Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Of Girls and Boys, Heroes, and Keeping Your Characters in Character

I have a son and a daughter, pre-teens, and they both love things like Star Wars and Doctor Who, playing video games, dressing up as superheroes and running around with toy Styrofoam Thor swords. They love comics and anime and Legos.

My daughter is drawn to strong female characters. Black Widow is her favorite Avenger. I try to find stories that have strong female characters for my daughter, because it’s not hard to find strong male characters written, but sometimes harder to find the girls. And while my daughter loves both, she relates to the girls.

I started watching an anime last week—and I’m not going to name it, because I don’t feel like getting into an argument about how and why these characters acted the way they did, and how it might have been rational or logical in some ways. It started out great. It was intriguing, the animation was gorgeous, and it seemed to have strong characters of both genders. At first. By the time I hit the second arc of the story, I felt like everything I had come to know about these characters was sucked out or flattened. Boy became the stereotypical hero off to save the damsel—and let me say, I don’t mind damsel in distress stories. They can be written well. Not all girls want to be the hero—some girls dream about a knight in shining armor coming to sweep them off their feet. But some girls want to be heroes. Some girls need to be heroes. Some girls want to see the heroes they can relate to. And when the writers take a girl who was shown—at first—as a strong, capable character and slowly tone that down and then flat-out rip the heroic rug right out from under her, it disappoints me at first—and then just makes me mad. Why would you do that to your character—just so the guy can become a white knight to a girl who shouldn't have needed it?

There was a line this female character said when she was basically being tortured that made me so, so mad, and I can’t say what it was without giving the anime name, but let me just say: it was not cool, because it made the girl’s pain all about the guy. It was not only an injustice to the girl, but also an injustice to the characterization of the guy, who had once had confidence that the girl could protect herself pretty darn well and that just…vanished. It was like watching Body Snatched versions of these characters.

I’m not saying the guy can’t rescue the girl. I’m not saying the girl can’t rescue the guy. I love a good story that has mutual rescuing where characters of both genders get to be the heroes. I love when the girl is able to escape on her own. I love it when the guy comes to help her or save her. I love when the girl gets to save the guy.  As long as it is well-written and in character. Look at Disney’s Tangled. Eugene and Rapunzel saved each other back and forth through that movie. Look at Frozen. Anna and Kristoff took turns saving each other and at the end, Anna gets to save herself, which is the best thing ever—but she wouldn't have gotten to the point where she could if she hadn't had friends to help her along the way. Everyone needs a leg up sometimes—boy or girl. Heroism comes in all sorts of forms. It’s not just physical strength. The shyest, quietest character might be the bravest one. Characters who some might see as weak could be the strongest.

I want stories that tell my son he can be the hero. But I also want the same for my daughter. I want stories that can tell both of them that it’s okay to rely on other people, male or female, and that they don’t always have to be the hero, but they also can be. They need strong characters of both genders in the things the read, the stuff they watch, what they listen to.

And when I’m watching something and it starts out with a strong female character who dissolves into an object of conquest, it frustrates me and makes me want to go sit down and write a book about a strong female character for my daughter. (Then I remind myself I’m already writing a series about a strong female character—but darn it, I want to write a brand new one. A book, not a series. Why can’t more of my books come in one-shots?)

I say again: We need strong characters of both genders. But please, fellow writers, please—do not taunt me with an awesome, strong, female character and then make her an almost completely helpless object. Don’t. Do. It. I wouldn't want to see that happen to a male character either. Keep your characters true to themselves. Characters are supposed to grow, and yes, characters change when they go on journeys, sometimes for the worse, but it should make sense.