Writing Female Leads, Part 2


Greetings once again. Today, I wanted to expand on something I’ve discussed earlier- writing good female characters. Since my first blog on this subject, I have mused further on some of the more popular ‘female-led’ films, and examples I’ve seen from reviews on different films. One thing has jumped out at me each time and that is what I wanted to talk about today- the cliché of the female lead.

Last time, I discussed how writers struggle to write a female character out of fear of making a ‘Mary-Sue’ (a perfect and unrelatable character). However, there is another problem for writers emerging. The old saying is that there are only about ten actual stories and we have simply been writing variations on them for centuries. And granted, readers can often predict a story’s arc within the first five minutes. But this is truly nothing new, and has been used in countless stories for both genders. So why is it a problem now?

Because these arcs are praised as pushing boundaries simply because women are the ones doing it. But in truth, these clichés are not new angles for women and they are simply placed into them because it makes appear strong and dynamic, but in truth makes them dull and familiar at best, or degrading at worst. And as a result, they can drag the story down with them. One example of this is the film Brave. This exemplifies the ‘rebel’ as lead character Merida is a Scottish princess that loves the outdoors, hates conventions, and continually argues with her mother about her royal duties. While Merida might stand out as a girl that wants to make her own way, her journey and motivation is a tired story that has been echoed in countless princesses before. Even watching it, I could predict her inevitable fight with her mother, the results that would force them to look at each other’s views and eventually reconcile, both having learned from each. The recent adaption of The Hobbit is another example, as the creators literally made up the elf Tauriel (who is basically a female reflection of Leogolas) because they wanted a romantic triangle; yet another storyline we have seen and been bored by. But they needed a female audience for the film.

Putting women through a story that men have gone through and calling it revolutionary is simply misleading. Inserting one to attract audiences and create meaningless drama is worse. These stories advocate that because the female lead at the forefront, ‘this old story is new now because a WOMAN is doing it.’ In other words, no woman has been different before, no woman has not wanted to go against the norm, and any woman that does is to be revered and praised. And inserting one for no reason then having a ‘tough girl’ that creates romantic tensions means that woman in adventure stories only exist as prizes for men to fight over. Promoting these as a move forward or even as good additions is wrong and dangerous- it insults the women that have done great things against societal norms in the past, paints them into corners, and makes them just another target group to hit.

To bring things up to date, the better thing for promoters, and for writers, is to simply present their story as a story, and let the genders be meaningless. By doing this, it says that this story is familiar to men and women, and both genders are equal because neither one has any impact on the story. In other words writers, if you sell your female lead as simply being a woman or inserting because you think you have to, then you’re just hiding a tired story that you couldn’t make interesting or begging for approval. And if you do that, you should just put your pen down now.

Posted on April 5, 2014, in Writing, Writing Tips and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. But it is necessary to ignore gender completely? Sexless characters with no romantic interest or no gender-oriented interests seem just as dull as the clichés of females and males. Wouldn’t it be better to focus on developing a complex character with attributes from gender, but at the same time making them rounded and radical enough to break ground?

    • You make a good point. What i meant was not to literally ignore gender completely- that is truly dull. I just saying, let’s not try to say these familiar roles are suddenly new because it’s a woman doing it. As you said, keep gender in mind, but make the role itself good.

      • Oh, I see. Thanks for the clarification. I think you make a valid point when creating female characters. (or male, besides).

      • Would ignoring gender make a story dull? I don’t think gender matters much to most plots. I think it is perfectly reasonable to think that a story could be made interesting without obviously gendering the characters.

  2. Interesting thought. I agree that we have created a new archetype, the snarky anti-girl who only has this mold which needs filling. TO be fair, as you said before there are only so many stories which we simply continue to revise. I think it’s just become the turn of women to fill those roles. Once they become truly old hat, then we can move on to something new. But I also agree that just putting a woman in a role because it calls for a broader audience smacks of tokenism which should be avoided.

    • I’m glad you noticed it- I feel like any time they put a girl in a lead role, they think either ‘rebel/tough girl’ or ‘adorkable’.. But I don’t know if it’s women’s turn- I feel like these roles are worn out and having a woman fill them is basically a cosmetic change. If they do something to drastically improve the role by putting a woman in it, that’s different.

  3. Reblogged this on isolationroom and commented:
    While we’re talking about strong female characters because of how underrepresented they are in fiction, just remember that dwelling on a stock character’s “femaleness” as groundbreaking isn’t the answer. She’s still a flat character, who just happens to be a girl.

  4. This article makes many great points. But I think that the girl-disguised-as-a-boy story can be used to show the ridiculousness of gender stereotypes when down correctly. In the case of Mulan, I think that the disney version of the story was written in such a way that it came across as “look, isn’t it cute? She thinks she can do man things.” But Tamora Pierce wrote a series called The Song of the Lioness where the female main character disguised herself as a boy. That series, as well as all of the series that followed it, Focused a lot on how damaging gender stereotypes can be and how they don’t really reflect reality.

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