On “Strong Female Characters” and Female Friendships

Yeah, I’m aware this topic contains a lot of well-tread ground already, but I’ve got to get my revenge on those terrible fantasy novels I read as a kid somehow.

I’ve had kind of a rough year–I’ve been super depressed, college homework is hard, and to top it off, my grandfather died a couple months ago due to covid complications. It was just not fun. 🙃 It hasn’t been all bad though, and I really want to write and blog more? Hopefully?? Anyway, enough about me. Let’s talk about bad fantasy heroines.

I’m sure you’ve met the character type before. (If not, I will be hitting you up and blackmailing convincing you with mild force to let us switch lives and reading experiences.) This female character is tough. She’s like a man, but better. She looks down her nose at more feminine characters as she mows down a zombie horde, and she’s horrified by the fact that her stuffy aunt wants her to wear a DRESS and EMBROIDER, and despite living in a historical period, she acts like no historical woman ever. Which is a good thing, because historical women are WEAK. And our heroine isn’t weak. Insert some faux-feminism into the story and demonize every woman who is not our heroine–these are crucial steps–and done! You have created a Strong Female Character.

God, I’m giving myself flashbacks.

Here’s the thing, YA authors of my childhood. Women aren’t naturally weak. Just because “Womyn are kept under the thumb of the patriarchy and are treated like chattel!1!!” doesn’t make those women weak, and that goes even for the women who act like how society wants them to. Especially for the women who act like how society wants them to, in fact. Living up to such high expectations is impressive! Stop denigrating people who haven’t done anything wrong!

And femininity isn’t weak. Femininity is pretty cool, actually. I’m pretty sure all the authors who write characters sneering at sewing and embroidery have never sewn or embroidered anything in their lives. It’s hard! Sewing is really, really hard and takes a lot of practice and skill and sometimes math to get right. It’s an art form.

POV: You are a sewer. You’ve been working on a dress for weeks. It’s your finest creation, taking all of your skill and imagination. You’ve put so much of yourself into creating something beautiful, something that you love and that other people will love. You pick up a YA novel, one with four stars on Goodreads and Amazon. “Women who sew are dumb!” Snippy YA Heroine says. “I sure can’t breathe in this corset!” You close the book in disgust and wonder when authors will open a history book.

(Corsets don’t. They don’t choke you. Sometimes they can! But that means you’ve either been tightlacing or else the corset doesn’t fit. ALSO, CORSETS AND STAYS ARE DIFFERENT THINGS. PSA.)

Hey, I just had a thought. I wonder if sewing would still be considered weak if men did it? I bet it wouldn’t, huh? It’s almost like we denigrate women’s work just because women do it, and not because it’s inherently bad…Nah, that can’t be it. It must just be that math, fighting, and not showing emotions are considered good because they ARE good! Men must just like better things. Hah! Silly women.

In a world where fields that are comprised of mostly women are undervalued and underpaid, I don’t really like this kind of take, funnily enough.

And a lot of traits that are traditionally coded as feminine are…good, actually? Being kind, compassionate, and a good parent is not like…a crime. It takes a lot of strength, funnily enough. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t good parts to masculinity as well, because there are, but masculine traits are not ‘more strong’ than feminine traits. Being brave and outspoken is great! So is being humble and kind. (And that’s not to set up a dichotomy between the two. You can absolutely be both.) And I don’t want to hear ANYBODY say that crying or otherwise showing emotion is weak. Crying is your body’s way of processing emotions, and it’s quite effective. In fact, stigmatizing every human reaction except anger and violence is how you get toxic masculinity! Huh, imagine that.

Anyway, call me crazy, but I think that ‘femininity is bad, actually’ is an incredibly bad take for a feminist to have. Of course, maybe I’m just blinded by the patriarchy. /s

[Image ID: Text reads, "Medieval European Girls in Fiction vs. History

Fiction: I hate sewing, it's so pointless and lame. My sisters and my mom are so stupid, I'm smart, I'm going to go ride my pony and learn how to use a sword. Rar, I'm fierce.

History: Without my needle, you would all be naked and dead. Excuse me, I have to go throw a party and negotiate a land deal."]

And I want the women to be friends! Just! A woman–or, for that matter, a person–does not have to be an island in order to be strong!

