Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Inaction and the Strong Female Character

Imagine a hero: you've followed him through countless trials, through the loss of all he holds dear, struggled with him to this point, the climactic moment of the story. And then he gets captured and his best friend saves the day. Compelling? Perhaps not.

Then why does it happen to heroines?

Modern romance readers expect modern heroines -- strong female characters whose happily-ever-afters are not just about children, as some past decades have emphasized. These are their stories of overcoming doubts, triumphing, finding love with a worthy equal, and yet it surprises me how often female protagonists miss out on the most important scenes of their own stories.

There's an obvious appeal to placing the point-of-view character in distress, and by proxy allowing the reader to be swept off her feet into the arms of a rescuing hero, but if the heroine is the primary protagonist of the story... well, why take her story away from her? Why make it someone else's? At some point protagonists need to break away from the whims of fate, the will of others, and take control of their own destinies. It's part of bringing about a satisfying ending, and making the reader feel as though that happy ending has been earned rather than dropped in the character's lap. Knocking the heroine out, tying her up like a Bond girl, or restricting her to passive onlooker demotes her to a lesser status in her own story.

That's not to say every heroine must be in the thick of the action, or can't be rescued and swept off her feet. Jacqueline Carey's Phedre, in Kushiel's Dart is a heroine equipped for taking blows, not giving them, and spends the novel's climactic battle perched atop a battlement overlooking the action. But none of the novel's outcome, not the forces rallied, not the tide of battle turned, not the peace restored, could have happened without Phedre.

(Here There Be Spoilers. Turn Back If Ye Wish Not To Be Spoiled!)

The climax of the book hinges upon Phedre's sacrifice, sneaking through the enemy encampment in order to deliver a message that turns the tide of war. This she does alone, entirely on her own initiative, and throws her own well-being aside for the sake of shouting a warning to her besieged allies. As a result, the enemy captures her and sets her up for public torture and execution, the likes of which she escapes thanks to the timely intervention of the deadly (and oh so dreamy) romantic lead. He saves her, the battle ensues, and he gets more opportunities to show off his combat prowess ... but absolutely none of it would have been possible if not for Phedre. Our dreamy swordsman saved the day for Phedre, but Phedre saved the day for the entire country.

If a story's heroine displays strong, active traits through the majority of the story, it would be a break in character to force her into any other role for a climactic scene. This doesn't mean the heroes need to sit on their hands, but then heroes rarely seem to have a problem doing something useful during a crucial scene. Decide who your primary character is, and make sure they shine. If your hero and heroine share the spotlight, let them share the work load at the climax so they both earn their happy ending with toil and effort rather than passive observation.

What are some of your favourite climactic scenes? Does the hero or heroine dominate the spotlight, or do they share it? Can you name any scenes that run contrary to this while still maintaining a strong heroine's character?


DebH said...

ooo Haley,
very interesting topic. i hadn't thought about it before, but perhaps the sudden "rescue" for a strong heroine is that subtle thing that makes me not quite like certain book endings.

i cannot think of any examples at present, but since i'm at work, i can ponder and post anything i remember later.

love the post

Jana Richards said...

Hi Haley,
I totally agree with you. I think the heroine has to be as active in determining her own fate as the hero is. And I'm wondering if Deb H. is right when she says perhaps that was the reason she found some endings unsatisfying. I've experienced some of that myself lately.

I can't think of a example of heroine inaction at the moment either, but I can think of an example of an inactive hero. Some time ago my husband and I went to see the movie "The Pianist". After the show was over I asked him how he liked it and he said he didn't care for it. I was surprised because I thought it was pretty good, but he said he couldn't get behind the main character (played by Adrian Brody)because he didn't do anything. His friends hid him. They brought him food and gave him medical attention. He watched the Warsaw Ghetto uprising from his hiding place but didn't participate. He was saved but did little to save himself. In real life, this was probably how things were during the Holocost. But in the movie/book world, an inactive hero or heroine is not someone we can root for.


Vince said...

Hi Hayley:

The worldwide favorite ‘damsel in distress’ story theme does more than just show a helpless heroine thankfully being rescued.

1. It shows that the hero is willing to risk his life for her. If he did it once, he could be expected to do it again. If he did it once, he might actually care for her and stick around. If he did it once, he has an investment in her.

