Moonlight, you’re just a heartache in disguise

So, I have a cold.  I’m not happy about this.  I also have work to do, so best to get at it.

But!  Before I quite get there, I’d like to share some articles about “strong female protagonists,” and the notion of “likable (female) characters.”

A Plague of Strong Female Characters

Not Here to Make Friends

These articles are interesting to me, as a writer — and as a writer of characters often described as “likable.”  Which is somewhat baffling, considering the histories of many of our characters, at least on the Liaden side of things.  Among my/our other characters. . .Well. . .

Poor Becca Beauvelley gets all kinds of abuse for allowing herself to fall into the hands of an ancient and powerful magic-wielding villain from whom she has no hope of freeing herself.  She should, one gathers, have Done Something.

Jenn Pierce, a middle-class woman of the last century, who doesn’t know judo, or sword-fighting, or anything at all about guns — as most of us, I will argue, do not — has her lack of martial skill scorned, and is advised to get some basic training in weapons.  Her lack of skill in these matters is called “unbelievable.”

Kate Archer is described by one reader as “repulsive” and by another as “uncaring.”

And Val Con yos’Phelium, who really will kill you, if necessary. . .is seen as kind of a nice guy, a little shy. . .While the Uncle, whose probable sins I suggest that we dwell not long upon, is “fascinating.”

Anyhow, these are things that concern me nearly, as matters of craft and art, and it’s interesting to see how other people have thought about them.

Speaking of likable characters and reality. . .There’s an article in this week’s New Yorker about the defense lawyer who specializes in defending our most notorious criminals, most lately, she has been the lead defense attorney for Dzbokhar Tsarnaev.  Her idea, as far as I understand it, which may not be very far at all, is that — while Society has an obligation to rid itself of Monsters; it has the corresponding duty not to dispose of those who are. . .less than. . .Monsters merely because it would be convenient to do so.  To this end, she undertakes to show juries the humanity of her clients.  Here’s the link to that article.

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Week Five of the Do It Like a Delm Challenge is well underway.  You view this week’s challengers here.

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In other news, I received a package today from Amazon, and Sprite has found a use for the box.

Let no box be discarded. Sprite asserting her royal dominion. Photo by Sharon Lee
Let no box be discarded. Sprite asserting her royal dominion. Photo by Sharon Lee

Today’s blog title is brought to you by Juice Newton, “Queen of Hearts.”  Here’s your link.

14 thoughts on “Moonlight, you’re just a heartache in disguise”

  1. Sprite looks a tiny bit cramped, but I imagine her toes are Quite Warm. I think it is a good fit for an Autumn bed. About the female characters.. I take umbrage with those who want all women to be strong and have heroic capabilities. We don’t, tho we have persistence and a less linear thought process than most men. I like your female characters. They have a humanity that is lacking in the cartoonish portrayals that are currently popular. Either one is a princess or an expert of some kind. Your Becca, a lady who is sucked into the magical world and held under the sway of a very bad person is just that, a lady. She does show her strength but in a way that is appropriate for her. Kate Archer is Great. Cute. Memorable and very caring as she comes to know herself and her town again. I was happy when she set the boundary with fire! Keep them real. Val Con and The Uncle are who they are. The women have their own selves to be.

  2. Really? People think Val Con is *shy*??? That’s . . . interesting.

    I find Uncle fascinating but not at all safe or likable. I find Val Con likable, but only because I have been with him through several books. It took about a book and a half before I liked him at all, and even now, I find him likable and dangerous in about equal measure, and mostly admirable (but not entirely). I find Shan both likable and irritating, to the point that I often forget I like him, but I never stop finding him admirable and interesting.

    It strikes me that “awesome to read about” and “likable” are orthogonal. To move out of your universe, Miles Vorkosigan is one of my favorite characters to read about. I would rather eat boiled okra than spend even ten minutes in his company.

  3. Yeah. People pretty often think that quiet people are shy. I myself am quiet in person, and uncomfortable in crowds, but I’m not by any means shy. I used to have a button that explained this: “I’m not shy; I’m studying my prey.”

    And — thank you for the comment about Shan, that sometimes he’s so irritating you forget that you like him. That’s how real relationships in real life kind of work, so I consider this a success.

  4. I’m a little tired, myself, of “strong female character” meaning, “does all the boy things even better than the boys.” That flatlines both the Strength(s) of Boys and The Strength(s) of Girls, and fails to allow (any) character scope. I’ve thought for years that it’s best for a writer to think of characters as people, in all their endless fascination.

  5. I haven’t read many of your Liadan books (yet), but I like Kate Archer very much, partly because she comes across as a real person, not a collection of Ideal Characteristics. A likeable real person.

  6. “To move out of your universe, Miles Vorkosigan is one of my favorite characters to read about. I would rather eat boiled okra than spend even ten minutes in his company.”
    Really, SorchaRei? I’ve read everything LMB has written, and I’d sacrifice several relatives to have lunch with Admiral Naismith, aka Miles Vorkosigan. He’s one of the most fascinating science fiction characters out there, and I love that he lives by his wits, not by brute strength or superhero powers. As to the Liaden Universe women and men, I find most of them quite likable, myself. I am very fond of Shan, and Val Con strikes me as difficult but ultimately a good guy.And though I can see why “strong female character” could get a bit old after awhile, I like strong female characters, because weak or poorly written female characters have been historically all too common, and they bore me.