And a character doesn’t need to be strong. They need to feel like a person.

Let women be weak. Let them be passive, let them be quiet and meek. Let them have a quiet strength, or let them be cowardly. Because women are people, and sometimes people are all of those things. And then let your other women be strong and brash and brave, because sometimes people are those things, too.

You know who’s a good Strong Female Character? Eowyn. She has a motivation for wanting to fight, she doesn’t look down on other women for being different from her, and she recognizes that being in a war is bloody and awful but she wants to fight anyway because she both wants to be there with her family and is suicidal, at least in the book. She’s amazing and awesome and I SHIP HER AND FARAMIR SO HARD (sorry, random Farawyn outburst that happens to me every once in a while). I kind of get the sense that all these Strong Female Characters are trying to be Eowyn and failing, because the authors don’t get what made Eowyn work in the first place.

[Image ID: A GIF of Eowyn, a blonde woman with braided hair and a crown, singing]
I’m sorry, I don’t remember where I got this GIF from 😬

She’s just…REALLY cool.

My hot take is that damsels in distress are cool, actually. Sue me. The issue isn’t that “The woman sat around and waited for some guy to save her, what a COWARD.” The issue is when a woman is a) put in distress in order to get her out of the way because who has time to write a woman, am i rite lads, or b) put in distress in order to be a motivation for the hero. “Oh noes! Princess Erlandia was kidnapped by the dastardly villain! I CAN’T back out of this plot now! Wait what was her name again”

Women who fall into misfortune and can’t get out without help? Not a problem. And yes, that includes women who get saved by men. Sometimes…it…happens??? I don’t get why people make such a big deal out of it? Though I will admit women saving each other is *chef’s kiss* amazing. Anyway, #StopDemonizingCinderellaForBeingAnAbuseSurvivorChallenge

(I feel like a lot of the narrative around feminism and fairy tales is…deeply weird. I’d like to do an article on that but other people have done it better, I think. In sum, they are LEGENDS told in like 300 words and if you really want to go there, a lot of men in these stories wait around and get saved by old ladies!! The focus is not on the characters and I’m sorry you didn’t get the modern novel you were expecting?? A lot of fairy tales are WAY more female-focused than the literature of the era was and it seems very strange to me to assume that just because men collected the tales, that means women weren’t telling them.


And also, last complaint I promise, but I feel like female friendships don’t always get a lot of depth? A lot of them are, at worst, disgustingly wholesome and thrown in for the brownie points, and at best, not as memorable as a lot of male relationships I can think of. I’m perfectly willing to admit this may be the books I’m reading, because YA has a habit of letting the main romantic relationship be the juggernaut to end all juggernauts the main focus, but I don’t know. Can any of y’all think of female friendships in modern literature that are as developed and memorable as, say, Frodo and Sam? I just want more really developed female relationships that are allowed to be the focus of a story. And I don’t just mean romantic relationships.

Tl;dr: THERE’S MORE THAN ONE KIND OF STRENGTH TO BE FOUND ON THIS EARTH, AUTHORS. And also develop your female relationships for the love of God. Things that you shouldn’t talk about if you can’t be normal about it: 1) femininity, 2) fairy tales, and 3) abuse survivors. Oh, and 4) corsets.

P.S.: When I say mean things about YA, I’m joking. I literally write YA, that’d be pretty hypocritical of me, lol.

Anyway! Let your women be messy and beautiful and ugly, my good people. Good night, and happy early Gawain and the Green Knight Day Christmas and Hanukkah to all who celebrate! Man, I wish I could get a sexy guy to come through my door this Christmas and challenge me to a game in which I behead him and then have to go to his castle and get hit on by both him and his wife but then I don’t get beheaded because I’m too sexy. Alright I’m sorry for making you read that last sentence, I’m out (but also, please God let this happen to me)

On Chosen Ones–a discussion post except I don’t actually know how to do discussion posts

Ah, the chosen one. Just saying (or typing) the phrase is enough to send a shudder deep through the souls of many out there. There was a time when you could not escape from this character type in fantasy. They were EVERYWHERE. Chosen ones were annoying and numerous, like flies. I have said before that hating on cliches just because they’re cliche can be kind of silly, for lack of a better word; just because a trope is done a lot doesn’t necessarily make it bad, and for the most part, the execution of the trope is what makes a story awful, not the trope being there in the first place. But I will still admit chosen ones can get on my nerves. I’m not saying I actively avoid books with this trope, but I’ve never sought them out. Although–I do kind of miss seeing these types of books in bookstores. There’s a type of nostalgia, not in reading the stories (heavens no), but in reading the bad book blurbs. I’m an early 2000’s kid, you little ones out there don’t understand.

