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Why Write Strong Female Leads? Because You're Still Asking That Question

13/04/2016 14:48

One of my favourite writers (and directors), Joss Whedon, famously recounted an incident with a journalist during an Equality Now speech in 2006.

It went something like this. The journalist asked, 'So, why do you write these strong female characters?', and in the style we have come to love and adore from the man who brought us Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse, and The Avengers (among other things), Whedon simply responded, 'Because you're still asking me that question'.

I'm fairly certain that everyone who has ever written a tale involving strong female characters -in particular a lead character - has been asked some variation of, 'Why did you make your women so strong?', and/or, 'Why did you make your hero a woman?'

I find it mildly ridiculous, but sadly not surprising, that this still happens.

It was a comment from a friend of mine after she read my first novel, Chasing Azrael, that really got me thinking about this. The friend in question is no chauvinist. She's no stranger to strong female characters, in fact she's all for them. What surprised me was her assertion that it was the first time she'd read anything wherein there was a strong female protagonist whose strength depended, not on her physical power or supernatural abilities, but on her strength of character.

Andee Tilbrook is not a strong character because she's a slayer, an assassin, a world class spy, or physically capable of kicking the arse of anyone she pleases. She's actually physically very weak, being extremely petite and rather frail. She suffers from depression, which weakens her further, and when we meet her at the start of the novel she is so lost in grief for her husband that she's close to ending her own life.

Doesn't sound too strong, does it?

But Andee's strength is something that is demonstrated throughout the novel as it is slowly revealed what she has been through, and how she has endured these events. Her strength is demonstrated as she gradually comes into her own, accepts her powers, and uses them for the benefit of herself and others, not because she can fight for them, or protect them, or magically save the day, but because she's independent, tenacious, intelligent, and driven.

My friend enjoyed Andee as a character--despite her prickly appearance at the start of the novel--precisely because she demonstrated that it was possible to be strong, and a woman, and un-reliant on others, and save the day through sheer force of will, strength of character, and smarts.

Andee wasn't bitten by a radioactive spider that gave her superhuman powers. She has superhuman powers, but if anything these weaken her. They make her question her place in the world, they damage her grasp on reality, and for many years she can find no tangible benefit to them.

Her powers are not a gift, they are a curse.

She is not strong because of them, she is strong in spite of them.

I was extremely pleased my friend had picked up on these aspects of her character, and encouraged to find that she--and later others--really appreciated them.

When I came to write Bleizgeist, I wanted to further explore this notion of a strong female lead whose strength came, not from any special powers or abilities, but from her character. I wanted her to have special abilities that went beyond being a mere hindrance and became an actual threat. I wanted a girl whose 'gifts' had no tangible benefits and were weakening her more and more with each passing day.

I wanted to heap a world of hurt on this girl and see how she dealt with it.

I wanted her hurt, and vulnerable, and threatened at every turn by emotional, psychological, physical, and social hardships.

This was in large part an allegory, or metaphor, for the trials of living with Bipolar Disorder and other similar conditions. Bipolar is a mental illness that can, undoubtedly, lead to almost superhuman feats - mania induces a state of pure creativity in a lot of Bipolar Bears. You don't need sleep. You don't need food. You don't need anything but to work, with single-minded purpose, at whatever project or notion has currently taken your fancy. A lot can be achieved during these times, but mania is seldom free from consequence, and states like this are oh, so very dangerous.

It is a gift.

But more than that it is a curse.

The creative insight gained often only occurs during very limited windows. The rest of the time we are manic beyond recall, or depressed beyond measure. Bipolar can ruin your life in the blink of an eye, costing you jobs, homes, friends, family, relationships, money, sanity...

When I wrote Bleizgeist I has this in mind. The character of Marishka bears a gift that is, in many ways, like Bipolar Disorder, or Schizophrenia. It gives her insight, but it also has the power to drive her insane. She sees thing, hears things, experiences things, that others simply do not.

I wanted a character who wasn't just strong enough to endure, but strong enough to rise above and emerge victorious. Beyond victorious, I wanted her to emerge glorious.

I wanted a character who demonstrated that strength comes in many forms.

Whether I have succeeded in this endeavour remains to be seen, but while reading, should you find yourself wondering why I chose to write a strong female protagonist, my answer, like the wonderful Joss Whedon before me, is simply this:

Because you are still asking that question.

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