Strong Female Character: Where They Go Wrong

Dance

I’m a man. I’ve never been a woman. But I like to write (hence this site). And my writing just happens to be set in a world where there are two sexes, men and women. In an effort to represent one half of the population, I have some female characters, several of whom I want to portray as a strong female character. Now the trick is, how do I write them well, not being a woman and unable to read minds?

I’m not the only one who struggles with this. Part of it is from a shift in society, where women have taken a larger role in the workforce, leadership, and getting an education. So the clamor is for a strong female character to be portrayed realistically, or at least how people want to see them portrayed.

Once upon a time, women were designated to roles such as damsel in distress, loving mother, or spiteful stepmother. Now that was pretty limiting, as they were all pretty passive. Even the fairy tales about women didn’t have them actually do anything. In Disney’s Cinderella, the mice did more for her than she did for herself. She was valued for her kindness, hard work, etc, but above all, for her beauty, something she was born with and didn’t earn. And of course, her stepmother was jealous of her, because of her old age and loss of beauty, and Cinderella’s beauty in contrast to her own daughters’, whose ugly faces resembled their personalities. Now we can look at that and see so many subtle but demeaning messages.

Today there is a hunger to see women in a much more active role, like Katniss in the Hunger Games or Rey in Star Wars. Instead of constantly being saved by a man, they can save others. Seems like a good thing, especially for girls who look to them as role models, right? For the most part, yes. But there are some scenarios where the strong female character isn’t done well. Here are a few categories:

The Sex Symbol

More used for the love interest of the male hero, but still can apply to protagonists. This is where the woman’s primary value comes from being beautiful, sexy, etc. Romance stories might have this, and female villains are often sexually manipulative. Video games, if they choose to have a girl as the playable character, will often do so just for the eye candy effect, not because having her as a woman changes the story in any way. But this doesn’t help the cause of women anywhere. Both boys and girls need to see that women are valuable for more than just their bodies. We, both men and women, can get so judgmental of someone for something they were born with and can’t completely control.

Male in a Female Body

This can overlap with the first point, especially in video games. But it is seen in other media as well. Basically, the protagonist acts, speaks, and thinks like a man, but has a woman’s body and is attracted to men. This caters to men again, giving them eye candy and someone they can easily understand as well. She’s usually a kick butt warrior, somewhat silent, and a loner, or at least pushes everyone away. She’s no nonsense, what men tend to value in other men, and skilled in some type of ‘masculine’ skill, usually fighting, sometimes mechanics or other similar fields. Pornography does this all the time, basically making a woman as lusty as the men who watch her. The problem with this portrayal is that the woman is only a woman superficially, with the outside body parts matching but the inside thinking and feeling completely divorced from how real woman think and feel. This sends the message that women can only be valuable if they imitate men and not for what makes them uniquely feminine.

The Mary Sue

The Mary Sue is perfect in everything. Rey from Star Wars gets accused of this, because she can suddenly wield a lightsaber and use the force as powerfully as Kylo Ren. The problem with this is that stories are inherently about growth, and if the protagonist is already perfect, then how can she grow? This portrayal is used because the writer is afraid that if the female protagonist has weaknesses, the writer will be accused of sexism. Or the writer just doesn’t know how to make a good protagonist. It’s all right for a hero to have some preexisting skills, otherwise they might be uninteresting, but they should still learn new things and struggle through difficult situations.

The Strong Female Character who doesn’t do anything

Sometimes an actual strong female character is put into a story. But if she’s a secondary character, she might not actually do anything to drive the plot. She’s just…there. Hiccup’s mom in How to Train Your Dragon, Trinity in the Matrix, Hope in Ant-Man, and others, they all have the skills to do whatever the hero does, but they have to sit back and do nothing, except maybe train the hero, because he’s the ‘Chosen One’ and she isn’t.

For more reading on this, check out this article.

The Enlightened Woman

This woman is ahead of her time, standing up against oppressive men because she was born for this century, not the 1800s. Unfortunately, while there have been women who have stood up to men in history, it is rare and was never as much as feminists these days would have liked. We are all products of our culture and can’t completely escape that. So those women in stories feel out of place. In a hundred years, people will look back at us and our culture and call us unenlightened and ignorant in how we treat and portray women.