Actually, I’m just really weird.

But I’ve softened on this trope over the years. (Over the course of last year, actually.) Chosen ones and prophecies are bad when they’re lazily used, but the tropes aren’t bad in and of themselves. The issue is that, instead of actually trying to say something about fate vs. free will or the struggle of responsibility, the prophecy is only ever used as a way to push the plot forward. Gotta wrangle that hero in there somehow! Now quick! We’ve got a dark lord to defeat and a poorly-developed love interest to shove in our hero’s path!

Instead of being used to enforce the story’s themes, the trope is just used to remove agency from the main character. A prophecy is not the same thing as a motive, and treating it like one can be story-breaking in some cases. What’s more interesting, a hero who tries to defeat the dark lord with no way of knowing who will win because that’s what the hero wants to do, or a hero who tries to defeat the dark lord because a prophecy says he will? And that’s not even getting into the implications imbedded in the trope of how only special people can accomplish things and if you aren’t special you might as well not even try.

But! I still don’t think this trope is all bad! I’ll admit I DEFINITELY like it better when it’s subverted, but even played straight, I’ve still seen portrayals I like. Weak motivations and vaguely weird undertones can definitely be overcome with the right amount of witty banter and fun dynamics and painful angst. (Okay, I’ll admit that I’m struggling to come up with any examples of the chosen one trope played straight, just because I don’t read a lot of chosen one stories. Was the trope played straight in Kung Fu Panda?)

This trope honestly has SUCH fertile ground for subversions, though. I’ve seen some people say that even subverting the trope is pointless because everyone’s already done everything you can do with the trope already and I’m just **insert confused face here**. People have been writing for a millenium and everyone has already done everything you can do with a LOT of tropes. That doesn’t mean the execution of the tropes can’t still be interesting.

Off the top of my head, I can list several subversions I’ve never read in a story before: A chosen one cracks under the pressure, abandons the prophecy, and doesn’t get pulled back into the plot, leaving his friends to pick up the pieces of the abandoned plot thread, so to speak. A chosen one becomes friends with the villain and fulfilling the prophecy becomes something horrifying to them. An ACTUAL pacifist–not a fake one, sorry Aang–becomes the subject of a prophecy about killing the villain, and does not find it pleasant. Just…there are a ton of subversions that I haven’t seen done before, and even if it were true that all the subversions have already been done, that still doesn’t mean that interesting stories can’t still be made using this trope.

Anakin was the first character that really made me think I could love this trope. He’s the chosen one, supposedly, but it’s all very murky and he ends up killing a bunch of people and was the prophecy even real?? Did he fulfill the prophecy by killing Palpatine, even though Anakin still destroyed the Jedi order? Did he fulfill the prophecy by destroying the Jedi order and killing Palpatine? It’s a very weird subversion of the trope, and I honestly enjoyed it so much.

I LOVE chosen ones with fall arcs, okay? It’s such an interesting subversion. I mean, I love fall arcs in general. But chosen one fall arcs are especially interesting because of the things you can do with it. What’s the intersection between fate and free will? Is the prophecy nonsense or is there some kind of twist? How do you defeat someone with fate on their side, actually? And I love characters who are on the wrong side of the prophecy, too. What would the knowledge that a person is going to turn evil and there’s nothing they can do about it do to a person?


Mordred: so i’m destined to destroy a kingdom

Me: you’re doing great sweetie 😍😊😋😍🥰

Anyway, it’s 2020 and I personally think it’s time for chosen ones to make a comeback. The trope has a lot of potential, and just because it got turned into a lazy plot device doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. I’d love to see more authors do original stuff with prophecies and chosen ones! I’ll briefly turn my whump-addict mode on and say that I mostly like prophecies that end horribly like in Greek tragedy, but that’s not a prerequisite for me to like this trope in a story. I like exploring concepts like fate and free will, and I like the idea of being destined for something you aren’t sure if you want at all.

