Monday, July 14, 2014

Female Characters

I purposely made the title of this post a bit broad, because I may or may not start babbling my way through three or more topics relating to female characters. Therefore: generalities are occasionally my friend.

Last week, I was reading a blog (*le gasp*). I tend to read a lot of random posts on random blogs, things that catch my eye on Facebook or the Twitter-sphere. Which means I also tend to read book reviews. Now, I apologize in advance because I was a dolt and didn't make a note of where I found this, but then I realized that it also doesn't matter for a reason I will soon specify.

As I read this review, I got to the part about characters. I can't quote it exactly, but the author of the blog post basically said, "The main character is a girl named [name], but she wasn't a girly-girl, or anything."

You said it, Mac (Image (c). Click for source)
Whoa. Whoa there. Okay, I admit to adding a little bit of my own snark, but I'm not kidding that the author of the blog post stated outright that he/she was glad that the female main character wasn't a girly-girl. The term "girly-girl" was legitimately mentioned.

Remember me saying that it doesn't matter that I didn't make a note or record where I found this? That's because this is a widely-explored topic of conversation: female main characters need to be "strong."

Seriously, what does that even mean?

I admit to being drawn to the "tougher," more "kick-ass" female characters, lead or otherwise. I love the Katniss Everdeens, the Clary's, the Isabelle's. I like reading about girls who know how to stand on their own if they have to and who fight for what's important to them.

Oh, I'm sorry. Did you notice the quotations? Let me ask you something: how do we even define "tough" or "kick-ass"? They're adjectives I use to describe a lot of characters from a variety of novels and genre's. But still: what is it?

It does not mean they're not "girly-girls." I've hated that phrase my entire life, just as often as I've hated the term on the other end of the spectrum: "tom-boy."I don't like when people use that to describe people. There's so much more than the female gender than either loving the color pink with a passion or hating it.

Here's a conversation I was forced into a lot as a kid:

Person: "Are you a girly-girl or a tom-boy?"
Me: "Neither."
Person: "...well, do you like pink?"
Me: "Not really." (This was before I actually began to appreciate the color as much as I do, now)
Person: "So you're a tom-boy."
Me: "No, I'm not."

And so it goes. I don't know if kids still have that same conversation in today's time, but the 90's (and early 2000s) were kind of rough. The fact that we, as kids, were able to put a negative stigma on enjoying bright colors and frilly things was brutal, and I was one of those people who refused to play into it (I hate stereotypes with an absolute passion).

The sad thing is, this stigma exists today, and it can be seen right in that example I gave you: "The main character is a girl named [name], but she wasn't a girly-girl, or anything."

Somebody please just tell me what that means. Because this stigma carries over to the aspiring writers who, in the name of feminism or some other trope (please, please, please don't start a feminism debate; that's not what I'm getting at), believe that they have to have a "strong" female character. They need somebody whose witty, who can pack a punch, who knows how to fight. They need somebody who wears tennis shoes/sneakers, who prefer ratty t-shirts and tank tops to blouses and lacy things.

I only have one thing to say to that, and it comes from all of those taco commercials that you see everywhere with that cute little girl asking: "Why not both?"

Isabelle Lightwood, who I've already mentioned, is a bit of an example. She's gorgeous (and I could go on a whole 'nother rant about that, too, but I'll save it for another day), and she fights "like a man" while also enjoying flirting, wearing impossibly high-heeled shes, and occasionally wearing the skimpiest dresses she can find just so she can show off her body and get a few looks her way. So she's a bit of both worlds, right? Even counseling the lead gal, Clary, into how to be "pretty."

There's somewhat of a point: Isabelle Lightwood is the best of "both worlds," but she's not the main character in The Mortal Instruments series. That would be Clary Fray, who apparently doesn't know the first thing about makeup, dressing up, or hooking up (okay, sorry, that was a bit lame, but it made that sentence sound fantastic).

So are we doomed to never be able to read about a lead character whose a "girly-girl," because heaven-forbid a woman or teenage girl enjoy something as simple as bright colors and shiny shoes?

This is the problem I'm getting at, the one that provides no end of extremely daunting problems for aspiring writers who think their lead characters need to be "strong." Because if they're "girly," it suddenly makes them lesser in the eyes of the reader.

If that's the case, let me tell you about one of my favorite lead female characters of all time. MacKayla Lane (known as "Mac" by her friends) is the star of the FEVER series by Karen Marie Moning. This set of books is dark: it's all about the Fae who hunt humans, and eventually they completely invade the human world, turning it into a place where hundreds of humans die daily, essentially as sport for the Fae. Mac travels to Ireland to look into the murder of her sister, and winds up becoming the annoying charge to Barrons: a man who's also some kind of creature, extremely violent; he's the kind of guy that the things that go bump in the night are afraid of.

Mac needs to learn how to fight. She gets her hands on a spear that's one of two weapons that can kill the Fae. She becomes a target because her sister was involved with the Fae, somehow, and also because she becomes a weakness to Barrons, who also have a lot of enemies. Despite being in higher waters than she can swim in, Mac knows how to hold her own and fight for what's important for her, and becomes enmeshed in the Fae world as she tries to survive it.

Sounds like a strong, kick-ass female lead, right?

Mac's favorite color is pink, the only shoes she owns are high heels, sand Barrons at one point describes her as a perky rainbow. Southern Belle is her middle name. She bakes Barrons a freaking birthday cake in the middle of a Fae invasion and there's not a single thing in her wardrobe that's black, gray, brown, or anything on the darker color spectrum. She accessorizes with purses, rings, jewelry, and (eventually) that spear.

Would you call her weak?

So here's what this post is about: write your female lead (if you have one) the way your female lead came to you. Don't try to change her because you think society is going to look down their noses at her. If she likes to wear dresses, let her wear dresses. She likes pink, then she likes pink.

The trick to avoid is to not go overboard and shove it in your readers' faces. Whether they're a prissy debutante or an independent street-fighter. Nobody likes that.

There's a line between "weakness" and character traits. Don't let a fear of the former persuade you to change your characters until they're "acceptable" by society's standards.

And now that today's post turned into a little rant, now I apologize: if you made it this far, then kudos. I don't go off like this often, but when I do it tends to be a doozy.

Right. Then. Happy Monday? (and don't worry; next week I'll go after male MCs).


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