Ugh, I can’t express how much I hate that term. There are lots of opinions on this, and probably many that are better articulated than mine, but given that I am trying to sell an audience on stories about a group consisting of women (see links to the side), I figured I’d throw out my seventeen cents (that’s two cents adjusted for inflation).
The reason why I hate the term “strong female character” is that it implies that the default female character is in fact weak. Interestingly, I think there would be a lot more uproar if more critics did use the term “weak female character” for the default female character because at least that’s honest, and then everyone would know exactly what was meant instead of just hints and allegations. And too often even when a story has a “strong female character” the creator(s) of the story don’t know what to do with her. This was a criticism recently leveled at How to Train Your Dragon 2 in which Hiccup’s long-lost mother was a main character, except that nothing she did really mattered to the plot. If a character ultimately contributes nothing to the story, then why even include that character?
I go back and forth on whether the character or the plot is the starting point of a story. As I’ve said before, I’m sometimes inspired to create a character and then fit that character into a story, and sometimes I’m inspired to create a plot and then fit characters into that plot. I’m not sure any creator sets out to create a particular character type unless they feel a particular need to do so. Although if they do set out to create a particular character type, that can be fraught with unfortunate implications. I’m not saying a creator who is not a female can’t create a strong female character (Hester Prynne is a good example), but that it’s something that must be done with caution. For example, according to the excellent documentary “Make a Noise” (on Netflix) when Mel Brooks and his cohorts sat down to write the script for Blazing Saddles, he reportedly looked around at his three friends and said, “Four Jews can’t write a comedy about racism against black people.” Understanding their limitations, they recruited Richard Pryor to be their consultant for the script. Brooks actually wanted him to play the part of Black Bart, but for myriad reasons that didn’t work out, although Pryor heartily approved of the eventual lead actor.
I can’t even think of a time right off my head when I tried to write a particular kind of character (at least not in the sense of any particular trope type like “strong female character”). For example, when I develop a character, I don’t think in terms of “male” or “female.” Or, frankly, a lot of other distinctions. I think in terms of character traits like, “strong,” “clever,” “shy,” etc. Then, depending on the type of world I’ve created, I assign other character attributes like “human,” “male,” “cat,” etc. However, I won’t say I don’t step back and try to take an objective look at the characters I have created. I am a product of my biases, so I do try to be aware that my narrow worldview may not be representative of the world I have created, especially if that world is based on the real world (see above anecdote).
So, since this blog is about self-promotion, how does all this tie into “Nevermore and the Ravens,” which features four female characters? Well, the long version has been documented already, but the short version is that this was a whim me and my friends came up with that I decided to run with. All I can say is that it made sense at the time. So anyway, the idea of the all-female band had already been set up. That didn’t mean I had to stay with it, obviously, so why did I? Well, I am so obviously inspired by “Scooby Doo” and the “Scooby Doo”-inspired “Josie and the Pussycats.” I guess the idea of the all-female band is what sparked inspiration. Sometimes as a writer I really don’t have any good answers for those types of questions other than, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
Then the question becomes, “how did I develop their characters?” This was one instance where I had an idea for stories (supernatural misadventures) and needed characters to make it work. TvTropes calls this part of the development process “Cast Calculus.” Typically groups are three, four, or five, with plenty of examples of each for me to draw from – Scooby Doo gang, Josie and the Pussycats, the Monkees, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the A-team, Sailor Moon, Harry Potter, the “Star Wars” movies, the Discworld witches, just to name a few of my probable influences. Obviously I could have added more characters, but as the trope page says, four is getting a little difficult to keep track of. And that is true. I did try to actively avoid assigning any one character one of the typical roles in the tropes. I wanted them to have a mix of different traits so as not to be pigeonholed. I also thought this would give me more freedom in the types of stories I wanted to write.
Basically, even though I had decided on a cast of women, that didn’t factor into the process of creating their characters. Like I just said, I was assigning traits based on what I needed for the story. I did eventually settle on a cast of four because I wanted to use the western four magical elements as part of my stories. From there I worked out the rest of their general personalities. It was only after I really started to work on the story(ies) did I start to think about whether the fact the characters were women would really make a difference, and if so, how to incorporate that.
Overall, I think this process worked pretty well, but you can always read the series for yourself and make your own judgment.