STRONG female characters, Mary Sues and Manic Pixie Dream Girls… What the Heck is up with Female Characters in Books!?

thoughts orangutan

Hello all! So as you guys may know I was reading Kingdom of Ash recently. As the final book in a l-o-n-g series, you’d expect there to be some changes from the original works, and that’s fair enough. But there was one tiny issue that bugged me: most of the female characters had become warriors (though #notall). Now, don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good kickass heroine and I didn’t by any stretch of the imagination dislike this book. Yet there were two things that struck me with this decision: a) Celaena, as she was originally known, stood out less than she had in previous books (where she’d been an exception to the rule in a world where there seemed to be few female fighters) and b) it kind of leans in to the idea that women *have to* be more masculine in order to be considered strong women.

Time and again, I’m finding that female characters are being type cast into the “strong” role of warrior. And it doesn’t seem to just be one character- it’s got to be the bulk of them. Regardless of whether the author wants to dress up this character in girly clothes and makeup, I don’t think there’s any denying the fact that their heroism predominately comes from their ability to kick ass and not their penchant for applying lipstick. Often it feels shoehorned in and doesn’t seem to be a necessary part of the character (like Clary in Mortal Instruments, who already had killer powers). It also doesn’t seem to matter if the world obeys the laws of earthly biology or not- it seems to be something we have to accept the predominance of the warrior woman in the large bulk of genre fiction (especially fantasy/sci fi, but even in historical fiction as well). Unfortunately this mentality seems to bleed into real life- I can’t tell you how many times (mostly male/female feminists) have criticised me for not being physically strong. Because, in case you didn’t know, I’m a regular girly monkey who doesn’t have the superhuman ability to kick butt.

orangutan in dress
Guess I’ll just use any excuse to get dressed up 😉

Evidently, I’m not crazy about this trend for many reasons. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Buffy growing up and like the occasional Wonder Woman style heroine. I also think this can really work in the fantasy genre- such as with characters like Nona from Red Sister, who come across as representations of shadow and myth. HOWEVER, I don’t recall it being the case that these were the *main* and *only* kind of female characters. Even when it came to Buffy, there were a bunch of other roles fulfilled by female characters. And thank goodness for that- because Buffy wasn’t the character I gravitated towards anyway! I’ll let you in on a not-so-surreptitiously held secret: I always identified the most with adorkable-brainy-oddball Willow- cos that’s who I found relatable. And this is a bit of a trend for me. While Tamora Pierce is famous for her Lioness character, I fell in love with Daine from Wild Magic. I adored the heroines in books by Eva Ibbotson- who never went raging to war but were fearless nonetheless. And I know that a few of the heroines in Game of Thrones fall into this super strong type- yet I love the series because it plays with every type it introduces and never presents a singular view of people.

A lot of the reasons this arose in the first place was a desire to challenge the status quo, to create something different and be appealing to a wider audience. And yet it’s not relatable; and somehow it has become a type. Regardless of whether they wear dresses or not, this STRONG female character is close to becoming a caricature just like any other irritatingly unrealistic representation. Many might have heard of terms like Mary Sue and Manic Pixie Dream girls getting (over)used all over the internet. What I understand about people that have problems with both of these, is that it’s irritating to see so many poorly conceived female characters. Naturally, these don’t simply apply to female characters- there’s always the people who shout “sexist” first and ask questions later (fyi for all those offended by the term Mary Sue, Marty Stus are a thing as well). And of course sometimes the criticism can be unearned- such as the infamous example of 500 Days of Summer using the Manic Pixie Dream girl trope… when it’s actually a deconstruction of that idea. Also, naturally, as in the case of unfinished or contentious works, these terms can be open to debate (as much as I’d like to insist that Rae from Star Wars is 100% a Mary Sue). So, whether in reading or writing, I think it’s good to be careful how we apply these terms- because boy is it frustrating to see characters reduced to nothing more than a trope.

If I was a lonely voice in the crowd, one could say I was a random butthurt woman (or “wahmen” 😉 ) blowing things out of proportion. Yet, I don’t seem to be the only one who thinks this way. In recent years, I’ve seen amazing articles from fellow readers like the lovely Kelly over at Another Book in the Wall, and videos from the likes of the Authentic Observer and even Jordan Harvey on similar topics. I know there are so many more- so forgive me if I left any obvious ones out. Point is: perhaps the zeitgeist of public opinion is changing. Maybe, just maybe when people were crying out for different types of female characters, they weren’t looking to be type-cast into yet another role. All I have ever wanted in fiction is believable, interesting and realistic characters. Wielding a sword is optional.

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Hope you didn’t mind my somewhat rambly thoughts- I just wanted to get all this off my chest. What do you think about this trend? How do you like your female characters? Let me know in the comments!

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