michel Vaillancourt says, they’re strictly a plot device. But you could probably do better. If your character’s sole motivation is to be someone’s girlfriend, you can’t pretend they’re well-rounded and still keep a straight face.
Characters must also have integrity of motivation — not from stereotypical gender expectations. A common example of this is Ripley going back to save the cat in Alien. I’ll be the first one to say that while Ripley in Aliens is a great example of doing a female character right, the first Alien drops the ball in a few places. Do you think Hudson or Hicks or one of the other badass space marines would have gone back for the cat? Yeah, me neither. Chances are they wouldn’t strip down to their underwear in the final reel either, but whatever. My point is, characters should make decisions based on their character — it doesn’t matter if they’re bad decisions, so long as the reasoning isn’t “well, she’s a woman and women are so crazy so she did the crazy thing.”
Is That All?
Well, no. Because I won’t pretend for one second that there’s one true formula for writing characters of any gender. People are different. And, like it or not, while men and women might not be from other planets, they’re not identical either. They process emotions differently. They’re shaped by different societal forces.
There’s a danger in writing against stereotypes without going deeper than just defying the stereotype. A female character can ask her boyfriend to open the pickle jar, or hate taking out the trash, or follow her intuition when her brain is telling her a different story. That doesn’t magically make a character weak. What makes them weak is defining them only by that sort of thing. But take that too far in the other direction, and you may end up with a bunch of stereotypical male traits… the proverbial “man with breasts.” You’ve essentially traded one set of cliches for another at that point.
So, as usual, the answer is somewhere in the middle. The most memorable female protagonists (the ones that come up constantly in conversations like these: Buffy, Ripley, etc.) show us that they can feel terror and charge into peril anyway. That they can love, or grieve over love lost, without pining forever in their room. That they can hold their own without being invincible.
“Strong” does not mean “flawless,” because invulnerable people with no weaknesses are the most boring characters imaginable. There’s a big difference between characters flaws and a character who’s just written poorly. To quote from the blog 42nd Wave Feminist:
I think many of Mr. Whedon’s critics think that because he is a professed feminist who supports Equality Now and has been honored by them, and because he enjoys writing strong female characters, that somehow every female character he writes should fit some sort of feminist ideal. I think that’s a ridiculous expectation and would most likely result in colossally boring television.
This is a complicated issue, and I could probably go on for several more paragraphs, but I’m not going to. In short, if you want to write good characters, then start with character — not with gender. Write human beings, not stereotypes or sex object. It’s not rocket science.
Your turn. Tell me your thoughts. I’d love to hear them.
72 Replies to “On Writing Strong (Female) Characters”
Daniel, great post. I admit, I wonder the same thing when writing male characters. Mostly I wonder about thought processes, priorities and voice. I don’t know if I agree with the ‘mystical’ characterization that Michel Vaillencourt mentions but I do think there is a different internal dialogue for women. I try to be very conscious of not giving that same quality to the men in my stories.
Thanks, Jo-Anne! Ultimately, I think this advice does go both ways. A nuanced character stems from motivations and emotions, regardless of who they are. I think the form that characterization takes is up for grabs.
I agree with your perspective about building a character first and then assigning gender. I have always been drawn to characters that are multidimensional things be they male, female or otherwise. And it might help to point out that the human condition, that state of not being perfect, make for a strong hero, too, and even a kick-ass bad guy. The characters we like, the ones we look up to, are the ones we can see ourselves in. Their minds feel at home to us, so familiar, and yet they manage face our fears with true courage that comes from acknowledging the fear and acting in spite of it.
Since my book has 2 female protagonists, I can only hope that at least one of them is as humanly strong as Buffy… but that’s a tale for another day.
Thanks for the post, Daniel. Insightful, as always.
When does your book come out, Stacy?
I’m always drawn to multidimensional, flawed characters myself as well. The more screwed up they are, the more I like them. As long as their flaws derive from who they are and not their gender.
A reasonable response. I must address this: “Do you think Hudson or Hicks or one of the other badass space marines would have gone back for the cat? Yeah, me neither.”
From the minute I first saw the cat, I was thinking, “NOTHING HAD BETTER HAPPEN TO THAT CAT.” And Ripley going back for it made her better and more interesting both as a character and as a female character. Male bad-asses are so one-dimensional. It amazes me how easily satisfied so many male viewers/readers are with totally flat and boring characters, as long as there’s plenty of action, however mindless.
Well, I didn’t want anything to happen to the cat either! Animals are great plot devices like that. But if it had been me in that situation, I’m not sure I would have gone back for it.
I totally agree that one-dimensional male characters are usually a crashing bore. I suppose the point is often to provide a cipher of a character that the reader / viewer can transpose themselves onto, but still. Snore.
For one thing, I don’t think the gender or the writer means that they should or shouldn’t comment on how to write a good or bad female protagonist. I’ll offer Twilight as an example of where lady writers can go wrong, too. So having said that, I agree with you heartily. It’s not about writing a woman who happens to be strong. It’s about writing a strong person who is a woman.
And I don’t mind when writers write extreme characters, as long as there is a reason for it. Take Starbuck in the recent BSG series, for example. In the beginning, she was sort of a “man with boobs” character, but it made sense. Given the job she had and her background, it made sense for her to try so hard to act like “one of the guys.” I felt that it fit really well. Later on in the series, they did an about face with her, and suddenly she was Krazy-Kara, totally ruled by her emotions and just bat-crap crazy all the time, but without any sort of serious head-trauma or other believable reason to account for it.
