As the next step in editing my novel, I recently acquired two critique partners. I know! I was amazed too. I managed to find not one, but two people willing to look through my manuscript while I looked at theirs. And honestly, so far I love it. It’s like reading a waaaayyyyy in advance ARC and I can’t wait to see how their work changes. More to the point, I’m reading one of their manuscripts now and I noticed that the female lead cries fairly often. And I was at odds with myself. I mean, I cry pretty often myself. I’ve cried just from looking at a picture of the old guy from Up and his wife. I’ve cried for the entire 4 minutes of the Paperman Pixar short. I cry for almost every Pixar short. But when I was reading I worried that readers might not like this character because she isn’t ‘strong’.
Except she is. She does a lot of other things in the novel that are brave and astounding. But because she cries more than three times, and not always because somebody died, I struggled over whether people would still identify her as a strong female character. Or if other women would be annoyed by this character.
When I think of strong female leads in novels, I think about ladies that take charge, don’t follow the norm, stand up for themselves, and kick butt. I remember being younger and reading about female characters that constantly had to be rescued, or made decisions that messed plans up. Or characters that had ditsy qualities like being adorably clumsy or ignorant. But now, there’s this movement towards the strong female lead. Readers want to see girls with qualities that make them admirable. But the side effect is this rejection of things that might cause the character feel too dainty or feminine. You get the female character that barely cries, who rejects dresses/makeup, who fights tooth and nail to avoid having crushes/romantic interests, and who (often, and sadly) doesn’t get along with other women.
Then I thought of my first novel and almost slapped myself. I had created the same character. She was prickly; she didn’t like clothes, tried to stay uninvolved with men, and had trouble getting along with other girls. And moreover, she only cried when someone died. Would Katniss have been a weaker female character is she burst into tears because she was so stressed out about having to fight all the time? Like, if I were Katniss, I would have cried for the entire train trip from District 12 to the Capitol. I would have cried every night in anticipation of the games. I would have cried when I was standing on the podium waiting for the games to start. I would have cried in the cave because I was so happy to be alive, and then cry more because I was stressed that I was probably still going to die. To my memory, Katniss cries maybe four times, mostly because someone died, or she thought they were going to die. Just plain old emotional crying because your life is in the shitter wasn’t common.
What makes a strong female character? Is it strong characteristics like intelligence, ingenuity, bravery, and selflessness? Or is it just a rejection of everything stereotypically ‘girly’ like crying and getting excited about a pretty dress? Or is it even worse than that? Is it adherence to an idea of ‘manliness’ like confusion about females and their emotions and interests? Or does it just come down to the idea that certain behaviours are regarded as weak such as emotional crying and material interests?
What do you think makes a strong female lead?
Let me know in the comments!