Strong female protagonists in fiction
Unless you have been completely cut off from the world for the past year or so (or doing nothing except play Pokemon Go J ) you are probably aware of a lot of changes in fiction recently. Well, I say recently as this has been ongoing for decades but over the past year or so things seem to have reached a head. A crisis point, perhaps. Certainly a time of great conflict.
Over 2015 and 2016, a number of films have come out with strong female protagonists in them and these have caused a significant backlash from certain areas of the geek community – whether they are Mad Max fans bemoaning the perceived loss of centre stage for their hero in Fury Road* or Ghostbusters fans who think, against all the evidence, that changing the gender of characters makes a film unwatchable. While those two films are possibly the most prominent, they are by no means the only ones. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is another example of a strong female lead in a major Hollywood production as is Jupiter Ascending and the change is not limited to film – series such as Agent Carter have also been flying the flag. The controversies kicked off by some of these have been shaking the internet and demonstrating that, maybe, the so called war of the sexes is not as much in the past as believed. Regardless, it is a sign that the role of the female character is changing and for the better.
In genre fiction it is sometimes hard to define what a ‘strong female character’ actually is. For example, it is easy to think that the traditional ‘kick arse babe’ so beloved of fantasy is a strong character but that is only the case if the character has other facets to her personality. Without the depth she is merely the stereotypical ‘girl with spirit’ who is merely there to pander to male fantasies. She needs to have what is commonly referred to as agency – an ability to control her own destiny – as well as a host of other traits.
I have always tried to make my female characters believable. It is not always an easy thing to achieve for a male writer and was a challenge I set myself while writing Transitions. That led to the character of Helen who was a mix of the personalities of several women I knew. As a way of creating a believable character, I like to think it worked reasonably well. I see Helen as the creation I am currently most proud of and I especially enjoyed writing her appearances in both Transitions and the sequel to it Transformations, which appears in Lurking Miscellany. In both those stories she is also the main protagonist in that she actively sets out to solve the plot and does so with intelligence and a strong will.
By the time I came to write Gods of the Deep, I had spent even more time thinking about this issue. Discussions online in places such as the Absolute Write forums regarding the roles of any character other than a straight white male brought up the concept of Ripley from the Alien franchise. According to one rumour, Ripley was originally written as a male character and was changed when Sigourney Weaver was cast. However, all they changed was the gender of the character – very little else changed. This may be the secret behind writing believable female protagonists – don’t try to write a female protagonist, simply write a protagonist. In fact, it is largely considered to be good practise when writing to look critically at all the characters you have and ask yourself ‘does this character absolutely have to be that particular gender or ethnicity? If I changed it would it change the plot?’ If the answer to those questions is ‘no’ then a change should certainly be considered.
This was the method I applied to one of the stories in Gods of the Deep – Heart of the City. Originally this had been intended to have a male protagonist and a significant chunk of characterisation and story had been laid down when I basically ran out of steam and failed to find a way to progress the story. For some reason the male protagonist was not managing to be interesting enough. As I reflected on the story some more, it occurred to me that I could answer both the above critical questions with ‘no’ and change the character. So I did this and the character of Sir Anthony De Berg woke up one morning to find that he was actually a she - Lady Catherine de Berg. Which didn’t change any of the character’s personality in any significant way and gave the story that extra little something it needed.
The role of female protagonists in fiction in the 21st century should not be a controversial issue and it is surprising that something like an all female Ghostbuster’s cast can cause such a reaction as it did. Nevertheless, it did and that shows that there is still a battle to fight. However, like it or not, writers and fans need to be aware of these issues and respond to them positively.
*If you want a theory that may (or may not) shock you consider this one shared by a friend on Facebook. Max is never the main protagonist in any of the films. He is merely a catalyst who kicks the story off and helps it along, The story itself belongs to someone else and in at least one case (the third film) that is a female character.
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Gods of the Deep
by D.A. Lascelles
Professor Everyn Crowe is just a harmless academic with an interest in the Theological and Ethereal Sciences. He’d expected his life to consist of quiet hours in the library and tinkering with his newly invented etheric compass. He is therefore surprised when his studies into the quaint anthropological practises of some isolated villagers living on the coast of his native Creatha result in him being unceremoniously thrown into the sea.
Luckily, Captain Rachel Drake of the Neptune’s Wing is on hand to supply a rescue. If Everyn can avoid being cast overboard by her crew for being a witch, she may have a use for his unusual academic specialities.
A collection of tales of pirates, swashbucklers, demons and adventure.
Gods of the Deep (paperback): https://www.amazon.co.uk/Gods-Deep-Mr-D-Lascelles/dp/1535260599/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1468622921&sr=1-2&keywords=Gods+of+the+deep
Gods of the Deep (Kindle edition): https://www.amazon.co.uk/Gods-Deep-D-Lascelles-ebook/dp/B01IFM258O/ref=sr_1_7?ie=UTF8&qid=1468622849&sr=8-7&keywords=Gods+of+the+deep
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D.A Lascelles is a former clinical scientist turned teacher. He writes in his spare time and his first short story, Gods of the Sea, was originally published in Pirates and Swashbucklers Anthology by Pulp Empires (pulpempire.com/mag/). His novella Transitions, a paranormal romance novella, was later released by Mundania Press (www.mundania.com/) and he has also released a collection of short stories under the title Lurking Miscellany.
Reports of a Blur/Oasis style rivalry between himself and R.A Smith are always hotly denied as are the almost non-existent rumours that they are one and the same person. They have on a number of occasions been seen standing next to one another at Steampunk fairs which proves both theories wrong. He is also, despite claims made by his students, neither Australian, Hungarian, John Travolta nor Chucky from Child’s Play.