Welcome to the second installment of our new series specifically about what you do best – writing! ‘Character Counts!‘ explores why characters matter, and how you can make each hero and heroine just as unique on the page as they are in your head. On the second Wednesday of every month, pop by this page for musings on building characters – heroes and heroines alike – and stories direct from the mind of Pub-Craft team member Kate Boone! You can learn more about Kate and the rest of the Pub-Craft Team here.
Now, snuggle up with your caffeinated or alcoholic beverage of choice, and let’s talk about character!
Character Counts! – Ep. 2: Leading Ladies and Hardy Heroines!
Welcome to our second installment of Character Counts! Last month we dissected the ever popular broody bad boy archetype. This month, let’s dive right in and focus on the leading ladies that grace our pages and screens.
Well-written female characters are so incredibly important to a story, and unfortunately are often over-looked. Women* make up about half of the world’s population, and yet are often very under-represented in media. Take the Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example. It’s a great and epic story with tons of characters – however, only a handful of those characters are female, and none of them interact with each other during the course of the series (which I could go on at length about, but I digress). The same goes with the original Star Wars film trilogy.
What gives?! Leading (and supporting!) ladies add more perspective and relatability to a narrative, and are vital if you want to appeal to and target your female readers. I personally want to read about other women I can relate to, whether it’s their personality, life experience, or even their outlook on the world itself.
“So Kate,” you might be thinking, “how should I do this?” Ah, so glad to have you back, not-made-up-inner-voice. Ideally what you’re aiming for is a strong character, but I don’t necessarily mean a physically strong character. A strong character is one who – as we discussed in detail last time – is memorable and impacts the reader in some way. There are also a few different kinds of characters strengths that you can consider mixing and matching to give your heroine more depth:
- Emotional strength
- Mental/intellectual strength
- Physical strength
Any one of these strengths will help flesh out your character, even more so if you work to expand your character beyond the stereotypical “strong character” tropes commonly used in media, such as the stoic, almost robotic female leader, or the nerdy intellectual, or the girl with super strength. While these tropes aren’t necessarily bad on their own, they aren’t always relatable to many readers as they fail to challenge the status quo of pre-existing “heroine” stereotypes:
I love seeing physically strong female characters, particularly because it challenges the “damsel in distress” stereotype where the woman is portrayed as weak and needing to be protected and saved all the time. One of my favourite examples of the subversion of that trope is in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Our heroine is a tiny blonde badass who holds her own against a host of different powerful baddies that go bump in the night. She takes her fair share of blows, but always manages to get back up and keep on going. Watching her in action was inspirational to me as a kid, and while female super strength is definitely impressive, it’s wasn’t the only reason she was such a strong character. Buffy also dealt with many emotional issues like grief and depression, which also tested her emotional strength throughout the series.
We often see emotional strength portrayed as emotional fortitude, being strong in face of adversity. Knowing when not to break down is an important strength to have – when taken to the extreme, however, you run the risk of your character coming across as robotic or emotionless (or on the other side of that scale, a whiny crybaby). This is a particularly hard thing to balance in fiction, as even real life society just can’t seem to agree on what the appropriate amount of emotion is for a woman to show in any given situation. I’m not going to sit here and tell you what the right balance is because I have no clue myself (but if you figure it out, could you help a girl out and let me know?). What I will say is that there is more to emotional strength than just guarding your feelings. Knowing how to both show your emotions in a healthy way and deal with the cause of those emotions is equally important. Readers can relate to a leading lady who actively works to find that balance because it is something we all have to find for ourselves. It doesn’t have to be an all or nothing kind of deal.
Lastly, I want to touch on mental or intellectual strength. I feel like this is the one that really gets stereotyped the most, regardless of gender. It’s pretty common that when a character is smart they are portrayed as the token nerd of the group – bespectacled, a bit socially awkward, and often obsessed with comic book superheroes. Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely tons of real people out there who fit this stereotype (excuse me while I hide my middle school photos where they will never be found), but that doesn’t mean it should be the only depiction of what a brainy broad can look like. Take the ladies in the new Ghostbusters** remake – there is no denying these women are extremely intelligent and gifted in their fields, but their individual smarts are showcased in different ways that don’t handcuff them to any specific tropes. They’re well-rounded characters who display many different strengths (those proton packs aren’t exactly light to lug around, you know).
Women can’t – nor should they – be categorically shoved into a box; we are so much more multi-faceted than that. Each has their own individual combination of various strengths, coupled with accompanying weaknesses. In my very humble opinion, it’s what makes real women so very interesting. So why not give the woman you’ve created on your page that same treatment? Challenge both yourself and the status quo by thinking about what kinds of female character traits and strengths you don’t see represented often – if at all – in leading ladies, and bring those to life. Your audience may very well thank you for it.
*this includes anyone who identifies as female or femme
**if you haven’t seen it yet, do it. The characters really are fantastic and have awesome chemistry on screen. More female buddy comedies, please!
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