2. It shows he is brave and willing to fight to defend others he cares about. This is very useful to know in a dangerous world. It is particularly useful when the heroine is pregnant and not in the best physical position to fight her own battles – often against bigger, stronger, and more aggressive males. And when the heroine has many small children to care for at the same time, a hero, who will fight and is a proven champion, is often the key to survival.

The females who were bigger than men, stronger than men, more aggressive than men, and who were always saving their men from danger, died out hundreds of thousands of years ago. When they were vulnerable there was no one to defend and save them. They did not pass their superior genes on to their daughters.

You can write against basic hardwired biology but I don’t think you will reach the ‘deep’ emotional satisfaction that comes from being one with nature. There are super alpha female heroines out there, in real life and the literature, but how romantic are they? That’s the question a writer needs to answer.


Hayley E. Lavik said...

Hi Deb, I think you're probably right that a lot of times endings don't feel satisfying because of things like that, that the right character hasn't earned their reward. Perhaps you can compare some of your favourite endings with your disliked endings, you'll notice some trends that point to what troubles you about those bad endings.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Jana, I actually never saw the Pianist, but characters like that definitely get me a bit too. It's that fine line between storytelling and reality. I'd find it hard to respect someone who just moped around and hid all the time in real life, so even when it's completely understandable in a movie, there's still a bit of a lack of empathy.

I can think of several examples of heroines like that, but I wouldn't want to go rattle a bunch off and turn this thread into bashing authors :) Did you read the book the SRW did for our book club reading at Christmas? That to me felt like an example of a strong character suddenly not doing anything. In this case she wasn't unconscious or anything, as it wasn't an action book, but in the end it was up to the hero to help her when the situation wasn't that plausible in the first place.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Vince, I gotta say, I really can't agree with you here. While you make some good points about the worth of the rescuing hero, you also point out exactly what I'm saying about the heroine. There's nothing in your list validating the mettle of the heroine who is passive and not participating in the ending to her own story...because the damsel stereotype doesn't prove a woman to be anything but pliant and docile.

While I agree there are times when it would be unrealistic to expect a woman to triumph in the sort of climactic scene you're setting up (bigger, stronger men, while pregnant, etc), that is also a rather narrowing view of what women are capable of, and what a climactic scene entails. As an eager reader of the romance genre, I would assume you've encountered more than burly action scenes at the end of novels.

The example I gave within the post shows exactly this, that such scenes don't have to revolve around action and men saving the day, nor does that scene invalidate the merit of a man capable of saving the woman he loves. Yes, there is action, yes there is rescuing of the heroine, but she's no 'damsel in distress.'

You assume that for a woman to take an active role in a climactic scene, that she must be some muscle-bound Red Sonja of a woman, and otherwise is incapable of saving herself. You also assume that women nowadays lack the genetic ability to play an active role in their own stories and potential save themselves rather than be saved, because you reduce the situation to only certain details in which the physical strength of the average woman plays against her.

I do not at all agree that writing active female characters taking part in their own stories is somehow going against "basic hardwired biology" as biology is not what dictates whether a person (male or female) chooses to be a victim or to take charge of a situation. Nor do I agree that a heroine handling her own climactic scene must necessarily be a super alpha heroine, as that encompasses only one small sub-section of one sub-genre of romance as a whole, and not just one tiny section of women are capable of actually saving themselves and handling their own problems. I am no ultra-buff, burly super alpha, but I assure you I am never ever going to be a damsel in distress, and I would expect to read heroines with the same resourcefulness, determination, and will to actually take action in their stories rather than sit around singing "Some Day My Prince Will Come."

As for whether or not an active heroine is romantic (or are you critiquing the mental image of a large, muscular heroine as romantic?), that mindset is exactly what disgusted me about the older Harlequin novels I read for a fourth year university paper. If romance is only about being saved, then the genre would truly be in a sad state, and it would be no wonder so many women accuse it of poorly representing women and offering little to identify with.

Thankfully that is not the case, and the romance genre can still offer a diverse range of stories, heroes, settings, and heroines to suit the varied tastes of the women who read them, rather than imposing one limited stereotype for them to conform to.

Karyn Good said...

