In 6th Century China, Hua Mulan took up arms to defend her nation, defying cultural traditions about the role of women.
She was brave, made her own decisions, and fought for what she believed in. She was also fictional; the protagonist of the poem, The Ballad of Hua Mulan.
The original poem tells the story of a seventeen year old woman who was already a martial arts and weapons expert (talents she picked up on the side because weaving didn’t satisfy her). Although she was apparently based on a real person – Fu Hao – she is more popularly known as Fa Mulan, the Disney character.
This cartoon incarnation may not be the most accurate, but the fact Hua Mulan’s story was revisited nearly fifteen centuries after her creation speaks to the strength and longevity of the character.
Fifteen centuries. Dwell on that for a moment, then compare her with some fictional heroines of the modern age: Bella Swan from Twilight, for example, or Ana Steele from 50 Shades of Grey. Just mentioning the names together in a sentence brings a stark contrast to mind – but why?
(Don’t) stop crying your heart out
I’m not a fan of Twilight. I never have been and, short of suffering a full frontal lobotomy, probably never will be. My sister, however, is a huge and unapologetic fan of the series, and we’ve spent quite a few afternoons arguing the pros and cons of sparkling vampires and insipid, lovestruck teens. I’ve always been a fan of vampires, but my heroines were more like Buffy Summers than Bella Swan. Their rapsheet reads similarly: both are teenage girls in high school, both meet a ‘good’ vampire, both fall in love with aforementioned ‘good’ vampire. Their names even start with the same letter, so why don’t I like them the same amount?
Characters are not plot. That’s why. Buffy and Bella are similar when their essentials are bulletpointed, but their characters are very different. Bella defines herself by the vamp in her life, despite having friends and family around her. When her ‘one true love’ abandons her, she spends months crying and wishing she were dead. Buffy does not define herself by the vamp in her life, or even her friends and family. When Buffy’s ‘one true love’ not only abandons her, but tries to kill her and her friends, she reacts a little differently…
As much as Angel (Buffy’s beau) deserved to be hit in the face with the hilt of a sword, the important take-away from this exchange is that Buffy is her own person. You can strip her of her friends, her family, her lovers, her superpowers, and she still has a core strength that is innate because she is ‘real’. She has strengths and weaknesses beyond the elements around her. She makes decisions based on her own mind, not what others would have her do. This kind of decision making can be seen in other fictional heroines.
Take Mina Harker. We’re on the vampire plot point at the moment, so we might as well complete the circle. Mina is the daughter of a gentleman in Victorian England, and draws the attention of our dear Count Drac. She’s not trained in combat like Buffy, she’s not been exposed to the idea of feminism as Bella has, but she’s an arguably strong female character in her own right. Why?
Mina makes choices.
The most important of these choices is, when faced with the prospect of losing her soul, she requests that her friends and family stake her before she becomes damned. Symbolism about phallic stakes and purity aside, Mina has agency. She makes decisions: she would rather be truly dead than to live and have no soul to call her own. Bella doesn’t seem to have that sense of self.
In fact, she rarely shows any sense at all. Upon finding a strange boy in her room, who admits he watches her when she sleeps, she thinks it romantic. Most other girls her age would be screaming, reaching for the phone and calling the police. They certainly wouldn’t then go on to date the person who has, again, by his own admission, been stalking her. And would – by his own admission – like to drain her of blood. Bella is not under Edward’s thrall. She’s a teenage girl with next-to-no self-preservation, which is a basic human instinct.
The only decision Bella seems capable of making is to keep a parasitic, demonic child (which is problematic for a host of other reasons). Yet, I question that this was actually her choice at all, given that her offspring was destined to be with Jacob the Werewolf. Jacob was apparently only attracted to Bella because she was destined to be his actual mate’s mother… so was it Bella’s choice to keep the child, against Edward’s wishes, or was it fate/the plot that made the choice?
What’s so romantic about death anyway?
The prevalent theme of popular vampire novels seems to be the presence of eternal love. Dracula and Mina (Dracula), Elena and Stefan/Damon (The Vampire Diaries), Sookie and Bill (The Sookie Stackhouse Series) and, yes, Bella and Edward (Twilight). Death and romance are often intertwined and the idea of loving someone so much that you’d die for them – or kill them – can be seen in other stories throughout literary history. The poem Porphyria’s Lover is probably the most famous example of murderous love, but mutual suicide/self-sacrifice has been a popularised finale since the days of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
A common myth about Romeo and Juliet is that their death is romantic. As such, the titular characters are held up as the ideal couple, something to which we should aspire. This is wrong for many reasons. The play was a tragedy – not because their parents wouldn’t let them be together, not because by a cruel twist of fate, Romeo believed Juliet dead so took his own life first – because Romeo and Juliet were too young to know true love. Romeo, a young man with a ‘tender chin’, is in his mid-teens. Juliet is thirteen years old. Transposing these characters to modern day, the situation is no longer romantic: Romeo is a, perhaps unhinged, teenager who has targeted an immature girl, and Juliet is an infatuated child who has been sorrowfully misled.