Strong Female Character is now becoming a derisive term because it no better represents women than the old stories who dismissed them did. A truly strong female character has all the aspects of a real women, both the good  aspects like nurturing, communication, and intelligence, as well as the bad, like self doubt, not as physically strong as her male counterparts, and falling prey to her emotions. She doesn’t have all the answers, just like the rest of us in this world, nor is she born with all the skills she needs. She is, above all, a human being, with some facets of her personality influenced by her biology and the cultural expectations of whatever era she lives in. What makes a woman strong is refusing to let her weaknesses keep her from fulfilling her objective. In that aspect, Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz is a strong female. She may not be a butt kicking warrior, but she unites people, defeats two witches, unmasks a phony, and leaves Oz just a little bit better.

Shouldn’t that be a good role model for girls?

 

Heroics part 2

Heroics

If you haven’t read Heroics part 1 already, go here first.

Within fifteen minutes, he arrived at the gates. With the help of some of his guards, after dispatching Jadek’s, he pushed open the doors in a dramatic gesture. Light from the cloudy sky filled the hall. His footsteps echoed all around him.

Going in deeper, dispatching more guards, Brom entered the hall to confront Jadek. He wanted Arabella, and no one would stop him. Clenching his sword until it hurt, as well as his teeth, he scanned the dark room. At the back facing him was his nemesis.

“You have broken the treaty, Brom,” came the voice from the shadows. Brom’s vision adjusted to the darkness. Jadek looked like he wanted to jump out of his throne and strangle him. Brom almost wanted him to try.

“The treaty was meaningless once you kidnapped my wife,” Brom said with deadly calm.

Jadek looked incredulous. “That is what this is about? You pillage my city for a girl?”

“You brought this upon yourself. Now where is she? Locked away?”

“I’m right here,” Arabella said, coming out of the shadows to the right of Jadek. Lush golden hair, delicate face, cherry lips, swaying hips. Brom lost his breath. “You should have left us.”

“Let her go free!” Bloodlust threatened to take over Brom.

“I want to be with him, Prince Brom!” Arabella yelled, becoming even more beautiful. “I never wanted to be with you!”

Brom couldn’t believe what he was hearing. She was to be his wife. She couldn’t hate him. He had done so much for her. No, this was a mistake. She had been manipulated. This wasn’t her talking. He knew it. She would never say something like that in her right mind. Jadek had some leverage on her.

“What have you done to her?” Brom cried out. “Face me now!”

“You’re insane!” Jadek yelled. “Guards, stop him.”

Thus began the battle, Brom’s guards versus Jadek’s. Brom helped, giving the advantage to his side. The fight lasted several minutes, and Jadek escaped with Arabella, but Brom couldn’t get through. His own side suffered several losses before he disabled the last of them.

As soon as possible, he took off after Jadek and Arabella. He wasn’t sure where they had gone, but could guess. The castle wasn’t unfamiliar to him. Because Arabella wore heels, she slowed them down, and Brom found them trying to escape in the back entrance.

“Jadek, it’s over.”

“Why are you doing this, Prince Brom? What did I ever do to you?”

“You took my wife.”

“She’s not your wife yet, and she came to me. We love each other; she didn’t want to get married to someone she couldn’t love. Will you not allow us happiness?”

Brom sheathed his sword, breathing hard. He walked up to Jadek, each step a battle. Glancing at Arabella with regret, he held out his hand. Jadek took it, hesitantly.

Grabbing onto his hand, Brom took out his sword with the other and impaled Jadek, pulling him closer. Arabella screamed and ran to Brom, hitting him with her fists. Brom ignored her. Jadek’s eyes grew lifeless and he coughed blood.

Brom pulled out the sword and let Jadek drop to the ground. Tired of hitting him, Arabella dropped to the ground as well, putting her body over his and crying. Brom left them, sighing.

A month later, they were married. Brom was crowned prince of Thromwell as well, ruling in absence of his father. Arabella promised she would hate him forever, and did not let him in her rooms ever, not even on their wedding night. He didn’t have the will to argue.

A few days later Brom was on the throne in a pose of deep and sad contemplation. Trumpets started blaring, shaking him from his mental fantasy. The doors opened and in strode a regal figure. someone with a purpose. It reminded Brom of himself so recently, coming in on Jadek.

“Father,” he said simply.

“Brom Filmor,” his father, Reginald, said. Although he said it pleasantly enough, undercurrents of anger were manifest. “I have come for an accounting of the stewardship I left you.”

