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On writing ‘Strong Female Characters’

I wrote this for the Horse Crossings blog a couple of weeks ago, and will repost it here for anyone who missed it on the other site.

On writing “Strong Female Characters”

What is a Strong Female Character? There’s a lot of debate and discussion going on about that right now across the internet. What constitutes a Strong Female Character? How do you make sure to write one (or several)? There is of course, no hard and fast rule, but let’s start with a definition.

One of my favourite definitions comes from this blog, which quite simply points out that “A female character should have the wits and a big enough part in the story to propel and shape the plot significantly of her own accord. We all enjoy seeing women kicking ass, but we’d enjoy even more watching a woman whose decisions are important and taken seriously by the characters around her.”

This goes for girls too.

Many girls around the world love ponies, and they love to read stories about ponies. The success of the “pony book” genre has hinged for many years on the relationship between a girl and her pony, that unbreakable, magical bond that they share. One of the most popular and enduring pony book series in the English language is Ruby Ferguson’s “Jill” series, which contains plenty of wit, charm and realism, and a wonderful protagonist in Jill Crewe. And although written and set in the 1950s, one of the most endearing things about this series is that Jill herself possesses a great deal of agency.

What is character agency? There are boundless definitions, but here’s one that I particularly like:

The character makes things happen. They move the plot forward. They make choices — even if they are bad ones — that propel the story. They make a difference. They do not wait for the story to happen to them. They do not wait to be rescued. They do not let somebody else handle the hard stuff. If your character is sitting around the house gnawing their knuckles and hoping everything will work out okay, you need to punt them into the middle of the action.

Anyone who has read any of the Jill books can scarcely imagine their heroine sitting around waiting for everything to work out, and it is Jill’s tenacity and determination to get things done that make these books so timeless, despite being set in an era that many of today’s readers won’t recognise.

As Ada Hoffman succinctly pointed out on Twitter: Agency is not about characters being good or bad characters, it is about what the characters are given the opportunity to do.

As a writer of YA fiction, I am very aware of my target audience. (Sure, the books are read and enjoyed by many adults as well, but that’s not really who the books are “for”. Their enjoyment is, in some ways, incidental to my purpose.) The young women of today are growing up in a tumultuous, unnerving and difficult world that is quite different from the idyllic lifestyle that Jill and her friends enjoyed in Ruby Ferguson’s series. Today’s girls are hyper-aware of what is going on around them, of what other people think of them, of society’s expectations for them. They are viewing themselves and the world around them through a lens that is at once incredibly narrow and unbelievably wide.

They are looking for characters that they can relate to.

They are looking for role models.

They are looking for strong female characters.

So there’s that question again – what is a Strong Female Character? How do you know whether or not you’ve written one? This blog provides a useful checklist to consider:

  1. Give her a goal and a reason for having that goal
  1. Give her flaws
  1. Let her change
  1. Have her act under her own initiative.

Notice that none of the above has the slightest thing to do with being physically strong. That’s not what it’s about, although it can be an element.

A quick comparison:

Van, one of the characters in my novel Dare to Dream, is described as physically strong. At eighteen years old, she does the heavy lifting around the family farm, building fences and fixing water troughs and riding horses that others have consigned to the scrap heap for being too unruly and difficult. She’s also emotionally sturdy – stubborn and often tactless, determined and passionate, argumentative and resilient. One of her sisters is warned against ever telling Van that she can’t do something, “because she’ll kill herself proving you wrong” (which interestingly enough, is one of the most highlighted passages in the Kindle book).

Her older sister Kris is the opposite of Van in many ways. She’s physically weak, after a riding accident left her with a back injury that severely limits her capabilities. But more than any other character in that book, Kris is possessed of a great deal of emotional strength. Far more world-wise than her twenty-one years, she has given up on her own dreams to raise her sisters after their parents’ death. She struggles on, day after day, complaining as little as possible, selling the horse that she built her own dreams on in order to help her sisters’ dreams to continue to come true. Kris is a pillar of strength, although she never sees herself that way, and (for me at least) is one of the most inspiring characters I’ve ever written.

I want people to read my books and be inspired. Not just because of the way the characters treat their horses, but because of the way they treat one another. In the sequel Dream On, youngest sister Marley is witness to the ongoing bullying of a rival competitor. Marley has ample reason to despise this rival, because the prior actions that she now is being stigmatised for affected Marley more than anyone else, but she believes that this girl has seen the error of her ways, and doesn’t participate in the bullying tactics. And when she eventually sticks up for her rival and helps her out, she is immediately chastised by one of her friends, who calls Marley “naïve” for thinking that the other girl could’ve turned over a new leaf. Marley’s response is, in my mind, one of her greatest and proudest moments.

“Maybe I am,” Marley conceded, starting to walk away. “But I’d rather be that than a bully like you.”

If any of the young readers of this book felt inspired in that moment, if it gave them pause and made them also feel proud of Marley, and think that “I could do that”, then I have succeeded.

It’s about agency, and it’s about emotional strength, and it’s being unafraid of the opinions of others. I do a lot of work with young people and I see a lot of what they are thinking about and worried about on a daily basis. Being an individual, being confident enough to have different opinions and tastes from other people, being resilient enough to keep getting up when you get knocked down, knowing who your friends are and being self-reliant enough to walk away from bad relationships. Teenage girls are not worried about being able to beat up the world, they just want to be strong enough to live in it with confidence.

The people that young women surround themselves with will have huge impacts on their lives, and this goes for the characters they read about as well. Whether male or female, the characters we write do not have to be physically strong in order to be role models. But if their actions can make us smile, make us cheer, make us want to step inside the book and give them a pat on the back, then I reckon that we’re on the right track.

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