Several months ago I was at Auntie’s Bookstore in Spokane, Washington for a book signing. Having grown up in the surrounding area with family members who still live there, the group that showed up that day was unusually large and laughingly related.
At the end of the reading for my book Conscripts: The first book of The Off World Trilogy, the floor was opened up for questions and discussion. The topic of strong female characters was brought up and I was asked if I could talk about why I write them.
I admit that I had to pause for a second to think about it, even though I knew the question would be asked. I looked out into the crowd, smiled and then replied. Because all of the women in my life are strong women.
Since that day I have been asked that same question many times, and I think I now have a better and more complete answer.
First off, while growing up in the country there were no wilting flowers, facially-contorted vacillators, or weak-minded broken vessels. There were no girlie girls, doe-eyed attention seekers, or perpetually surprised starlets who fainted every time someone leaked nude photos of them. Disclaimer: I’m not trying to slam anyone that has these qualities; it’s just these weren’t common where I grew up.
The women I grew up around learned to be independent, strong, and able to stand on their own two feet. They learned this from their parents, their peers, and just the reality of not everything being easy for them. They had chores, did sports, worked hard when the family worked, and played just as hard when there was time for it.
Often I see things in our media that make me cringe and I have to ask myself. Do people really want their daughters to grow up like that? To constantly have to pretend that they need someone to take care of them, or to do things for them. Or to teach them, and this is one of my biggest frustrations, learned helplessness. Don’t they want them to be capable, independent, and respected?
When put that way, I think most genuinely want that, yet what is portrayed and inadvertently taught is often times very different.
When I was younger I looked for not only someone to love, but someone that I could respect. Not just a girlfriend, but a partner. Someone that didn’t need me, but wanted me. And not just so that I could carry things for her and agree with her.
The other thing about my characters is that I don’t set out to create a female character that fits some strong female typecast. At least not the Hollywood version.
I see few ‘strong’ female characters being portrayed by actresses who look like they are actually strong. Sure they can do some kung-fu moves or shoot a bow and arrow but these things don’t make someone strong. That’s very one dimensional. (And don’t get me wrong, I like a good martial-arts fight scene or a woman who knows her way around a sword.)
It’s just that to me, strong female characters should be so much more than that.
Strong can be all kinds of things. Strong is capable. Strong can be wise. Strong can be funny. But that doesn’t mean that strong can’t be flawed or have quirks. We all have our moments. That’s what makes us complex. That’s what makes us interesting. And frankly, isn’t that what keeps us reading?
As writers I think sometimes we have a unique opportunity to present people as we see them, or as we want to see them. To present, yes sometimes flawed but, characters that others would respect, want to be friends with, would want to emulate.
If even one of my characters could ever influence someone to be strong, to earn respect, and to be independent then, even without any other accolades, I would consider myself a success.