Anyway, tell me your thoughts on this topic! I want to know if there are any subversions of this trope you particularly like or if you like the trope at all. Are there any stories with chosen ones you love? And I’m sorry this article is bad–I’m in college and my brain cells are dying (at least I have an excuse now lmao)

On Antiheroes, Antivillains, Villain Protagonists, and Tragic Pasts

I’ve been thinking about antiheroes and antivillains and what makes and breaks these character types, because I write these character types a lot. Weez and I were talking about this very issue, and I mentioned I should probably write a blog post about it or something, so here we are.

I LOVE writing this character type. I love writing unhealthy relationships. I love seeing what makes people behave that way. I love getting inside someone’s messed up psyche–I love getting inside my own messed up psyche, because it can be so satisfying to write your own problems into your characters. (That sounds self-incriminating. No I promise I’m normal now get OFF the phone with that psychiatrist.)

But I low-key hate reading these characters, it’s true.

It’s not like unhealthy characters and unhealthy relationships never work for me. Most of my favorite books have this element in them. But my most hated books usually have this, too. And I’ve been wondering for a while… What’s the difference in how this is handled? What makes this work for me and what doesn’t? And… I still don’t exactly have an answer, but I have a few ideas. Basically, this post will probably be all over the place. Sorry in advance.

A big part of it, for me, is consequences. Judging from my reading tastes, they’re not necessary, but they go a long way. No one ever seems to write consequences, for some reason. In real life, bad things have an aftermath. Most people are not smart enough to keep doing awful things and get away with it, and no one escapes the mental repercussions of bad behavior. Don’t even get me started on this when it comes to relationships. I’ve seen so many fictional relationships where there was no way the heroine would stay with the hero if the author weren’t there to keep them together (and it’s almost always the hero who’s the awful one). Whenever I feel like the the main characters are only together because the author is pulling the marionette strings, I typically start hating the story.

Don’t get me wrong. There are characters like Bella Swan and Juliette Ferrars, and their boyfriends are awful. Dictator awful. Creepy stalking vampire awful. But I never once had trouble believing that Bella and Juliette would be with those boys, because, frankly? Bella and Juliette were both insane. Of course Bella wanted her Gothic villain boyfriend. How would she be happy otherwise? It was believable in-story, if ridiculous. Yes, both relationships would be awful and disturbing in real life. But it wasn’t real life, and I never once had something break that feeling. Which isn’t to say that fictional unhealthy relationships always should be that unreal, far from it, and those two stories are definitely not perfect, but I never once felt like the authors were forcing the two characters together.

And when a character has a tacked-on tragic past, IT IS THE WORST. I HATE IT. A character is bad and the author wants to erase their culpability, so they just give them a Tragic Past.

There is a better version of this trope, in which traumatic experiences influence the character’s decisions, but doesn’t excuse them. You can trace the character’s decisions back to their trauma, but it’s not a sympathy grab. It’s not supposed to make you like the character, it’s not there to necessarily get any reaction out of the reader at all. It’s just there to explain why the character does the things they do. I like that tragic past. I love that.

Annnd then there’s that tragic past. The tragic past that feels like it’s supposed to change EVERYTHING about the reader’s preconceived notions of this character, because it’s not like they saw this coming from page one! This character has been through so much. His dad died when he was like…twelve or something. Or maybe he was eleven. I don’t care! Feel sorry for this character! Please forget all the people he tortured and killed in chapter one! You don’t remember their names anyway! Oh, he raped someone? Well, that’s okay! She wasn’t named either! (I AM feminist. How dare you.)

Being abused or having a dead relative or something like that? It doesn’t take away culpability. It can be a reason for why a character behaves the way they do, but other people, in real life, have been through the exact same thing as your character, and they don’t always end up abusing their girlfriends and murdering people. Things like injustice and deaths in the family do cause lasting harm to people, and characters very well should have some psychological damage from them, but trauma does not make people abusive. That’s ridiculous. So no, it’s not an excuse for your character, and don’t use it as one.

