|Madonna, Whore, and Man in Le Fanu's 'Carmilla'|
Women are impressed and intrigued by him, they follow him around, they arch their eyebrows at his quips. They get captured by the villain to provide something for him to do. Perhaps they come into conflict with each another over him, forming a love triangle, or some more complex polyhedron. Then, they sit back and wait for him to decide which one he wants to be with.
Of the stereotypes we discussed before, the Madonna always trumps the Whore--the femme fatale always dies, the final girl always lives, Éponine gets shoved aside for Cosette, and Arwen takes the prize over Eowyn. If you're wondering what makes Arwen the Madonna, it's her sacred, distant, mystical elf nature, while Eowyn's masculine notions of being a warrior sully her pure womanliness. Of course, I'm talking about the books--in the movies, both women get swords, in an attempt to make Arwen's distant passivity (which is now a somewhat passe cliche of womanhood) seem less like bland weakness.
What's particularly telling is how women fall for the protagonist even when he's a dull ass--either because the author is playing out his own fantasy of beautiful women fighting over an awkward weirdo, or because his male characters don't have any more depth than his women. In particularly bad cases, every woman who shows up becomes a love interest (except for the ugly witch, of course). We call this a 'harem story', and in anime, it forms an entire subgenre of works about boring men and the women who inexplicably desire them.
|"What do you want to talk about?"|
At some point in the story, do two women talk to each other about a subject other than a male character?Of course, this need not be a strict guideline for writers, nor is it necessary in order to write a strong female character--but it does help to reveal how the relationships between women are shown (or not shown) in a given story--and also brings up the question of those women's interior lives, their desires and motivations. What are a female character's interests outside of the hero, his quest, and the villain? What was she doing with her life before the hero showed up? Did she just give up all her former desires when they met? What does she do when he isn't around to give her narrative purpose?
This kind of dependency can exist even for women characters in positions of power. Imagine a female villain: she wants to humiliate the hero, to destroy him, to hurt those he loves, to fill his life with pain--now, what is central to all her goals? That's right: the hero. Putting 'world domination' on top of this as some kind of excuse doesn't fix it, either--not only is it a flat, empty motivation that only serves as a convenience for the author, but the fact that the hero is the only one who can oppose her means that all her focus just shifts back onto him, anyway.
|"She who must be obeyed."|
Because, of course women are prizes given out to heroes for finishing their quest. It's one of the most basic structures in our stories, so much so that it tends to be taken for granted. Of course the hero ends up with the girl--we never question it, even if the author never actual bothered to develop any kind of emotional relationship between them.
So, if a weak character is one whose life is defined by others, then a strong character must not be externally defined. They must instead be 'active'--or as literary folk say, they must 'have agency', which is a big enough topic that it deserves its own post. For now, there's one basic question to consider: is the character acting, or only reacting? Is the course of her life defined by decisions she's made, or do the events of the world simply carry her away?
You see stories all the time where the main character has almost no choice in what they do: they're blackmailed, their friends are kidnaped, they're forced to act at gunpoint, they're imprisoned, and only break out when another inmate shares a secret plan, then some wise man figure arrives and tells them what's really going on, and any time they're about to be killed, a new character shows up at the perfect moment and saves them--at every turn, someone either tells her what to do next, or just pushes her out of the limelight and does it for her.
|Sarah Connor of 'The Terminator'|
Instead of this bland motivation, she might make sacrifices for what she believes in--or even wimp out and fail to do the hard thing. Both make for a stronger sense of personality than just following an inflexible plot. Or the character could be working toward some personal goal which is constantly made more difficult by the challenges that come up. It's the difference between things just happening to the character, and things happening because of the situations the character puts themselves into.
A good example of how to separate active from passive characters is this analysis of the main female character from the movie Van Helsing. Though she is supposed to be strong and butt-kicking, when you actually review her actions throughout the story, it becomes clear that agency is denied to her, again and again. She must be saved and corrected at every turn. In the end, if the hero hadn't been there, she would have been dead a half-dozen times over, and mostly due to her own incompetence. Though she may sometimes be allowed to act, her actions are never the right ones, and she is always corrected by the superior male hero.
With female characters like this, who are defined by the actions of a man, he'll be the one making the decisions--the plot moves at his behest, and everyone else moves along with him. The 'Damsel in Distress' is a classic example of a passive character defined by the actions of another, and this is precisely the fate that waits in store for many supposedly-strong female characters: despite all their muscle, their stubborn temperament, their bow, and their bravery, they end up incapacitated or jailed by some guy, and then just wait around until they're rescued by another.
Another problem is that trying to make a passive character strong often results in jerks, as we discussed of the character Merida in Part I. Giving a woman strong opinions without giving her the agency to back them up leaves her hollow. After all, there are few things more annoying than the whiny, shrewish person who tells everyone else what to do, then never does anything, themselves. Anna from Van Helsing has this problem: she bickers with the hero constantly, but since he's always shown to be right, it's clear that she has no idea what she's talking about--an argumentative fool is not a character who the reader is going to take seriously--a male character who behaves this way will almost always be killed later (or nearly killed) to prove that point.
|'Kiss Me Deadly'|
The idea is that the more she resists the man, the sweeter his victory, because a girl who gives in easily isn't 'worth it'--after all, only a whore gives it up without a fight. It's the same creepy 'no means yes' idiocy which causes the stupidest of men to harass, stalk, or even assault women, because no matter what she says or does, how she resists or fends him off, nothing will stop him from believing that she secretly 'wants it'--which, quite frankly, I find rather sickening.
Of course, that doesn't mean we shouldn't depict relationships that start out rough and turn out well--or that we shouldn't include chauvinist characters. The real question is whether or not our story goes out of its way to excuse or justify such behaviors. The treatment of ideas and themes in our writing, as explored through the structure of our plot and the personalities of our characters is vital to how our stories turn out--whether they are thoughtful or insulting--but that is another topic.
|Kate Beaton's Velocipedestrienne|
If every religious character is a jerk, and every scientific-minded character a paragon of humanity, that's a book that has been stretched too thin by its bias, leaving no room for characters with any depth. The ability to write different types of characters who disagree with each other without turning the 'bad' ones into straw men and the 'good' ones into authorial stand-ins is called 'Negative Capability'. The difference in how various characters are portrayed can reveal not only political, cultural, and spiritual biases, but also gender bias. Such little details of characterization often pass beneath the notice of a reader who isn't looking for them--many writers don't even realize the implications they sow so deeply into their stories. We'll talk about how to ferret out those discrepancies in Part III: Subtle Inequalities.