First and foremost, I’d like people to remember that women are people. We’re flawed just like anybody, and writers should write us so without using sexist or misogynist stereotypes to do it.
Thanks, Joni. And yeah, I think my post could probably be boiled down to “women are people, so write ’em like that.” Or possibly, “people are people so why should it be, you and I should get along so awfully?”
I detested what they did with Starbuck in BSG. Not only was Krazy-Kara annoying as hell, but she became completely indecipherable as a character. Not good storytelling, and a disservice to the character. But then, that show lost me after Season 2.
Exactly. Basically, you should use the same process to create a male character than a female character. Gender stuff applies for both sexes a little later down the line.
Totally. I’m glad you agree. Thanks for the comment!
Spot on, as usual! When we get too wrapped up in gender is when we tend to lose sight of character.
Thank you, Angel, and agreed. Character first!
Excellent post, Daniel, and thanks for the nod. I completely loved the quote about “think of a character / make them female”.
Ultimately, I think that as writers, we should know the “raison d’etre” of our characters in our stories. In some cases, the gender of that character is determined by the reason the character exists. In many cases, however, it doesn’t and the real issue — as you so keenly zeroed in on — is simply writing a strong character for the role, regardless of gender.
Thanks, Michel. I think you’re right. A “raison d’etre” is a great place to start — as long as that element is strong and nuanced, the rest of the character should follow suit.
Well if we’re talking about Alien, I think Ripley first shows how much backbone she’s got in the scene where she won’t open the hatch to let Dallas and Lambert and Kane with the facehugger attached back onto the ship. She doesn’t let herself be ordered to do it, or persuaded with appeals to her compassion for poor Kane. She does her job. And if Ash hadn’t over-ridden the hatch none of the carnage would have happened (at least not to the people on the right side of the hatch!) so she was absolutely right.
And the cat is totally in league with the alien. I’ve watched Alien about a zillion times now and came to this conclusion long ago. Anyway, I forgive her for going back for the cat, because by that point she has to be half out of her mind with terror and the trauma of what she’s seen. The chance to save that one life, the only one even remotely a part of the crew she’s seen slaughtered is one I can understand her taking.
You know, you make a really good point. Maybe the decision to go back for the animal is more nuanced than I’m giving it credit for, and maybe I’m being too hard on Ripley. I definitely agree about her showdown at the airlock door. I may have to watch the movie again and re-evaluate. Thanks, Becky!
There is a much more simple answer to why Ripley went back to get Jonesy the cat: toxoplasma gondii. It’s a parasite transmitted by cats the has been proven, repeatedly, to alter the fear response in its hosts, usually to the cat’s benefit. Currently half the human population has toxoplasmosis. In Ripley’s time I would expect that to be even higher, and judging by her behavior she almost certainly has it. And that is why she went back for Jonesy.
Oh my god. Mind = blown
It’s not rocket science.
Not it’s not; and I should know. 🙂
I love everything you’ve said here, especially the part about 1) write a character, 2) make them female, but I take small exception with your comparison in the alien movies about Ripley not going back for the cat. “Would the male characters do that?” should not be the benchmark by which you judge a female character’s action. That being said, no one should be stripping down to their underwear.
Why don’t we hear posts about “how do we write a sensitive male character”? Because we don’t have a problem writing fully realized male characters (and thank heaven for that). There are plenty of people who know how to write female characters who kick butt in a very feminine way. I just read one in Hugh Howey’s Molly Fyde, in case you’re looking for a good example (and she was only 17!). And while people call the heroine in my Mindjack series “kick butt” they’re just as likely to say that she “makes bad choices” and she’s “brave and honorable” – all of which bring a smile to my face. Because she did all that without losing her femininity or turning into a sex-object. 🙂
I’m close to recanting on the Ellen Ripley issue. I’ve been taken to task on that about three times now! I’m not trying to say “Ripley should do what a MAN would do in her position” — but I think that if Ripley had originally been a male character, there wouldn’t have been any cat written into the script. But, it’s really not that big of a gripe to begin with — and the character more than makes up for it in the sequel.
Thanks Susan! This gives me a good excuse to check out Mindjack!
Wow, Daniel–thank you so much for the very nice mention! I love your post–completely agree with you. Sadly, I think so many of our stereotypes in fiction come from just a basic lack of care in creating the characters. I mean, I know men who have traits that might typically be considered “female” (deep compassion, flair for the artistic, extreme talent in the kitchen, phenomenal with kids) and women who have traits that might typically be considered “male” (strong skills in engineering, very outdoorsy or athletic, not particularly concerned with fashion). I can’t paint my male or female friends with the same broad brush, nor would I want to. They all bring so many different things to my world–why would I want them all to be the same? It’s the same with characters. Sometimes it just takes a little more painting, a little more care, and a one-dimensional stereotype can become a character people care about.
Thank YOU for the great article, Amy, it inspired me to write this post. I think you’re on the money that the key is crafting well-rounded, nuanced characters to begin with, rather than a set of canned traits. Even divorcing it from gender issues, it’s just good writing.
