Friday, August 30, 2013

On Strong Characters, female and otherwise

I hate Strong Female Characters

To be fair, I frequently don't like females, character or otherwise. It's what bemused me most and inspired my Girl Power post, that I now have several novels in which the main characters are female. They are not perfect. They are a strong as they're able to be, certainly.

There are many writers who set out to have strong female characters. Some of them seem to do this for the purpose of destroying their lives immediately and rendering them a quivering, weeping mess for the rest of the book (I read a book called The High Flyer like this, about a London lawyer). There are others, like Joss Whedon, who craft true badasses. However, they are also women who are frequently marginalized (Zoe) and disregarded in a Cassandra-like fashion (River Tam, Druscilla), which kind of undermines their obvious strengths. My favorite "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" character was Faith, and while bad things happened to her, and she clearly had a dark past, she was kind of like "Nah, fuck that. I'm doing this." I'm woefully behind on "Sons of Anarchy", but the Lady Macbeth-esque (ooh, remember Lady Macbeth? She went crazy too. Thanks Shakespeare) character she plays, Gemma, is serious, strong, and flawed. Gemma is like a real person.

Now, male characters. Apparently they're just assumed to be strong, and I see little discussion on this. It's possible I've missed it, I confess. But, a trope of males that I see again and again in television is guys who are afraid of their wives. Otherwise "strong men" who have erratic, "crazy bitch" wives who can make their lives hell on perceived slights. In The Wheel of Time series, there are frequent instances when the male characters are utterly bewildered by whatever those womenfolk are doing.

I want characters to be real. I want them to have likes, dislikes, certain ways they prefer to act. I want them to have flaws and foibles, and tremendous vices. I want them to accidentally hurt people around them sometimes, because we all do that. And I want them to carry on with their lives when something bad happens, because we all do that. I want them to crack at the edges and maybe stop carrying on for a little while, because we all do that. Guys cry too. Women do violence too. We're people, people. Strong, weak, male, female. Tits do not preclude "True Grit" (and there's a strong female character for you, though she needs rescuing too. Sigh.)

It's also worth noting that, while I may not personally like a character, it does not mean that he or she is not written in such a way that best complements the story.  I think that's an important distinction too. You may not want to be friends with Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, but he is who he is supposed to be. Faith is probably not a girl you want to be friends with, but she's kickass and a plays an important role.

Now, it's interesting that as I was preparing this post, Anna Gunn, the actress who plays Skyler White on "Breaking Bad", posted an Op-Ed column in the New York Times called I Have a Character Issue. It's an interesting article, and it's bewildering to me that people transfer their character dislikes onto the actors. It bothers me, actually, that people are unable to separate fantasy from reality in that regard. I mean, there are some actors who will always be one specific character to me, but that doesn't mean I love or hate them personally, just that I have a hard time seeing and/or believing them in other roles.

Note: Possible "Breaking Bad" spoilers follow.

So. I don't like Skyler White, but I don't hate Anna Gunn (and I really liked her in "Deadwood"). I don't like Skyler, not because she's a "nonsubmissive" woman. I dislike Skyler because, when her husband starts apparently sneaking around and playing games, she decides to play passive-aggressive games herself. There are times that for all she knows, the way Walt is acting is a medical issue, or a result of the tremendous emotional ramifications of having a terminal cancer diagnosis. So of course the appropriate reaction to a terminally ill and apparently disturbed about it husband is to play "you won't be straight with me so I won't either" games. In fact, I pretty much never think there's an appropriate time for "you won't be straight with me so I won't either" games. So that's why I dislike Skyler (well, that and I dislike the name itself), not because she's a strong woman. One of my favorite scenes from the show is when she's in the back room of a swanky store, having discovered her sister shoplifted the item she was trying to return. She turns the situation around on the male store manager and security guy, then fakes labor to make them let her leave, and afterwards I really hoped she would drive over and slap the shit out of her sister but that didn't happen.


  1. I'm with you on this one. I still don't know how writing strong, compelling female characters seems to be such a mystery! I know I've gotten sucked into using some common tropes before, but do hope that I've managed to write some women whose strengths aren't destroyed or downplayed.

    On another note, I've never seen Breaking Bad, but one of my friends is currently obsessed with it, so it sometimes feels like I have! ;)

    1. It just blows my mind! Especially in the context of Fantasy or SciFi, the perfect place to take every instance of "women don't _____" and give it the double eagle. I can't claim that gender differences do not exist; there are certainly physical ones, but the social ones should not be a monolith even while writing fiction. Screw that.