“Why do you write strong female characters?”
The first time I was asked the question, “Why do you choose to write strong female characters?” I was surprised. My first book was based on the tale of “The Goose Girl,” and I had purposely chosen not to greatly alter her from her fairy tale form of the sheltered, often weak, unsure and untested girl into a battle-ready fantasy heroine. I believed she gathered her own strength and came into her self through the story, and I found her interesting and realistic, but I never thought, “I want to make her STRONG.”
I continued on the receiving end of that question after publishing Enna Burning, Princess Academy, River Secrets, Book of a Thousand Days. I love my girl characters. I think they’re different from one another, have various strengths and weaknesses like anybody does. I do think they’re strong in their own ways. But I never make the decision “I’m going to write strong females in my books,” a sort of inorganic goal to turn a character away from her natural tendencies of weakness into a statement of girl power. Yet that’s what that question seems to imply.
So usually the way I answer the question is to say, “I think I’m writing realistic female characters.”
But of course no one asks “why do you write realistic female characters?” because that would be silly. Surely every author seeks to have realistic characters. Why I wince is “strong females” doesn’t seem to be considered synonymous with “realistic females,” and in my experience, they should be.
Yet the question continued after publishing Rapunzel’s Revenge, Calamity Jack, Forest Born, Palace of Stone. “Why do you write strong female characters?”
And here’s the thing: no one has ever asked me, “Why do you write strong male characters?”
Because I do. I have loads of male characters. Two of those books I mentioned the main character is male, and all of them have several major male characters. Razo, Finn, Geric, Jack, Talone, Tegus, Khasar, Ungolad, His Radiance, Brute, Blunderboar, Peder, Pa, Timon, Sileph… And yet never once that question.
And that’s the part that disturbs me. The heart of the question implies that if a male character is “strong” that’s to be expected, because boys and men are strong. Normal. Default. Go about your business. But if a female character leads a story, does stuff, has a voice and a purpose and changes her life or others’ lives or starts or stops a war or makes a stand or has power then it’s newsworthy, because that’s not expected, not true to life. Not normal. Not our default assumption about girls. So stop and take note.
I know I shouldn’t still be surprised by that question, but I am, every time. When I began writing novels, I assumed I wouldn’t have to prove my right as a woman writer or have to dig out a place for female characters. I thought people who had come before me had already done that, writers like Tamora Pierce, Robin McKinley, Anne McCaffrey, Ursula LeGuin. I felt like I didn’t have the burden of screaming back at the world, “a girl can carry an action story, look, look!” While writing I’d decided that sexism didn’t even exist in my fantasy worlds and I never had to wrestle with it. In my worlds, girls do stuff and nobody thinks two things about it.
But it turns out that my books aren’t published in my fantasy worlds. They’re published in this world. And people still do think two things about it, or three or four. And I’m surprised. But…but…didn’t we already get over this years ago? Don’t we already agree that girls are interesting and diverse, as are boys?
Are “strong female characters” really so rare that we note them, call them out as extraordinary?
I don’t want anyone to worry that I think badly of you or judge you if you’ve used that phrase. I absolutely know that every interviewer or reader who has asked me that means absolutely the best by it. And I know that the phrase “strong female characters” means different things for different people. For example:
1. female characters who are interesting and realistic
This is broad, includes so-called villains. This is the definition I prefer and believe.
2. girls who are just as strong as boys!
This implies that “male” is the definition of strong. And inserting “female” into the male role of action and decision making and power is what makes her strong.
Too often in stories, it’s okay if there’s only one female character, just as long as she’s “strong.” There’s a falseness to this, a board room mentality. Diversity of characters is more important than strength. Because realistic characters should always be the goal. Not a stilted desire to make them appropriately strong. Not the subtle fear that, in the real world, girls really aren’t as interesting or note-worthy or powerful as boys and therefore if a female character is there should be a great hurrah for breaking stereotypes and teaching girls everywhere that they can be “as good as the boys!”
Characters. Just characters. With strengths and flaws—which really just means: with personalities. Male and female. Old and young. Interesting. And worth reading about.
And this is why I love Shannon Hale.
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