“Leave us,” Brom ordered everyone in his court.

“Let Hadrian stay,” Reginald said. “I do not wish to be completely alone with you.”

Hadrian stayed, but did not look pleased.

“Well?”

Brom sighed. “Hadrian, if you please.”

“Remember your promise, my prince,” Hadrian began.

“Yes, yes,” Brom said, waving his hand and turning around. He clasped his hands behind his back. “Hadrian counseled me against all of this, and I didn’t listen.”

Reginald stayed silent, but put his chin in his hand. Hadrian cleared his voice and began the report. “There was an…altercation. It ended up in a battle between Thromwell and Filmor. In the end, we lost two hundred and twenty three soldiers. Thromwell lost many more, mostly civilians of fighting age. Also, Jadek, king of Thromwell, was killed. Without heirs, and in the confusion, Brom declared himself king of Thromwell.”

“Prince,” said Reginald, signaling Hadrian to continue.

“Prince Brom took Lady Arabella Faus as wife, and they were married three days ago. I have nothing more to report.”

“Very succinct,” Reginald said. “Thank you for the report, Hadrian.”

“Thank you, majesty,” Hadrian said, bowing. “If I may be so bold, how fared the war with the Mithics?”

“Let me put it this way. After the heroics of my son, now with so few soldiers to call upon for reinforcements, you need not call me majesty much longer.”

“You lost?” Brom shouted, then remembered himself. “Father?”

“We had to resort to the defensive. The Mithics will be coming to invade soon. I had hoped to recruit from Filmor and Thromwell to put together one last defense of our kingdoms, but with the needless losses you caused, I don’t know if it will be enough. Plus, we cannot count on the morale of Thromwell’s troops, now. They might prefer Mithic rule to our own.”

“I’m sorry, father!”

Reginald took a step forward, his anger finally showing. “Is that all you can say? Sorry? You destroyed the kingdom while I was gone! All you had to do was nothing! Was that so hard?”

“I didn’t want Jadek to steal Arabella away!”

“Oh? And how did that work out? How’s the marriage?” Brom didn’t answer for a few minutes. “Hmm?”

“You obviously know, so don’t taunt me!”

They stared at each other. Reginald finally spoke up. “Hopefully the Mithics will allow our family to continue ruling under them. Even though it’s unlikely you’ll be producing heirs anytime soon. I hope you enjoyed being the hero, son. You conquered a kingdom, now we will be conquered. We need great leadership in this time of change. Which means no more heroics.”

Heroics part 1

Heroics

“My liege, Prince Filmor, we hate to bear bad news, but we have just received word that the Lady Arabella has been abducted in route to the city.”

Brom straightened up on his seat, situated by his father’s throne, empty as usual. This was the first tiding in days that had interested him. In fact, he had been caught up in a daydream about his future wife. He had only met her once, but that had been enough to leave him smitten. Declared one of the beauties of the land, Arabella’s smile, so timid but so knowing at the same time, enchanted him. His thoughts had wandered to the wedding night when the unfortunate news came.

“Arabella!” he said, rising from his seat and whisking his cape in back of him. “Something must be done. Who kidnapped her? Where were they heading?”

“To the west,” one of the quivering messengers said, kneeling at his feet. The man was scrawny, unlike Brom’s own physique.

What lay to the west? “Jadek,” he said, that one name taking on power.

“It would seem the logical conclusion,” one of his advisors, Hadrian, said. “What course of action would you suggest in the absence of your father? Diplomacy? Espionage?”

“Heroics,” Brom said, ignoring the messengers kneeling uncomfortably on the hard floor. “There will be no tolerance for such an audacious act. Prepare the military.”

“My prince, I would advise against such drastic terms. We have a trade agreement with the Thromwells, and marching an army into their territory would be an egregious break of trust.” Hadrian, with his balding head, furrowed his brows, making him look more ancient than his forty years.

Brom remembered the messengers, waiting to be addressed, and waved them away. Most of them left, but one stayed near, half bowing, looking hesitant. Brom waved him away more energetically; annoyed he had to waste so much energy on the man. The messenger smiled and left, running after his coworkers. Hadrian and Brom were alone now.

“Any treaty Jadek Thromwell had with us is null in light of this kidnapping.”

“But Brom, you have no idea it was Jadek in the first place.”

