It’s a fine time to be a writer, isn’t it? With the changing tides of the 21st century and the flexibility of self-publishing, the average writer is free to publish and share more diverse fiction with the rest of the world. Multi-cultural and racially diverse main characters are a slow- but sure norm. LGBT representation has become recurrent and important part of the media. The possibilities are an endless cornucopia for the growing number of open-minded readers and viewers.
And still, some old tropes have failed to die to the wake of change. A very popular pair, in fact, still root up in the corners of fiction today: Strong Female Characters© and Sensitive Male Characters©. And I do not mean actual characters who fall under the category of having these traits, I am referring to characters who become these traits. Characters who are defined by their strengths or weaknesses in personality, like fighter stats in a video game manual. In the name of breaking gender expectations, these two will often appear to give a story a fresh approach to the male or female perspective. But is this reversal of roles truly commentary, or just a lazier attempt to avoid sexism?
The Strong Female Character© is a frequent flier of Young Adult fiction and its close cousin, Paranormal Romance. She is often characterized by her plainness, but also that she is “not like other girls.” She will hold her own in every fight she gets in. She will be well versed in some form of combat or magic, but still clumsy and “relatable.” Occasionally, this character will still have to deal with a love triangle or troublesome, brooding boyfriend, but her woes will (usually) stay focused on saving the world from the ultimate evils.
The Sensitive Male Character© is an equally familiar player of Young Adult fiction, and reoccurring in Romance novels. Not always the lead, but forever a prime cast member, he will be more “gentle than other men.” He will have complex emotions and the hobbies to match, such as poetry, knitting, and expressing his constant inner monologue to the unwitting audience. He will have a dark, tragic past and darker long eyelashes, which shadow over his cheeks as he cries in open abandon in front of an empathetic love interest.
The problem with these characters is not the characters themselves, but the lack of character they often present. The banner of progressive writing is used to defend these types, citing that the help bring us away from the more cliché male and female roles that sometimes overtake the majority of fiction. Indeed, we’ve earned every reason to create more diversity than the strapping hero and swooning damsel, but just like these old characters, Strong Females and Sensitive Males fail to be the thing characters most deserve being: people.
My favorite (or least favorite, if you like) examples of these types are from books, for the life of me, I tried to enjoy. Tessa Gray of The Infernal Devices by Cassandra Clare has all the makings of an interesting character, her strength tempered by Victorian age manners and her troubling magical ability forced into her life by the story’s antagonists. During the first novel of the trilogy, Tessa’s quiet struggle with her new magic and the search for her missing brother set the building blocks for an incredibly strong, clever, and complex heroine. This potential is then scraped in the second and third book, where her ability and character development take the back-burner for the story’s love triangle. She is forever described as ‘strong-willed’ and ‘clever’ by the main cast, but her character becomes inconsistently powerful, reduced to a few fight scenes, melodrama, and the unearthing of her backstory. She actually spends a third of the last book captured by the main villain, only to unleash the power she had “all along” on him in the last few chapters- after her love interest has shown up. The resulting finale feels lackluster, and Tessa has changed very little aside from what physical (or magical) strength she presents.
A lesser known book, Mary Lindsay’s Ashes on The Waves, is the home of Liam MacGregor, the troubled lead of a Edgar Allen Poe-based fantasy story, where murder and romance overtake the peace of a secluded Irish village. I could write another blog on the problems surrounding this book (which included a frequent, jarring change between first and third person in the middle of chapters), but let’s focus on Liam for now. Secluded by the superstitious villagers and deformed from birth, our main character spends the majority of the book doing one of three things: lamenting over his isolation, pining over his horrible love interest, or reading editions of Keats and Wordsworth. What could be sympathetic and likable quickly turns to character decay as we are reminded again and again just how sensitive Liam is. By the end of the novel, we know very little else about Liam other than his sensitivity.
The problem with both of these characters, as I’ve realized, is the idea at the core of their traits: that sensitivity is feminine and strength is masculine. And here is where we fail over and over as writers, when we choose to write characters that detract from the norm. Ignoring the presence of patriarchy and its effects on a real world setting can leave a story discombobulated. Sensitivity and strength are not mutually inclusive, and to call them forth with the stereotypical traits of the other gender does not actually defeat the gender stereotype. You just enforce it tenfold.
I have never read a better bit of advice than “characters are people first.” Just like people, they rarely fall to one side of traits or the other, and exemplify strength in all sorts of colorful ways. We are more complex than the archetypes we create; we are creatures full of dimensions and shadows that deserve the attention of writing. Diversity is often more than reversing the expected traits of a particular gender/race/nationality, but challenging oneself to dig deeper, finding the person a character is outside of their labels and creeds. Only then do we truly stopping breaking stereotypes badly.