Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Wives, Girlfriends, and Other Female Characters

It's another icy day. The roads seem pretty clear, but my front steps and driveway are still icy. The schools are closed again, but the ballet school just posted on Facebook that they'll be open tonight. I'll have to see what the driveway looks like by then and then figure out how wet it looks and what time the temperature will go back below freezing. I need the exercise and enjoy the class, but I admit that a part of me was looking forward to an evening under the blanket on the sofa, watching TV, since there are a lot of things on tonight. There's the season (and maybe series) finale of Agent Carter, and then in the late slot there's the series finale of Parks and Recreation, then new episodes of Forever and Person of Interest.

We're supposed to get snow tonight/tomorrow morning, but it's all supposed to melt by tomorrow afternoon, so I guess I need to come up with a choir lesson plan. I already know the kids are going to be stark raving insane, since they'll have been cooped up inside for days and out of school for two days. I wonder if I can get away with The Quiet Game (see who can stay quiet and still the longest).

The ice on my roof is breaking up and falling off. It's very loud on the clay tiles.

There's been a lot of talk around the writing spaces of the Internet lately about the "strong female character."  I saw a link to this parody, which is kind of genius because it illustrates exactly the thing that often bugs me about the idea of a "strong female character," which is that this is generally code for "Rambo in drag." Anything traditionally feminine is seen as bad, while anything traditionally masculine is seen as a positive. This woman is cool because she uses a gun, fights with a sword, doesn't care about emotions when she has sex, drinks beer, likes sports, and hates the color pink. She's not like those icky girly girls who wear pink dresses, like to sew, fall in love, like drinks with fruit garnishes, and want to have babies.

Apparently recently, some writer -- and I'm not sure who because I've read comments about it from other authors I know but haven't seen the original post -- said that the way to have a strong female character isn't to come up with a bunch of "strong" traits, but rather to give the character a strong role in the story. And that makes sense. A woman who can fist fight and who likes beer but who ends up just standing around on the periphery of the story, never making decisions that affect the plot, never initiating action, isn't a strong character. She's set dressing. The strong character is one who takes action, makes decisions, has some agency over her life, and it doesn't matter what traits she has.

This discussion reminded me of something else I've been noticing lately, and that's what has to be the most thankless character role ever: the established wife or girlfriend of the hero. I've noticed that in any TV show in which the main male character had a wife or girlfriend when the story begins, as opposed to someone he meets and falls in love with during the course of the story, that character will be fairly universally loathed. She can't win. If her relationship with the hero is happy and comfortable, then it's bland and they have no chemistry, and he needs to break up with her. If there's any conflict, then they're wrong for each other, she's too whiny or bitchy, and he should break up with her. If she doesn't play an active role in the story, then she's useless and boring. If she has any skills whatsoever and is at all competent, she's a Mary Sue. If she ever is put in jeopardy and needs to be rescued, she's a victim and useless. If she takes care of herself, she's a Mary Sue again. And usually it's the female fans who vilify this character. I've noticed that the men don't seem to have these strong feelings. I hate to throw out the "they're just jealous" thing, but maybe it does have something to do with the existing girlfriend/wife getting in the way of any fantasies about the hero -- he's not available to be paired up with anyone else. I've been trying to think of how it goes when the genders are switched, but I can't think of any cases where there's a female main character in a genre action-type show who entered the show with a ready-made husband/boyfriend who's a regular supporting character.

It doesn't help that the wife/girlfriend character tends to be written horribly. Writers often don't seem to know what to do with the girlfriend because she's mostly an adjunct to the hero, serving to ground him or give him something to care about, so she has no agency of her own, no purpose in the story other than through him. Or then they realize they're doing this and overcompensate, so she does end up being something like a Mary Sue. She can never be too good, though, or she overshadows the hero. Then again, no matter how well she's written, a big portion of the audience is going to hate her, so why bother? Just out of sheer obnoxiousness, I try to make a point of siding with the wife/girlfriend character, though there are times when she ends up being so badly written that I just can't deal with her.

I've been struggling with this in my current series, since I gave my hero a wife. I needed him to have some stakes in the story, so I needed him to have someone he was looking for. At the same time, I was irked by the number of rejections I'd had for other books where the fantasy editors rejected the proposal and suggested I try a romance publisher because the story was "too romancey" -- and nothing romantic happened in the proposal. There was a man and a woman in a scene together, with no suggestion that they were attracted or likely to get together, but I guess because I wrote some Silhouette romances more than a decade ago, that was too much romance for the fantasy publishers to handle. So, in a fit of ire, I made this male character married. Plus, there are all sorts of mythological models for a man going into an otherworld in search of a missing wife. It's the Orpheus story.

I went back and forth with how I was going to portray the wife -- would she be an ally? A villain? I had various outlines where she was one or the other, then decided to quit treating her as "the wife" and just deal with her as a person. What would someone in her situation be like? What would she do? How would she react? This ended up being fairly central to the plot of book 2, as it's largely about trying to free her and restoring her agency. I don't expect her to be anyone's favorite character, but I hope she's not hated just for being a wife.

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