“I saw how he was looking at her in the feast. Father Morander would be ashamed to have someone so full of lust attending the event in his memory.”

“Perhaps, but I know your father was ashamed to have his son drooling after the same girl.”

“I was not drooling. Anyway, I saw how much he wanted to have her for his own, and how jealous he was of me when my father announced our betrothal.”

Hadrian sighed. “You are the regent while your father is gone, and you have every right to be concerned about the welfare of your future wife, but remember that I recommended against it. Only you will answer to your father when this is over.”

“And receive all the praise,” Brom said. “Really, this won’t even be an issue. Don’t fret, I will cast you in the best light possible.”

“As you will, my prince. I desire the best for your journey. I will notify the general of your decision. But please, do not make enemies lightly.”

“There is nothing to fear,” Brom said, fearing he would be the same when he was older. “The princess will return safely and we will soon be wed.”

“Assemble the men,” Brom ordered from his horse. The flag bearer raised the horn and blew. Brom felt the vibrations pulsing as they reverberated through the valley. His men offered up a cheer as the march began. He smiled down on them as a loving father would. He yelled out as loud as he could, hoping his thousand men could hear him. “Your future queen, Arabella, has been kidnapped. We must rescue her. We believe she is held captive in Melfor with the Thromwells. Once we arrive, leave no house, no store, no alley unsearched.” Thinking about Hadrian, he said, “Avoid violence, but use it as necessary. And do whatever is required to save the princess’s life.”

The city of Melfor stretched before them, vast as the clouds in the sky. In the distance stood Thromwell castle, where Brom was sure he would find Arabella. In case Jadek, the elder son who recently inherited the throne after his father died of the yellow fever, saw Brom coming and sent Arabella away into the city, he would have his men enter in and search every house. Luckily, most of Jadek’s men were with Brom’s father, fighting in the alliance against the usurpation of the Kingdom of Grim by the Mithics.

They made it to the gates of the town before getting any response. One of Jadek’s guards came out to meet them, dressed in violet finery, but looking annoyed. “What is the meaning of this, Prince Brom? Just because your father didn’t bring as many troops with him to war as we did doesn’t give you the right to trample into our fair city.”

“You know why we’re here. And do not insult my father, who is actually fighting, unlike Jadek.”

“As well as you,” the guard replied, sneering.

“Someone needs to run the kingdom!” Brom said, losing patience.

“Exactly.”

“What is your name?”

“I am called Firion, son of-”

“Firion, if you can’t give me Arabella right now, I am going to take over this city and burn down every house until I find her.”

“Arabella? Who is she?” There was a look of such confusion on the man’s face that for a moment Brom thought he might not know. Only for a moment, though.

“Put up your guard, because I am going to rescue her!” Brom charged Firion with his sword raised. Firion barely had time to take out his sword and block the strike which left him trembling.

“You’re mad!”

“That’s right!”

One of the men escorting Firion backed away and pulled out a horn. It took him a few tries, but it sounded throughout the city, while Firion and Brom fought. Brom’s army marched forward, ready to take on the opposing host.

Brom had to admit, the guard was a good swordsman, but that was no surprise, given his position. Still, Brom was bigger and used his brute force to his advantage. His troops marched past him.

Swords clashed, ringing nearly as loud as the horn. Thrust, side slash, feint, parry, thrust again. Brom pressed down, hoping to break Firion’s stance. When that didn’t work, he slid down and slid his foot in an arc, trying to trip him, but only managing to unbalance him.

So he jumped on him.

Firion fell down, Brom on top. Not about to take any chances, Brom plunged the sword into Firion’s chest, pushing through the armor. Firion just gurgled in surprise, eyes already going blank.

Taking his sword out, blood dripping, he stood up and shook it before wiping it on Firion’s clothes. Red specks covered the ground.

Inside the city, people were running out of their houses, screaming. This only encouraged Brom’s army to chase after, pillaging and plundering. Brom hadn’t meant for this to happen, but getting control of them now would be nearly impossible, and he had to get to Castle Thromwell. Taking a unit of disciplined soldiers, he left orders with the general to round up the army and he took off.

A few peasants tried to stand up to him, yelling, calling him names, but he just cut them down. The castle stood like a white beacon, and everything else in sight was just a distraction. Arabella was waiting for him.

Read Heroics part 2 here.