Yet, however misguided, it is a simple fact that Juliet makes choices too. She chooses to indulge Romeo, she chooses to disobey her parents, she chooses to run away, she chooses to take her life rather than live without her star-crossed lover. These are choices that affect the plot, these are choices that give Juliet agency. So, is she a strong female character?
Context has a lot of influence on how a character is represented and accepted. I would argue that Juliet, like Bella, is a victim of her own immaturity. What could be seen as agency – the ability to make choices and affect the plot – in an older character is diminished because of her inexperience. She doesn’t make informed choices; they are only superficially hers. She is a puppet of her emotions and other people’s influences. Worse, these influences encourage her to perform the ultimate act of self-harm, from which she cannot return.
In a bit of a bind
Speaking of self-harm, let us segue nicely into Fifty Shades of BDSM. For those unaware, Fifty Shades of Grey is a novel spawned from Twilight fan-fiction. It has its own plot but, unfortunately, Ana and Bella are nearly indistinguishable, save for their other halves: Bella is attracted to a handsome, potentially abusive vampire and Ana is attracted to a handsome, potentially abusive millionaire.
I will stress at this point that engaging in a BDSM lifestyle does not make someone abusive. BDSM is a sexual culture that is often misunderstood and misrepresented in literature and the media. Fifty Shades of Grey did very little, if anything at all, to dispel these myths. I won’t delve into the details – there are plenty of blogs and reviews on the Internet that will do that for me. Instead, I wish to focus on the character of Ana.
Ana is a virgin. This is important because it is tangible evidence of her inexperience when faced with her novel’s plot. This plot is focused on sexual activity and, more relevantly, choice vs. lack of choice. She, a virgin, is invited by a Dominant male to be a submissive sex companion, meaning that she will have to serve him and do as he says within those physical parameters. At the end of the novel (spoiler alert, but this one’s a freebie) she decides that BDSM is not for her. Given that she’d been angrily fighting the idea since the beginning, this comes as no surprise, but it is a choice.
In fact, it could be described as a strength. Ana has the ability to say ‘no’ and she uses this ability. It is a strength to reject a lifestyle to which you are not suited, especially when others are trying to convince you to accept it.
So, why isn’t Ana a strong female character? By the end of the book, she has the experience to make an informed decision – unlike Juliet – and she makes an proactive choice instead of just reacting – unlike Bella. What more could Ana be? Why don’t readers like her and see her as the heroine she is meant to be?
There’s a rising trend, in Young Adult fiction especially, where the main female character can be described as a ‘blank slate’. This means that the character is usually described as ‘average’ and ‘typical’, with no unique features to distinguish her from her peers (clumsiness does not count). Despite this, the main character usually finds the men in her life attracted to her.
Ana is such a character. Her one ‘unique’ attribute – like Bella’s – is that she is clumsy. Ana is, sexually and otherwise, a blank slate. This allows readers to live vicariously through her if they so wish, which does wonders for the publisher’s profit margins but nothing for the advance of female characters who can be seen as believable and real. Fiction with blank slate heroines is the ultimate form of escapism, which is why sales phenomenons happen and opinions split drastically: some readers want blank slates to distract them from boring lives, others want to read a book with solid characters and a realistic universe – even in Fantasy fiction.
Agency and strength
Agency defined by Chuck Wendig: a demonstration of the character’s ability to make decisions and affect the story. This character has motivations all her own. She is active more than she is reactive. She pushes on the plot more than the plot pushes on her. Even better, the plot exists as a direct result of the character’s actions.
How can we ensure the female characters we write are strong and have agency? By strong, I don’t mean physically capable, I mean real and solid; believable and likable: a character with agency. A character we want to be for who they are, not who they date. A character we root for and can understand, even if we disagree with what they’re doing.
Let us return to Hua Mulan for a moment. She goes to war, in an era where women were not allowed to fight. That is her first choice. She fights for her family, for her country, not for a star-crossed lover. She defies the rules of a nation and puts her life in danger because of her love for others, but it is an informed choice to do so. Hua Mulan is not a blank slate we can impose ourselves upon.
Not many people choose to fight unless they absolutely have to, in the moment. If they did, the world’s armies would be filled to the brim with recruits. She is not the every-woman, but she’s a woman we can all understand. She is a strong character. Her strength is not necessarily physical, but spiritual and emotional.
I think these elements are important when writing any character, but female character perhaps more so, because there are so many negative examples. ‘Strong’ female characters still end up weak and powerless because the choices they make – if any – are made for the wrong reasons. On top of this, the characters have no awareness of why they are making choices for the wrong reasons. Very few people in reality have no self-insight. Most people are capable of critical thinking. This should be true of characters as well, no matter their gender.
Next time you’re writing a female character, take a good look at what she is actually doing in your novel:
- Is she taking charge of her life?
- Does she have opinions that are solely her own?
- Does she deliberate over choices?
- Is she making decisions for the benefit of herself, or for her lover?
- Does she have motivations apart from the main story?
- Does she react in normal ways to the things she should?
- Is anything about her completely unique?
- Does she have layers?
- If stripped of outside elements – friends, family, lovers – does your character have a purpose?
- If stripped of outside elements, does your character have a sense of self?
- Is she ‘real’?
How would you write a strong female character?