Strong-willed characters: bitch or badass?

A friend of mine recently finished reading the first draft for Lifeline and was kind enough to give me some input. Overall, she liked the story, its characters and expressed great curiosity over subjects touched upon but not fully explained (yet). Then she gave me the breakdown of her character analysis. What stood out the most for me was how she defined Evelyn’s character as being ‘bitchy’ to Gabriel. She is strong-willed, passionate and willing to face down whatever lies ahead. Gabriel is sullen, moody and would much rather hide behind a locked door than stand up to unpleasant things. Evelyn has zero tolerance for Gabriel’s bullshit, and she tells him so. I suppose because he’s so emotionally sensitive, her treatment of him could be seen as ‘mean’ or ‘bitchy’ by readers. The two of them are meant to parallel the other; this creates great and interesting character dynamic, though not to the point where working together is impossible.

As a writer, I had hoped to spare Evelyn from the ‘bitch’ definition. She isn’t needlessly mean, selfish or vain (such as Scarlett O’Hara), but Scarlett was also unconventional, stubborn and passionate. Margaret Mitchell makes no allusions about Scarlett’s less-than-stellar characteristics; maybe she was even meant to be instantly disliked by readers. But is she a ‘bitch’ because she’s needlessly mean, or driven to succeed? Is Evelyn a ‘bitch’ because she’s not afraid to tell Gabriel exactly what she thinks about him?

It seems to me that female characters have not been given their proper due. They seem to be split into two, definitive categories: the ‘bitches’ and the damsels in distress. ‘Bitches’ can run the gamut of being as smart or smarter than a man, or spiteful and malicious. Damsels in distress include the doormats, weak-willed and fragile. Not every woman is smart as a whip or prone to tears at the drop of a hat. So why is it when a female character demonstrates intelligence, strength and pride, she’s perceived as a ‘bitch’, when a male character with those same traits can be hailed as a badass without batting an eye? Or how about an emotionally sensitive man being considered  ‘weak’, ‘gay’ or, gasp, ‘womanish’?

I remember reading an article about Skylar White from Breaking Bad. She seemed too brash, too harsh, for poor, sensitive Walter White that she received a lot of negative criticism. While I haven’t finished the series (still on season one or two) I wonder if this response to her character was the result of the writers not quite knowing what to do with her. Then again, television hasn’t exactly made it big with lasting portrayals of female characters. I’m a huge fan of Supernatural, and critics have called it out as misogynistic due to the female-to-male killing ratio. The show is an equal opportunity slayer as far as I’m concerned; still, rather than give fans a lasting female presence, the writers include them in an episode or two, then they are never heard from again. Or killed off. I get it, actors have contracts, etc etc. That’s semantics. I personally would love it if the character of Sheriff Mills (as portrayed by the awesome Kim Rhodes) was made a regular, like Bobby Singer. But I’m getting off track here.

The point I’m trying to make here is we as writers, readers and fans need to break away from preconceived notions about female characters. Just because your character is strong-willed doesn’t make her a bitch. Just because your character is soft doesn’t make her a weakling. Strong women can crumble at times of great distress, or lean on a man for assistance. It doesn’t make her a bad character. (Honestly, I think this notion is derived from the ‘I don’t need no man!!!’ mentality some extreme feminists have. We need to stop thinking it’s ‘bad’ that a woman gains strength from a man). A weak woman can find her hidden strength when faced with the appropriate circumstances, or even plot to murder an abusive husband. The same goes for a strong man having an emotional breakdown at the death of a loved one, or a weak man diving in front of a moving car to save a stranger. And these portrayals are okay. They make for great, flawed characters we can relate to, whether they’re human, an alien, whatever. Because that’s how the real connections are established between the writer and reader.

Not every character will be well-loved or well-received, for any multitude of reasons. To this I say let the story, and the character’s actions, dictate how they are perceived, not assumed notions born from commonly seen traits. Kain from Soul Reaver 2 said it best:

“Hate me, but do it honestly.”

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4 comments on “Strong-willed characters: bitch or badass?

  1. I think in the particular case you called out, the issue is of extremes. A strong-willed woman willing to speak her mind and directly call out flaws is put against a weak-willed man who can’t handle it. It doesn’t surprise me that someone might come off thinking she’s bitchy, but if your characters are being themselves I don’t see a problem in it. If you’d rather avoid that stereotyping, softening her interactions (or hardening his tolerance) over time, but only with each other, would do the trick.

    • My friend later explained her reasons for initially reacting that way to the character. I wrote their first meeting as sharp and abrupt due to circumstances dealing with plot, so naturally she’d think, ‘Wow, way to be a bitch,’ about the female character. As it is, what you said about their interaction is true: she does let up a bit once things start to fall into place. I’m careful to keep their dynamic from getting too soft or too hard, while remaining true to their individual personalities.

      Thanks for commenting! 🙂

  2. Pingback: I’m Really Bad At These | Destinare

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