Strong Female Characters – John Konecsni

*Mike Barker suggested I write a post on “Angels of Workshops” and I will, but I’m REALLY (REALLY REALLY REALLY) trying to finish Through Fire before the end of the year (or before it finishes me.)  So, I twisted John Konecsni’s arm into writing a post for me.  Give him a warm Mad Genius Welcome, please.  (No, that doesn’t mean you set fire to his socks.  Remember the talk we had?  Right.  Just be really nice, because he’s a nice man.*

Strong Female Characters – John Konecsni

In private correspondence, I once had a reader and interviewer – an interesting fellow named Stuart West – tell me that he appreciated how many “strong female characters” I have.

 

I was a little thrown there because it took me a moment to figure out what he was talking about.

 

In my novels, I have Manana Shushurin, who’s a spy that’s more James Bond than George Smiley.  She reads, likes music, has a degree from Wittenberg university …. has no social life, and technically, lives with her mother (technically, I say, because she really lives in her office). She also has a secret that’s eating a hole in her life.

 

I also have Maureen McGrail.  She’s an Interpol detective, local Dublin cop, relentless, tenacious, and she knows about three martial arts.  She’s also pining for a guy who came into her life, swept her off of her feet (just by being himself, really) and disappeared, without showing even a hint of romantic interest in her.

 

Then there’s Wilhelmina Goldberg, who is 4’11”, computer nerd, daughter of two esoteric languages nerds. She likes science fiction and fantasy, programs her computer to talk like characters out of Lord of the Rings, and has a subscription to Security magazine. And her biggest fighting ability is a handgun.

 

In Codename: Winterborn, I have an antagonist / sort-of love interest named Mandy, who is a mercenary, hired to hunt the protagonist, and respects his skill. She’s a bit of a daddy’s girl, but she was homeschooled by her mother, which included how to shoot.

 

So every time I hear about “strong female characters,” all I can think is “if your protagonists aren’t strong is some way, how are they going to survive?” Who the bleep cares if they’re women or not?

 

In context, I should point out that Stuart was using the strong female character comment as a segue into a completely different point, an issue he found in my writing.(Apparently, I shouldn’t be putting in bust size as far as describing a female character.  I neglected to tell Stuart that if I knew anything about clothing, I would probably include men’s jacket sizes to paint a clearer, more accurate picture of them, too. But I don’t know any men who are the sizes I need. Me? OCD?  Nah….)

 

In any case, the SFC term struck me, and stuck with me.

 

And then there was this article, entitled I hate Strong Female Characters.  If you read through it, you might find a few points to agree with, and a few problems.

 

Now, I agree with the author on the initial point.  I also have problems with the SFC label. I really do, because it tends to detract from, oh, the point. In the example they used of Buffy– she was smart, witty, with outside the box solutions to non-vampire problems (shall we start with the fertilizer bomb or the rocket launcher?).  But “Strong” is the only descriptor one can come up with?

 

In my own work, I spent so much time on developing characters like Manana, Mandy, Wilhelmina, etc, their quirks and habits and hobbies, that I feel a little awkward if the best description anyone can come up with about them is just “strong.” It’s like people are just jamming the well-crafted and well-designed characters I made, and jamming them into a box labeled “X,” where Buffy and Xena are right next to Black Widow and Mandy.

 

Though you want my problem with this author?

 

1)  “I want good complex characters!”

 

…. And then the article focuses completely on Buffy, because she’s the STRONG character…. and ignores Willow, who saves the day repeatedly, but is physically as strong as your average anemic? Faith, who’s as physically strong as Buffy, but a broken character? How about Cordelia, who starts out a vacuous California mean girl, and becomes more interesting within the first half of season 1? Or Anya, who goes through a fairly strange character arc of her own?

 

And, while they’re talking about complex characters, they boiled Buffy down to only “SFC.” How about witty? Smart? Creative? The example used in the article was the end point of a two-episode arc exposing just how vulnerable Buffy really is. Yes, she’s got superpowers, but she’s still a teenager, with all the problems that comes with it, in addition to waging a constant war against everything that came to kill her, swallow the Earth, etc. The author managed to ignore the entire point of a two-part story!

 

Who demands good complex characters! and then ignores them when s/he gets them?  If this article had said that the “SFC” label shoved a character into a box and left them there, then I could agree to some degree.  But this author seems to be guilty of doing just that.

 

2) I want a 1:1 ratio of complex characters, male and female! 

 

The author prattles on about Peggy Carter of Captain America: The First Avenger, complaining that she was unbalanced and cartoonish, making a lot of assumptions.

