I fell in love on Valentine’s Day.
February 14, 2017. I was lounging on my bed and sipping old coffee, still in my pajamas. It was mid-afternoon, the perfect time to take a nap. It was also about two and a half weeks after me and my husband of six years decided to get a divorce. Not exactly the perfect time to fall in love.
But it’s not like I was on a dating website looking for love. I wasn’t on a mission to move on to the next person or to heal my heart by filling it with someone else or to complicate my already complicated life with a sudden plunge into a rushed romance. It was nothing like that. I didn’t fall in love with a person.
I fell in love with an idea. An idea for a book.
Getting hit with a creative idea feels a lot like falling in love. There’s giddiness, sleeplessness, and nonsensical, unprompted smiling that makes strangers look at you funny in Target. There’s an obnoxious compulsion to tell everyone about this wonderful new thing, coupled with a fear that if you do tell everyone, the wonderful thing will somehow lose its potency and evaporate into nothingness. It is all at once exhilarating and terrifying and frustrating and beautifully stupid. Falling in love with my book felt like all of these things.
First, I need to get one thing straight: I don’t know anything about writing books. I’ve tried to write books in the past, but all that I had ever achieved was a hard drive littered with dozens of chapter ones and sloppily composed outlines that collapsed into themselves before anything resembling a plot was ever allowed to emerge. My creativity has always been hampered by a total lack of discipline combined with the unfortunate compulsion to do silly things like pay rent and do laundry. In short, something has always gotten in the way of chapter two ever hitting the page.
But not this time.
Over the next several months, my idea grew into an outline, which grew into chapters, which blossomed into a confused and chaotic beast that is now something close to 70,000 words (and counting). It’s not a brilliant work of art, and it may never hit the shelves, but it’s currently the love of my life. It makes me smile to myself when I’m sandwiched between strangers on the A train. It helps me wake up in the morning with a little spring in my step. It keeps me calm when I want to lash out at the cat-caller on the corner who apparently thinks my pajamas make me look SUPER HOT while I’m dragging myself to the laundromat because I’ve once again let myself run out of jeans. But as with every great romance, it’s not all smiles and springy-steps. There are speed bumps. Lots of them. And my first speed bump was a doozy. It came in the form of a single nagging question that plagued me and poked at me.
What makes a strong female character?
It’s not as if I didn’t have a lot of inspiration to draw from. In a world with Arya Stark, Katniss Everdeen, Hermione Granger, Princess Leia, and countless other kickass leading ladies, how could I struggle with such a simple concept? I consider myself to be a pretty strong woman. Most of the women I know are strong women. So why in the world was I having trouble writing one? In the end, I did what any sensible person would do. I turned to my friends on Facebook.
And boy did they deliver.
The exact question I posed was this: “What qualities would you assign to a character in order to make her a strong female protagonist?” I wanted to keep the question simple, and I didn’t reveal the reason for my asking. I only wanted my excellent friends, many of whom are avid and passionate readers, to give me their opinions so I could have some kind of starting point. I wanted to know what readers look for, what they admire, and what they relate to, so that when it came time for me to start putting my protagonist down in words I’d have a clear idea of the human being I was trying to create. Without a strong protagonist, my idea would be dead before it could take its first breath.
Here’s what some of my excellent friends had to say:
Kacey said, “You can have strength in vulnerability. Women who care deeply, have flaws, and make mistakes but do the right thing.”
Emily said, “I think the main trait she must hold, no matter who she is, is challenging and pushing against female stereotypes and societal expectations.”
Justin said, “She wants something besides a relationship; she relies on her intuition, intellect, and personal values to solve problems; she has personal flaws but is able to overcome them.”
Deanna said, “This woman is resourceful, intelligent, and fierce in her convictions. She can be vulnerable and is able to accept when things are less than ideal, but be able to continue to lead her life to the best of her ability.”
And Garrett (my excellent ex-husband) said, “She has a sword.” (Thanks, babe.)
My favorite response, however, came from my friend Dave, who said, “A strong female protagonist can be anything so long as she has agency within her story, if she sculpts events rather than simply having things happen to her.” My issue with this, and with every response, however, was that I didn’t see how these traits applied exclusively to female characters. Of course I want a female protagonist who has agency within her own story. Of course I want a female protagonist who challenges stereotypes. Of course I want to write an intelligent, resourceful, fierce woman who overcomes flaws and challenges. And yeah, at some point my protagonist might have a sword.
After reading my friends’ responses, I started to realized that my question itself had been flawed. Because the same qualities that make a female character strong are the qualities that make any character strong. I began to wonder, maybe there is no such thing as a strong female character. Maybe there are strong characters who happen to be females, and there are strong characters who happen to be male. Heck, there are strong characters who happen to be rodents and kitchen appliances (Redwall and Brave Little Toaster, anyone?)
Maybe, just maybe, we need to get rid of the idea that there is a “strong female character” at all.
And maybe, fingers crossed, that means that writing one will be that much easier.
But like any good writer (which I hope to someday be), I’m open to new perspectives. So to you, dear reader, I pose a similar but modified version of my original question, with a very important addendum: What qualities make for a strong character, and do you think there are any qualities that are exclusive to female characters?
Feature Image Via HBO