Honestly? Some of my favorite antiheroic characters don’t even have a tragic past. Marak from The Hollow Kingdom? He’s practically shameless about doing bad things. He’s also pragmatic, and he’s not going to do something bad for no reason. He’s sympathetic, but that’s partly because he doesn’t make any excuses. He doesn’t care whether you accept him or not. And that’s why I like him.

(Insecurity also can also go a long way to making me like an awful character, incidentally. It’s simply way more fun to watch a character do horrible things while being an insecure wreck than it is to watch a character do horrible things while being an arrogant bastard. Just a side note.)

To sum up my point: Tragic pasts only manipulate my feelings if they’re not trying to manipulate my feelings. I love reading tragic pasts, and I love reading emo characters, but both of those can just go so terribly wrong. Actually, here’s a better way of summing up my point: A tragic past is not a replacement for a redemption arc. If the heroine finds out that ‘oh, he wasn’t as bad as I thought he was! He tortured my boyfriend in book 1, but that’s okay, because we broke up later in book 2. Also, he likes puppies. No one who likes puppies can be evil,’ that…is not a redemption arc. And if you’re wondering whether that was a pointed description, IT WAS, AARON WARNER ANDERSON.

A redemption arc is a character realizing they were wrong and repenting and acting on it. Redemption is a character changing. Redemption is a wonderful thing that hardly ever actually happens in the books I read, and I want more of that.

Also, one last thing: why are most of the characters who fit this type white guys? I would personally love to have more antiheroic emo women, and I’d love to have more POC characters in general. I can only think of a few female antiheroines, and the only antihero I can think of off the top of my head who isn’t white is just…Inan. Inan is a gem. But I can’t think of any other non-white characters like this? It may simply be the books I read? I want variety and I want diversity! Is that too much to ask?

Anyway, that’s all I have to say for now! I feel like I could have said more, especially about the romance side of things, but oh well. Maybe I’ll have more thoughts later.

And a list of books I liked with this character type:

  • Cruel Beauty (one of the few books with an angsty antiheroine, and also one of my favorite books ever, and the description and setting in this book is beautiful)
  • The Hollow Kingdom (Hello my CHILDHOOD also Marak is antiheroic and actually not emo about it and it is so refreshing, this is one of my favorite books ever too)
  • Children of Blood and Bone (if Inan and Zelie don’t end up together in the next book I’m not reading, it’s all I’m saying; and I loved this book SO MUCH although frankly the ending did a number on me)
  • The Diabolic (Tyrus and Nemesis are just…wow. Read it for yourself, guys. And I refuse to read the next two books because THAT WAS THE PERFECTEST ENDING I’VE EVER SEEN. I’m just going to let it end right there and wow that blew me away I loved it.)

And for some reason I’m blanking out now and going, ‘uh…Electra by Sophocles was good? And I like Queen Maeve and Medea and Medusa and Morgan and mythology seems to like villainous girls whose names start with M? I literally cannot think of anything else and it seems like I should have read more books like this and surely I’m missing some book I loved?’ So that’s probably my cue to stop right there. Rec me any books you liked with emo antiheroes and antiheroines!

My Thoughts On Cliches

Firstly, I am in no place at all to give writing advice. I don’t think I’ve ever even finished a novel. (I’ve finished a few very long stories. But not novels.) But I still love writing, and I write a lot, and I think about writing a lot, so! I’d say I’m qualified!

Seriously, I have no idea what I’m talking about and all my ideas are probably going to change in a week. Because they always do. Also, this post is likely to be all over the place, but you know what, I don’t care. Because I am dedicated to quality on this blog.

Anyway, let’s talk about cliches. They’re a bit of a pet peeve for me, both when they show up in a novel and clearly have no thought put into them at all, and when writers talk about them like they’re pure evil and the bane of all good writing. Just…picture me sighing loudly, okay? (But if you’ve ever talked about cliches like they’re pure evil and the bane of all good writing, that’s totally fine. I have, too. And if you’ve ever had a cliche show up in one of your novels with clearly no thought put into it at all, then that’s also fine. I have, too. 😉 )

Cliches are not always bad. Sometimes I can find them actually incredibly fun in the right context, especially if they’re milked for nostalgia. And a novel can still be terrible and have not a cliche on the page. A novel can feel soulless and cliched, sure, but a novel can also feel soulless and subvert every cliche out there. Sometimes you can leave in a cliche and not kill the story. Sometimes stories are killed if an author gets too edgy and breaks every cliche in existence. Seriously. (Because you know what, both cliches and breaking cliches can get formulaic.)