Very good article, and I think you’ve got it: write a real human being of the female gender, and you’re sorted. 🙂
Agreed. Thanks, Ruth!
Dan O’Bannon wrote Ellen Ripley, you know. A guy came up with a remarkable female protagonist.
What I think is that we get too caught up in the politics of whatever you’ve got between our legs and forget that we’re all people. A man can, and should, write females that sound like and act like real people. That’s the secret, if you ask me.
Also, I think there’s a widely propagated misunderstanding around what constitutes a strong female character. It’s not just about kicking butt and taking names; if it were, then the lead in Sucker Punch would be the strong female protagonist to end all strong female protagonists. We could all just pack up and go home. At some point “strong female character” got subverted into “killing machine with boobs.” The man-with-breasts you mention up there.
Now, I like those killing machines as much as the next man (I even dated one, once) but it’s a failure of the imagination that we’re seeing up on our screens when women are only deemed ‘strong’ if they wield phallic symbols.
Give me leave to indulge in some armchair Freudianism here. See, Joss Whedon’s Buffy is a character that systematically appropriates phallic implements – knives, crossbows, bazookas – and, whenever she does so, uses them as devices for penetrative destruction. To do away with “demons.” I submit that vampires in Buffy’s mythology represent male lust and the male id; also, that Buffy is a non-constructive female force that negates desire, recurrently wiping out monsters created by repressed sexual energies. It’s no wonder Buffy falls for Angel, the vampire with a soul – the feminized, domesticated male that will revert to brutal ferocity if his desires are indulged.
Vampires are serial-rapists-cum-plague-carriers, and Buffy is an antibody. She herself feels incomplete and not-normal. What Joss Whedon unwittingly conveys is that, when women take up arms, they become negative reflections of male dominance. The vampire hunters are somewhat like fighting nuns; it’s not like they take a vow of chastity but they “answer to a higher calling.” They must, therefore, remain locked in deadly antagonism with “vampires” – unruly males that would prey on female vulnerability.
The hidden message: male power in feminine hands is a destructive thing.
This is an incomplete analysis. I am aware that Whedon’s writing evolved over time and so have his positions.
In my estimation I must have seen 20 or so episodes of Buffy. Granted, that’s not much. I did follow the Angel show. Cordelia and Fred seemed to me far more accomplished as feminist characters than Buffy.
Shakespeare knew how strength manifests in different ways. Lady Macbeth was terribly strong, more resolute than her husband (remember, strong does not equal good). Coriolanus’s mother crossed enemy lines to persuade her son to sign a truce with Rome, armed with her conviction alone. Strength comes from the heart.
I don’t know if you watched the episodes where they revealed that Buffy’s power was actually demonic in nature, and that it was hereditary from a priesthood that basically violated the first Slayer by infusing her with that power.
And I agree that power has become synonymous with violence, which I don’t think is altogether healthy. The thought of Sucker Punch as an empowering movie makes me sick to my stomach.
I didn’t, but that development reinforces the unruly male/castrating female dichotomy. It further puts a misguided rape-revenge fantasy at the core of that universe.
Female characters becoming strong through symbolic rape doesn’t strike me as very healthy, either.
Plus there’s the fact that you don’t choose to become a slayer, you get chosen. Call Whedon a feminist but the Buffyverse is still a man’s world. I’m not sure how much of that ambiguity is intended.
After watching Dollhouse, I personally think it’s quite intended. The message of Dollhouse really seemed to be, “this is the world our society is trying to create, and it’s horrifying.” Buffy as a character has always been one who is trapped in circumstances she didn’t choose and couldn’t change, and yet made the best of it anyway — the episodes where she tries to walk away and live a normal life, or have a normal relationship… so much is denied her, and yet it doesn’t stop her.
I think Dollhouse almost neatly boils down to Mal’s speech about the government creating the Reavers.
“They [the Alliance] will swing back to the belief that they can make people… better. And I do not hold to that. So no more runnin’. I aim to misbehave.”
We are creating a society that would do that, that would try to make people better, or create dolls or what-have-you and it is horrifying.
Yeah — I would not be surprised if Whedon thought of Dollhouse as a distant precursor to what the Alliance did.
There’s a fairly persistent Whedon-theme of “people messing about with people to make them better people when really the people should just trust people to be people, intrinsically both better and worse than you could ever really hope to imagine.”
I quite like that theme, personally. It’s one of my favorite views of humanity: damn do we suck, but wow are we amazing. We go on with our little bitty lives, and some of us do horrible things, and some of us do nothing much of consequence, and some of us make art that will last for centuries and still move people. We have people who abuse children and people who will help a stranger for no reason but kindness. We are really pretty amazing apes.
Dollhouse is fascinating for its ability to keep knocking over its bad guys. Every time you think you know whose side you’re on the setting opens up more and you realize you’re not quite as sure as you were. I enjoyed that.
I took Buffy’s demonic power to represent the darkness in all of us that we can’t escape and that we inherit as part of being human.
And yes, she’s the chosen one. But we all are. We can’t escape who we are, in the end. We can move to a new city, and even name ourselves after a mushroom, or use our boring middle name to try and be more “normal and everyday”, but we are who we are in the end.
So as someone who has watched all of Buffy multiple times I have some issues with your take on things.
