Women in Fiction (Or: Why Change is Good)


When I was in that strange, otherworldly plane of existence that is working full time, I had the opportunity to catch many half-finished conversations and personality quirks from co-workers. They thought me too brain dead to pay attention to anything outside of a one-foot radius from my caffeine-fatigued body, but they thought wrong. It was normally five feet.

Once such instance where I played witness to an interesting paradigm was a harrowing situation in which a co-worker and I had to cart down three rather heavy boxes, newly full from the papers I had spent hours jamming together. Here was the fruit of my labor, ready to be shipped off, and I was eager to get the damn things downstairs and out of my sight for good.

An important detail to the story: the co-worker was a young man, lean as a pole but obviously of a higher strength class than the distaff gender (that being me).

But I didn’t think of this as I moved in to stack one of the boxes on top of another. When I made to grab the two at once, the young man frowned in perplexed offense.

“I can carry those,” he said with apparent indignity at being refused this grand honor. If it were a contest to prove who was the most capable male in the office, I would have gladly allowed him to prove his merit. As it was, I was a bit puzzled myself.

“I don’t doubt it,” I replied, hefting the boxes with a suppressed grunt. “But I got to them first.”

He grabbed the remaining box and we thus trundled towards the stairs. I am not a star performer on any flight of normal stairs, and so the added weight was admittedly a hindrance, but the human spirit perseveres. We had just reached the bottom when a flock of women emerged from the door we needed access to.

They exclaimed the young man’s name in tones of utter disapproval. “Why are you letting her carry two?”

“She wanted to,” he mumbled.

Giving them my customary tight smile, I mentally wondered how much being in an all-women’s college has shaped my thought pattern, which was so distant from theirs. After all, there had been no one to help me move in and out of dorm rooms except for other women. With my mission complete and no spoils for my trouble, I headed back to my cubicle in a state of mild aggravation.

It makes me think about how women are used in fiction. Too weak, and the crowd roars its displeasure. Too strong, and the crowd scoffs, saying that the character is improperly portrayed. You can have a female character who cannot carry a plot or do anything for herself, and/or lets a man do the bulk of the work, or you can have a buff axe-wielding Amazon with unbelievable abilities and who needs no man ever.

What people can’t discern is the middle ground, that sweet spot where strength meets flaw. Your female protagonist can be strong in the sense that she can carry the weight of her story, and yet not be able to get close to another person because (insert dramatic backstory here). Or you could have a sheltered girl who wants to run away and learn something other than her family’s trade. Or a bratty princess who gets knocked down a few levels and is forced to work with the servants. Whatever scenario you choose, there is one common factor, and that is simply that they change.

Every protagonist should change somehow in the course of their story. For a female character, this usually means turning a flaw into strength.

When director Joss Whedon was asked why he writes strong female characters, he answered, “Because you’re still asking me that question.” This begs an entirely new question: why are people so unused to strong female characters?

There’s that whole thing with women’s rights, of course, and a male-centric culture…I mean, what on earth would happen if women ruled the world? But let’s take a taker closer look at this. For my examples: Lady Macbeth and Elizabeth Swann.

Yes, I know; what the hell do these women have in common? Well…nothing, really. But just hang in there.

Lady Macbeth is an ambitious woman who knows exactly what she wants, and is not afraid to do anything to get it. She even sacrifices her femininity to take on a stronger persona. However, as soon as shit gets real, she starts to realize the scope of what she has helped accomplish. It is too much for her, and she goes insane. She demands too much and is severely backlashed as a result; she simply could not handle it. “Strength” develops into flaw, with emphasis on flaw.

Elizabeth Swann is a governess’ daughter whose entire life has been primping and talking in British accents. A bunch of pirates kidnap her, she marries a swordsmith, and somewhere along the way she becomes a double-sword-wielding fighter/Pirate King/speech giver. As you will. Flaw develops into (questionable) strength, with emphasis on strengh.

Lady Macbeth is easy to hate; she is seen as manipulative and, well, evil. Her character is not strong because she is a woman, but because she gives up her womanhood to be more like a man. Elizabeth should be likeable, and sometimes she is, but when you see how much the writers are trying to emphasize her “girl power,” that strength is only viewed as a plot point, not characterization. Elizabeth had to get tough to do X, Y, and Z, but because they do not develop her character through this, it is not believable. In both cases, there was too much accent on their strengths, which can become weakness if you’re not careful.

In short: give your females a relatable strength and a relatable flaw. Take a look at your own life for inspiration. In my work scenario, perhaps I was strong enough to know that I could take the boxes down on my own, but flawed in that my social skills were admittedly lacking when dealing with the repercussions. How did this change me? Well, I allowed the young man to carry two boxes the next time, and this made him happy. I used the flaw—not reading social cues—to learn a lesson and incorporate it into my strengths.

Women are people. They might not behave like men in certain situations, but they are beings capable of just about anything. They have fears, desires, strengths, and weaknesses. Discover these the same way you might discover a new friend. They won’t be perfect, but they’ll be your friend for a reason, won’t they?

What struggles do you face in writing believable female characters, or what have you noticed about them in media lately? If you’re a man, what’s your stance on the issue, and do you have trouble with this? If nothing else, think about this: men are constantly asked about writing female characters, and yet women are hardly ever asked about their male characters. Hmm…


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