Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Not impressed by Strong Female Characters

Nice article here , by Sophia McDougall, about the Strong Female Character idea.

“Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius. Female characters get to be Strong.”

Yeah. I love a great kickass female character like, say, Kate Daniels. But the idea that every paranormal / urban fantasy / YA fantasy / whatever needs this same exact style of witty kickass female protagonist is SO INFURIATING.

That’s one reason I loved, say, Tremaine from The Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy by Martha Wells. Because she’s a complex and interesting female character, not a Strong Female Character.

I really really really want people to quit using the word Strong in this context and start using the word Complex. Because I think using the word Strong really does bias readers and reviewers and everyone to think that kickass female characters with swords / guns / knives / mad martial arts skillz are The Right Kind and other kinds of female characters are Not Strong and Therefore Not As Good. Which is obviously ridiculous.

I don’t necessarily like the use of the word “realistic” either, because I think that in literature there is a feeling that the word “realistic” means “literary” and carries connotations of unpleasant, neurotic, depressed, lonely, bitter — all this baggage, as though only negative qualities are realistic. I don’t know, does anybody feel that way about the word in this connection?

Anyway: “Is Sherlock Holmes strong? It’s not just that the answer is “of course”, it’s that it’s the wrong question.”

Yes yes yes. It IS totally the wrong question. I hereby vow never to use the word “strong” to describe any character again, ever. Or, yes, “feisty”, which sounds condescending to me anyway.

But Kate Daniels really is kickass, though. That’s just an accurate description right there.

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2 Comments Not impressed by Strong Female Characters

  1. Elaine T

    I’ve certainly picked up the same connotations in ‘realistic’. I’ve even heard it used (in person) as a condemnation towards someone who’d had a more stable life: ‘you’ve never had to face reality’ … yeah, only the bad stuff is ‘real’. Then why bother living? Of course, one never comes up with the pithy answer in the moment.

    I also loathe ‘feisty’ as the connotation is ‘ineffective.’ Lots of drama, but nothing changes. Like the elder princess, Judit, in Kay’s LAST LIGHT, whose sister realizes that for all Judith’s dramatic antics, she’s still going to be married off to a guy several years younger. Kay is a good example of a writer who really does good female characters, although I’ve certainly seen them condemned; condemned because they don’t break out, do the modern thing, instead they work within their cultural constraints. (or not, as with Judit). So the condemned character, instead of decking the prince when he touches her, realizes she can use this, and politics successfully into marrying him.

    He does all kinds which is part of what makes him an excellent writer.

    One issue with the k/a female protaganist is that sometimes the female part gets lost in the writing. I’ve been occasionally trying to figure out why Hallie Michaels (Deb Coate’s protaganist) does so strongly come across as female, when by actions & attitudes she ought to be ‘man with boobs’ character. So far I haven’t come up with anything that seems right.

    oh, and there’s another, who ties into a discussion here a while back about writing married couples with family: Poli in Ansen Dibbell’s trilogy that starts iwth CIRCLE CRESCENT STAR. She’s not actually human, but her people can interbreed (genetic engineering in the background) with humans, a military leader, pursued by a human young man in book one & married by the end, and still married with children in the rest. Part of the story is about her and her husband, certainly they end up rather differently – and with a healthier relationship – than they begin, but the bulk of the story is officially focused on politics, and skulduggery.

  2. Matthew

    I’ve certainly seen the same connotations for “realistic” as well — and I would add that it often has the same connotations when used to describe stories as well as characters. I don’t know how many times I’ve disliked an ending that was depressing and didn’t fit with the rest of the book or movie and everyone tells me I just must not like realistic tales. I like realisitic just fine… Hope and victory and triumph are also real world things!

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