 

The author mentions that Peggy Carter shooting Captain America’s shield is a temper tantrum that no guy would have gotten away with. Obviously, this person never saw the 100 generic Stupid People Tricks that are on cable, and mostly male.  The author assumed that in firing, Peggy had been too stupid to not be listening to the toymaker Stark prattle on about his cool toys for however long she’d been in his general orbit. The author also assumed that no one in the entire room knew that the shield was bulletproof– which is kind of like people in Q’s lab not knowing to duck on a regular basis.

 

The author then insists that this “over-the-top” reaction is because she’s one of two women with a speaking part, and there be more women on screen to counter stuff like this. (Which is odd, since I counted four — which included a grandma with a tommy gun, and a SHIELD agent at the end of the film).

 

My real problem?  First, the author makes these above assumptions and then kvetches that they could have shoe-horned in more women. Why? Just to shoe-horn in more women. So we could have a 1:1 ratio of women in the film. Really?

 

Hey, maybe we could have put in more cardboard cutouts. Besides, if you really want equality, then Captain America: The First Avenger, was perfectly equal. There were only two complex characters in the whole film.  Tommy Lee Jones was playing….Tommy Lee Jones…. Zola was Mad Scientist #2 … The Red Skull was Psycho Villain #6 … Eskine was “Dr. Littleoldmun” from Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety. And Stark was very much “Howard Hughes Carbon Copy #1.”  Outside of the sidekick Bucky (Plucky Sidekick #9), are any of Captain America’s team even referred to by name?

 

In short, Carter and Rodgers were the only two characters of any substance in the film. This isn’t a complaint. I’m sure they were plenty deep in character design, but there was little enough of it on the screen. Not to mention– it’s a movie. If you’re Peter Jackson, you get nine hours of films for develop all of your characters. If you’re a Marvel film, you have, at most two hours and thirty minutes.  If you have two well-written and developed characters, you’re ahead of the game.  I feel fortunate to have one, some days.

 

But for the 1:1 ratio this author wants?

 

Maybe this author would have liked more 2D characters. As she suggest, let’s gender swap…. Dr. Zola?  So we can have a weak, simpering little woman be bullied by Tommy Lee Jones? Dr. Erskine? So we can have a little grandmother figure play the martyr?  Hey, we could gender swap Tommy Lee Jones, and have him played by Kathy Bates! Why not have the Red Skull played by Angelina Jolie?

 

Now, a reasonable argument I got from fellow author Karina Fabian is from the point of view that, there were certainly a heck of a lot more women in the WW2 military than were seen in the film. There were secretaries, WACs, women who transported planes, codebreakers, nurses, etc.  That way, we could have had a lot of women…. but they would have been in the background, and probably would have completely boiled away this author’s argument.

 

3) Women are at the back of the bus…um, movie poster, like Black Widow.

 

 

“Strong women are supposed to kick ass and keep their mouth shut.” Really?

 

How about, oh, that Black Widow WAS THE ONLY ONE WHO OUTSMARTED LOKI?  IN THE ENTIRE MOVIE! GAAAHHHH!!!

 

How about that BLACK WIDOW WAS THE ONLY ONE WHO COULD CLOSE THE PLOT DEVICE DESTROYING NEW YORK?

 

How about the fact that there were maybe five deep moments in the entire film, and Black Widow was in two of them (The five moments were Stark and Banner in Lab, Stark and Rodgers reconcile, Coulson, interrogating Loki, and Black Widow and Barton, post-brainwashing….six scenes, if you count Black Widow and Bruce Banner in India, giving her half the deep moments in the film).

 

Oh, hey, how about Sam Jackson? Maybe we should say The Avengers was racist, because he was in the back of the poster?

 

I’m sorry, but unless you’re Iron Man or Thor, you’re in the back of this poster.

 

4) Where’s Thor?


Seriously, where’s the movie Thor in this discussion?  You know, the movie that was mostly Kat Denning and Natalie Portman handling Chris Hemsworth as he was enduring culture shock? With some occasional exposition from Mr. Skaarsgard? Portman’s character, astrophysicist Jane Foster, isn’t “strong,” in this sense, is she? Because last time I checked, most of my female friends could break her like a toothpick. Foster is instrumental in Thor’s change from prick to hero, but is she thrown on the bonfires of the blogger’s vanity because she doesn’t come with a complete bio and genealogy?

 

Or does this author consider her merely as a damsel in distress?  Which would be odd, because if you were in the New Mexico town in Thor, you were in distress, up to and including the three beefy supporting characters and the Valkyrie that (quite literally) drop down out of the sky.

 

Or does this not count, because the end of the movie involves the Warriors Three, Odin, and Loki? Making it three more male characters on screen than women?  Do we count Freya, who tried to stopped three assassins coming to get Odin? Or because she wasn’t on screen that often, should we throw her aside?

 

While not physically strong, I thought Jane Foster was very well written. She was the love interest, sure, but that love motivated both of them to be better.  He was motivated to be a better person, and she was motivated to continue pursuing interstellar/inter-dimensional travel.

