While I was submitting Action Figures to publishers the other week, I noticed an interesting theme running through their submissions guidelines pages. When it came to young adult fiction submissions, two phrases came up time and again, the first of which was “no vampires.”
The second — and I am presenting something of a composite phrasing here — was: “We are interested in stories with strong, proactive heroines; no whiny, angst-ridden female leads, please.”
I don’t think it’s a stretch to trace both of these to the Twilight novels, which have spawned a legion of copycats and, judging by the moratorium on Bella Swan-like characters, wannabes, complete with wussy, shallow female protagonists who spend their time wallowing in anxiety and being led around by the nose by their male love interests.
(I say all this freely admitting I have never read any of the books or seen any of the movies. My knowledge of the Bella Swan character comes mostly from critical reviews and from friends who have read the books and told me, quite emphatically, how much they hated Bella because she was nothing but a self-obsessed lovelorn wimp.)
On one level, I am not a fan of female leads who are so, for want of a better term, damsel-in-distressy. It’s tough to root for a character whose primary, if not sole motivation is to win the man of her dreams, a goal she achieves by simply being there for said dreamboat to rescue from whatever threat presents itself. They’re not much fun to read and they’re no fun to write.
Conversely, I’m also displeased with how often stories sometimes go out of their way to empower their female leads, particularly in period pieces. I readily acknowledge that history had its fair share of real-life Xenas, from Boudicca to Joan of Arc, but what made these figures so extraordinary is that they were very much the exception to the rule. Most women of ancient history were not bad-asses; they were more likely to be in the role of damsel in distress.
Creating a weak female character is a tricky task, if for no other reason than the reception she’s likely to receive from the audience. There’s little tolerance for portrayals of the woman as a victim, a doormat, a prize — even a sexpot or a femme fatale can be subject to scathing criticism for embracing their beauty and sexuality over their more profound qualities.
The question for the writer is: what serves the story better? If the story calls for a strong, smart, independent woman to make things happen, great. I’m happy to write a character like that (and I do in Action Figures. The main character is one of my favorite creations).
But sometimes, a different approach is necessary. In Bostonia, I have two female leads who are definitely not cast from the strong protagonist mold. I could describe both of them as broken people, individuals who have been crushed by their life experiences and have adapted in their own ways to deal with it, neither of these ways all that great. One is reactive, passive, afraid of herself; the other is more proactive and takes shit from no one, but she is also selfish, self-destructive, filled with self-loathing. Neither of them are heroes in a true sense, but they are what that story needed, and I can’t bring myself to offer even a false apology for that.
However, I will reiterate that writing more positive female characters is much more gratifying and fun. I’ll close on an up note and present some of my all-time favorite female characters.
Ellen Ripley – Aliens
Sigourney Weaver’s iconic sci-fi heroine ends up on just about every list of great movie characters, female or otherwise, and there’s a damn good reason for that: she belongs there.
Ripley is the godmother of the modern action heroine, not because of her capacity to kick ass, but for why she does so: the thing that galvanizes Ripley, that allows her to break free of her crippling fear of the titular xenomorphs and crushing survivor’s guilt is the overpowering need to protect her child — or surrogate, in this case, the young survivor Newt.
Before Newt enters the picture (so to speak), Ripley is literally along for the ride, but then this little girl falls into her lap, and from that point on, everything she does is for the sake of getting her de facto daughter out of hell alive.
(If you’ve never seen the director’s cut of Aliens, rectify that as soon as possible. There is a crucial deleted scene that fleshes out the Ripley/Newt relationship to a much more profound degree than is presented in the already excellent theatrical cut.)
Hermione Granger – the Harry Potter series
Harry might have been the star of J. K. Rowling’s mega-best-selling series, but Harry wouldn’t have survived the first book without Hermione. She was more than Harry’s co-sidekick (along with Ron Weasley); she was the brains of the operation, the voice of reason, and that against which even Harry occasionally checked his moral compass.
Hermione had her girly moments throughout the series, but she wasn’t simply “the girl,” and never let anyone force her into that role. She embraced her intelligence, never backed down from a direct challenge, and never apologized for sometimes being a right royal pain in the ass — and more often than not, she was proven right in the end.
When great modern literary heroines are mentioned, Hermione is often listed in the same breath as Bella Swan, but they do not belong on the same list. Bella is what young girls should avoid becoming. Hermione is everything young girls should aspire to be.
Briar Wilkes and Mercy Lynch – the Clockwork Century series
Cherie Priest has become a favorite author of mine, and I can always count on her for brisk, exciting stories filled with colorful characters, and Briar Wilkes of Boneshaker and Mercy Lynch of Dreadnought perfectly exemplify the tough-as-nails protagonists common in her novels.
The characters are similar in that they are both haunted by their fathers (albeit in different ways), are trying to live up to their late husbands, and are driven by their familial ties — Briar by her son, who gets trapped in the deadly ruins of Seattle, Mercy by her dying father, who summons her from the front lines of the Civil War for what could be their final visit.
Despite their respective tragic backgrounds, these women never let the past crush their spirits. Instead, they are driven by their prospective futures, futures that could turn out as badly as their pasts — if they allow it. Their status as action heroines is incidental; they don’t go out looking for a fight, but they won’t back down from one if it stands between them and their goals.
Kara “Starbuck” Thrace – Battlestar Galactica
The re-imagined Starbuck (as brilliantly portrayed by (Katee Sackhoff) was one of the standout characters in the new BSG, which is saying something considering what a uniformly superb cast that show had.
It’s kind of a cop-out to simply call Starbuck “tough but vulnerable.” Was she tough? Hell yes. Put her in a combat situation and she was fearless and unstoppable, but take her off the battlefield and she was a mess. Killing she could do, dying she could handle, but living scared the shit out of her.
Almost purely id-driven, Starbuck could be an incredibly frustrating character. She could be a hardcore bitch, often to people who did not deserve it. She constantly sabotaged her own happiness. The people who cared about her the most were the ones who got hurt the worst by her selfishness. It was honestly hard to like her sometimes, but she was always compelling.
Sue Sylvester – Glee
I wanted to end with a great female villain, but I had a devil of a time thinking of one that truly spoke to me. There are a lot of she-devils in film, TV, and literature but few rose to iconic villain status in my mind…and then I remembered Jane Lynch’s delightfully vile cheerleading coach and kicked myself for not thinking of her sooner.
Sylvester fits a number of villainous categories: the villain you love to hate, the villain who believes she’s the hero, and the villain with a hidden softer side — and it is that last category that makes Sue a fully realized character and not just a walking one-liner delivery system.
One of the character’s defining moments came in the first season, when she allowed Becky (Lauren Potter), a student with Down’s syndrome, to join the Cheerios. The audience spent the rest of the episode wondering what her angle was, how she would use and ultimately destroy this poor girl, only to learn that Sue’s decision was utterly sincere — and that she had an older sister, Jean (Robin Trocki), who also had Down’s syndrome.
Sue’s fierce devotion to and adoration of her disabled sister stands in stark contrast to the monster that roams the halls of William KcKinley High School, and while it humanizes Sue to a great degree, it does not diminish her boundless capacity for cruelty. Indeed, it makes her moments of genuine anger all the more terrifying, because the audience knows what sort of heart beats beneath that track suit: one that, when given just cause, can fuel an engine of absolute terror.