  7. Interjecting here: “poorly written” is not the opposite of “strong.” “Poorly written” is a craft problem, and is up the author to fix.

    “Weak”. . .is a matter of definition and culture. And I’m kind of sorry, myself, that the reading and/or publishing culture has decided that, as with, oh, real life medical tests and whatnot, that male “strength” is the default. If you can’t bench press your own weight or leap tall buildings, etc, you are a weak character. Which is a. . .badly skewed viewpoint that Miles, yes, needed to cope with. He’s fortunate that he’s brilliant enough that he manages to survive until his brilliance can be properly put to use for his emperor.

    (OTOH, put me on the list of folks who would cheerfully strangle Miles than spend a quarter hour in his company. As for sitting down to tea with Val Con or Shan — I hope I know better.)

    Unfortunately — unlike Miles — many? most? “strong female characters” being written today are strong per the default. They do not play to the strengths of women, whatever those are. Worse, they do not play to the strengths of themselves as individuals, in general. That’s a capitulation, not a victory.

  8. And now, I have read both articles, and can (maybe!) be a little more articulate, though I very much like your comments in the reply above.
    The articles are thought-provoking. At the end of “Not here to make friends,” Roxane Gay writes, “Unlikable women … are, instead, themselves. They accept the consequences of their choices and those consequences become stories worth reading.”
    And I think that’s true, but does that mean that every woman worth reading about has to be unlikeable, and every woman who refuses to pretend to be anything but who she is, is unlikeable to the majority of readers? Your own Kate Archer is someone who is very much herself, won’t pretend to be anyone else, and accepts the consequences of her choices. And I would, yes, like to be friends with her. Although your description of her reception by at least some reviewers does seem to reflect Gay’s observations. Repulsive? Uncaring? I’m baffled. She’s funny and caustic, and that’s half the reason I like her. She’s also kind, tough, honest and conflicted … you know, like many real people are (well, magic aside). She certainly strikes me as a “strong female character” … in the same way that I consider some of the people I know to be strong women. To the best of my knowledge, none of them know martial arts, and most of them don’t shoot guns.
    I will say that occasionally — not constantly, but occasionally — it makes for entertaining wish-fulfillment fantasy to watch female characters knocking villains flat with their round kicks and barbed remarks. One certainly doesn’t want that to be the only color in the box.

  9. DeAnn, I find Miles endlessly fascinating. I’d gladly read about your lunch with him. But I have less than no desire to be in his presence. He fascinates me, and I can like (even adore) him, from a distance.

    My mind went off on this tangent while readng these comments. What I especially hate about the flattened notion of strong women characters is that they are always built as a girl who is good at all the boy things, where “all the boy things” are “all the boy things in our world”, and this is true even if the world being depicted is very much not our world. I’d be interested in a girl who is good at all the boy things if it were in a world where boy things are cooking, building mechanical devices, and skiing, while girl things are making clothes, building buildings, and swimming. Or some other constellation that is clearly related to a not-21st-century-USA culture.

    I also often feel like authors make girl things be raising children and anything else the author doesn’t know about and/or is bored by”. So the question is not why does this girl want to step out of her “natural” sphere, but why don’t all the girls want to do that? The author sets it up so girl things are the stuff he (and it’s usually, though not always, a he) thinks are boring, and then never questions why half the population is happy to be allowed only to do boring things. Anyone who structures his world this way is guaranteed to write a “strong woman character” that I will hate.

  10. Why do we connect strong with physical violence? I considered my father a strong person, yet he never played sports or shot guns except as required in WWII. He stood by his family and his beliefs, helped those he could, and inspired his children and grandchildren to do the same. My nephew decided at age 13 that he did not have to grow up like his brutal, alcoholic father, and patterned himself on Grandpa, becoming a wonderful, caring, strong man.

    My neighbor, a quiet little man, had the Congressional Medal of Honor. He wasn’t a John Wayne shoot-em-up type, but saw the need to do something that he was trained to do in order to save the lives of hundreds of men on his ship, risking his own life to do it. Heroism and strength lie in putting others ahead of yourself, whether you are throwing yourself on a grenade or going to work at a job you hate every day because the family needs your income.

    I also don’t believe that strong and likable are antonyms. We were taught as little girls that we needed to be ‘liked’ and that meant being sweet and feminine. I find that many non-sweet characters are very likable. In fact, I like Kareen very much, although I would probably drive her up a wall.

    Strong women don’t need to be physical. Neither do strong men. They only need to have character and be willing to face whatever life throws them.

  11. One of the most interesting characters to me in your entire Liaden universe is Kamele. She is, according to her culture, a girl who likes girl things. But she is busy transcending her culture, first in her relationship with her onagrata, then in her acceptance of Theo’s desire not to embrace all the girl things, and finally in her trip to Surebleak and what she has done there. And at the same time, she continues to be a girl who likes Delgado-girl-things. She’s a strong woman character who is not “strong in opposition to girl things” but rather strong because of her embrace of both girl things and a certain flexibility of mind, and I want to see what she does next.

  12. I love Wen Spencer’s ‘A Brother’s Price’. It totally reverses the male/female roles, so it uses them to make the reader think about how much we stereotype the roles, even when we try not to. Any book that makes you look at “givens” in a new way is worth checking out.

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