First, the little things. Buffy’s choice in weapons came primarily from those things that kill vampires in common (non-Twilight) vampire lore. Stakes, crowssbows, swords, etc. so I don’t think it really makes sense to read a whole lot of phallic-ness into her weapon choices. The bazooka was a special situation (no weapon forged blah blah). I don’t recall knives being super common for Buffy, and the one up there is actually Faith’s knife which Buffy had for a reason. In fact, without doing some digging, I can’t even be sure that’s not Faith in that picture. Angel wasn’t the only vampire with a soul, and not all of the demons were actually bad. Sometimes there were good demons and bad people.
Overall, the vampires and other demons were very much intended as representations of the personal demons and situations we fight in our late teens and early twenties. Angel in particular was a direct representation of the older, abusive boyfriend. He was pretty, he was charming, and then when he got what he wanted, he turned into a violent douchebag. That’s not an uncommon experience for us ladies. And Buffy handled it like so many of us do. She tried to fight him, but over and over she couldn’t bring herself to actually kill him (breakup with him/get him out of her life). She wanted to fix him. She wanted him to be back the way he was when things were good.
Previous/other vampire slayers, including Kendra (but not really Faith) did actually sort of remove themselves from society as nuns or superheroes might. Kendra had no idea how to even be around Xander because she’d been isolated from boys all her life. Buffy was the one who bucked that whole trend, had friends and tried her best to live a normal life beyond her calling. She struggled to be as normal as possible and even tried to run away, but as with anyone else, she couldn’t ever really escape who she was. Joss even took the time to clobber us over the head with
Chanterelle/Anne to help make sure we really didn’t miss that point.
The strongest “male id” characters that I can think of, the most directly obvious ones anyway, are Parker and Warren. Both were human. The supernatural creatures tended to represent bigger and more nebulous problems.
I don’t think Buffy conveys that women who take up arms become negative reflections of anything. Joss conceived of Buffy as the tiny, pretty little blonde girl in every horror movie you see, who is always screaming and helpless. She either dies first or gets rescued by the male hero. Or gets rescued and then dies anyway.
Buffy turns that trope on its head by being strong and self sufficient, but also weak in some ways, like person is. She was most often the rescuer, but she sometimes she made mistakes or got in over her head and her friends saved her ass more than once. Right from the beginning when Buffy faces her first “big bad” in the Master, she kills him in the end, but first her friends have to save her life so she can do it.
What Buffy represents, more than anything, is the ability that we all have to fight our battles. Sometimes we have the strength to do it but sometimes we need help from the people who love us. And every once in a while, we even need/get help from people who don’t like us at all.
Is Buffy a perfect feminist character? No, of course not. I submit that the quote Dan used up above was quite true. If Joss were to write all his female characters (Buffy, Cordelia, Tara, Willow, Echo, Mellie, Adelle, Fred, River, Zoe, Inara, etc) as perfectly feminist ideals, they’d be boring as fuck. I don’t want to watch that. I want to watch characters who seem real and characters I can relate to. I can’t relate to perfection. I can relate to trying, and sometimes winning and sometimes losing. I can relate to being too overwhelmed or scared to try. I can sure as shit relate to the boyfriend who changes personality mid-stream. And when I was in high school I know I felt like my problems were these big, overwhelming things that nobody else could understand, much like Buffy’s monsters.
Now, with all of the defending of Buffy I just did, I should also add that she’s my least favorite character in her show. As is Angel in his show and Echo in hers. I think that Joss tends to fall down a bit when it comes to writing his main character. The rest of the Scoobies, the rest of the gang at Angel Investigations, everybody else in Dollhouse, including the other dolls are more interesting to me. And of all the characters in all of his shows, it’s Anya who most often rips me apart and makes me cry.
I don’t know if that contributes much to the discussion, but there you have it.
Joni, those are very good points, but we’re talking about different layers of the narrative.
No one character defines itself through one layer alone.
Please remember that characters do not exist outside fiction. They have no agency — they’re written. At the level I’m discussing, it doesn’t matter whether Buffy chose her weapons or not. Buffy was created/developed and didn’t make choices. I’m not discussing Buffy’s qualia as fictive person but her thematic development.
Buffy, once again, is not a real person, but a character. The themes she reflects were not chosen by her. The weapons she uses were determined by a writer, and writers make choices based on principles they may not be entirely aware of. It doesn’t matter whether weapons were crafted or not, it doesn’t matter whether Buffy has friends or not, I’m looking at the barest essentials and, at the level I’m reading, she’s not even Buffy anymore, only a concept. At story level, of course, your observations are entirely cogent.
There’s a growing body of literature on the representation of women in horror and the appropriation of male power through weaponry. Whedon’s probably read some of it. What he gives you in Buffy is a ‘final girl’ that survives and adapts to a hostile universe. That is a fun idea and yes, it works. But it doesn’t change the fact that Buffy is a focal point for relentless male and even female animosity. Leaving aside the matter of good demons/bad demons for now, I would say that the demons in the show often stand for uncontrolled, bestial, uncivilized impulse, that they follow a pack mentality and resent the civilized/human world. They seem to be feral males, quintessential predators intent on feeding and reproducing but little else. Whether this applies to high school socialization & politics was not my concern. I wasn’t reading the Buffyverse as commentary on adolescence. If I were, then Buffy’s coming of age would be even more problematic from a psychoanalytic standpoint, as psychological readings eschew literal monsters to concentrate on representation, projection and introjection. In terms of mental health no-one in the show would fare very well, I’m afraid.
