The first thing you’ll probably notice in this essay about Strong Female Characters is that I omitted the word ‘strong’ from the title. I don’t think there is any problem with the ‘strength’ of female characters in fiction–the problem is with the word character. Fictional women–particularly in genre fiction–most frequently serve as motivators or set decoration, rather than as actual characters.
The qualifier ‘strong’ implies that women, by default, are weak. Women are anything but.
Female characters need to be treated as interesting characters with personalities and interests beyond clothes, men and jewellery. When I hear that some book or movie or comic has ‘strong female characters’ I know that, nine times out of ten, that means the story features models in fetish outfits who jump around kicking the heads off their problems. These Spinny Killbots are not much of a step up from the ever-popular ‘hero’s dead girlfriend’.
When I started writing Bloody Waters it was not my intention to write about ‘strong female character’. I wanted to write about a female guitar hero because I’ve never read about one before.
There are precious few female guitar specialists in reality. Why is Joan Jett such a singular figure in the rock music biz? Lita Ford? It’s only in recent years that we’ve seen some real chops-guitarists come to the fore–Marnie Stern, Orianthe, Kaki King–and I can still count them on one hand. Angela Gossow is not a guitarist, but she’s doing what something female rockstars have been allowed to so far. There are still definite boundaries for women in rock music.
When I started looking for ideas for a story about witches (which I was then aiming to sell to an anthology), I already had Clarice floating around in the back of my head. But I didn’t want to dilute Clarice’s abilities as a guitarist, so it’s her boyfriend/rhythm guitarist, Johnny Chernow, is the witch in Bloody Waters. Johnny’s a strong supporting character, but Clarice is firmly the lead protagonist. I don’t think she is a character that you can easily visualize dressed in a chainmail bikini, roundhousing monsters in the face.
I did give Clarice some ju jutsu skills, but there are only a couple of instances where she uses them in the book. Even then, her violent behaviour has serious consequences, despite it being in self-defence. You can’t solve a lot of problems by breaking somebody’s nose, whether you are a spinny killbot or not.
A number of readers have told me that they shouldn’t like Clarice, but they do. I’m particularly proud of that. If you’ve read much of my work you’ll know that I usually cast antiheroes–if not outright villains–as protagonists and Clarice is certainly such a character. She’s smart and talented and formidable, but she’s also arrogant and selfish. She sticks to her principles, but those principles are all inwardly-directed. Clarice puts her own pride and honour before anybody else’s.
If you read the book carefully you’ll notice that I never tell you that Clarice is attractive. I tell you what colour her hair is and she’s obviously quite athletic. She surely has some rockstar glamour, but beautiful? Pretty? Irrelevant. You can’t even tell from the cover art. When the editor and I were working with artist Rhys James on the image, the most difficult part was working out how much of Clarice’s face we could conceal in shadow.
It seems to me that most compliments directed at women–especially young girls–are about their looks. We compliment them on their skin or their hair or their eyes. Boys, on the other hand, are told that they’re strong and clever and smart. Look at those biceps!
Clarice is not there to look pretty; she’s there to play guitar and kick ass. If you take away ‘guitar’ bit you’ll find that applies to most women.