Every few months like clockwork, it happens again: The never-ending debate over Strong Female Characters.
At this point, it’s become a cliche, and an in-joke, and a T-shirt, and a comic, and still we debate endlessly what it means for women to be “strong” in our media stories—especially science fiction and fantasy stories. And whether this kind of “strength” is a good thing.
Most recently, this excellent piece by Kellie Herson at The Outline talks about the idea of women’s “agency” and whether it’s always a reliable yardstick of whether a story is feminist.
I’ve touched on this topic a bunch in the past, including in this piece. But lately I’ve been thinking that what I really want is not “strong” female (and trans/non-binary) characters, but rather, complicated characters. I want characters, of all possible genders, who have complicated emotional lives. Characters who make mistakes, and screw up, and hurt people, and learn from their disasters.
Let’s just start off by acknowledging that most of us (apart from some whiny trolls, who are best ignored) want the same thing: characters that we can obsess about. Fictional people who have rich enough stories to inspire tons of fanfic and fan debates and cosplay and memes and everything else. We all want characters who feel alive—and we don’t want them all to be just white dudes.
And...that’s part of the trouble with the whole “strong female character” framework: at its worst, you can end up with a paragon, who makes no mistakes and conquers every challenge the world throws at her. Which gets...kinda boring. When I think about the characters I love as an audience member or reader, they’re always the flawed, conflicted, messy characters, who sometimes go off half-cocked or make a bad situation worse. Not only that, but I have a much easier time believing in someone who’s a perfect human being.
Plus, cis-dude characters have always been allowed to screw up, and even be selfish or wrong-headed. Look at pretty much any list of great anti-heroes, and you’ll notice one thing that almost all of them have in common. If there’s any point to this conversation around strong characters who aren’t cis-men, then it’s got to be about equal opportunities to add the “anti” to “hero.”
Anyone who’s watched any of those shows will testify that their heroes’ screwups only make us root harder for them. Similarly, I believe a big part of the appeal of N.K. Jemisin’s amazing Broken Earth trilogy is the character of Yayne, with her tangled feelings about motherhood and her tragic past.
Plus, the ability to screw the pooch is proof that these characters have “agency,” or else their bad choices wouldn’t affect anyone but themselves.
A lot of the secrets of making a lady character interesting and compelling are the same as for male characters or anyone else. I care about characters who care about something, or who have a goal of their own, or who just have a compelling inner life. A passive character can be plenty fascinating, but often what really hooks me on a character is the feeling of, “I want to see what this person does next.” Especially in genre fiction.
Also helpful: An interesting backstory, which shows that this character has been evolving since before the story began. And often a good acid test for a character is whether they continue to change over the course of the story, whether they’re the same person at the end as at the beginning.
But when it comes to characters who are women (or other genders), I especially care about their relationships with each other. I feel like mass culture has starved me for good representations of friendships among women and trans/nb people, partly because in movies especially there’s often only one character who’s not a cis male. Complain about the limitations of the Bechdel-Wallace Test all you want (though I like it), but I get sick of female characters who don’t ever hang out together, or have rich, albeit sometimes thorny friendships.
And yeah, the “sometimes thorny” part is important. Friendships between women can have just as many ups and downs, and communications failures, and missed connections, as any romance. (And ditto for friendships involving trans and nb folks.) Any time I come across a story featuring a really challenging-but-rewarding friendship, I’m pretty much always hooked — in part because it feels true to the reality of my own friendships, and those of people I know. And friendships are definitely one of the areas where it’s good to show characters who mess up.
One phrase I hear a lot lately among genre fans and creators is “found family”. In this era of dark stories (and even darker political news), we all crave stories about people who come together and form their own chosen families. I feel like this concept comes from the LGBTQIA+ community in part, but it’s for everybody who feels marginalized or under threat. And the best “found family” stories usually seem to include people of different genders and sexualities, whose birth families might not always be the most supportive.
And yes, romances are also excellent. Especially romances that allow for female desire and the female gaze, and non-straight romances, and romances that are built on friendship and respect. (My favourite het romance lately is An Uncertain Union by Alyssa Cole, which is just an amazing book in general but also features a relationship based on acknowledging the female hero’s competence.) But in romances, just like in everything else, it’s ok to see the women and other non-male characters being selfish or making mistakes.
When I was writing The City in the Middle of the Night (shameless plug alert!) I was thinking a lot about different ways to write women. I didn’t want to write cookie-cutter heroic protagonists, who take charge of every situation and are always noble and fearless, and I wanted to show that there’s more than one way to be “strong.”
So I ended up with Sophie, who is shy and withdrawn and doesn’t talk to strangers, and who manages to be incredibly brave without making a lot of noise. And Mouth, a smuggler who puts on a brash, boisterous front but is also severely damaged and kind of neurotic. I wanted to showcase characters who don’t always act like the heroes in a lot of genre entertainment, but who still manage to do the right thing.
And I thought a lot about trauma, and the different ways that people process trauma, in creating these characters. After thinking about my own experience with trauma and also talking to a lot of other people about how they process it, it was really important to me to show that different people handle trauma differently, and that the “visual hallucinations” model of trauma that we see in a lot of media isn’t entirely realistic.
Presenting a more nuanced (but still intense) view of trauma became one of the main ways that Sophie, Mouth and the rest of my cast of characters earned their complexity and their right to make sometimes questionable choices.
Which brings me to another thing that bugs me about a lot of characters, including some archetypes of non-cis-male strength: The things that happen to them don’t seem to leave any lasting impact. I need to see that the things that a character has experienced have affected them, and how they’ve changed as a result of those experiences. Otherwise, I have a really hard time believing in a character who just marches through situation after situation, looking the same as when they started.
I grew up reading books like A Wrinkle in Time, The Golden Notebook, Middlemarch, Clarissa, and Vanity Fair, and I have always taken for granted that women and trans/non binary peeps have complicated inner lives and are capable of being self-destructive (or just plain destructive). And that that’s OK. A protagonist can make some terrible mistakes without being fired from protagonistdom.
So here are some ideas (don’t call them rules!) for complex, flawed, fascinating characters of all genders:
1) They should be complicated, and their complexity should matter for the story. (In other words, we are given reason to care about their complex inner lives, and the decisions they make, and these things also affect other characters in the story somehow. They don’t have to slay a dragon every other minute, but the story finds ways to make us care about their feelings and choices.)
2) There are enough women and trans/nb characters to showcase that there’s more than one way to be “strong” or “complicated,” and to include a diversity of viewpoints. And these characters have great, multifaceted relationships among each other, including romance but also friendships and “found family” and frenemies and everything in between.
3) They should be allowed to be selfish, to jump to the wrong conclusion sometimes, to make terrible choices and misjudgments. They should be allowed to be just as messed up and flawed as [insert name of cis male anti-hero here].
Oh, and one final thing: enough with the white saviors. Enough with white women who save everyone else and are the unquestioned, never-wrong heroes who lift everyone else up. If there’s one thing that I need more of from my female and trans/nb heroes, it’s diversity and a respect for the contributions of other characters, especially ones from marginalized groups.
Showing a character screwing up is hard work—usually harder than showing them making the “right” choice right off the bat. For the writer/creator, you have to justify those “bad” choices and show how the character’s emotional turmoil led to them making that decision. Which means that oftentimes, “wrong” or unsympathetic choices are a sign that a character is really a complicated person, and not a one-dimensional “hero” standee. And that’s what I always crave.
Charlie Jane Anders is the author of The City in the Middle of the Night, out now. She also wrote a book called All the Birds in the Sky and used to free-associate on this very website.