Friday, May 13, 2016

Creating full characters, not strong ones

Cover art, DREADNOUGHT AND SHUTTLE, Chris Howard copyright 2016

I write science fiction and fantasy stories. And in those stories are characters. They interact with other characters, move through settings, and deal with conflicts. They act and they react.

This is basic storytelling '101', regardless of genre.

Everywhere I look, I see articles talking about writing 'strong female characters', or praising them in TV shows or movies. It makes me wonder about the definition of strong and how media has limited the scope and range of ALL characters in elevating strength over all other aspects.

I understand where this push comes from. Looking at female characterization in popular media over the past few decades, for every Ripley or Sarah Connor or Peggy Carter are dozens and dozens of passive, poorly written female props, victims, and plot devices. And in an effort to change this, strength has come to mean the ability to fight against terrible odds and win.

But if you look closely at the three iconic female characters I named (and there are more, thankfully!), their power doesn't come solely from their ability to kick ass, but from their ability to be fully human and express both their strength and their vulnerability.

What made Agent Carter so compelling to me (and to many fans; just not to the networks, apparently) is that she is intensely real. She expresses a full range of emotions, including fear and uncertainty, and thrives within a context of solid relationships with the other characters around her. We see her vulnerability and root for her to survive, even as we recognize the sometimes outlandish plots and situations that the series placed her in.

Because she is so fully real, we are willing to suspend disbelief and enter into her world.

That is the difference in writing full characters rather than strong ones.

The character of Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider movie was strong, but not full. I enjoyed the movie for what it was: superficial action, but never had any sort of emotional connection to it.

This created dichotomy between strong and full characters is not limited to the depiction of women on screen or in written work. The characters who stay with me, who resonate for long after I've closed the book or turned off the screen are ones who have a reality far beyond their story. Captain America in The Winter Soldier. Morgan in The Riddlemaster trilogy, Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings.

It's this resonance and reality I strive for in all of my writing. In my Halcyone Space books, I have an ensemble cast roughly split between male and female characters. They all have moments of strength and moments of vulnerability. They all make imperfect choices and have to contend with the results. It makes for a much richer experience for me as a writer. I have to believe it does the same for the reader.

Dev, pictured in the artwork above, is a new addition to the series. She is smart and resourceful, but she is also hamstrung by her upbringing in the Settlements. She feels the sting of class prejudice very keenly and it colors her interactions. That makes her far more interesting to me than if she had had a privileged life. In fact, she would not be the character she is had she been raised otherwise. We see her vulnerabilities and want her to succeed. She is strong in the ways that matter, rather than in a purely cliched sense.

Strength that does not come from the fullness of the human experience is not true strength.

Who are your favorite characters who exemplify this kind of larger, truer strength?



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1 comment:

  1. You put in words why I have such a difficult time with the current idea of what constitutes a "strong" female character, and why I obsess over it. Kicking major ass physically, while awesome, has never been the be-all and end-all of a full, round character. It's almost as if we expect perfection from "strong" female characters (as a sort of strict dichotomy to the insipid caricatures or helpless save-a-maiden types of the past) instead of making them real, or allowing them to make poor decisions as any person would at their worst.

    I'm bummed Agent Carter wasn't renewed...though Marvel has been doing well with striving to create female characters with depth.

    Excellent post!