 

Am I wrong? Or, as I asked, does she just not count?

 

Conclusion: Equality!

 

As I said at the beginning, I don’t like the SFC label.  If you can shove my characters into a nice neat little box, I’m going to be pissy — either at you for demeaning my characters, or at myself for making them cardboard cutouts.

 

I would have liked this article more if it were less obvious. It’s clearly pushing an agenda — not about creating good characters, but numerical “equality!” for “equality’s” sake. By the end, I felt like I was reading a review of 300 that insisted that there should have been 150 female Spartans at Thermopylae (this is not a joke, I did read one of those).

 

I honestly couldn’t tell you the ratio of my characters if you dared me to.

 

In Pius Man, I’ve got Maureen, Manana and Wilhelmina named above as main characters. Is the ratio 1:1 if I include Giovanni Figlia’s wife, the forensic specialist?

 

Is the ratio no longer 1:1 if I count the three priests in the background?

 

Is it all right if I have Scott “Mossad” Murphy, who can’t shoot, is pale, anemic-looking, and pair him up with the sexy gunslinger Manana?  Does that make him weak, even though he will take gunfire and is a pivotal part of the book?

 

Does Wilhelmina Goldberg not count if she doesn’t shoot anybody, but is a key part to hunting down the bad guys by the end?

 

At the end of the day, the SFC label is too simple. But so is reducing “equality” to numbers of people on screen and counting lines.  If you’re keeping score with 1:1 ratios, exactly what will satisfy you? I have no idea.

 

Now, if you’ll pardon me, I have to go write a scene where Manana has to save Scott. Again.

32 Comments

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32 responses to “Strong Female Characters – John Konecsni

  1. Very well written, and ultimately illuminating. So many times this last year, I’ve read things about writing/culture/men/women/insert-topic-of-choice-here which made me vaguely uncomfortable but I haven’t been able to really put my finger on why.

    And of course, it’s because the author is pushing some kind of agenda in which a certain person or persons (usually straight white guys) have to atone for some kind of societal ill against persons who belong to some kind of arbitrary “other” category. Thank you for clarifying the issue for me.

    And every time I read something like this, I’m reminded of my own favorite example of female strength and power that comes from something other than the ability to physically kick butt, and that’s the Japanese comic Maoyuu Maou Yuusha – “Kono Watashi no Mono Tonare, Yuusha yo” “Kotowaru!”. (yeah, crazy title. I usually just refer to it as Maoyuu, and I think the anime drops the second u…) Most of the important characters – the ones who are actually driving the action as opposed to reacting to it – are female. The Demon Lord, her maid, the Crusader, the Grand Princess of the Dragon Clan (my personal favorite character) … all women. And only one of them is the kind that goes around kicking butt in the traditional SFC fashion.

  2. A very good dissection of what we mean by “strong female character,” and what we ought to write to have a well rounded important character,who happens to be female.I guess we all need to keep in mind that SFC is shorthand for a wide spectrum of traits, and not let it become a limiting box in our minds. Especially not a box we “must” check to satisfy the SJW.

    • Right. I don’t have a problem with the term, “Strong Female Character” (except for the implication that most female characters are assumed, then, to be weak), as long as it’s not always presumed to be physical strength.

      Even though she’s not quite a main character, consider the fiance of the main protagonist of Doc Smith’sThe Skylark of Space (I pick that one just to irritate the GHHs), Dorothy Vaneman: Kidnapped, taken on a spaceship where she helps (by kicking the secondary antagonist) to cause it to take off wildly and cause injuries, when she finds out that they are lost in space, too far from Earth to even recognize constellations, does she break down? No. She calmly discusses things with the primary antagonist, then gives him first aid, because she knows that if he’s not functional, they are all dead.

      • BobtheRegisterredFool

        As used in criticism, one could argue that the platonic ideal of a strong female character is a stock character in a feminist masturbatory fantasy about how there is no need or purpose for men. One could argue that said critical style tends to evaluate a story on how close it comes to the feminist masturbatory fantasy about there being no need or purpose for men. Any divergence necessarily being misogynist, representing a deep sickness on the part of the writer, and posing a danger to women every where.

        Writing to fit the taste of critics seems pointless.

  3. Christopher M. Chupik

    On a related note: http://mark—lawrence.blogspot.ca/2014/12/the-big-three-oh-oh-oh-oh.html

    Several of the Usual Suspects are melting down over his remarks, of course.

      • Christopher M. Chupik

        I mean, we could hardly expect them to do anything, say, constructive.

        • You know, it’s actually funny. We never visit their blogs. Not even Frau Butthurt’s when she rants about us. BUT they read us religiously. It reminds me of PJ O’Rouke talking about the US and Arabs. Paraphrasing “We are a ravishing 20 year old woman, they are a pimply twelve year old boy. They love us and they hate us. They spend all their time thinking of how to woe us and punish us and they cannot understand we NEVER GIVE THEM A THOUGHT.”

