Monday, August 11, 2014

Writing Strong Female Characters (Or, Sass Does Not Equal Whoopass)

"My character is a strong, independent female who doesn't take any crap from anyone!" the claim goes. But then, once you get to reading the actual story, you discover that the female character in the story isn't "strong" at all--she's stupid with a sassy mouth.

That's right--stupid with a sassy mouth, and that's it.

These female characters still have Sculpted-Abs-Angry-Wasp-Man (SAAWM for short) hovering and controlling their every move. That is, until Sassy-Yet-Stupid (SYS for short) decides she knows better and plunges headlong into danger, time and time again, requiring SAAWM to swoop in and save her poor, helpless self.

Yeah, no. This is not  a strong female character. A strong female character would also be an intelligent female character. Intelligent female characters don't go flinging themselves headfirst into a drug cartel den, or a nest of angry vampires. If she was really a strong female, she'd be like, "You know what, SAAWM, you look like you know what you're doing, with all your guns/magic weapons/giant flaming sword. I think I'll do what's best, and that is to sit somewhere safe and let you handle it."

And, in all reality, she wouldn't even be anywhere near SAAWM. If she's that strong and independent, she'd tell SAAWM where he could go stick himself and then go on her merry way.

But no--too often in these stories, we see SYS demonstrating her alleged strongness by being irrational, refusing to engage common sense, and clutching the ridiculous notion that if she's by SAAWM's side, that she can somehow save them all...from a 10,000-man army of wraiths or Orc zombies. Seems legit.

And then, when SAAWM (who, aside from the Angry Wasp part, seems to know what he's doing) orders SYS to sit down and shut up, she pulls the Toddler Card. First there's the backtalking, the arguing (including witty, cutting remarks), the sulking and pouting, the crying, and then the determination that SAAWM can't tell her what to do, she's her own person, dammit. Then the plan is formed to rush headlong into the danger that SAAWM is trying to protect her from, never once thinking about the fact that she's just some Valley girl yanked into a mess she can't possibly hope to survive by flinging herself into the middle of it.

After the inevitable final battle of the book, SAAWM isn't at all bothered that SYS has nearly gotten him killed at least 10 times by this point because she wouldn't sit down and shut up. No, she's so beautiful and his manparts so desperately need attention that he's just gotta forgive her and get her in the sack. 

This, ladies and gentlemen, is not, I repeat, not a strong female character.

Strong female characters are confident. They are intelligent. They are aware of their abilities and what they can contribute to any situation. They would never hook up with SAAWM, because the notion of some controlling, possessive brute running their lives is abhorrent to them. They can run their own lives, save their own skins, do their own jobs, and think for themselves just fine. 

This doesn't mean they don't need rescued every now and then, because sometimes they do. The reverse, though, is that sometimes the men need rescuing too. Sometimes they ALL need rescuing, and work together to get themselves out of a bind.

This also doesn't mean that strong female characters don't do something stupid, because they do, especially if they're growing as characters (character development FTW). The difference between the SYS and the truly strong female character is that the strong one learns from her mistakes. SYS doesn't, and continues to backtalk SAAWM while endangering his life.

The strong female character can be mouthy or not. She doesn't have to have an attitude to be considered strong. For instance, one of the supporting characters in my books, Corinne, needs rescuing not because she's a woman, but because she's a human and can't put up much of a fight against vampires. So the rest of the team goes to save her. And they do it under their commander's control--a vampire woman named Sanaan, who is the main character in the series--who doesn't flip the fuck out and who had the good sense to stay home because she had been injured and wasn't up to fighting. 

On her good days, though, watch out, because Sanaan will shred you like a napkin if you get in her way.

But, let's get back to Corinne. Corinne is a sweet, bubbly human who is part of a mostly-vampire team. Fear doesn't stop her, vampires don't scare her, she knows when to sit down and shut up, and when she needs to contribute. Sanaan is also mostly like this, except she sits down and shuts up for no one (she's the mouthy one). Corinne doesn't even have a boyfriend until the second book (a vampire), and even then, her boyfriend, who's been working with her on the team, doesn't suddenly get all protective and controlling. He respects Corinne's abilities and lets her do her job, dangerous as that job is.

In a similar vein, Sanaan's mate, Damon, accepts Sanaan for who she is, doesn't hover protectively around her, can control his manparts in her presence, and--most importantly--treats her as his equal.

And Sanaan and Corinne would have it no other way. My readers especially will chuckle at the thought of a SAAWM trying to tell Sanaan what to do and who growls jealously at any man who acknowledges her existence. For those who haven't read the books, here's what she would do: She'd beat his ass into the dirt, then pitch him out a window. Corinne would be less dramatic about rejecting such a guy, and if she was in need of some assistance to get SAAWM off her back, she'd ask Sanaan to help. And then we'd have a repeat of the above, the kicking ass and pitching out a window of the SAAWM.

So, if your female character has no common sense, has a sassy mouth, gets herself and everyone else into danger at least three times, is being controlled by SAAWM, and throws the Toddler Card every time anyone tries to talk sense into her, then she's not strong. She's Sassy-Yet-Stupid, with a good-looking caveman brute calling all the shots.

If your female character is aware of her strengths and weaknesses, has the good sense to stay the hell out of it when she's got nothing to contribute, learns from her mistakes, is able to lead her own life and does not allow some overly-muscled jerk to order her around, and who, in fact, is attracted to someone who treats her as an equal and respects her, then you've got a strong female character.

So, I hope this clears up the misconception about what is and is not a strong female character. If your character is a SYS, then don't bill her as strong, because she isn't. She's an idiot. If you truly want to write a strong female character, now you hopefully have a better idea of how you should write the character (and her love interest, male or female) to make that work.

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