I love strong heroines and I hope I write them that way. But I gotta say I love alpha male characters, too. My favorite scenario is when the hero and heroine each share in the rescuing (both emotional and physical) or maybe it's a bit back and forth. I don't mind if the heroine engages in more of an emotional rescue than a physical one in terms of someone rescues someone. I also don't mind if in the end and the male, who's the lead character and major player in the story, swoops in a saves the day with lots of help, of course :D But I get very frustrated with heroines who start out weak, remain weak and are the type to wear high heels and enter dark alleys and end up needing rescuing because they're to stupid to live.

I quite like Phedre! but I have to admit to a bit of frustration with her character. I wanted to see her give back as good as she got, just one time (of course, I skimmed the last part of the book so maybe I missed something). That however was not possible for her for very good reasons, and nor would she have wanted to or thought of doing so for very plausible reasons :D

I love how the author creates a strong female character but gives her this need for something a lot of women would se as - can I use the word - unsavory and times at unpalatable? Some of those scenes still give me shivers.

Great post, Hayley.

Vince said...

Hi Hayley:

I like your response to my comments. I think many women agree with you. I just don’t think we are discussing the same things.

I am making a biological point: that women who unconsciously or consciously are attracted to alpha males (and these can be small bodied males with the aggressive ability to fight and win over bigger males) better their chances of having their offspring live until they too can reproduce. (The key to survival is not just having children. The children you have must live long enough to reproduce themselves or your genes do not carry on. This makes the male more important for some species than in others.)

Women who have these basic feelings – a strong attraction for alpha males, will tend to be successful females as females of the species. This does not mean they are passive. In birds, it is usually the case that the top male bird will mate with the top female bird. This puts the strongest with the strongest and favors the survival of the species. Thus, it is good for there to be good, strong, females. It’s not only good; it’s natural.

Now, when you write, “If romance is only about being saved…”, I have to object. We were only talking here about one of the very many romance themes – ‘damsel in distress’. There are many more classic themes: ‘hidden child’, ‘marriage of convenience’, ‘runaway bride’, ‘plain Jane’, ‘beauty and the beast’, etc.

My response to the ‘damsel in distress’ theme is only an attempt to explain the biological underpinnings of that one theme. In Regency romances the ‘marriage of convenience’ puts the power to save her entire family in the hands of a young girl. It also works in reverse when a destitute but titled hero marries to save his estates. I think we have so many romance themes because we need them to cover the variety that real life provides us.

I am also not comfortable with the idea that a woman needs to validate herself by being like a man. That is, being proactive in a way that is basically uncharacteristic for a female. I think there are many more ways for a woman to validate herself than putting her life a risk on an equal level with the hero.

I also think a woman who enjoys reading ‘damsel in distress’ stories has nothing for which to apologize. It’s just fiction and a fantasy at that.

BTW, the alpha females I’ve read have all been drop-dead beautiful women who are also well toned athletes. Fit is beautiful.

I still am not sure if we disagree on the same issues.


Hayley E. Lavik said...

You've summed it up really well, Karyn. It doesn't always have to be some raging action scene (heck, some novels don't even have action scenes), but heroines should still be contributing to the story's outcome.. it shouldn't be possible to have that outcome without something significant they've done, since it's their story (in full or shared).

And of course, you know I love alpha heroes as well, and they definitely don't need to be hindered for the sake of giving a female character something to do. These things don't need to be viewed in terms of either/or, which often seems to be the case. If it's a shared story, they both deserve to play a key role in it.

I always wondered what you thought of Kushiel's Dart! She's a fascinating character with an incredibly unique strength/flaw all in one. As you say, it's not really possible for her to give as good as she gets, as that's not in her nature, but she manages some great spy-related triumphs at the end (the best way to get back at Melisande, for example).

Would really love to hear your thoughts on some of those scenes. Perhaps at a future meeting!

Hayley E. Lavik said...

A quick note to everyone, I'll be away from the computer for the rest of the afternoon, but will reply to any more comments that come when I get home tonight. If you don't hear from me today, check back tomorrow!

Silver James said...

Haley, I've never read any of Carey's work and now I'm thinking I should have!

And alpha female doesn't have to be fit and buff and a wiz with weapons. She can be shy and retiring but smart and can figure out the ultimate puzzle. I totally agree about being let down when a heretofore "active in her story" heroine rolls over and plays dead so the hero can rescue her. Wallbangers, those books are.

As for Vince's points, I'll refrain in entering into the "nature vs. nurture" debate.

Have a great day. I really enjoyed the topic, Hayley. (And I do love your strong heroines!)

