Writing a female character is difficult.
Writing ANY character is difficult.
Yet I think that writers, whether it be for TV, movies, books, or even video games, get caught up chronically overthinking their female characters.
It’s tricky to strike a perfect balance. If your female character is a piece of shit, people will criticize you for portraying women negatively. Many creative types overcorrect this problem by giving their female characters the opposite problem – utter perfection.
So often I come across a heroine who I think is going to be engaging, intelligent, and powerful in her relationships, and she turns out to be all of those things – and has no flaws whatsoever to balance them out. She is just a glistening beacon of perfection, unattainable and unrelatable in her faultlessness. There is little reason, in my mind, to stand by a character like this, for her creator has given her no room to arc. She has begun the story as an ideal portrait of a human being, leaving her no potential for growth or development. The story cancels itself out.
The science fiction and fantasy genres seem especially prone to characters like this. Zoe Saldana’s Nyota from the newest Star Trek reboot is a great example: she is capable, smart, and rational. In fact, she never makes any mistakes.
Fortunately, she’s not the hero of the story – but sometimes we’re not so lucky. Take, for example, The Hunger Games. About a million sixteen-year-old girls would burn me at the stake for saying this, but Katniss Everdeen is an incredibly boring heroine for me. Her very first action in the books is to sacrifice herself for her little sister without hesitation. She lost me in the first ten pages by proving herself to be a heaven-sent Christ figure with whom I could never identify. This problem continues throughout the book as she proves to be an extraordinary athlete, to display unmatched determination and resourcefulness, and also to have the booty.
My theory is that “nerd culture,” or any type of environment that welcomes such genres of entertainment, has spent years becoming gradually bored of the “damsel in distress” stereotype that populated every video game and action movie for decades. To compensate, a new slew of “fiesty,” “ass-kicking” anti-damsels was gleaned and hastily inserted into the new generation of media. Yet I find it telling that wikipedia defines a “strong female character” as “a class of stock character,” meaning that the “strong female character” is just as empty of meaning or individuality as the “damsel in distress.” And unfortunately, many of the ball-busting heroines we see in today’s entertainment are just that – entertainment, specifically eye candy for men who fantasize about a woman who, while appearing in control, is still behaving precisely as men want her to.
But not all fantasy falls into this trap! It is possible to write a successful female character if you, as George R. R. Martin has said, “consider women to be people.” His character of Sansa Stark is one of the only reasons I still occasionally tune in to Game of Thrones. She began the first season as a spoiled, bratty little shit, and has become more resilient and morally aligned as the seasons progress. In fact, some of Martin’s character are so complex that it’s difficult to even tell whether to consider them a protagonist or not. While this can lead to problems in and of itself, I appreciate his ability to produce incredibly believable people – not “strong women,” but just people, who are pretty much constantly fucking up in very realistic ways.
Then of course there are characters like Hermione Granger, whose flaws follow her throughout most of the Harry Potter series. Hermione is lovable precisely because of some of these flaws – she is “an insufferable know-it-all,” cannot resist sticking her nose in other people’s business, and is hard-pressed to admit any wrongdoing. Yet even within the first book (Spoilers, I guess, if you just arrived here in a time machine from 2001), she arcs from being an obsessive to-the-letter rule follower to lying straight to a teacher’s face in the name of friendship and loyalty. Hermione doesn’t have superpowers, but she doesn’t need them – she gains the power to stand up for herself and for what she believes in.
Essentially, the most important thing about a female character is not that she should be able to be replaced by a man and nobody would know the difference. It is not important that she be able to take on sixty assassins at once and carry a gun bigger than her torso. It doesn’t matter that she can hack into the Pentagon mainframe in a manner of seconds. All those things are fine – as long as the character also goes on a personal journey during the length of the book/movie.