So much has been said on this subject, it’s hard to say anything new. Seems like everyone has an opinion on this, and they’re going to let us know what it is. I guess I’m no exception.
Except that I’m not big on stereotypes. Not a big fan of pigeonholing someone into a standard, society-approved paradigm of what they “ought to” be. That includes characters.
Most of the best characters in literature were not great because they were something, but because they did something. As writers, we often hear the advice to show, not tell. That advice serves character creation well too. How often do we see stereotyped characters in literature and film nowadays? I’d say in almost every example we can come up with.
Mel Gibson’s Lethal Weapon character pops up in almost every single action movie out there. He’s the likable rogue, playing it loose and fast. Has to break the rules to get the job done, ‘cause that’s just how he rolls. And he’s boring. Maybe not at first, but after a while, viewers and readers start figuring him out, start realizing that the only way he operates is by setting his actions to that old Judas Priest song “Breaking the Law”, and doing whatever he wants to do. He’s the hero, after all, and heroes play by their own damn rules.
And then we have that agonizingly predictable female protagonist. You know the one. She’s vulnerable, sexy, a woman in a man’s world, doing a man’s job. She’s gotta be tough, because that’s the only way to do it. And when that fails, sex and frailty are always great fallback weapons, sometimes the only ones she uses.
There’s a bunch of other stereotyped characters out there, all over the place. Because they’re stereotyped, they’re largely predictable, which means they’re also boring. Just Google “fictional female character” and you’ll see what I mean. You probably already do. Creating a character based only on gender is like taking Jennifer Aniston’s character in Office Space, stripping away the bickering, mutual loathing, and grudging toleration of her relationship with her coworker, and placing her in a Hooter’s. Suddenly instead of a complicated, interesting, completely non-sexual workplace relationship between a girl and a guy, you have a character based entirely on the fact that she’s young, attractive, and female. Aniston’s character in Office Space is in fact all of these things, but is only partly defined by those parameters, not stereotyped because of them.
There are notable exceptions to the cardboard female character. Hermione Grainger, from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series comes to mind. She’s smart, capable, arguably a better main character than Harry himself. The fact that she’s a girl isn’t what defines her character at all. The fact that she’s always bailing Harry out because she’s talented and intelligent does. She’s the base that every other character in the series has to revolve around because she’s the only one who apparently understands they’re at magic school to actually learn magic. She doesn’t excel in school because she’s trying valiantly to be “better than the boys”, but because she studies her ass off. When she’s vulnerable, it’s not because she’s a girl, it’s because she’s a kid.
Katniss Everdeen, from Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games is another. We see weakness, but it doesn’t define her. We see strength, but it isn’t compensation for anything. She’s vulnerable, but then, so are all the other Tributes, even if some of them mask their vulnerability with bravado and violence. We see relationships grow between her and both Gale and Peeta, but it isn’t just ‘cause there needs to be sexy love and romantic conflict happening and she has to play the love interest. It’s part of the plot, it adds conflict, but it doesn’t define her as a character.
And that brings me to my own female character, Camellia, star of my current work in progress. She’s pretty, but that is far from what defines her. In fact, her looks are largely an afterthought. She’s vulnerable, but it’s not because she’s a woman, it’s because of how she was born. Yes, she sometimes uses sexuality to her advantage, but throughout the book, we see that isn’t the norm, and it’s used in very specific circumstances, where it’s the best tool for the job just like weaponry or secrecy or information. She uses all the tools in the toolbox, when and where they’re applicable.
Her story is one of being an outcast, a very small minority left behind by a society that doesn’t even understand what it’s like to be her. It could be the typical rogue-against-the-man story, with her using who she is as a weapon against the establishment. It’s not. It’s more than that because she’s conflicted. She would love nothing more than to be normal, to live a quiet, unassuming life. Since that’s impossible, she’s chosen to reject partial assimilation and the “handicap” it would require, and live life on her own terms even as she continues to search for the impossible solution.
Even her outcast state does not define her. While events from a traumatic, abnormal childhood have left their mark, they do not describe her, do not dictate her actions. They only lend explanation to a certain number of actions. And while she says she would like nothing more than normalcy, one gets the idea she would not be just another ordinary girl if given that chance. She does not sit passively by and let events move her, and she wouldn’t no matter the circumstances. It isn’t who she is as a person.
She isn’t just a “female man” though. That’s another way I’ve seen often used to deal with female characters. One couldn’t easily swap her character out with a male character and get the same results. Much like the characters I’ve mentioned, who she is affects her decisions and her interaction with other characters in the story, even as it doesn’t define her actions. Switch her gender and you alter the story completely; remove the influence of her gender on the plot and you still have the same story, but with less depth and nuance.
Really, it’s not a “female character” thing; they’re usually just the ones with the most obvious one-sided deficiencies. Once you stop thinking of them as “female characters”, and simply thinking of them as characters, they lose their cardboard personalities. I’m personally tired of seeing discussion on characters – or writers, for that matter – based entirely, or even mostly on their sex, or any other single defining characteristic. They should be much more than that. Great characters are whole people, complete with many things that shape their lives and actions. Defining them by only one attribute lazy writing and it leads to boring reading. If you want to create a great female protagonist, you need to start with a great protagonist.