There’s nothing actually wrong, with this. “Problematic” simply means that the narrative is not linear, things are not entirely what they seem, and self-contradiction inevitably emerges in a developing narrative universe. It also means that neither of us is entirely correct all the time.
“Perfectly feminist ideals” is a hard proposition to define, given that there are several schools of feminism and each has its own perfect feminist ideal which, even so, is subject to change over time. It is conceivable that a perfect feminist character would be very entertaining.
You don’t have to defend Buffy, I’m not attacking her or questioning her validity as a character.
“I don’t think Buffy conveys that women who take up arms become negative reflections of anything.”
Not Buffy herself, but the schemata in which the character functions. And by negative reflection I mean a mirror image that seeks to cancel out that which it reflects. If vampires are disease, Buffy is antibody. If vampires are a tribal dictatorship, Buffy is the outsider that undermines the pillars of that dictatorship. If vampires are uncontrolled male desire, Buffy is the civilizing agent that protects the cohesion of her group. She’s the one that says “No, that will just not do. We can’t have random predators taking away all that we’ve built.”
Buffy spearheads a new hierarchy that rejects the old. Vampires are nomads, Buffy is a city dweller. Now, certainly there are minutiae that I’ve had to set aside for now and yes, I’m aware that vampires build lairs and stay in one place for extended periods of time, but so did hunter-gatherer tribes and besides, their nomadism extends over centuries. Vampires aren’t tied to one specific time and place. They go where they wish, when they wish. (More or less.)
Another example of negative reflection: vampires are tied to a primal compulsion, Buffy is tied to a role. The main thrust of the character is that she fights atavistic compulsion by any means necessary — and sometimes she has to fight her own compulsions. The main point about Buffy, I would argue, is that she has to rid the world of vampires forever and sacrifice herself if that’s what it takes. But her adoption of that role was imposed from outside, by a male hierarchy. And this I find worrisome, a redeemer figure that hasn’t had a say in her future.
I would argue that she doesn’t -have- to; she walks away more than once, and comes back because she feels a responsibility to her loved ones and humanity at large. Peter Parker didn’t choose to get bitten by a radioactive spider either, but he wasn’t forced to use his powers to humanity’s benefit, or at all.
Neither is Buffy, really. She’s given the -ability- to kill supernatural things with great efficiency, but not really the obligation. It’s something she was born with, and none of us choose that. Again, we might be talking across narrative boundaries a bit here, but it seems to me the imposition of unasked-for power or “fate” from an outside source is pretty common, monomyth stuff.
Good point. She doesn’t really have to; the obligation is more circumstantial than intrinsic.
Having said that, she’s still the heroine. Would it make sense for Buffy to quit and be replaced in her own show?* If she could just walk away without consequence, the story would end. That’s what I mean by “tied to a role.”
It’s like, I don’t have to be a translator, but if I weren’t, I would be forced to seek a new source of income post haste. In that sense, I am tied to my freelance business.
*As the X-Files did with Mulder, which kind of sucked.
Well, true, as audience members we’re fairly certain she’s not going to lay down her sword, or die (except for that part where she died and no one knew for sure if the show was coming back… but I digress.) So yeah, from a writing perspective, she’s restricted by the role of protagonist.
I wonder if Joss wishes he’d gone with “Vampire Slayer” and pulled a Doctor Who with it. One dies, another is called.. it could have gone on forever, except that the ending to S7 would have fit with that at all. 🙂
It’s funny you mention that. Of course the series is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so ultimately we know she isn’t going anywhere. But at one point, Joyce (Buffy’s Mom) does bring up the idea that Buffy could go away to college and Faith could take over her slayer duties. It’s one of the things that Whedon didn’t ignore from a storytelling perspective, but instead incorporated it into the narrative. I like that about the show.
It would have been an interesting move to have Faith become the main slayer and develop a new side to Buffy in a mentoring role. I don’t think any TV show ever tried a radical redefinition of the protagonist’s role.
Faith had… issues with Buffy, didn’t she? I wonder how that relationship would have played out, if Faith got the leading role.
Yup. Faith had major issues. She had a big abandonment complex and was very jealous of Buffy’s family & friends. She wanted a parental figure so badly that she joined up with Mayor Wilkins and went darkside. 😀 Buffy tried to mentor her, but it went pretty poorly.
So yeah, Faith would have had to have been written differently for it to work. But it could have been interesting, for sure. 🙂
So here’s the thing. Your reply to my reply deserves a much longer response than I am able to give it just now, with it being the final business day of the fiscal year and treasury closing at 11am Mountain Time. That said, I can’t just let this stand unchallenged because of the tone.
I realize that I should have better differentiated between Buffy the character and BtVS the show in my reply, but I am used to having these discussions with people who use “Buffy” to mean both interchangeably, and even as a shorthand reference to the writers, creators and universe. I apologize for my lack of clarity. That was lazy/habitual on my part.
