Um, yeah. I started this essay last September. I planned to publish it last year as a fun little thing but then life got seriously away from me.
I got depressed, had a slight breakdown, and had to rebuild my life from scratch. It was tough, and I’m still not at 100%. But I wanted to get this essay out there, because it is wonderful and hilarious and just a bit sad that it comes from my life before – now that I’m living life after depression. Well, almost but not quite. It’s a time capsule of me!
You’re a fresh new writer with a ton of ideas, and straight off the bat, you want to create a morally ambiguous, flawed yet sympathetic female protagonist. Why not, you say. There are literally thousands and thousands of male anti-heroes that are wildly popular, successful, and well-written; regular readers will know that I am a huge fan of Wolverine from X-Men, and he’s pretty much the biggest anti-hero you can find.
Making a female anti-hero, who is fundamentally unlikable but the audience can’t help themselves from rooting for her, is not in itself a bad idea. Why should it be? It posits that yes, female characters can be as complex in their personality and motivations as male characters, which is, you know, common sense. Female characters have a dreadful habit of falling into archetypes that are transparently cardboard. There are many reasons for this; 97% of media is made by men, writers are taught to not write women as complicated characters, and the problem that any character, male or female, may end up being included to fill a perceived ‘hole’ in the narrative.
But no, this work, this art you are crafting, is not going to fall into the problems that many, many writers end up unintentionally throwing themselves into. You write, edit, and publish. And yet, despite promising yourself you wouldn’t, you have not created a female anti-hero. You have just created an anti. You have created, for want of a better word, a complete and utter bitch.* No one can relate to your character. You have made them too hate-filled, too unpleasant, too racist, too sexist**, too ableist, too lazy, and too stupid to be acceptable. This blog is currently dedicated to reviewing all the books of Laurell K. Hamilton’s ‘Anita Blake’ series and in the process of making Anita a tough as nails vampire hunter, Hamilton has thrown Anita into the anti hole so successfully it is impossible to feel sympathy for her at any moment in any book.
That’s really bad writing you’ve managed to achieve.
How can you possibly improve?
‘Strong Female Character’
Okay, this is a phrase with a huge amount of problematic implications. The term ‘strong character’ will be used in this post, but not with the meaning that it regularly carries in media about fiction.
The problem with the phrase ‘strong female character’ is that female characters have been judged to be ‘strong independent women’ when they have traits or qualities that are seen as typically male. With your Anita Blakes, it’s that they take no shit and aren’t afraid to shoot and are considered one of the men, instead of one of the girls.*** With your Ripleys, it’s that they are seen to operate in a ‘man’s world’.
If you are playing these ideas straight, congratulations. You are confining your character in patriarchy, and here’s why.
- By making your female character ‘strong’ through a rejection of feminine stereotypes, you are implying that there is no value to things deemed inherently female.
- You are reinforcing gender roles by making it clear that there are ‘acceptable’ actions and behaviours for different genders.
- There are differences between the genders; societal roles, behaviours, and worldviews are taught to children from a very young age, and moving aside the politics, cis-gendered men and women think about things in different ways. Society has taught them that. You can’t make your character ‘a strong female character’ simply by adding breasts and ovaries. It’s ignoring how patriarchy defines gender and makes you part of it. This also applies to thinking that you can be colourblind with your characters. Include all the genders and all the races, be wonderful and diverse – just remember that we are all taught to react to the same situation differently. A white guy will not react the same way to a dark alleyway as a woman, or a black lesbian, or a hispanic mtf transgender. These differences shouldn’t exist, but acknowledging them makes your character’s mindset seem more real and make you seem like less of an ass.
Thinking that performing a hasty hatchet job to a male character and make them, instantaneously, a fantastic female anti-hero who is dark and brooding and badass, is going to leave you with an ill-formed stump of a character that no one will like. So don’t do it.
The term ‘strong character’ is going to be used in this post to refer to a character’s inherent strength as a piece of fiction. Keep the three Rs in your head.
- Is my character realistic? This first one can be a stumbling block for even the most popular of authors. Your character has got to have personality traits, likes, dislikes, favourite foods, hobbies, musical taste, films they despise, a trait that’s secretly awful, some sort of anecdote about celery, and a bad childhood experience with a ostrich; you know all the puzzle pieces that make you you? Your character has to have them too, or they will not seem real. Don’t do overboard planning their life down to the last detail, but show that they have a life.