Janet said...

Wow, quite the discussion going on here! I'm going to be a fence sitter - sometimes, I enjoy a book with a strong, take charge female, and sometimes, I like the damsel in distress. I think if an author stays true to her character - right from the beginning - it works. If a character changes, becoming a wus when the going gets tough, or a sword-wielding vixen during the climax, then I won't buy it.

Interesting topic - interesting discussion. Thanks, Hayley :)

Helena said...

Very good topic, Hayley. As you have already seen, there are many ways to approach the theme you've introduced.

I don't believe that strong women have to be Amazons to play an equal role in bringing the problems of the tale to resolution -- whether it's by assuming an active role (think of Laura Secord delivering a message through enemy lines in 1812), or through the heroine's willingness to stand up for what she believes.

My examples of heroines that must have been strong characters and surely were also romantic and feminine are from the days of the settlement of the west. In 1911, my grandmother, at the age of 20, was willing to take a train trip alone more than halfway across the continent to marry my grandfather who had been courting her by letter for four years. During that time they had not seen each other in person. Their memories of one another were from when they were 15 and 16 years of age. Like many other pioneer women, after they married she endured hardship and many hours alone on the homestead on the prairie. But there had to be romance -- they were married for more than 60 years!

I know this is not on par with the types of plots that you have been discussing, but I think some of the qualities of those women could be transferred into situations where the heroine would be anything but a 'damsel in distress.'

Welcome to your "regular shift," Hayley!

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hayley, I'm of a mixed mind on this because although I believe heroines should be strong, I also like reading books of heroines who are going through a crisis period. So they may not be strong at the front of the book, but 2/3rds of the way through they find themselves and start showing their strengths.

In fact, I just finished reading one such book: A Time to Heal by Linda Goodnight. It's a Love Inspired book about a Dr who's faced so much tragedy, she wants to give up her profession. She, Kat, goes back home to rest and figure out what she wants to do but one of the first people she runs into is her old flame, Seth, the hero. Now here's where this book differs from a lot of others - Kat was a Christian teenager, but that didn't stop her from 'doing it' with Seth with an unfortunate consequence that only they know about. I won't give away the story, but I will say that now that Kat is back, she worries if Seth has given away their secret. So Kat has a lot of emotional stuff going on throughout the book and is trying to sort it out. But she isn't just sitting there twiddling her thumbs, either and keeps herself physically busy. This was a very emotional book for me and thoroughly entertaining even if the heroine wasn't strong throughout.

Excellent post, Hayley and if I haven't said it before, welcome as a permanent mbr of the Chicks.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Silver, I love that you've mentioned the distinction between buff and alpha, although alpha is a tough word in romance circles, as it comes with very specific connotations. Absolutely a heroine can be both shy and strong though, as shy doesn't automatically equate to passivity.. just potential social awkwardness :)

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Janet, you're definitely right that character is the key issue here. If the intent is to tell a story with a damsel in need of saving, then the reader will expect that and either like it or not. For myself, if that's the case I would rather follow the active character's story (the saving hero) as passive main characters just don't compel me the same. If there's a big switch in behaviour, whether from passive to over-the-top active (without a logical character arc), or from active to passive (for the sake of saving), it's just a frustrating form of storytelling.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Helena, what a perfect example, and what an incredible story! That's the sort of strength I'm talking about here. It's not all about physical prowess or muscle, but about strength of character and will to act. Your grandmother sounds like a very strong woman, and not about to wait around for things to work themselves out.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

I love the sort of character growth you've described, Anita. A female character who spends the whole story tough, independent, and lacking in flaws, isn't a rounded character with room to develop, so it defeats the purpose of characterization.

There's a good article I read last year on this... ah, here it is: Why Strong Female Characters are Bad For Women. It talks about the sort of 'strong' characters often placed into movies to give female representation, and how they just wind up flat and unrealistic. Real strength isn't the ability to kick ass, but strength of will and character, including the flaws we must overcome to acquire that strength.

I think it's a fairly classic character arc in general (part of the Hero's Journey as well, I believe) that a character goes from being controlled by outside forces to taking control of their own destiny. It sounds like that's the sort of arc you're describing in the crisis periods your favourite heroines go through. What I would hate to see would be a heroine like you describe, going through a lovely character arc as she gains confidence and finds herself, only to spend the climax reverted into a passive role again.