That said, I take exception to your tone. I’ve interacted with/observed you elsewhere and am trying to give you the benefit of the doubt, but this is really not the thread where I would expect someone who usually seems like “one of the good ones” to take that tone with me. I am not incapable of differentiating reality from television. Nor am I just a stupid girl. I’m not pulling any of what I said out of my ass, either. I’ve watched the entire seven seasons of BtVS 3 or 4 times (it was my “comfort food” tv during a very rough patch) and I’ve read & watched quite a bit of additional content where Joss, Tim and the other writers discuss their intent quite thoroughly.
I realize that the consumer of art and media always makes their own interpretation of the work, but I don’t think you’re giving BtVS a fair shake by making these kinds of judgments based on viewing so few episodes. Some of your points above are things that are addressed head on in the show.
If I have time I may come back and respond to your points in a bit more detail, because I really do disagree with you. But this is the internet and arguments get stale and pointless rather quickly.
Joni, I’m sorry if I have offended you. I’d like to make it clear that my analysis is incomplete and that I openly admitted it was based on insufficient knowledge. To be perfectly clear, your points are all valid.
If I didn’t think so, I wouldn’t have bothered to comment further.
Angel does work as a metaphor for an abusive partner in a relationship; the demons Buffy must fight, and her own role in the fight, are indeed carefully worked-out parallels for the fights we go through in our lives.
My reading doesn’t cancel or invalidate yours (I think), but I didn’t feel that yours contradicted mine, either. I don’t recall calling into question a single one of the points you made. Your arguments were carefully constructed and logical, so I found myself in agreement and didn’t feel the need to further address things I agreed with.
Again, I’m sorry if I came across as rude, hostile, haughty or condescending. This was not intentional. I know you can differentiate TV from reality. All I was trying to convey is that there are concurrent readings. Not either/or, but both/and.
I know I said”Please remember that characters do not exist outside fiction. They have no agency — they’re written.” I sure could have put it better than that. So that phrasing is indefensible. I apologize.
I’m not here to argue that I know more about the show than you do, nor to prove that my reading is somehow superior. And if I’ve made you feel that I’m somehow against the show or anyone who watches it, that was unfortunate. It is true I don’t love it, it doesn’t resonate very deeply with me. That doesn’t mean I don’t find its themes interesting. I wasn’t trying to knock it down.
Thank you for clarifying, sir. I shall put down the gloves now. 🙂
Not that I would expect anyone to run out and start watching 7 seasons of a show that doesn’t resonate with them, but I will say this. It didn’t resonate with me at first, either. I saw an episode here and there and just didn’t see what the fuss was about. But one day, I caught a random S3 or S4 episode on TV that sparked something, and went back to watch it from the beginning.
BtVS is so self-referential, especially in terms of the humor, that I think it’s very difficult to appreciate if not watched from the very beginning. And boy, that first, short season has some low production values and is pretty outdated. But much as I slogged through the first season of Babylon 5 knowing that it got better, I accepted that the first season of Buffy had to be watched in order to get to the good stuff.
So if you ever do feel strangely compelled to find out what the fuss is about, start at the beginning and force yourself through the first season and a half at least. That is, assuming that you haven’t already tried that and just not gotten into it. Which is totally allowed.
I really do have very strong opinions about BtVS and Whedon’s work in general. BtVS came along at the right time in my life and helped me deal with some serious shit irl. And when it comes to it, it’s like Whedon writes for me. The TV he writes, and to a certain extent Minear also, is very satisfying to my brain. And I’m addicted to their special features and commentary tracks. Outside of the Whedonverse, I’ve never really nerded out on a tv show or movie in quite the same way. But with his stuff, I can’t help it.
Again, thank you for clarifying. And happy Friday. 😀
I have two novels in the works each with female protagonsits. I chose them as female for [valid] social, stereotypical reasons. I write them from character. I make an effort to become them when I’m writing, and I think they become me. I don’t make them do anything I wouldn’t want to do.
“I don’t make them do anything I wouldn’t want to do.”
I think that’s a great, simple criterion for judging the validity of a character’s actions. In fact, I may just pilfer that for my own use! Thanks, John. I hope you’ll let us know when your books come out. 🙂
Wow… honestly, I think you nailed it!
Thank you, Jamie!
I enjoyed your informative take on creating female characters and agree with you. As a relatively new published author, but by no means new at it, I enjoy the challenge of creating characters. I usually sketch out the story and the characters in a rudimentary way and then see where it leads me…I have often said that I don’t WRITE the books, I just type them as they create themselves. Your article has given me a sharper vision of things to consider when breathing life into my literary creations. Thanks
My pleasure, Eileen, and thank you. In recent years I’ve tried to shy away from letting characters and stories “write themselves,” because too often end up with a lack of focus and distinct characterization. But everyone’s process is different. Thank you for reading!
This is something that I really put a lot of thought into and actually, I don’t think it has to be as difficult as it may appear.
I have always avoided typical stereotypes where I can in writing female characters, and I hope I have been successful in doing so. I guess it’s not entirely for me to say.
I like your suggestion to ‘think of a character an then make them female’. That’s pretty much the way I do it too. I don’t personally know too many women who are unwilling to stand on their own two feet, make rational decisions, hold intelligent views and have focused goals. Or at least I don’t personally know too many women who do those things to any lesser extent than the men I know.
Kasia, the female lead in my book The Baggage Handler is entirely a figment of my imagination, but of course she is made from observations about a number of women to whom I have been close.
