Monday, April 30, 2012

Strong Characters

Having started writing The Blue Pimpernel 6 years ago, it's hard for me to remember exactly what my intention was going into the story. I remember a few parts of it; the largest part of which was so I could try to remember what it was like being a teenager, to keep that fresh in my mind so I would have something to work with as a teacher (I started my teacher prep program right around the same time I started writing the novel; I was 20/21 when I started working on it, so I was coming right off of my teen years). I also remember starting to write it because I was tried of certain stereotypes and I wanted to undermine them - some of which is still visible even in the final copy, six years later: for instance, Renee's parents are the typical white/Asian paring... except it's her mom who's white, and her dad who's Korean.

One thing I didn't think about then was the idea of creating "a strong female character." I spend a lot of time as a lurker around the feminist blogosphere and I read a lot of feminist critiques of media; whether it's comics, literature, movies, TV or vidya games. When I first started reading it, I found it interesting that there was nothing so more reviled than "the strong female character." At first, I couldn't help but wonder why that was. Weren't strong female characters good? Well, as it turns out, no, they're not. In fact, they're bad for not only women, but they're bad for men, too. (Warning: comic below the fold may be NSFW, but it's a funny comic nevertheless):

This comic lampoons the notion of "the strong female character" as the media often portrays them. I think my personal favorite has to be either the third or the fifth; the third one is the ridiculous rationalization for why so many female costumes are stripperific and, to borrow some apt words from Empowered, "skank-tastic" and "do-me-riffic" (all of them parody the costumes, but the third is making fun of the rationalizations that so many male authors use for them). The fifth happens way to often; here I am, a strong female character who can shoot the gun with the best of them, fix cars, and am generally as sexy as all get out, so who do I get stuck with or get banged by in the movie? Why, the less-than-impressive male lead, that's who! This male lead, without any aspirations, is supposed to be a stand in for me, as a white "male" viewer. I find it offensive, personally, but hey - that's just because I'm a feminist ally. What do I know? I think I like the second one, too - notice the "boobs and butts" pose (link to the Escher Girls tumblr - thanks for the recommendation, Froborr!) that she's perpetually stuck in. Spine? what's that? Just cut off your legs and stick a horses' ass on there and you should be all set.

The one thing I notice that they're missing is the "standard female grab area", which incapacitates even the most dangerous and determined of action girls in all of fiction. I think that's what the sixth comic is getting at, but I may just be missing the ball on that one.

I've already dealt with how ludicrous female costumes usually are. But that's symptomatic of a much deeper problem. What we see in so many fictional examples (usually from "liberal" Hollywood, which just goes to prove that simply because you disagree with something doesn't make it liberal) are not "strong", nor are they very good "characters," but at least they don't stop reminding us that they have boobs and therefore are female, right?

Even thought he comic is funny, the issue it's satirizing is not. "Strong female characters", unsurprisingly, are not "good female characters". Unsurprisingly, they're not "good characters" either. In most cases, it's an attempt to subvert stereotypes while still abiding by them, and not addressing any other problems (for instance, there's only one female character usually, two if you're really lucky. Any more than two and you're probably watching a "chick flick"). They make horrible flat characters, because the cardboard that they're cut out of is flimsy and cheap, and don't try to tell they're rounded characters because I'll laugh in your face.

To me, the easiest solution here seems to be to have more than one character of the same type. Part of the reason why these characters even exist is to try and diffuse accusations of sexism or racism while still being utterly oblivious to why those accusations even exist. If you have two characters of the same type, but make them totally different as far as personalities are concerned, then you're on your way but still not there. Making a strong character - leave off the female, male, or anything in between because that doesn't matter right now - requires you to approach the character as if they were a person. Being able to run around and shot a gun and kill people, or knowing 45 different forms of Kung Fu and being able to do it while wearing Stiletto high-heels does not make your female character strong. Recall the old saying - a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. A strong character is only as strong as their most prominent flaw will let them be. And when that "flaw" is that you look sexy while greased up... yeah (I might argue an even bigger flaw is falling for the pathetic audience stand in, but that's not a bug in this character type, that's a feature). There's a reason people hate the "Sue" character type. Hollywood's concept of a "strong female character" is like the Sue, but without the character, idealized from a male perspective rather than a female perspective (this says a lot about the nerd community: guy idealizes female and makes her flat, two dimensional character that exists to be laid and everyone cheers. Girl does it and... yeah. HATE.)

But, like I said, the reason why it's not like this is because they're attempting to diffuse accusations of sexism or racism ahead of time. If you make a character the only one of their type in the whole movie, then yes, by default they're speaking for their type. Any flaw you can give them is going to be speaking for that whole group. So rather than do the obvious thing and introduce another character of that type to offset this, we remove that flaw and any flaws, making the character as flat as possible. And then wonder why people are still pissed off as us and project back on them, as an "unseasonable fan base."

