Prompted by: The Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo, Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J Maas, and Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge
If there’s one thing I really appreciate in a book, it’s a strong female lead. Give me a dynamic girl who has character flaws and hard decisions to make and realistic personality traits, and I’ll sing her praises to kingdom come. Sadly, it seems like I’ve come across more and more poorly written female leads lately. Maybe part of that is because my reading list this summer was largely composed of fantasy and romance novels so the odds simply weren’t in my favor.
Half of me is happy that writers are even making an effort to create female leads at all, but the other half of me is feels as if a poorly written female lead might be worse than no female lead at all. So with that being said, here are my top 5 pet peeves when writing female characters.
Giving a character no redeeming qualities… but somehow everyone gravitates towards them anyway.
This is Alina from Shadow and Bone through and through. She’s surly, she’s self-depreciative, and every description of her paints her as an unappealing and unattractive person. One of her wards at the orphanage described her by saying: “She’s an ugly little thing. No child should look like that. Pale and sour, like a glass of milk that’s turned.” She’s short with her best friend, rude to people she meets for the first time, negative about her own abilities, and unwilling to meet anyone halfway. And yet, people fawn over her, follow her, fight for her, and profess their love for her. There’s a line between a believable character and an unappealing one. Everyone has shortcomings, and it’s a mark of a good writer to include those. But it’s also a mark of a good writer to make sure their characters have redeeming qualities as well. We have to understand what it is about them that inspires affection and admiration, and it has to be believable.
Overemphasis on looks.
I don’t need or want a page about the exact details of someones physical features. I don’t need to know about their bone structure and the precise shade of their skin and the way the grey flecks in their blue eyes shimmer whenever they turn their gaze upon you. Instead, provide a few grounding details and let the reader flesh out the rest. One of the most magical things about a good book is that the reader can imagine themselves as the hero. Hermione is a perfect example of this– her first introduction describes her as having “lots of bushy brown hair and rather large front teeth.” That’s it. All of her other interactions and descriptions revolve around her intelligence and personality, not her appearance. This allows readers to envision Hermione as someone they would want to emulate and someone they can relate to.
Girl on girl hate.
I have zero patience for automatic negativity between girls. I hate the frequency with which it shows up in media because it perpetuates a hugely unhealthy social norm. We see it in Game of Thrones (more on that in a future post) and Stranger Things and Shadow and Bone and so many other books and shows and movies. A glaring example of this can be found in The Circle by Dave Eggers– and it’s even more infuriating because it’s written by a man. Honestly, I could write an entire post about what’s wrong with The Circle. (For me, it was comparable to The Hunger Games in that it’s a brilliant idea but it was poorly executed.) The Circle is a good example of a situation where an author simply shouldn’t have written a female lead. The way Eggers writes his main character, Mae, makes it feel like she’s what he thinks women are like, rather than how they really are. She’s one-dimensional, contentious, emotional, easily distracted, extremely sexual, and consistently gets jealous of/mad at her female best friend. The relationship between the two young women is fraught with shallow behavior and poor communication. Rather than writing a healthy relationship, he crafts a vindictive and negative one. A good example of the opposite can be found between Celia and Isobel in Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. Celia and Isobel are two strong and dynamic females who end up involved with the same romantic interest. Normally, this would be the perfect situation for an author to write in snarky dialogue and overt jealousy. Instead, both women handle the situation with grace and class, and even have respectful and constructive conversations with each other. It’s positive and uplifting and more books should follow suit.
Making romance seem like the most important thing that could possibly happen to a woman.
This goes hand-in-hand with insta-love in a lot of ways. Girl ventures into the great big world, girls meets boy, boy shows interest, girls falls head over heels. The trope of writing in adoration over the first man to show interest in a female is tiring and not very believable. Sure, it’s nice to feel desirable, but there’s more important things in life than infatuation. Romance has its place in the literary world, but insta-love implies that romance is the most important thing there is. Romantic relationships are not a judge of character and the worth of a woman shouldn’t be weighed based on her relationship status. Kelsea provides a very refreshing take on this in Queen of the Tearling. She is a young woman (and queen) surrounded by strapping men of all ages, but get this– she doesn’t instantly develop romantic feelings towards any of them! Erika Johansen handles it in a very realistic way by not pretending that people aren’t attracted to each other, but rather keeping the focus on the more important things that require our main character’s attention.
Excessive indecision or an inability to make up her mind.
Let’s be real, decisions are hard, and sometimes they take up a lot of mental real estate. That is normal and natural and it can definitely be a difficult thing to convey in writing when we aren’t spending every second inside a character’s head. With that being said, ceaseless indecision is annoying to the max. Nyx in Rosamund Hodge’s Cruel Beauty is an all-too-excessive example of this. She hates her sister one minute, the next she’s crying over how she didn’t treat her better. She hates the Gentle Lord, then five minutes later she’s stroking his hair and watching him sleep. She’s plotting to save her world but then decides to just do her own thing a few pages later. It’s exhausting and ever so unnecessary.
At the end of the day, I just want to believe in these characters. I want to read about women I would be friends with and women that I can see myself in. I want more Hermione Grangers and Blue Sargents and Septembers and Arya Starks. I want girls and women who are beautiful because of their bravery and special because of their strength. They shouldn’t be perfect– they should be real.