From a Twitter conversation last night, which started with Gail Simone saying:
marjoriemliu I also find that shallow characterization of women often leads to shallow characterization overall. It’s sloppy writing, period.
To be clear, we were discussing comic books, but I think there’s some crossover with prose fiction, as well.
When you talk about strong female characters as part of what makes your book appealing — or, alternatively, a female character who kicks ass — there’s often a tickle at the back of my head, as though the implication is that women aren’t normally this strong or kick ass (a term I use loosely), and so this character is somehow special in that regard, and therefore stands out because of it.
Maybe I’m reading too much into it. There’s another issue, though.
For example, I often hear: “This book has a kick-ass heroine” as an identifier of strength and what this woman is about. She’s kick-ass. Well, okay. But what kind of ass is she really kicking? It’s like this thing I read once, maybe out of a philosophy book, where someone says, “So-and-so is a good person,” and the reply is: “Good for what?”
Yes, I know I’m being deliberately obtuse — because obviously, kick-ass is also a stand-in for ‘hip, hot, spunky’, etc. Kick-ass is tough. Kick-ass means you can handle the world.
Still, though, the words we use are important. What they imply is important. And, if you’re not careful, that kind of loose language can also become a crutch. I’m guilty of this, which is why it’s on my mind.
It’s not enough to be good or kick-ass. What’s the actual meaning behind those words? When I hear kick-ass, that implies only physical strength — or a mental state related to the physical.
Kicking ass is fun, but no big deal. Inner strength, on the other hand? That’s an entirely different matter. Where is the character’s inner strength in these loose characterizations? How is strength defined? For example, having a baby and bringing up a kid requires an incredible amount of strength. Patience is strength. Kindness and forgiveness in the face of overwhelming cruelty is strength. Restraint, when all you want to do is kick ass, is strength.
In other words, what is strong? How do you define strength for your character? And if it’s just that she has a good left hook and can beat a man to a pulp, that’s not horrible — but it also doesn’t mean much. It doesn’t mean that character is good for anything important, other than being a thug.
Male characters also fall victim to this loose, shortcut characterization. Heroes are ‘alpha’ this, and ‘alpha’ that — domineering, take no prisoners. Again, though…what does that really mean? Alpha doesn’t necessarily mean strong (strong, on the inside). Alpha doesn’t even mean interesting. Alpha is a stand-in for saying this man is bossy and tough, but there needs to be more.
I’m not sure where I’m going with all this. Just that next time you begin to characterize your hero or heroine, think about the language you use — and ask yourself why a (possibly overused) term is better than another — one that reflects something deeper, and more enduring, about your character.