She does harbour some of what I perceive to be more common female mindsets however in that she is more careful in the way she approaches relationships, actively aware of the potential for manipulation, and much more inclined therefore to segment the layers of her relationships. You could be her colleague for a year and find her funny and charming and intelligent and really cool without actually knowing anything substantial about her personal life.
I’ve known women to be forgiving as much as I’ve known them have memories like elephants. I’ve known them to be incredibly sweet as much as I have known them to be vindictive and awful. Like men, all character traits seem to be apply.
So there are differences in the way I approach female characters, but for the most part, I just try to write multifaceted human beings.
Great comment, Colin, and thanks. You’re right — people are different in a myriad of ways, so why should characterization be formulaic or one-dimensional? I like your approach.
Terrific post Dan!
I agree with most of what you’ve written here (I think that I disagreed about Ripley. Oddly I used to think that Aliens was not so feminist and Alien was, but I’ve changed my mind on that now!) I think that the problem most men have with writing women is that they start from a viewpoint that “men are fundamentally different from women” Women are x, men are y and that will always be the case. Obviously I don’t personally believe that’s the case and nothing frustrates me more than reading a female character who has been pigeon-holed into being a set of feminine types or a male character who has a number of masculine traits.
I guess then, for me, it’s probably about more than realizing that your character needs to be a person first, it’s about understanding the way that gender notions and characterisations have been and continue to be portrayed in literature over the years and creating an interesting character that feels real enough in the context of your story whilst bearing that in mind. I mean, Madame Bovary is a great, real character and fits the theory of writing women, but if you wrote her now she’d probably look like a misogynist cliche. Of course, it’s going to vary depending on whether you’re writing genre or realist fiction too. I think also that your portrayal of your characters needs to slot into your ideas of what your fiction is about and why you’re writing it in the first place … Ripley, or Buffy were both written to deliberately play on the notion of feminine representation in horror and so are going to be written dramatically differently to a character who is meant to be undergoing a personal crisis of faith in a religious society… or someone who happens to be somebody’s wife in a postmodern Delillio-esque novel etc etc As you say, there’s room for kicking ass etc but I think you’d need to take a look at *why* your character is kicking ass… is it for instance to titillate, or is it to make a point?
Having said all of this … I can’t actually write, unfortunately!! Thanks for writing this post though, bith yours and Michael’s have done an excellent job of bringing this issue the attention it deserves.
Thanks for the wonderful comment, Alex, I don’t have much to add except I agree wholeheartedly!
Dorothy Sayers had something to say on this subject, in Are Women Human?:
“A man once asked me … how I managed in my books to write such natural conversation between men when they were by themselves. Was I, by any chance, a member of a large, mixed family with a lot of male friends? I replied that, on the contrary, I was an only child and had practically never seen or spoken to any men of my own age till I was about twenty-five. “Well,” said the man, “I shouldn’t have expected a woman (meaning me) to have been able to make it so convincing.” I replied that I had coped with this difficult problem by making my men talk, as far as possible, like ordinary human beings. This aspect of the matter seemed to surprise the other speaker; he said no more, but took it away to chew it over. One of these days it may quite likely occur to him that women, as well as men, when left to themselves, talk very much like human beings also.”
I love that passage, and it’s stuck with me. I like to think that men and women vary as much within the sexes as between them, and that the places where sex and gender are important parts of character are in how those characters interact with or respond to the society that constructs their roles. Does that make sense? We have concepts of “feminine” and “masculine,” and we all exist in some sort of relationship with those concepts, but assuming that women are one and men are the other is short-sighted and ignores reality.
I do like the thought experiment of switching a character’s sex and seeing if the character would still hang together as a believable person. I’m not saying the story wouldn’t change, because sex can matter; hell, if I turn a lesbian romance into a hetero romance, the story changes! But the people involved can still be believable people.
I’m not overly gender-conforming personally, which adds to my frustrating with people who write characters who are – not just gender-conforming, but gender-essentialist. Women who are soft and malleable and feminine, not because they grew up thinking they should be, but because the author thinks that’s womanhood for you. Men who are stoic and stubborn and brutish, likewise.
(Did you know that in real life, when we measure these things, women are in general more pragmatic and cold-blooded, men more romantic and soft-hearted? In aggregate, of course – individuals vary greatly! Personally, I find female characters who display harshly rational pragmatism quite believable: Catelyn Tully Stark, anyone? Or, yeah, Buffy herself, a fair amount of the time.)
When I’ve written, I’ve written from a variety of perspectives. My best-written story is told from the perspective of a man (in first-person, even, yeah, I know), and is largely a story about his wife. No one who has read it ever said he wasn’t masculine enough, even though what the story gradually builds around is the idea that his wife is the one of them more capable of dealing with atrocity. It looks on the surface as though he’s the strong capable brave one, but from his perspective, she is, and she takes on a terrible responsibility so he won’t have to. He loves her for it. He’s not a “weak” male character, he’s just a man who, from his own position of strength, admires and relies on his wife’s resilience.
(I think, reading between the lines, that she leans on him just as hard; that she needs his humanity, his sentimentality, his willingness to follow her lead in whatever’s necessary and be a strong support. But he’s telling the story, so it’s about her.)