- Can the audience reasonably imagine how my character lives and functions inside my universe? Okay, this is a really long question, but it boils down to something simple. When your book (or TV episode, or video game) ends, can the audience imagine what they’ll do next or will they picture them being frozen until the next instalment? If you have created an unrealistic character, it’s impossible to think of them as doing anything from plot point to plot point. You just imagine them waiting for another mystery to start up. And that kills my wish-fulfilment boner.
- Is my character relatable? Aha. That is the crux of the issue. And I will explain this in further detail.
For me, an example of a strong character that ticks these three boxes entirely is Buffy Summers. She has a well-defined personality, interests, hobbies, conflict, history… look, I could write a thousand words on why Buffy is an excellent character. She works because, well, she works as a person. She makes sense as a person. You can imagine meeting her in the street, before rapidly becoming chow for a maddened, on the loose vampire.
An example of a ‘weak’ character for me – and this is controversial, I know – is that of Clara Oswald on the latest series of Doctor Who. She is spunky. She dislikes genocide. She likes children. She has no hobbies, no likes, no interests, no friends, no life outside that we see on the show. Being nice and having generic ‘nice’ things about you does not make a dynamic or interesting character. It just makes me really angry. (This was vastly improved during season eight of Doctor Who, addressing pretty much all the issues I brought up.)
With the basics covered, what are the specific steps necessary for creating a really good female anti-hero?****
It’s a biggie. Why does the environment of your character make them who they are? How does the setting inform who they are?
I asked readers to send me in examples of fundamentally unlikeable female characters that you cannot help but root for, and I’ll be using them in various combinations for each of these steps – and good old Anita Blake as an example of how badly things can go wrong. I’ll try to keep spoilers to an absolute minimum, I promise.
Combing our three historical examples, Madame Bovary, Scarlett O’Hara and Becky Sharp, there are clear reasons for the flaws in their characters. Part of their continuing appeal to modern readers is how their attitudes are shaped by the societal and sexual inequalities that faced women in their respective eras. Becky and Scarlett are charming bitches because that is required to get anywhere in a society where men have ultimate control over your fate. Emma looks for excitement and love because her life as a middle-class doctor’s wife means that she is confined to a home for some twenty two hours out of the day. You feel sorry for their situation and how stifling being a woman was – and can still be.
The two fantasy examples are both stymied by their familial and class duties and definitions. Cersei Lannister and Narcissa Malfoy are defined by their family ties and are thus bound by them. Cersei had to marry Robert Baratheon as it was her duty as a Lannister daughter. Narcissa Malfoy is loyal to the Malfoy name and traditional allegiance to dark magic. Both these duties make them into awful people; Narcissa is a racist snob, Cersei gets so bitter that she engineers the death of her husband to allow her son to become king. The narrow roles defined for them by their family is one they must fit into all their lives. They both come from societies that allow them little growth. Cersei is a queen; all she has to do is produce children. Narcissa is fabulously wealthy, but housewives in the wizarding world seem to have little life outside of marriage and children.
The last two examples are linked by mutually being cold and emotionless. They make for really unlikely female protagonists, as women are supposedly exemplified by their compassion and capacity for irrational emotion. Lisbeth Salander and Katniss Everdeen are both products of awful childhoods that have taught them to view kindness and affection as being dangerous. They are cold, cruel and vicious, but we do not blame them for how they are. Lisbeth saw the abuse of her mother for all her childhood, and then most of her adult life being told she was insane. Katniss makes no effort to know other people, and does not trust anyone. The only people she loves when we meet her are her sister – who is a surrogate mother to – and Gale – who is the only person she sees as being worthy of respect. They both live in worlds where emotion is a liability, and warmth does not help you. Frankly, they’ve been through hell, and their first response is to fight.
With all of these groups, it is clear that the qualities which make them unlikeable are rooted in the worlds they live in and the experiences they have faced.
With Anita Blake, we never know what the full extent of her damage is. She is hateful and spiteful, lashing out at anyone who displeases her high standards, but it is never clear why she does this. She was traumatised by witnessing the death of her mother at eight years old, that is true, but her father appears to have ensured that she had a otherwise happy childhood. She detests her stepmother for apparently hating her ethnicity, but we never witness this. She has a deep seated insecurity based on her Mexican roots; was she racially abused? It is never apparent if she has ever been the victim of prejudice. Her life has been easy, and yet she has this deep well of anger. How can I be expected to support her anger and her hate if I do not know where they come from?
