Thursday, June 7, 2012

Assertive vs. Aggressive Female Characters (continued)

 A big thanks to Lynne H. for this latest installment in her characterization guest blogs.  To view more of her insightful writing, follow my "Writing Blogs" link to Lynne's Word Nerdy Site.

So. . Word Nerd, you got all meta on us in that last post.  Now that we know why it’s sometimes so difficult to create strong female characters, are you going to actually give us pointers on how to do it?

I’ll try. Some credit goes to a psychologist friend and a friend who worked at a shelter for battered women.  Conversations with both contributed some of the information and insights in this post.

Create female characters who’ve given themselves permission to have a voice.  The usual character-building advice applies:  Give them layers, weaknesses, flaws.  Perfect goddesses and gorgeous princesses and the prettiest, most popular girls in school are boring.  Make them work for their happy endings, like Terisa Morgan from Stephen R. Donaldson’s Mordant’s Need, (warning:  not a YA series) or Katniss Everdeen from Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games series, Leviathan’s Deryn Sharp, Harry Potter’’s Hermione Granger and Ginny Weasley, Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett or Emma Woodhouse, or any other girls/women who take chances, screw up, learn and grow from their mistakes, move on. They will experience pain, love, and loss in the process, but emerge better and stronger for their experiences.  Any of the above-mentioned characters deserve an entire post of their own, but I will instead encourage you to read the books that feature them. As I’ve advised before, read them as a writer, not as a reader.

In giving your female characters permission to have a voice, please be certain you understand the difference between assertive and aggressive.  An assertive person knows who she is and what she wants.  She stands up for herself and others but does not force her ideas or desires on somebody else. She can still be proud or stubborn, prickly or cynical, but be careful that it is not at others’ expense.  If at any time she has to pay for a mistake, she shoulders that responsibility and does the best she can to make amends, without claiming victimhood or blaming others. Also, she doesn’t need to have magical powers or mad martial arts skills. What is much more important is how she evolves as a person and meets her challenges.

An assertive character doesn’t need to be completely self-assured, either.  Give her moments of uncertainty, regret, or doubt. She can even carry some bitterness or anger, as long as those are not her defining characteristics. Moments of bitterness or anger are human, so let the bitterness or anger be over some specific event in her life. Seriana, the main character in Carol Berg’s Bridge of D’Arnath series, is carrying some emotional baggage because her husband has been put to death for sorcery and her estate forfeited to the crown. Seri at first comes across as somewhat unpleasant, but when a disoriented young warrior shows up on her doorstep, Seri takes him in, cares for him and embarks on a perilous journey to help him discover who he is--or was. An aggressive type, by contrast, would have been so swallowed up in her bitterness over her own troubles that she would never have stepped outside herself to help a stranger, unless she stood to gain personally from doing so.
A fully-realized heroine doesn’t need a love interest in her life, so when she finds love, it is contentment and fulfillment and partnership, not the missing piece to a puzzle. I know it’s a favored trope in romance, but the problem I have personally with the notion that everybody has a “soul mate”  or that one person can be another’s “destiny” is that free will takes a back seat. Nobody should be “irretrievably and irrevocably” in love with anybody else, nor should any female character identify herself by her relationships.  Girls and women so portrayed can suffer physical or emotional abuse at the hands of the “irrevocable” partner, and it allows the author an easy “out” --portraying controlling, possessive behavior as protective, romantic, even loving.

You knew there would be feminist rantiness here. 

Aggressive women are the (you know the word--it begins with “B”) of literature. She says, “I want what I want,” her attitudes and actions say “it’s all about me,”  with little to no regard for what effect her words or actions  will have on others. Some consider the courage and tenacity of Scarlett O’Hara of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone WIth the Wind admirable.  She saves her father’s plantation from being taken over by Carpetbaggers and bravely changes with the changing times in the post-Civil-War South.  However, Scarlett also steals her sister’s fiance, leases a gang of convicts for cheap labor at her sawmills and hires a ruthless supervisor to oversee them, knowing her charges will be underfed and brutalized but ignoring the fact. For some, her greed and unscrupulousness outweigh her courage and strength. The aggressive character will always stand up for herself but will also demand respect whether she deserves it or not. The assertive character earns our respect and gets ahead on courage and hard work and, sometimes, with a little help from her friends.  The aggressive one reaches the top by climbing, literally or figuratively, onto dead bodies.

If your heroine is a character from a time or a place where women have few options, you’ll have to remember that she is a product of her time.  Elizabeth Bennett from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice refuses to marry without affection even if it means an uncertain future for herself and her sisters. This typically modern mindset brings applause for its proto-feminist stance. On the other hand, it doesn’t even dawn on Lizzy to try to get admitted to Oxford, or to open a shop in the village so she can take care of herself.  Women weren’t admitted to Oxford in 1810, and there was strong social stigma attached to people in trade.  If she doesn’t marry, she will have to be at the mercy of male relatives, something we would not find at all admirable for a female character in a modern setting. Yet Lizzy follows her heart and speaks her mind, even to the wealthy and powerful Mr. Darcy and Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and we all love her for her wit, intelligence, and courage despite an admittedly narrow worldview.

John Donne wrote that “no man is an island.”  There are plenty of Christic figures in literature, and sometimes it’s a cop-out for an author to create such a protagonist so he or she doesn’t have to work on development of supporting characters.  I challenge you to give your female protagonist some friends. Don’t worry about your heroine looking bad by comparison if she has friends of whatever gender who are prettier or better at math or sports or magic. The fact that she is not insecure because she has diversity in her social circle makes her all the more appealing as a person. Develop the supporting cast, and develop her through their eyes.

Finally, as stated in the previous posts about creating characters, don’t try to create a character who will win a popularity contest. Girls and women are often known to set impossibly high standards for themselves at times; the last thing we need is to feel inferior to a character in a book. Your readers should be frustrated with her choices or actions at times, just like we all are with our real-life friends.  *broken record alert!* Again, the key to character creation lies in creating somebody with whom your readers are willing to make the journey.