Midweek Writer-Rummage - Strength, Grace and Dignity

'Art and Literature' ~ William-Adolphe Bouguereau

This is a combination of 2 previous posts of mine, which I came across in this week’s rummage, and thought worth re-visiting.

As I write young adult fantasy, obviously I’ve read books in that genre, where most of the protagonists are female … It just struck me that most of them are, indeed, female - interesting.  What I don’t understand is why, when their ‘unique selling point’ is ‘strong female character’, do they morph into a 2D, limp caricature the minute the ‘love interest’ comes into view?  It even happens when they’re shown as being emotionally strong. 

The prevalence of seemingly ‘weak’ female characters in YA annoys me.  Generally speaking, it takes the notion of ‘damsel in distress’ and runs with it.  Surely our young girls/women deserve to read about strong, independent women, who can still be feminine, but who aren’t defined by the object of their, so-called, love.  Actually, so do our young men deserve to read about such women.

I haven’t fully read the books myself, but from what I have read, Katniss of ‘The Hunger Games’, is a strong female character, but the ‘strong’ isn’t about being ‘kick-ass strong’.  She’s, first and foremost, a strong character who doesn’t hide her anger and frustration, or her ability to take action.  She just so happens to be female.  And, I think, she is also the exact opposite of Bella in ‘Twilight’.  Why are there not more characters like Katniss?

I know the ‘Twilight’ series is loved and enjoyed by a huge number of people.  I did read the first book because I’m always on the lookout for a good vampire story.  But I’m going to go out on a limb here and say, Bella is annoying.  She only ever seemed to react to Edward, she didn’t seem to do anything for herself.  And so is Edward annoying.  I found their relationship nothing short of creepy.  If he hadn’t been a vampire, his character, as human, would have been little more than an abusive boyfriend.

Like I said, I’ve read other YA books, but, sadly, none of them featured characters that stood out for me.  I know I’m not the target audience, but I still maintain that young women need better fictional role models, as do young men.  Surely it’s possible to write characters, male and female, who, despite their foibles, can think and act for themselves.  I think Nancy Lamb states it clearly in her book, ‘The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children’, when she talks about portraying vivid personalities:

Part of the secret of creating vivid personalities is to make characters courageous in their confrontations with their demons and determined in their drive to overcome the obstacles they encounter.  This does not mean they are fearless.  But it does mean they overcome that fear in order to step up to the plate and be counted.

Personally, I try and apply this to my characters.  My female protagonists don’t tend to be physically strong, fighter-types.  With the exception of my first story, ‘The Cursed Gift’, the female characters aren’t trained to be warriors and aren’t the ones who do the fighting.  But they are strong in other ways – they fight to maintain their independence, they stand up for what they believe in while retaining their femininity.

In my opinion, being feminine, being a lady doesn’t mean being a simpering, damsel-in-distress, sitting around, waiting for someone else, usually a man, to help or save you, instead of attempting to help yourself.  There are other ways to ‘fight’ battles, not just physically, but through actions and words.  Having the courage to ‘do the right thing’, being mature enough to realise that your ‘heart’s desire’ isn’t always the ‘right’ choice when weighed against responsibilities … And doing it all with some semblance of grace and dignity, the reserved strength of character that doesn’t have to be flaunted (as mentioned by Ross in her comment in my original post).

As a reader, I have always enjoyed stories where, as Stephen King said, “ordinary people deal with extraordinary situations”.  To that end, I try to write my main characters as everyday girls.  With no special abilities, she starts the story with the self-doubt that plagues so many of us, regardless of age or gender.  As the story progresses, so does she change from anxious girl to one who conquers her fears with confidence and courage.  Yet the doubts do not all disappear; there are times she will still question herself … as we all do, at one time or another.

In the fourth story I have written (still a work-in-progress), for the first time, the main character is a young man.  As with my other male characters, I hope that I have made him believable.  Some of my male characters may present themselves as self-assured and full of confidence, but, secretly, they are also troubled by doubts, they worry about how well they’ll acquit themselves when ‘out in the world’ … will they be courageous when courage is called for, not something that should be taken for granted just because one is a man.  Despite writing them as good-looking, I try to temper that by giving them faults – like being arrogant sometimes simply because they are ‘the guy’ and have certain expectations to live up to, either internally or externally imposed; or finding other women attractive and acting on it, even though they’re supposed to be with the female protagonist …

I believe it comes down to portraying characters realistically, be they historical or fantastical.  To try and show them being the best they can be, and if they stumble and falter, that doesn’t matter … don’t we all?  I believe the flawed hero to be the best kind of hero there is, for he or she is someone we could surely see ourselves being.