And sometimes a cliche can make you want to put on a cloak, head to the mountains, and ask a wise-woman to heal your soul, because a YA book just killed it. There are stories and characters that were not thought out. The author never stopped to ask, ‘what qualities does my handsome, tanned quarterback have beyond being handsome, tanned, and a quarterback? What qualities does my self-loathing and shy teenage heroine have beyond the product description? Do I need an overused, predictable plot structure, or would it better fit the story’s themes and characters to break out into something new? Are parts of the (already overused) trope I’m using kind of problematic if I think about it for three seconds?’ And the story ends up grating on the poor, frayed, already well-worn nerves of our inner critic.

But if you’re raising your eyebrows at the idea that cliches could ever be okay in a story, then I present to you: Star Wars. The plots are cliched and hackneyed. (Unless they’re the prequels, in which case they’re just weird, but I digress.) The characters can sometimes be a liittle bit similar to character tropes hugely popular at the moment *coughcoughKylo Rencoughcough* But does everyone, probably including you, love them? Yes! Because they have a lot of heart, even if it’s sometimes really hapless and just plain weird heart (the prequels). And heart is a really big thing that sets a good cliched story apart from a bad uncliched one.

^^All that talk about heart felt kind of cliched in itself, but whatever, let’s not go meta

Anyway…think about the story. Think about your characters, think about whether your book needs a more unusual plot or if your characters are perfectly fine with the tried and true hero’s journey, and finally, read a lot. Read a ton, and read critically, and figure out what you like and dislike, and what you just plain want to see done differently. (Broke my own advice oops) (I’m on a reading slump)

And if you really, really like a story you read and want to create a story just like it, do analyze what you like about the story. You probably don’t actually like Twilight’s plot. You probably loved the incredibly strong emotions, Edward’s stage presence–yes, I know it’s a novel, but he still had stage presence–and Bella’s dry sense of humor. Similarly? You probably don’t want to copy Lord of the Ring’s world-building. You want to accomplish the sense of depth and intricacy his world had, along with the sense of hope and the good old-fashioned cuteness the story had. (But seriously, if you want to copy Lord of the Rings, just go read some mythology and history, because that’s what Tolkien himself copied off of. I’m serious, read Livy, Beowulf, Arthurian legends, The Iliad, fairy tales–and read classics and fairy tales from non-European cultures, too. You’ll probably end up with a similarly nice result, but much different from Tolkien.) (Also, did people actually want to copy Twilight, or just the big sales? I will be nice and assume they wanted to copy Twilight.)

I’ve written a few cliched characters before, and I think the reason they slip in, for me, is just plain carelessness. Either I’ll go, ‘bah! I don’t need to develop her! She’s a minor character!’ and end up with the most stereotypical annoying younger sister of ever, or I’ll go, ‘bah! I’m a good writer! I don’t need to, like…work and stuff.’ And, similarly, I ended up with badly done cliches. Even if you’re a good writer, younger self…you still have to work. You can also end up with cliches if you don’t do your research and learn what people want to see in fiction vs. what they’re tired of seeing. And obviously, if you’re going to write a character of a different race or religion or something like that, definitely definitely look up the stereotypes associated with that group and avoid all of those as much as you can. Because they can and will slip in to your story. Anyway. That concludes our Ted Talk.

Anyway, those were all my reeeally rambly and probably incoherent thoughts on cliches. While writing this, I actually ended up with a whole other post about cliches that irritate me, so I might post that sometime in the future. ‘Cause, you know, no one has ever posted about that before in the history of blogging. I’m totally original.

If there’s one thing I want you to take away from this, it’s that you can slap any cliche you want to in your novel and I will cheer you on as I do the same. Just make sure it’s thought out, and make sure it isn’t a harmful stereotype about a real world group of people. But if you want love triangles? Then throw in those love triangles. Because I actually LOVE love triangles.