Writing Women

By which I mean, writing female characters. It’s an ongoing topic of discussion, the center of many a college course, debated and mused upon. We use the term “strong women,” usually interchangeably with “kick-ass heroine.”

I don’t write kick-ass heroines, so I guess maybe I don’t write strong women, either.

There are other ways to be strong, of course. The woman who doesn’t need a man and is out to prove it usually ends up with a love interest anyway. Oh! But we’re supposed to believe she’d be fine without the guy, that this is a choice she’s made—to let the guy into her life, make him part of her world.

It’s a choice women make in real life, too: whether or not to pursue relationships with people, male or female. Who to allow in, who to keep out. A woman doesn’t have to be fighting vampires or whatever to qualify on that front.

Think about strong women you know. In what ways are they strong? Why do you see them as strong?

I know, I know, you’re writing fiction. You want characters who do more than the average, everyday human. That’s fine, but . . . I dunno. I’m kind of tired of all the kick-ass women. (Except Wonder Woman. That movie was awesome.) Especially since the kick-ass women in most books have emotional dysfunctions that eventually only end up being “fixed” by that love interest I mentioned before.

Everyone has problems. But we don’t all have to be dysfunctional, emotionally distant, bitchy, off-putting . . . Yet these are the character traits that I often see being used as shorthand for “strong.” Even in male characters.

I really meant to go into this post discussing the Bechdel Test and the Mako Mori Test. The thing about the Bechdel Test is that it was taken from a comic strip whose punchline was that, if you were to only watch movies that pass that test, you’d never go see any movies. (Even when the comic character says she went to see Alien because two women discuss a monster instead of a man—I mean, come on. How is talking about a monster significantly different from talking about a guy?)

If you’re not familiar with the Bechdel Test (called a “rule” in the comic but now used as an informal test by those looking for sexism in media), a passing grade is achieved if a movie (a) has at least two women in it who (b) talk to one another (c) about something other than a man. In other words, a man cannot be the glue to the relationship.

So many kick-ass book heroines fail this. They usually have no female friends to begin with.

The Mako Mori Test is taken from Pacific Rim. To pass this test, a movie (or text) must (a) have at least one woman who (b) has her own story arc (c) that is not merely a support for a man’s story.

Those kick-ass heroine books pass this one since they’re almost always about a woman who has her own story arc . . . Though usually that arc is significantly impacted by a man/love interest and sometimes becomes about him.

I don’t mean to dump on all these books. It’s just that they all sound and look the same, and I’m not convinced that writing about “strong” women in this way is helpful. Female main characters? Yes, absolutely. Flawed? Of course, who isn’t? But can’t she be strong in other ways? Can we broaden the definition of “strong female character”? (Or strong male character for that matter?)

Maybe it’s a genre thing. I enjoy books by Kate Morton, whose female characters are strong, I think. They have secrets, backbones, determination. Tana French’s books—a couple of them have had female narrators, though they almost always interact with men rather than other women. The historical fiction I enjoy, stories of the Tudor queens, well . . . The women in those books mostly talk about the king and the court, so . . . Still, I’d frame many of these characters as strong, even if they fail the Bechdel or Mako Mori Tests. These are characters dealing with high-pressure situations, having to think and act quickly. These are intelligent women in worlds stacked against them. Women who make difficult decisions and stick to their proverbial guns when it would be easier to let things go.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this. It’s mostly me musing aloud (well, as I type anyway). Tell me about strong women you’ve read or written. What you like and dislike in female characters. Give me some examples of well and badly written women. What makes a character—of any gender—well rounded? Tell me all about it in the comments.