The language in this post may be a bit harsher than usual, and this is a long post.
Recently I have been conducting a series of arguments thinly disguised as panels at conventions around the city, discussing what could be considered a hot topic. Usually the attendance is primarily female, but I do find that a few men seeking character writing advice will often attend.
This panel and its contents are most interesting because everyone comes hoping to learn, but also with their own vision of what strength is and who has it.
By and large when we begin, people identify with the thought that physical strength is an indicator of character strength–the outmoded way of thinking that only masculine strength characteristics are valid. We will talk about what characters are strong and why: Katniss (Hunger Games), for her abilities with weapons. Merida (Brave), for her fighting and riding skills, Beckett (Castle), Snow (Once Upon a Time), for being complete badasses.
But then, as panelists, we direct the audience to consider what other aspects of these characters give them strength. If stripped of their ability to physically destroy their attackers, what else do they have going for them?
For most of them, the conclusion is also a life lesson straight out of a psychology textbook. Each of these characters, in spite of their surroundings, knows that she has the ability to change her own destiny (or fate, in Merida’s case). They do not allow external forces upon their life to convince them that their predicament is insurmountable. They are not carried along by other forces. They have their own goals and dreams and agenda and refuse to let those be stolen from them.
With that definition, many more characters get pulled into the mix. What about Nancy Drew, who was not physically dangerous but was smart, talented, and had a penchant for getting herself in and out of trouble? What about Arya of Game of Thrones, who a headstrong and brave 11 year old who doesn’t want to be a lady because she perceives that her society looks down on women in dresses?
But wait, our audience cries out. Do you have to play like a boy to be treated with respect?
While my own experiences are a bad example of dressing like a woman and playing in that arena, sacrificing one’s own style is not a sign of strength, but a sign of self defense. If our society is to outgrow the obsessive notion that women in power are bitches or sluts, women who prefer to be feminine must be able to do so without compromising their strength of character. There are examples of this.
What about Pepper Potts (Iron Man), who may seem to just be the assistant to a billionaire but is in fact an entrepreneur and a brilliant businesswoman who takes matters into her own hands whenever necessary? Beckett wears heels and runs in them–but not spikes, because that would be insane. The Evil Queen wears beautiful dresses and still manages to control everything.
This leads to further discussion about what constitutes good and what constitutes evil, whether one can be evil and still be strong, etc. Someone always mentions Twilight in these panels. I want to underline carefully that a character being weak does not necessarily mean the writing is bad.
Someone in the last iteration of this panel asked me how he could write strong female characters as a man. I told the audience to write what they know–write about their sisters, their daughters, their mothers, their friends in the workplace. Everyone knows strong women. Everyone has them in their life. If you do not see strong women all around you, you are not looking hard enough–or your mind is stuck in the 50s.