          • Christopher M. Chupik

            True. I never heard of most of these people before they started attacking us. And some of them have backed off when we started fighting back.

  4. Characters should be strong in the sense of ‘not getting washed out and morphed into cardboard because other characters are so vivid and this guy isn’t.’ st least for non-background characters. Extras are, after all extras. They’re there to flesh the world out not get readers involved in their back story. If the extras are too interesting they have become more major characters.

  5. I don’t deliberately set out to write “strong female character”. I try to write strong characters and some of them happen to be female.

    Looking at my works I’ve got Karen Gold in Survival Test, commander of the first manned “deep space” (in this case to a cluster of asteroids at the Earth-Sun L5 point) mission. She also was the pilot (second in command) of the very first laser launch mission (an impromptu rescue of a rival company’s space station and launcher crew, see “The Future is Now”).

    What was interesting was that I ran an earlier version of that story through a critique group and one of the critiquers complained that Gold “had to get advice from a man”. What? She had a second in command, who was male, so stipulated, who, yes, offered advice and a sounding board when she faced challenges and frustrations. That’s part of the job of a second in command. I was also contrasting Gold’s reaction to the main crisis of the novel (very much “rises to the challenge”) with that of another character elsewhere and his struggle with alcoholism. So, I guess, you just can’t please some people. (Like I didn’t know that before.)

    Then there’s EMT. In that I had two interwoven plot lines. In one of them I had the head EMT of the lunar ambulance service, a character who’s more than willing to stand toe to toe with the big boss and argue with him aside from her tendency to charge toward disasters.

    On the fantasy side, there’s Kaila, Knight of Aerioch, a character driven by duty and honor who happens to be pretty badass with a sword. And then there’s the main character of The Spaewife, endurance is itself strength and she endures a lot for her motivation to see her children safe and avenge her murdered husband.

  6. Christopher M. Chupik

    Let’s face it, if every single female character is Default Amazon, that’s just as boring as making them all doormats. Not to mention unrealistic. And there are many, many kinds of strength, too.

  7. Luke

    The thing I don’t understand is why Buffy (of all possible characters) is always trotted out approvingly as a SFC.
    A SFC should look more like Rose Sayer in The African Queen. A character who drives the plot, not a character who is driven by it.
    Buffy is driven by the plot. To the limited extent she has agency, it’s largely used to make her own life more complicated through transparently foolish decisions. Kewl Powerz make her adept at fighting, but if combat aptitude is the measure of worth, the unfortunate implication is that most men are inherently superior to most women.

  8. Let’s see, the only books where I don’t have a female protagonist or antagonist are the WWI thing, _Circuits and Crises_ and _Blackbird_. But the two female leads in _Peaks of Grace_ are most certainly not Warrior Women by any means. Elizabeth von Sarmas is, but she’s not a SJW even for her time/place. Rada Ni Drako’s, well, she’s Rada. Zabet dar Nagali may be as close to being a modern feminist as any of my characters get, and even she has her limits (if $$ is involved, sisterhood goes out the window). No Buffy-esque characters, no Paksenarions, so I guess I don’t have many real SFCs. Shucky darn.

    Now if you will excuse me, I have a villainess to get moving and a fight to arrange (enter magic-charged steam engine, stage wherever the tracks are.)

  9. Oh, hey, how about Sam Jackson? Maybe we should say The Avengers was racist, because he was in the back of the poster?

    Hey! Nobody puts Samuel L. Jackson in the back of a poster! (Voiced by Patrick Swayze in the same voice as “Nobody puts Baby in a corner. “)

  10. Amusingly enough, this same topic came up over at Mr. Wright’s blog and someone found a rum-dinger of a quote that praises a movie, showing just what they like:
    http://www.scifiwright.com/2014/12/the-perversion-of-a-legend/#comment-108747
    Amazingly enough, Snow White, the epitome of fairy tale passivity, is unapologetically gender neutral here.

    They don’t like girls who act like girls, and what they think girls act like is kinda warped…..

    • BobtheRegisterredFool

      And you hate every single woman in the world for saying so.

      Every real women must be an outspoken feminist.

      This means feminist literature may tend to fail the Bechdel test. The strong female characters are authentic women if they mention feminism enough. If feminism is building up women by, implicitly, tearing down men it counts as talking about a man.

      A pox on their models.

      Given who I’ve come up with in the past, in the future I will write crazed fanatics of no particular stripe. If I write worth anything, the readers will form their own conclusions about strength and weakness.

      • The radio mentioned a tempest in a teapot over the girl who plays Shatner’s daughter in the hotel commercials mentioning that she doesn’t consider herself a feminist, because– basically– there’s no point. She hasn’t been oppressed.