Creating Strong Female Characters

There are increasing cries for strong female characters in fiction. I’m not saying there isn’t a need for strong male characters in fiction too, but there seem to be more of them, especially in a historical context. Unfortunately, while the media is trying to answer that call, it sometimes seems to misunderstand what the audience is asking for. We ask for strong female characters, and we are given women who go around beating up everyone in their path. Um, that’s not quite what we meant. Yes, they are strong, and they are female, but… (I know I read a great article on this, but it was some time ago, and I can’t remember where or what it was called.) Honestly, some of them are less a character than they are a plot device, same as many male action heroes. Not that they can’t be strong characters as well, but the ability to beat up bad guys does not a strong character make. Also, it is worth noting, that there are many different forms of strength. (Some spoilers for classic literature and generalized info about more modern cinema).

Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow) from the Marvel Cinema Universe (I don’t know the comics well enough to argue them) is a strong character. She wasn’t (in my opinion) in Iron Man 2 where she was introduced. Oh, she had awesome fighting skills, and the serum needed to save Tony, but she was more of a plot device than a character. Then the first Avengers movie came around. She had people she cared about, enough to walk away from her current job. She had fears. She was an atoner. It gave her depth. Depth that subsequent movies built on. Natasha Romanoff is a well-rounded character, who happens to have internal and external strength.

So, in my opinion, is Jane Eyre. She never got in a fight, or beat anyone up. Probably wouldn’t know how even to save her life. But she is a well-rounded character who is strong in her own way. Jane refused to compromise on her principles, even when it meant walking away from the man she loved, a child she cared for, and a life of ease that the little girl who grew up in poverty could barely imagine. That makes her strong, in my book.

And really controversial, I believe Fanny Price in Mansfield Park to be a strong character. A lot of people, most Jane Austen fans, see Mansfield Park as her weakest novel, and Fanny as her weakest character. I’ll be honest. Heretical as it may seem for an English major (my school had a Jane Austin fan club, run by the professors), I am not a huge fan of Jane Austin. Most of her stories I can take or leave, and I actively dislike one. But Mansfield Park I like.

Fanny is a doormat for three-quarters or more of the book. She is treated as barely above a servant, and never, ever allowed to forget that she is a poor relation dependent on the grace and goodwill of her uncle, and should never aspire to the state of the ‘actual’ children of the estate. With the exception of her cousin Edmond, she is generally treated with tolerant indifference at best, to almost hostility at worst. But when asked to compromise her principals, she refused. First, she stood her ground with the play, convinced that Sir Bertram wouldn’t approve. Her cousin agreed with her, but was persuaded to act in it anyway. Then Sir Bertram came home unexpectedly, and surprise, surprise, wasn’t happy about it. The play was amazing foreshadowing actually. Knowing the play and who played what character helps foreshadow parts of Mansfield Park. But even without that, it’s the first time that Fanny holds an opinion that doesn’t fit with the others. Granted, she is still appealing to a higher authority, but that higher authority isn’t there and might well not have been there until after the whole thing is moot. But that means that when she stands up for herself, refusing to marry a man she doesn’t love even when absolutely everyone thinks she should, it doesn’t come from nowhere. And she holds to it, even when exiled from the house because of her stance. No wonder she never stood up for herself before. What does almost change her mind isn’t peer pressure, or the fact that she no longer fit in with her birth family and wished to leave, but that Crawford almost managed to convince her that he had truly changed. Even if you aren’t familiar with Mansfield Park, if you’re familiar with Jane Austin, you can probably guess the ending, but I won’t give more away.

I was at Marscon this weekend (Which was awesome), and was on a few panels. One of them, I can’t type out the name of, or say, but it was about modern female protagonist, were they (female dogs) or (fierce fighters)? There was some alliteration there, and I’m sure you can fill in the blanks. One of the moderators asked a question that was specific to a popular show I had never seen. So she asked me to pick another television or book series and track the female character arcs and how they fit in that continuum, and how they changed.

Like most people put on the spot like that, I floundered for a few minutes. Then I said I would have to adapt her question but I had an answer. (Finding the answer is easy when you change the question). Firefly has four female main characters. Every one of them is strong in their own way. But the ways they are strong changes. Kaylee is a mechanical genius, and cheerful and optimistic under almost any circumstance. She also has a strong love for what she perceives as finery and pretty things. Not a trait that one would necessarily associate with a mechanic who practically lives in the engine room voluntarily. Inara makes me think of a swan. All dignity and poise, she usually seems just a little removed from the worst of things or the crudities of life. Her strength is in her people skills and diplomacy. The fact that she has the backing of an influential group helps too. River has been tortured and is badly damaged, no one can deny. But she survived. And when her fetters come off, you don’t even want to be in the same room with her. Zoe is a survivor. She was a soldier who fought on the losing side of what was apparently a bitter war. Unlike Mal, her captain, she doesn’t seem to be continuing to live in that past, but has mostly moved on. Sure, she follows her old captain from the war, but she also tells him when he’s being an idiot. She is cool and calm under pressure, and not intimidated by anything. Strong characters, who happen to be strong women. And not one of them is interchangeable with another.

On an unrelated note, I did a little revamping of my website to make it easier to find the links to sample chapters. They are all on one page here. I will also be posting Marscon pictures soon on Pinterest and/or Facebook.

 

Who is your favorite strong female character? How about favorite Firefly character, male or female? (Mine’s Simon.)

 

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