Is the main character a strong woman? It seems to be a question often asked of any book with a female lead in the paranormal and above all, Young Adult genres. In some ways, it’s a fair enough question. I consider myself to be at least a little bit of a feminist, and am therefore quite keen to see as wide a portrayal of female characters as possible, preferably at least some of which go against old stereotypes and clichés.
My concern however is that this is presented as a total binary. Either a female character has to be weak – desperate for a boyfriend or reliant to the point of obsession on the one they’ve got, crying all the time, having no interests of ambitions except for the aforementioned; or they have to be strong – physically fit, dressed like a tom boy, beating the boys at their own game, probably fighting crime or hunting vampires or saving the world. For shorthand, I like to think of them as The Bella and The Katniss – anyone remotely familiar with YA literature will probably be aware of both the stock type and the specific characters I’m referring to.
Twilight has always been roundly mocked for having the archetypal weak lead character in Bella Swan- the sort of person who spends months in a catatonic state after the break-up of a relationship, and puts herself in life-threatening situations because this causes her to hear her ex’s voice in her head.
It’s no surprise then that when the Hunger Games came along and became “the next big thing” nearly every review and article made a huge deal out of how Katniss, all shooting, all climbing survival expert, was such a pleasant change.
Well yeah, clearly. But how many people do you know in real life who are like either of them? If you’re reading this and have had a bona fide nervous breakdown over a man, then you have my sympathy. If you’re confident that you are a whizz with a bow and arrow and could survive for weeks in the wilderness, then you have my admiration. But I’m going out on a limb here and suggesting that most readers are somewhere in between. I certainly am.
Now, I think of myself as, for want of a better term, a strong woman. I’m a qualified lawyer. I’m hyper ambitious. I’ll always make sure I get my opinion across, even when debating with the loudest and most over-confident of ex-public school boys. But I’m also physically very small, and although I work out regularly, I’m quite certain that I wouldn’t last five minutes in any sort of combat or survival situation. I’ve also, horror of horrors, been known to show emotion from time to time, including a bit of crying over break-ups and other stressful situations. Does that make me weak? I hope you’d agree that no, it makes me normal.
So why can’t we extend the same courtesy to fictional characters. Take Harriet, the main character of my Cavaliers Series. Is she strong or weak? On the one hand, she got into Oxford from a non-traditional back-ground and behaves in a confident manner from day one, doing her best to succeed socially, academically and extra-curricularly. She stands up for herself and always has a quick comeback.
On the other, it’s fair to say that whilst it’s not an obsession to the exclusion of all else, her romantic life tends to be towards the forefront of her mind, and she does tend to be attracted to obviously unsuitable men. When faced with vampire attacks on herself or her friends, she knows she can’t physically fight them off, so barely even tries. And yes, when things go wrong, in love or in life, in extremis, the tears will fall. And that’s before we even start on her awe-inspiring collection of cocktail dresses and ballgowns.
I was so very conscious, all the time I was writing these books, that I didn’t want a heroine that could be attacked for being weak or anti-feminist. And then I realised – my heroine isn’t weak or strong – she’s a person, with strengths and flaws, just like most male characters, and just like most women in real life.