Characters want something. Their life, in fiction, is a journey from not having what they want to getting what they want. What does your character want? Where are they heading in life? A character, no matter how flawed they are, is a strong character if we understand their goals and why they want to achieve them.
Scarlett O’Hara wants Tara to survive. She wants to survive. It’s a simple motivation, and it often involves complicated machinations involving men, but it’s understandable after what she’s been through. She’s seen the destruction of everything she knows and holds dear – and if that means wearing a pair of curtains and beating slaves to do it, then she’s damn well going to go out and do it.
Narcissa Malfoy’s motivation is based upon those same guidelines which get her into trouble – her family duties. She spent fifteen years of her life waiting for Voldemort to come back, only to realise that having a genocidal nutbag as your all-mighty leader isn’t very good for your longevity. From Half Blood Prince onwards, she is another mother fighting for survival. She does not care about anything else, just about the lives of her husband and her son. If that means serving a murderous dictator, so be it.
Lisbeth Salander is a little bit harder to determine. At the beginning of the first Millennium book, she appears to have everything she might want – aside from her freedom. She is still a ward of the state, and her life is dictated by a bevy of people who are not her. I view her journey over the three books as a quest to gain freedom, and to find acceptance, in a way. She is defined only by what people don’t want in her. It makes her fight back violently, but she is fighting against a system which has screwed her over again and again. She wants them to stop fighting her, and let her live life on her terms.
And for Anita Blake… well, I have no idea what she wants or where she’s heading in life. She does not appear to have any goals at all. She doesn’t hope or dream for anything. I can’t support her actions because I do not know where they are ultimately going.
A narrative fundamentally implies change. A character must be different at the end of a plot than from when they started. An anti-hero may start out as being fundamentally unlikeable, but as the reader accompanies them on their journey and their arc, they grow to be likeable. Again, take Katniss Everdeen. She’s rude, anti-social, and pretty much hates everything. She still hates everything at the end of the series, but we learn why and how she is – and we see her reach the lowest point possible and build herself again. The unlikeable aspects of her personality are still there but they have changed by the end of the narrative.
Anita Blake does experience change – but not growth. Her mind grows smaller and her mentality only changes to be permissive of murder, rape, and torture.
With creating your hard as nails, tough talking female anti-hero, have you considered why exactly you needed to create the unpleasant aspects of their personality? Why exactly have you done this? What is the point of making them this way? Are you exploring racism? Are you exploring the impact of prejudice against disabled people? Are you exposing the pointlessness of the gender binary?
If you added an ‘ism’ to your character’s personality without knowing exactly why you’ve done it, then you’re going to seem like a gigantic ass. Negative aspects of a personality must have a purpose as much as positives, a history, and a favourite ice cream flavour.
‘Is it understandable?’
Boil down every single one of these points into a single, and simple, question: will your readers be able to understand why you have created your character this way, and therefore be able to like, respect, and root for them, despite them being dislikeable or hate-able?
That’s not a question that’s easy to answer. It’s not something I can answer definitively. Different people have different comfort levels when it comes to characters; there are many who hate Katniss Everdeen, and there are many who love Anita Blake as much as I despise her.
You have to ultimately ask what your aim is for your story and for your character. Why does your character deserve to exist and why should I be interested in your story?
That might just be the ultimate conundrum of all fiction writing, like, ever. But a good story should let a reader sympathise and understand any character, even a raging arsehole.
* ‘Bitch’ gets thrown around a lot at proactive female characters by uncomfortable male readers. I like to reclaim the term, but that’s a personal thing, and I do not ever use it against women IRL.
** Oh yes, women can be sexist too.
*** If you have a female character that goes on and on about how they are unable to relate to other women, sit down and have a good long think about exactly why you think that is necessary for your character.
**** If you think there are differences between the genders in intelligence, or kindness, or an inherent ability to blow bubblegum, then turn off your computer and evaluate your life.
***** This can be used for any anti-hero really, gender notwithstanding. But as a reviewer who blogs about supernatural thrillers with female leads, I wanted to focus on the problems with female characters and female anti-heroes.