Monday, February 16, 2009

weak and strong female characters

Via Jim C. Hines's blog, here's a fascinating discussion of kick-butt women as characters and how realistic/unrealistic they are, and about female characters in general. I love that kind of discussion. If I didn't have a headache and if I didn't want to work on this short story I have half-finished, I'd go join in over there.

Anyway, after reading all the comments, I got to thinking about my character Ana in Blood and Taxes. I just finished the book a few days ago and one of the things that bothered me even while I was writing it was that Ana was acting too passive. But when I read the whole thing this weekend and did some light revisions, I realized that's not the case. She is forced into inactivity by the plot, but she's not simply reacting to things outside of her control. She makes decisions--and one of the things I really like about Ana is that when she makes a decision, it stays made, even if she suspects she's wrong--and when the time comes to act, she acts instantly.

But toward the end of the book, she repeatedly has to rely on others to help her--and in every case, the helper is a man. She escapes two different captures with help, is told where the man she's going to rescue is being held, and at the very end, she has to be saved by a friend. That isn't to say she doesn't put up a fight, but she's not a fighter. But I worry that because she has to accept help from male characters, and because she doesn't beat the bad guy up, she'll be perceived as a weak or passive character--which is how I perceived her while I was writing her.

I'm interested in other people's opinions on this. I'm not fool enough to think that woman who doesn't kick butt = weak character, but where do we draw the line between a strong female main character and a passive one? Ana spends a lot of the middle portion of Blood and Taxes going to parties (she's trying to infiltrate a secret society, that's why) and she does a lot of flirting, but she's not a girly-girl or someone who needs a man to empower her. I just don't know where I stand with this. But I'm getting awful wordy here, so I'll shut up now.


Aaron Polson said...

I'm stuck on trying to make my characters act, not simply react to the plot.

Thanks for explaining why there were so many parties.

I think characters (female or male) that don't have to beat people up to be victorious are the strongest.

K.C. Shaw said...

I agree about the not beating people up. In this case, there is a fight at the end, but Ana--well, like I said, she ends up needing help. I thought that was more realistic anyway. I do like an occasional fight when I'm reading, but I get bored if there's too much of it going on.

I have a hard time keeping my characters from just reacting to the plot too, at least in short stories. It's not so bad with novels.

Jeremy D Brooks said...

I think that's a tough bit, as well...there are a few agents and publishers who specify "looking for stong female leads", which got me to thinking: what the hell does that mean, exactly? Does Jodie Foster's character in The Accused count? Does she have to be Red Sonja to be strong? Is she so strong that she's overcompensating, thereby negating her own strength? And does an agent asking for a Strong Female Lead assume that the default for a woman is weakness, and, if so, am I the only one who thinks that's crap? Makes my head hurt to think about it.

I think the best characters jump off of the page and emulate reality in some way, and in reality people are too complex to nail them down that way...the best we can do as writers is figure out who they are, make them true to their experiences and temperament, and let them drive out those qualifying characteristics for themselves. Then let the New York Times sort it all out. ;-)

Jamie Eyberg said...

I guess I thought a strong character, female or male, doesn't have to fight physically but does have to stand for something.

K.C. Shaw said...

Jeremy--I love complex characters! I don't even care if the main character is weak, as long as he/she is interesting, complex, and (for preference) becomes stronger by the end of the book.

I'd never thought of it that way, that asking for a strong female character implies that the default female character is weak. I wonder how much of that is just a backlash of the 40s and 50s, when so many female characters (especially in genre books) were completely weak and passive--either needing to be rescued, or held out as a prize for the hero, or the evil temptress whom the hero has to defeat. But the opposite of that is not "beat up everyone just like a badly written hero in those old books."

Jamie--That's a good way to put it. I may write that down and stick it up over my computer.

Richard said...

I'm too escapist to really care about the details here: I like my heroes and heroines to kick some ass at the end. Sorry; no butt kicking implies weak to me. I don't care if you've got the Queen of Spades up there pulling the strings for the whole plot and cackling to herself while the minions fight it out at the end--ultimately I want her to wade into the fray with her boomstick.

K.C. Shaw said...

Yes, but we all know you have terrible taste in literature. :)

Okay, yes, chalk one up to "I like butt-kickers." And there is a lot of fun to be had with a big knock-down drag-out fight--but it doesn't always work in every book or for every character.

(Incidentally, you have got to read The Lies of Locke Lamora if you haven't already. Say the word and I'll send you my copy. This book was written for you, seriously.)

Carrie Harris said...

I don't have a problem with females that aren't physically strong; I just want them to be making active choices that move the plot forward. Characters that are constantly reacting instead of acting drive me batty. I don't care what their gender is; I want to hit them over the head regardless. :)

K.C. Shaw said...

I'm totally the same way about characters just reacting. I really think it's my biggest pet peeve, probably because I had a big problem with that in my early writing.