Thursday, July 28, 2016

How to Write Strong Female Characters: Make Them Make Choices

Women's representation in popular fiction has made strides in the last eight months. A woman played the lead role in Star Wars, the world was gifted an all-star, all-female Ghostbusters cast, and the last season of Game of Thrones featured a plethora of lady badassery. But while this representation has improved, the idea of not only female characters, but strong female characters is still a hot ticket item.

The concept of strong female characters has always seemed to confuse people, with many taking the definition of "strong" to be literally, physically fit, and many critics pointing out that the resulting characters of this misunderstanding are just "men in women's clothing." Peruse any writing forum or any discussion of the subject on reddit, and you'll see a lot of debate about what makes up this elusive concept.

But this idea of a strong female character was never the question. It was the answer. It was the answer to a lack of female representation, and it was the answer to one too many ladies who could be replaced by sexy lamps in popular fiction. But what does a strong female character actually mean?

It's actually quite simple.

One of the most important things to remember when choosing characters for fiction is that people are diverse. And all of these different types of people have the potential to be great characters. It doesn't matter what race they are, what abilities they have, what their sexuality is, what size jeans they wear, if they're rich or poor, how they dress, and especially not what their sex is.

A strong female character is a strong character, who also happens to be female. And what do strong characters do?

They make meaningful choices that affect the plot.

That's it. Yes, really, it's that simple. Stop looking at me like that. 

Look, the characters we root for - the characters we feel like we know - are the ones who have goals. Whether it's Harry Potter attempting to thwart Voldemort, or Daenerys Targaryen trying to take back Westeros, we root for characters with goals. We root for them because they have stakes in their tale - they have something to lose - and because through these goals and stakes, we learn the depth of their character.

But imagine if Harry did nothing. 

Imagine if Daenerys made no choices.

Would they still be strong? Would we still root for them as much if they sat on their ass, looking to others to solve their problems for them? I don't think so. We'd grow tired of them very quickly. Look at all your favorite fiction. Think of all your favorite characters. I'd bet every single one of them makes choices - meaningful choices, choices that affect the plot.

Choices that affect the plot are choices that if removed entirely, would render the plot incomplete and/or nonsensical. Stated simply: if you can remove a choice made by a character, and it doesn't change the plot or the outcome at all, it wasn't a meaningful choice.

To illustrate an example, I turn your attention to one of my all-time favorite movies, the swashbuckling Pirates of the Caribbean and its lady lead, Elizabeth Swann.

Elizabeth is a GREAT example of a strong female character, primarily because she refutes one of the most common complaints about them - that they're men in women's clothing. There are no issues with masculine women in fiction (we exist, after all), and they make great characters just the same, but Elizabeth is a good fit because she shows you can write a strong female character without making them literally strong, or so sassy as to abandon all social constructs around women.

Pirates of the Caribbean takes place in the mid 18th century, and considering it's a Disney movie, it makes decent attempts to convey the inherent sexism of the time. There are no female leaders, there are scarce few female pirates, most women are showcased as prostitutes on Tortuga or maids in wealthy homes, and the movie opens with one of the main characters, Gibbs, talking about how it's bad luck to have a woman on-board.

Elizabeth herself is very much a lady. She leads a pampered life as the governor's daughter, is gifted with dresses, toted around in carriages, and doted on by her suitor. Several instances in the film make a point of her feminine lack of physical strength, and yet highlight her lady-like (as in class) diplomacy as a counter-point. Her strength is not displayed in sword-fighting or bravado or tactical expertise, but simply through her choices.

Here are just four pivotal choices Elizabeth makes in the film, that if removed, would demolish the plot:

  • Her first choice in the movie's prologue - deciding to take young Will Turner's medallion and hide it - launches the entire story. It's hiding that treasure that intertwines her, Will's, the Black Pearl's, and even Jack Sparrow's fate. 
  • When trapped on the desert island with Jack in the latter half of the film, she takes the risk to blow up all the rum --

  • -- which attracts the Royal Navy. Without taking this risk, it's likely she and Jack would have never been found, and it's this choice that reunites her with Norrington. Her choice actively advances the plot in a logically sound way, but puts her in the hands of a man who just want to go home and leave Elizabeth's romantic interest, Will, for dead. (A great example of choices begetting consequences!)
  • Knowing that Norrington owes no allegiance to Will, and that Will will die without aid, Elizabeth chooses to sacrifice her ultimate happiness (being with Will) by betrothing herself to Norrington, in exchange for his assistance. Again, without Elizabeth's intervention, Norrington would have gone home to Port Royal, leaving Will to a nasty fate at the hands of Barbosa. Thus, she advances the plot in a meaningful way through a choice.
  • Finally, in the battle between Norrington and Barbosa's forces on the Isla de Muerta, Elizabeth sneaks off the HMS Dauntless and single-handedly frees Sparrow's crew imprisoned on the Black Pearl. While she didn't receive the aid of those she rescued, this action directly allowed for Jack's happy ending after escaping the noose in Port Royal at the end of the film. 
While these choices are pivotal, they're only a fraction of the decisions Elizabeth made throughout the film. For having co-led with two other characters, she made a great deal of meaningful decisions and asserted herself as a strong female character through the entirety of the movie. If you haven't seen it, well, holy cow, dude, go watch it. It's good.

Now, that being said, does the movie pass the Bechdel Test? No. Does it pass the Mako Mori test? Not really. Does it pass the Bechdel Test for People of Color? Nooo no no no no no. And these are problems. These are issues. They show us that we still have a long way to go before tests like these are being passed all the time, and the subject of the strong female character is no longer debated and confused. But if fiction writers can understand that strength is built in choices, and that we need diverse representation among characters who make those choices, then hopefully, there will be progress.

So what do you think? Who are some of your favorite strong female characters, and how can fiction writers keep these issues at the forefront while crafting their stories?

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