Creating Strong Female Characters

The Arts


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The old rule of thumb is that you should have your females talking about something other than men. I’ve never had a problem with this; if anything, it’s been hard to make them talk about men at all. I enjoy writing strong women. Many of the main characters in my books have been like June Cryer, the hero of ‘Plastic’, who goes from downtrodden housewife to vigilante – they’re easier to take on a journey than men, who tend to be a bit intransigent.

Dickens was the master of strong female characters who didn’t talk about men (for which reason I’m temporarily discounting books like ‘Sense & Sensibility’ and the husband-hunting genre) , but in the present day as most crime novels are bought by women you’d think there would be more in crime literature, or that they would be demanded.

I faced a six-year struggle getting ‘Plastic’ published, and then it appeared to an almost total lack of reviews. Part of this was my determination to go with a good independent publisher rather than one of the Big Five. I’m doing it again with ‘Nyctophobia’, a haunted house novel with a strong female protagonist. Considering the female dominance of the book market, it’s shocking how few female reviewers there are. You simply don’t get through the critical selection process.

When I sold the film rights to ‘Roofworld’, the producers tried to turn my lead character from a black female to a white male – they were quite open about it. ‘She won’t help sell the book’. I stuck to my guns and Rose remained a West Indian female.

A good example of writing a tough female role is to do what Billy Wilder did when having the lead character of ‘His Girl Friday’ changed from male to female. Ben Hecht hardly changed the dialogue at all, resulting in Rosalind Russell’s extraordinary performance as the go-getting reporter Hildy Johnson. He even left the name.

I often write a character as a male then change halfway through, but it’s easier for me because I don’t write books that explore male/female relationships – they are enough of those about already.The problem is that male writers obsess about female looks – WS Gilbert notoriously wrote ‘She may very well pass for 43 in the dusk with the light behind her.’ Many simply give up and don’t include women  at all other than set-dressing.

And yet the best fun to be had is in creating scenes for two women. I loved writing the scene where Lou and June get drunk in ‘Plastic’ because it felt very real to me (having sat in on too many evenings when friends have done it).

One problem for female visibility has arisen in films. In the past we had Kathleen Turner and Angelina Jolie leading the way as strong, mature women. ‘You’re not too smart, are you?’ said Turner in Body Heat. ‘I like that in a man.’ There was always something slightly crazy and dangerous about Turner.

Why has there never been a female James Bond? (‘Modesty Blaize flopped.) The argument against a female Dr Who – that she would remind boys of their mothers – is spurious at best. Now that so many films are geared around teen franchises, we’re stuck with Kristen Stewart and other pouty teens. Apart from Jennifer Lawrence, who looks as if she can play any age, where are the strong women?

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10 comments on “Creating Strong Female Characters”

  1. Jo W says:

    As I get older I use that W.S.Gilbert phrase more and more often. After all,who doesn’t benefit from backlighting or even better,soft candlelight? Hope you’re enjoying your break,Admin.

  2. pheeny says:

    I would love to see a female Dr Who – Alex Kingston for example – I don’t see how the same people who can be comfortable with the idea of a character who is hundreds of years old is regularly reincarnated as someone of a completely different age and appearance and flies about the universe in a magic box yet clutch their pearls at the idea that he might be able to reincarnate as a woman.

    As for the argument about a female Dr Who reminding boys of their mothers – why should that be worse than a male Dr Who reminding girls of their fathers?

  3. pheeny says:

    As regards strong female leads in books and films we do appear to be going backwards in that regard – I blame Bridget Jones myself.

  4. Tony Walker says:

    I agree with you about the dreadful Joseph Losey Modesty Blaise film. However, Peter O’Donnell’s series of Modesty Blaise books were excellent. Good stories, lots of action, nasty villains to vanquish, and Modesty’s sidekick, Wiilie Garvin was always there to lend a helping hand.
    Followed the cartoon strip in the old Evening Standard for years, too.

  5. Dan Terrell says:

    Yeah, enjoyed the Modesty Blaze books, still have a couple on the shelf to read, but the older they become the more cartoonish they seem to me. But fun, fun and Willie’s always with it.

  6. snowy says:

    I suspect this in part refers back to the so-called “Bechdel Test”, a “test” that fails the simplest test of being a ‘test’, I”l spare everybody the long dull explanation.

    There are plenty of strong, [strong is a term so nebulous as to be effectively meaningless] women in film, but because they appear in films that are not regarded as mainstream their contribution is ignored. Which is to heap one injustice upon another.

    For example: Milla Jovovich has built a career around being an action hero . Kate Beckinsale, Rhona Mithra, Charlise Theron have all had roles that would fit that definition of strong.

    The test is useless, based on the logical fallacy that women are not complete beings and must rely on the presense others of their sex to validate their actions. Complete rubbish.

    [Anything approaching a realistic test would not be as simple as A+B+C. But accuracy isn’t ‘sexy’ and is hard to fit in 140 characters. 🙂 ]

  7. Vivienne says:

    I should probably try to spend more time thinking of more strong women in literature, but I have always been disappointed that the strong women there are do not end up in an equal partnership. Jane Eyre, who stuck to her principles and marched off across the moors, did not get Rochester until he was maimed and half blind and Lizzie Hexham was also only allowed Eugene when he had been beaten half to death. Can writers not envisage an equal partnership? Bacall and Bogart? How far from the original stories were their screen characters? Some books written in the 30s had modern women who wanted to be pilots and so on, but the war reversed a lot of the progress that had been made. I have read Plastic, but I did not really believe in June Cryer the housewife (sorry). For me she only became a believable woman when she got to that crazy block of flats.

  8. Helen Martin says:

    I know there is a strong anti-Tolkien following here, but the females of the LotR are mostly equals. The Elf women make their own decisions, the hobbit females are, well, British housewives, but the horse riding shield maiden was as independent and fierce as anyone. There were no females on the quest, I admit, though.
    Jo in Little Women, Anne in Green Gables, 100 to 150 years ago and both strong role models. Swallows and Amazons, but somehow once we’re talking adults we only get strong women in fantasy – Killashandra and what’s her name in the dragons of Pern.

  9. chazza says:

    And how about Juliette of De Sade’s eponymous block buster?

  10. Fiona says:

    I love Jennifer Lawrence, she is a fantastic actress. There are actresses out there who appear to be trying to pick interesting roles, Mia Wasikowska is a good example of that. Tilda Swinton is another. Ruth Wilson is another. Often these roles are in independent films and those in the fantasy genre rather than the standard cinema fare. TV seems to do slightly better with strong female characters. I went to a talk given by Joss Whedon and he said how difficult he’d found it trying to get buy-in for Buffy. The Daily Mail side-bar of shame doesn’t help! That’s why I like writers like Caitlin Moran for pushing back.

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