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Stop Telling People to Write Strong Female Characters

Kameron Hurley wrote an enjoyable and thought-provoking blog post about challenging the false narrative of women in history and literature and what we writers need to do about it.*

I read articles like this with mixed emotions. On the one hand, it’s important to be educated about the false ideas created by narratives (both real and fictional) that portray women in a stereotypical and/or belittling manner. Or leave women out of the story all together. As far as we’ve come, we still have a long way to go.

However, I start to get twitchy when discussions of this nature turn, inevitably, into a directive. A suggestion about what I ought to be writing.

Here’s the first thing: no one gets to tell me what I should write. Not the oppressive male. Not the liberating female. Not the publishers. Not the market. No one.

I don’t mean this to sound like a rant against Kameron Hurley. It isn’t. Her article was well articulated and informative and I’m glad to have read it. I’m glad she wrote it. It’s a heartfelt, legitimate call to action.

And based on some of the tropes apparently littering the fantasy landscape (sex slaves? rape? gendered slurs?) and the authors who can’t seem to get past them, articles like Hurleys are clearly needed.

But just because women have fought in nearly every military resistance you can think of, doesn’t mean women haven’t also freely chosen to stay home and raise their children. Just because women shouldn’t be defined solely by their connection to another person (“She’s Joe’s wife!”) doesn’t mean women don’t seek and enjoy romantic relationships. It’s okay to write about any or all of those things.

I reject the idea that in order to break the stereotype we must reflect only the antithesis of that stereotype.

When I hear people talking about writing strong female characters, the editor in me cries out, “Shouldn’t ALL our characters be strong?”

By strong I mean fully-developed human beings with strengths and weaknesses who experience the full range of human want and desire. Our characters can want to conquer their little corner of the world (whether that means slaying dragons or rising to the top of the corporate ladder) AND want fulfilling romantic relationships or better relationships with their children. Male and female both.

Including characteristics and plot elements that happen to look stereotypical is not necessarily a betrayal to womankind and feminist objectives.

Because the reality is, we humans are many things. We are husbands and wives, sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, friends and foe. But we are also just US. In spite of our many relationships with other people we also have that core element of SELF. This is what is lacking in the stereotyped female roles. It isn’t that it’s incorrect to portray women as wives and mothers, because many (not all, obviously) women are those things. It’s when we are reduced in our identity to ONLY that. Ditto when the anti-stereotype, kick-ass female warrior arrives on stage; her identity is stripped down to one lone element.

That is not reality. Nobody is just one thing.

I don’t purposefully write strong female characters. I strive to write strong characters, period.

My fantasy novel Gift of the Phoenix (and its follow-up, which is still in progress) has a huge cast of major characters, about evenly divided between genders. There is variety and depth among them all. Because there’s no one way for a woman to be. And no one way for a man to be.

I strive to write human beings in a way that feels real and genuine to me. If Kameron Hurley were evaluating my characters and plot lines, she would find all kinds of things to celebrate, alongside other things that look suspiciously like a stereotype.

Kind of like the world we actually live in.

*Just as an FYI, I discovered her article via John Ward, who shared it on Google+. This generated a lot of interesting discussion in the comments (both on his share and on the blog with her article). I commented on his share. I shared the article and added a few thoughts of my own. I subsequently decided I wanted to address the issue on my own blog, and freely borrowed from my own comments for the bulk of this post. :)

3 thoughts on “Stop Telling People to Write Strong Female Characters

  1. Steven M. Long

    Nice piece. I’ve given this stuff a lot of thought since I started exploring the online SFF community a couple of years ago. Personally, I’m primarily interested in story and (human) truth. When I write, that’s my main concern. Good writing in general (as you said) involves complex characters of all kinds – some strong, some weak, written in service of the story that I’m trying to tell.

    I’ve got no problem with writing that has an agenda (as long as the story is there) but I won’t accept being told that I should be writing to that same agenda: that’s the same thing as telling me what to believe, and how to think.

    I’ve reached a point in my writing life (I’ve written a few novels, none mainstream published, working on another) where I write about the stuff I’m passionate about and interested in (my truth). Like you said, I don’t write for the market or the publishers. I’d add that I don’t write for the online community, in general. I write for me, and for readers I hope to find who “get” what I’m trying to do.

    1. DonnaCookDonnaCook Post author

      Thank you for your comment. I’m actively trying to get to the point in my life (not just in my writing) where I do what feels right for me instead of fussing with the various opinions of the rest of the world. I’m not there yet, but perhaps continuing to be true to my writing will help. :)

      P.S. I’m checking out your blog. The Beauty and the Beast post looks intriguing…

      1. Steven M. Long

        It’s hard, isn’t it? I mean – I want to be liked, of course. I’m someone who tends to chew on things until I decide what I think, but it’s the moving on that’s sometimes hard. I hope you enjoy the blog!


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