“Screw writing ‘strong’ women. Write interesting women. Write well-rounded women. Write complicated women. Write women who kick ass. Write a woman who’s desperate for a husband. Write a woman who doesn’t need a man. Write women who cry, women who rant, women who are shy, women who don’t take no shit, women who need validation and women who don’t care what anyone thinks. THEY ARE ALL OKAY, and all these thing could exist in THE SAME WOMAN.”
I stumbled across this quote two years ago in the depths of Tumblr. Sadly, the origin is unknown. Ever since I discovered this quote it has stuck with me. As a Young Adult writer whose protagonists are primarily female, I’ve found myself sat in the planning stages of writing thinking “how can I make this character a strong woman?” But why is having a strong female character important? And why is there such a high demand for them?
You’re probably already thinking about some “strong” women in YA books you’ve read and due to the movie adaptations, I’m sure that Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games and Beatrice Prior from Divergent are among them. But what makes them strong? Is it Tris’ rebellion against the faction system? Katniss volunteering in place of her sister who is chosen for the games? I think everyone can agree that they are strong and when I posed this idea to fellow book blogger Bookbitchreviews he said that he thinks most people’s opinions would fall to “badass” female protagonists like Katniss and Tris. However, they’re not his idea of a strong character. He likes his female characters to be relatable:
“We constantly say that characters from the Fantasy of Dystopian genres are strong, and some of them are, but you can also get strong female characters in contemporary. Mia Hill from ‘If I Stay’ and ‘Where She Went’ is a great example. She’s lost the most important people in her life and may not survive herself, but while in her ‘out of body’ state, she’s there for the ones she loves. She’s fighting to come back. And the reason they’re so important to YA fiction is so that we can see ourselves in them. Most people I know who read and blog are shy in person, but while reading that book they’re not. They are fierce, they are powerful, they are independent.”
Kieran makes a fantastic point.
With the success of dystopian movie adaptations being the forefront of the Young Adult market, it’s just too easy to forget that women in YA contemporary can be “strong” too.
This links quite nicely onto Hazel Grace Lancaster from The Fault In Our Stars by John Green. One thing I hate in YA fiction (and fiction in general for that matter) is that some kind of tragedy must have happened in order to make a woman strong. In this case, terminal cancer. Hazel is sixteen, living with stage 4 Thyroid cancer with metastasis and uses a phalanxifor to breathe. Does this automatically put her on the list of strong female characters? If she wasn’t fictitious I’m sure that those around her would use “strong” to describe her. But what makes her strong beside that? Is it how willingly she sticks by Issac when he goes blind? Or how she drives to a gas station in the middle of the night when she gets that horrific emotional phone call from Gus? Or is it simply her acceptance of the life she has been dealt? In the book’s narrative she is so matter of fact about her condition. She knows she’s going to die and she knows it will probably be soon and that her “parents won’t be parents” anymore.
Straying slightly from the path of YA fiction, another common character device used is the inability to have children. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, we are subjected to some of Black Widow’s backstory. She is trained to be an assassin and at the “graduation ceremony” she is sterilized so that children won’t “interfere with future missions.” Black Widow then tells Bruce Banner that she’s a monster too. But why does this type of device make women strong when surely giving birth is strong too?
Another prime example is Tauriel in The Hobbit trilogy. I recently found out that she doesn’t exist in the books. So why make this addition? I personally felt like it was a breath of fresh air to have a woman, taking part in battles, in a male dominated film. However, the excitement this brought was quickly lost when it became clear that her main contribution to the plot was a love triangle between Legolas and Kili. Kili inevitably dies trying to save her, in that action she loses someone she loved. BOOM tragedy.
Relationships are a part of life that most of us will experience. But when I put forward the question to several people if Bella Swan from the Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer was a strong female character, most of them were unable to contain their laughter. When I posed this question to a close friend she said that she doesn’t think Bella is strong because everything she does is about Edward and her life seems to revolve around him: she’s constantly talking or thinking about him. Also, she’s so desperate to have sex with him that she even accepts his offer of “getting married and then trying.” However, my friend says that the only time she sees Bella as strong is when she becomes a vampire. But why is this? Is it because she’s no longer a fragile human? Or because she has an ability to control her hunger when Jasper doesn’t?
Naturally, we see the return of Katniss and Tris here. In The Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers for the games in place of her sister who is chosen from the reeping. When she makes it down to the last two alive, she plans to eat poisonous berries with Peeta so no one wins, sparking a rebellion in the districts. Katniss becomes the face of the movement. Her progress throughout the trilogy seems to undoubtedly earn her a place on the list of “strong women” because she demands change in an unfair world.
A similar situation is that of Beatrice in Divergent. The world is split into factions: Amity (valuing peace), Erudite (valuing Knowledge), Candor (valuing honesty), Dauntless (valuing bravery) and Abnegation (valuing selflessness). At sixteen, teenagers have to choose either to stay in their current faction or leave their family behind and change faction. They take an aptitude test which reveals the best faction choice for the,. Beatrice’s results reveal that she belongs to more than one faction making her “divergent” , a danger to society and the Erudite want them dead.. Much like in The Hunger Games there is rebellion and and all out war. But is she strong because she carries on after she sees the death of her parents? Or is she strong for staying focused after discovering her brother’s betrayal? Or because she stands up against a broken system?
When I asked Victoria Aveyard, author of Red Queen what she thinks makes a female protagonist strong, she said:
“Not necessarily good decisions, but decisions that are their own.”
I think we can all agree that the best characters are flawed. A flawed YA character that comes to mind for me is Tally Youngblood from Uglies by Scott Westerfeld. In this post-apocalyptic future society, teenagers upon reaching their sixteenth birthday undergo a surgery to make them “pretty.”
When Tally’s friend runs away to live in a refuge called The Smoke, the Doctor in charge of the surgery tells Tally she won’t have the operation until she finds the location of The Smoke and turns in the rebels. So Tally begins her adventure. But does making this flawed decision make her strong by sacrificing her only friend? Or does it make her selfish?
Change: Handling New Situations
Something any fictional character goes through at some point in their story is change. Author Kim Slater said that a strong women for her is “someone who ploughs through other people’s opinions to follow her heart and the path she had chosen.” She also told me that she believes strong female characters are important because “young readers can vicariously experience a tough journey and see that is it possible to survive it and come through it.”
Similarly, when I posed the question to Cait Reynolds, author of Downcast, she had this to say:
“I think that strong YA female characters are determined by how they deal with change – either when it is happening to them or whether they have had to make the change happen for themselves. Take Stephanie, for example, she is not a typically or traditionally strong character in the beginning of Downcast. But by the end of the book, because of all the changes that have happened to her and the changes she put in motion, she is stronger and better all around.”
Going back to Keiran’s point, I think flawed characters are the strongest because they’re not perfect. They mess up just like pople in the real world, and they have to deal with change just like us, and seeing that they can come out the other side, gives the reader hope.
Let me know your thoughts!
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