Today I’m exploring a topic that I’m continually conscious of in my writing and the writing of others in fiction. How are the role(s) of women in the story, society and culture in which they live portrayed? I’d also like to stress the value of women and whether or not they are used (I say that word lightly) in a cliché way or not. Some background first. I started reading more in high school and the book that hooked me (as I’ve stated in previous posts) was Robert Jordan’s “The Eye of the World” where women play a prominent role in those areas I stated. What always intrigued me is how Jordan (being a man) was able to write such strong female characters who were all very different and distinct from one another. As a high school freshman, this was new for me as were most aspects of storytelling. Years down the road, I’ve come across many bad examples and good examples of women in fantasy. Jordan did what I consider a very good job of depicting women whereas (I definitely have another well-known fantasy example that I could insert but…screw it) in Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series women are often treated horribly and victims of despicable men.
(Side note: I only read the first book all the way through and part of the second but couldn’t finish the series. If you’re a fan and you disagree, that’s fine but I’ll continue to stay away from that series.)
For myself, though, I never wanted to write women in a way that was cliché or in a way that would depict them as a means to the end for the masculine hero. I never wanted to pack any of my characters into a box or tower so to speak to be rescued by a man. We all know the story cliché (prominently featured in fairy tales) where a princess is the prize for the hero. I have made it a goal of mine to avoid this at all costs and have changed plot arcs if it looked like this was to be approached. Now, this doesn’t mean my female characters are never aided or helped by men. They are but I make sure that is not the sole goal of the men and often have my women characters show they are just as capable of being heroes.
I planned on this post over a month ago but wanted to take a new approach. I asked a few women close to me in life (all of whom I respect and value a great deal) what they want to see and read in fiction when it comes to women characters whether they’re protagonists, antagonists or supporting characters. The following responses are great and will serve as references to me as I continue to write.
“Strong female character in fiction: I’d like to see a woman who is realistic. She is strong but insecure. She is smart and loves learning and acquiring new knowledge and skills. She is funny but an introvert who only opens up to a select few. She has a good heart and great intentions, but can be flaky and selfish sometimes.”
“Historically, women who are strong are seen as arrogant, aggressive, or evil. This is in both pop culture and literature (for example, Cersei in Game of Thrones). The other end of the spectrum usually involves a very insecure woman who has been oppressed and almost ‘accidentally’ is thrust into a role where they save the world (for example, Vin in Mistborn series or Lirael in Garth Nix’s books). For me, a strong female character that goes beyond these clichés would be a woman who has faced oppression (lets face it, it has happened and still happens) but instead of becoming self-deprecating, goes on a journey to discover that she isn’t what others have made her believe she is. A truly strong woman has had doubts and trials, of course, but instead of constantly believing she isn’t worth it or disbelieving that she is the ‘chosen one,’ she recognizes the strength she has and continues to build on her strengths. She becomes the wise woman who speaks up when needed and is respected as a wise woman. She has her own hang-ups, for sure, but they aren’t that she is ‘too much,’ aggressive, insecure, or power-hungry. Her hang-ups are that which we all suffer, to stay strong in the face of temptation, to connect with those we love on an authentic level, and to stand up for what is right in spite of opposition.”
“I want to see more female characters that aren’t the cliche trope of ‘needing’ men to help them. I want to see women that know their strengths and can be self-reliant but are also not afraid to lean on the strengths of the people around them. They are so self confident and secure in themselves that they are able to see the value in others. I’m tired of reading insecure women who feel like they have to hide their weakness and prove themselves to the world. I want to read about women that let their biggest weakness become their greatest asset.”
I love these! I’m gonna be honest with all of you. I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman. I know! Shocking. However, I have no delusional miscues that women are essential to the progress and benefit of society. To limit or cast them in any role that would be lesser than would be to grant us all a great disservice.
It’s coming but I’m going to dote on my wife a little here. I have often said that in marriage, every day is about learning for me. I am constantly aware of who she is and the way she views the world, which is very different from me in many respects. Her interests and passions travel along lines that I don’t always follow or have a grasp of but I make it a goal to show interest because its what she loves to spend her time doing and learning about. I’m not always good at this and I often have to process things before I’m able to share in her enthusiasm (thankfully, she forgives me for this delay in response) but my desire is to know her better. This is the same for the women in my stories. I want to know them better so that their story is one worth telling.
My wife asked me on one occasion if I based any female characters on her. I had to chuckle because there’s an adage in writing that says to never base a character on any people you know in real life. It just doesn’t turn out well. What I told her is I base all my female characters on women in my life whom I admire. Their qualities can be found in each of the characters you will read about in my books. Even the so-called “villains” and that’s not a slight. Far from it because I don’t write antagonists from a stand point of being solely evil. The best villains are those that are complete, having desires, fears, experiences, etc. separate from any other character. Their motivations are based on these factors (see my prior blog post on writing believable villains).
I’ve had several beta readers who are women and I’ve gained a great deal of feedback from them about my women characters that has been beyond beneficial. I loved being able to read their comments, converse when I had questions and taking their suggestions to heart. Plus, I learned a butt-load of things about women I did not know and I’m all about learning when it comes to people and what makes them who they are. Understanding the value in someone breaks away any misgivings or misconceptions and as I do that in real life, I can do it even better in fiction.
Call to Action: This one’s for the guys. Whether it’s a friend, sister, mother, girlfriend or wife, I recommend talking to them. Ask them questions. Don’t be inconsiderate or selfish and seriously talk to them about what they think of things in our society. Take it from me, you’ll learn something and that’s never bad.