Thursday, February 15, 2007

When the Plucky Heroine Stomps Her Foot and Tosses Her Hair, You Know She Means Business

I've been trying to get through Martha Wells's City of Bones for a while now, mainly because it's got a blasted-out desert setting with Old Ruines, bugs, mutants, and pirates, which sounded a lot like GW's world to me, and I wanted to see how somebody else handled that sort of setting.

And yea, you know, the world's cool and all, but it lacks a certain richness, mostly due to the writing style, and, worst offense of all - the characters are completely unlikable. I really don't care if either of them live or die, and they just aren't interesting.

There are great prose writers and great story writers, and if you're great at story or great at prose, I'll read you (I think writers like Catherynne Valente are great at prose, and writers like Stephen King are great at story - I'll read both, but for different reasons, and I'll get different things out of them), but great story means I need to enjoy reading about the characters. I want to be invested. It's not that they have to be likable: they just have to interesting.

Though SF/F has come a long way with it's female characters, they tend to suffer a similiar fate shared by their male counterparts, which is that they end up getting two or three character traits assigned to them, and in the same way a bad actor starts raising their voice during a particularly emotional scene as if to say "LOOK AT ME, I'M ACTING!!!!" these characters display their formulaic template of "plucky heroine" traits: stomp their feet, clench their fists, tug their braids, and then verbally spar with the Brooding Hero who doesn't get laid because he's "misunderstood," and then we move on.

The thing with this sort of set up - plucky heroine & brooding hero - is that that template *can work.* And when it *does* work - when it's done well - you can create characters people really love (Mal & Inara of Firefly, Alanna & her Thief King in the Alanna books, that Kushiel's Dart chick and the brooding celibate warrior guy in the first of the Kushiel books, etc); you know, the sort of characters people like to write slash fiction about. heh heh

The problem is when people get lazy, and they reach for that "plucky heroine" template and just scribble somebody in, like this Elen character in City of Bones. When she's feeling strong emotion, when we're given a scene meant to illustrate how Plucky & Independent she is, she does one of those clench-my-fists-and-stomp-my-foot things that I find really annoying. You see the same problem with Nynaveave in the Jordan books. When she feels particularly plucky, she'll tug her braid and stomp her foot, and then you know she means business! (this is amusing the first couple of times in book one. By book six, you want her to die quickly and suddenly; you hope a tree will fall on her).

I wonder how much of this is just plain cardboard character writing and how much of it is just seeing a lot of people rush to write Strong, Plucky Heroines without really knowing how to do that because most mainstream literature was about Brooding Male Heroes. The template you *did* drawn from that had strong female characters was romance, and I'm wondering how many of those Plucky Space Opera Heroines were originally conceived as pure Romance heroines.

So you end up with these women characters who may be smart and spunky, but they're pretty childish and vulnerable, too (again, how much of this is just poor and/or lazy writing?). After all, if she was *too* capable, and governed her emotions a little more diplomatically, then she wouldn't *really* be a female character, she'd just be a Guy in Drag.

I guess I've just never bought the idea that a fully realized female character who didn't act like a fourteen year old at thirty-five was "a guy in drag."

10 comments so far. What are your thoughts?

A.R.Yngve said...

Now, this is just what I needed to hear.

I've been stuck on a "Military SF" novel I've been working on for quite some time, and I worried that people would think the heroine was unlikable because she's emotionally reserved ... she never has a fit.

(I figured that since she was selected for a particular job that required emotionally stable characters, she would actually be that type of person.)

But of course, even "cool" characters may snap sometimes -- the writer just has to figure out a credible way of depicting this.

Also: Written fiction doesn't have to "externalize" every part of the character's personality -- they are allowed to have an "inner life", as opposed to other storytelling media.

We tend to forget this sometimes: a lot of people's emotions are not shown, and this goes not just for the "brooding" types.

In real life, a "blank stare" can mean so many things...

Twothirds said...

I used to think that the cardboard Strong, Plucky Heroines were knee-jerk reactions to Wimpy Princess characters. That it was about people saying, "Well, I don't want to write a cliche. I know! I'll write the opposite of a cliche!" Not realizing that the opposite of cliche quickly becomes cliche itself.

I ran into people who were doing explicitly this a lot in fandom, especially.

These days, I'm not so sure. I'd like to think that we have enough well-written strong female characters out there that people have something better to model, if they give it two seconds of thought.

I could be wrong.

- Hannah

ScottM said...

Of course, they're probably patting themselves on the back for their consistent characterization... "See, it's an unconscious habit. Annoying, sure, but we all have unconscious habits."

Maybe they'll read your rant and realize that some habits change...

Kameron Hurley said...

Hannah - yea, it's certainly a reaction against the cardboard heroines of the 50s and 60s, but ultimately, suffers its own sort of failure of the imagination as far as coming up with a strong female character, as said.

I tend to get the impression that when a lot of writerw sit down, they're thinking, "how do I write a strong FEMALE character" instead of, "How can I write a cool character?"

A character's gender is absolutely a characteristic that needs to be taken into account, if only to understand how that character is treated within that society, how they identify with their bodies, what methods they're allowed to use to gain power by teh norms of their society (way too many books just sort of wash over this huge component of the worldbuilding process), but I think that needs to just be one consideration of many. My character's super dynamic coolness should not just hinge on the fact that she's a woman with actual witty dialogue! And stuff!

Artemisin said...

I found your blog through a link in nihilistic kid's. I loved your post and then I looked at the right hand corner and saw that you've written "The Women of Our Occupation"... well, that's one of my favorite Strange Horizons stories. The theme of role reversal was subtly handled and the characters felt very real. You've got a fan.

Kameron Hurley said...

Glad you liked "Occupation"! For some reason Hartwell & Cramer have got it in this Year's Best SF 12, too, so if you want a hardcopy, I think that one's coming out this spring.

Matthew said...

I'm also here today because of nihilistic kid. I liked this discussion, though I lack anything to add to it. I use Livejournal and I was wondering if either you have LJ or if there's a feed available.

I especially liked If Women Do Fall They Lie. I was wondering if there was any significance to any of the names. I was unable to unwind any anagrams or anything like that.

Kameron Hurley said...

I'm syndicated at

But it looks like it's still pulling the feed from the kameronhurley.blogspot instead of the reverted brutalwomen.blogspot...

Not sure who actually ends up changing these.

Kameron Hurley said...

Oh, yea, re: names in "If Women Do Fall..."

No, there aren't any weird anagrams are anything. At least, no intentional ones.

All the names are of Indian origin.

Matthew said...

Hob shaver! There's one. The best definition of "hob" I could find for this context was "male ferret".

There's also mischief, as in to "raise hob". Hob which must then be shaved - don't question the Kell, indeed.