Anyway, thanks, Dan. Always a good read, whatever you write, and your take on this is a refreshing one. 🙂
Thank you for the terrific comment, Tess.
u must be sum kinda soshalist homo – imma rip off ur head an poop down ur neck
It’s true, I believe in free health care for gay people. That was the crypto-homo message I secretly embedded in this post.
This was a great read, thanks very much for writing this!
I hope you don’t mind a bit of a long response. 😉 I came here because I personally have struggled with writing female characters all my life. And I wanted to comment because maybe I’m coming to this with a bit of a less common perspective.
I was born female and have (at least publicly) identified as female most of my life. At this point, though (I’m in my mid-twenties), I’m going through a time when I’m really beginning to look more closely at gender in my own self-experience, and realizing that I basically don’t think of myself as female, and haven’t for a long time. For mostly all of my life since least puberty, I would say that 80% of the time I think of myself, and narrate my own life in my head as it happens, if ever I narrate in third person (you know how you do sometimes), I almost certainly find myself using “he”, not “she”. Sometimes it’s to the point when I’m almost surprised to look in the mirror and see a female face looking back. I’m not that sure I’ll ever fully express myself to others as being actually “transgendered” (but I mean, who knows, really, maybe, the future is big!), but I certainly have come to terms recently with the fact that male genderedness is definitely a part of my own understanding of my personal identity.
Why am I saying all this stuff? Because I find gender confusing in my own life, I think it definitely carried over to the page. When I write a male character, I feel like I have a freedom I don’t even have in my own life, to write from a perspective that is fully my own, to express this internal self and to feel that it matches the outward gender of the character I’m creating, in a way that my own often doesn’t. That to me is an incredibly freeing feeling. It could be that for a lot of my life, as these doubts and confusions have come up throughout my growing up, I’ve come to associate female-ness as feeling somehow restrictive, or at least inconsistent with what I privately see myself to be. Certainly not saying this would be the case with all trans* people (how the heck would I know?), or gender-unsure people, or whatever in the world you would call me if you were to call me anything… But I feel when I write a female character, I have never been able to make her not feel like a stranger to me. I hope some day I’ll learn a way to get through that, and get an understanding of how to write someone more nuanced who’s also a woman, but so far I just keep falling flat, or worse, falling into stereotypes of what I feel a woman tends to be in fiction or tends to be seen as in the world (stereotypes I’ve struggled with in life as well).
Adding to this, though, certainly, would be the fact that – I would bet without hesitation – there is a far, far, far greater number of male characters in the history of Western literature than female characters. (Does this sound right? It seems really obvious to me, but challenge me by all means if not.) I know this is almost surely because there have been far more male authors who have managed to have their works publicly available. But they say to become a good writer, you have to read a lot – and easily 99.9% of the most vivid characters I’ve read in my life are male. All my favourite characters, I believe, are male. Most of the great, memorable dialogues and scenes in fiction that I’ve read involve two men. So writing based on what I know, from reading, it’s hard for me to even find a foundation to stand on, in good company with female characters I admire and would want to read (let alone write) more about. This is in itself a huge problem, and I really do hate it! And that’s why I love your article, and I hope to goodness I’ll see a change, even a small one, to this in my lifetime and start reading and seeing female characters that fascinate me the way male ones have done. But so far, I just haven’t seen any (or hardly any, let’s leave room here) that I identify one half as much as with the great male characters that form the canon of fictional awesomeness in my head.
Okay, that’s what I’ve got for now. Thanks for writing this, thanks for reading ^this, and of course responses are welcome – from anyone who’s had similar experiences, from anyone who’s had opposite experiences, etc etc. And Daniel, looking forward to reading more of your stuff!
P.S. Okay, “Amelie”. That’s the only one I can think of. I loved her. My boyfriend at the time also, after watching the movie with me, said (of himself) “She kind of reminds me of myself” ^_^ And I loved that.
Thank you for such a great comment! There’s so much here, I suspect I could easily mine it for another entire blog post or two. I agree, gender can be really confusing — in writing and in life. As I’ve said elsewhere, I’ve put more female protagonists in my fiction not because I want to Change the World or whatever, but because I’d just like to see more of them in fiction. I think we need good ones — and I’ve tried, in my own small way, to write some. Thanks again for taking the time to comment!
Thank you for writing this – I’m actually starting to write an original fiction piece and I want my protagonist to be female… so thank you, very much, for writing this!
Glad you found it helpful, Jiim!
Ripley was written as a man. Ridley Scott made the decision to make Ripley a woman in casting. True story.
Have been thinking a lot about gender subsequent to reading the Dark Elf series. The Drow elves are a matriarchal race and vicious in the extreme, yet Salvatore didn’t simply flip flop pronouns. The larger, more powerful
female Drow possess a distinct femininity, even if they are otherwise psychopathic.
I used this blog post in my thesis on Buffy and the show’s rebelling against the Strong Female Character model that I argue has become stereotypical of the sci-fi/fantasy genre. This article is invaluable, and you make some really great points! Nailed it on the head!
Thank you, Luke! I’m genuinely glad you found it useful!
I would have gone back for the cat too. It’s lonely out in space, man. Cats likes cuddling, and cuddling a warm animal after that experience would be welcomed. I’m not surprised that rushed through her head. It’s just a very human thing to do.
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