While I may not have been aware of this when I started writing, I'm aware of this now, and I was aware of it halfway through one of the earlier drafts. The cast actually hasn't changed a whole lot from the beginning, so I may have even been aware of this dimly at the beginning. I knew that I couldn't just rely on subverting stereotypes to create rounded characters: a perfect place this goes bad is with Renee. Renee is half-Korean, but looks full. So most people assume she's full Asian, even though she has auburn hair and green eyes (auburn hair is actually a Taiwanese trait. It's rare, but it exists. Green eyes, however...). So, take a stereotype: Asians are good in math and in school. Renee is clearly not neither. Stereotype subverted, right? Well, yeah. Unfortunately, Renee is also a girl. Girls don't do well in school, and they're bad a math. Stereotype reinforced. You can't win here basing characterization off of subverted stereotypes alone. Renee eventually developed a reason as to why she's bad in school (she's non-neurotypical; she actually has ADHD, and it's clear if you read it looking for it. Kids with ADHD tend to do worse in school. She's an Asian girl with ADHD too, so now we're getting somewhere with not only one stereotype is subverted and another reinforced, but why it's like that). However, that's still not good enough. So she has Cyan to balance her out. Cyan is pretty smart, she's pretty insightful, and in later books, Cyan is a genius. To balance Cyan out, we make her a follower. She'll follow her friends to the end of the Earth even if she knows it's stupid and destructive. She'll do it anyway. Both girls are withdrawn and neither are very social. Renee's non-neurotypical nature makes it very hard for her to establish lasting friendships, and she has a tendency to cling to people and hang her happiness off of them. Most people don't want to be in that kind of a relationship with someone. Cyan is quite shy, speaks with a nasty stutter that makes it hard for her to talk, and, while smart, will still do something incredibly stupid if her friends are doing it. To balance this out, I brought in Ofelia. Ofelia is the polar opposite of both girls. She's social, she's friendly, she's the quintessential extrovert. She's the most well-adjusted of the entire cast (in contrast with her name), and she's pretty smart on her own too. Ofelia comes from a Sephardi family - I spent long hours research Judaism so I could write for her and her family. Ofelia isn't the only Jewish person in the book, either - her mom is a character, so I've got the difference split there, too. However, I still needed one more thing: Renee was the only Asian character in the novel. While that in and of itself probably wasn't a bad thing, I was still south of Chicago and there was no reason for it. So, to balance the scales on that end, I brought in Aya. Aya doesn't get a great deal of characterization in the first book because I spend so much time developing Renee, Ofelia and Cyan. She is, however, prime, proper, and business-like. Aya is also French, even though she acts like the stereotypical German. She's blunt and to the point. She's also very straight froward about solving problems. She's in contrast to Renee, who usually masks how she feels. As I'm writing the second book, Aya's character is coming out a lot more and, unsurprisingly, Renee and Aya get along in the same way that sisters get along (with plenty of fighting). I started with four female characters, so I could emphasize various strengths and negative aspects of them, and then I started to get into their psychology.

I'm also very familiar with their learning styles. I started each character with their learning style in mind, actually; Renee is Body-Kinesthetic, Ofelia is Auditory, and Cyan is Verbal. Aya is also Body-Kinesthetic. I'm a proponent of Multiple Intelligences theory; each of those girls has their own intelligences that they shine in, and their own intelligence that they do poorly in. Knowing where the strengths and weaknesses in a character are is what helps to make that character an interesting character.

I'm working on another book right now called Speed of Thought. The two central characters in that novel are Asha Vemulakonda and Naoko Jones. I threw myself into the book without a care for how I would develop the characters, and I decided to let them grow organically. They're doing rather nicely, actually, especially considering this is the first time I've worked with these characters (Renee, Ofelia, Cyan and Aya have been living upstairs for years - the danger with characters like that is not revealing everything, because you as the author already know everything about them and don't think it's necessary to show it, so the character comes across totally different from how you want them to). I'm not crafting either to be a "strong female character," but I'm not entirely sure of where their weaknesses are yet. Asha is shaping up like the kind of individual who values truth over compassion, which is an excellent way to explore very nasty and thorny moral grays. This is usually how I do it. I will throw myself into a novel and start letting the characters develop, and then flesh them out as a I go. Interestingly, Asha is the only Indian character in the novel, but I've got such a large cast I might go back and revise and add another character to balance her out. It depends upon whether or not I feel the need to - you don't need to have two characters of the same type once you've figured out how to make strong characters. If you show the audience that you're capable of writing strong characters regardless, then it won't matter if you have only one woman and she has weaknesses and strengths. It'll still reflect negatively on you anyway because there's no reason you should, with women making up 51% of the population, but still. 

So, to wit - strong female characters, with emphasis on "female" and not on "characters", are bad. Strong characters, who are female, are better. Now if only Hollywood would learn this...

1 comment:

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