(I apologize in advance for anything that doesn’t make sense – it’s the cold medicine.)
In publishing these days, you hear a lot about “strong female characters” and “kick-butt women” (some people use a different phrase, but we are ladies here at Mysteristas). Was Elsa in Disney’s Frozen a strong female character? (I didn’t see the movie and have no intention to, so I can’t say). As a woman writer, I will admit that I’ve come to loathe these terms.
Too often, they’ve come to mean women who do anything that men do. They are police officers, martial artists, tote guns, slay bad guys – you get the point. Is that what makes them strong?
I read an excellent blog post by Chuck Wendig on this. Wendig, who is rather profane (but I enjoy his views) refers to female characters who have “agency.” What is agency? Well, they do things that advance plot. They aren’t Barbie dolls to be posed or video game characters like Lara Croft who can only act within the confines of the prescribed script. Note that they don’t have to be posed by men – they can be posed by events.
Women with agency affect the course of the story. They make decisions – and mistakes – that mean something. Wendig’s point is that without agency, a “kick-butt” female character, or a “strong female character” can still be weak.
And then this morning, I saw a blog post from Jenna Bennet, who wrote a SFR book I read. Her heroine, Elsa Brandeis (what is it with the name Elsa?) is not a “kick butt” woman. She’s a doctor. Dedicated to saving life, not taking it. But I’ve read the book and I’d call her a “strong female character.” Why?
She has agency. She has heart.
I think society tends to think of “strong women” as having traditionally male characteristics: aggression, fighting, proficiency with weapons. That sort of thing. But that’s awfully limiting, at least in my view. There are many kinds of strength. Only some of them have to deal with the ability to shoot a gun.
Instead, I like this idea of “agency.” The ability to make decisions that matter. Mistakes that matter. That’s strength.
My female attorney, Sally Castle, has agency. Yes, she knows some basic self-defense, but she wouldn’t know what do to with a gun. But she makes decisions. Her actions push the plot forward. Actions that include mistakes. She needs my male protagonist – but that doesn’t detract from her agency. Because he needs her, too. She has heart.
The protagonist in my middle-grade fiction, Jaycee, is another one – at least I’m trying. She’s a kid, so she’s trying to figure things out. But she makes decisions. She does things. She has agency.
And I’m writing a new project. Again, the protagonist is male. But there are two women in his life. One is his wife. One is his former partner (now blind). Both these women have agency. They aren’t figures to be posed. Their actions and decisions materially affect the story. They have heart.
So the next time you’re reading, don’t ask “is this a strong woman” or “is this a kick-butt woman”? Ask if the woman has agency. Does she have heart? Does she make her own decisions, take her own actions, that move the story? Even if they are the wrong decisions and actions (even incorrect actions are actions). Or is she action-figure Barbie, Lara Croft, being posed within the confines of the script?
If the answer is “yes,” I think you may have found yourself a strong female character.
Mary Sutton | @mary_sutton73