I was sitting in my classroom today, talking to the girls who comprise our school’s NaNoWriMo club, when I asked them a question: What are you tired of seeing in fiction today?
Their response was immediate and visceral. The answer? All female characters are the same.
When I asked them to elaborate, they didn’t hesitate to answer.
The first piece of feedback was that female protagonists are too strong. You read it right. They’re tired of heroines who are quintessential superheros. Authors have done a 180 in recent years, making female characters capable of moving mountains, but my students feel these characters have lost their human side as a result, becoming more of a statement or cliche than someone to whom they can relate. “They represent something,” one girl said of the new heroine, “but it’s not a real woman - at least not anymore. They're missing crucial flaws."
Which brought them to their next point. If female characters are flawed, their failings are weak. In fiction, now, the heroine might like a boy or a girl who doesn’t like them back. Maybe they aren’t in shape or their parents work all the time instead of doting on them. To my NaNo kids, those flaws are superficial.
“Make them dark,” one student said.
“Yes!” said another. “Maybe she likes revenge. Or seriously contemplates murder!”
They want the flaws to be real. Harsh. Very, very dark.
By dark, they mean the opposite of innocent, which was their next complaint. As they moved the conversation to the virtuousness of heroines, their tone became bitter. They felt like while some high school students are innocent - and while some grown women may still retain that innocence - by the time one hits the age of eighteen, many of them aren’t. At least not the way they’re portrayed in books. My NaNo kids were tired of strong, bad-ass women being naive. “Even Wonder Woman was innocent,” one student lamented, "which is so disappointing. If she had a dark side - a real dark side - she would be much more interesting.”
By the end of our conversation, they decided that Wonder Woman would be much improved if she was an eighty-four year old grandmother, widowed, with six cats and a serious addiction to apple juice and listening to country rap. But she would, of course, retain her bad-assery.
So I challenge you, as you craft your heroines, to think outside the box. Make my teenage NaNo students happy by creating vulnerable, interesting heroines with a dark side. Make them complicated and original. But most of all, keep them as far from cookie-cutter as you can get.