Television and film writers, I get it. You wanna have more awesome girls to even up the playing field and level out these awesome guys you’ve got to work with – and that’s great! But there is a way to go about it, and there is a way to NOT go about it. As a woman, and a writer, will you please…just listen to me? Because I’m about to give you all the secrets to creating strong original female characters.
*Note, this is an article focusing on creating female OCs for media based on pre-existing material. Not that it can’t help with purely original works either.
Comics have been dominated by men since forever (even though their female audience is larger than they realize), so naturally, there are a lot of strong male superheroes. Yeah, we’ve got our Wonder Womans and our Black Widows, but let’s be real: when you think of “superhero”, you probably think of Superman, or Batman (because money is totally a superpower, right?), or Spiderman. I mean, how many of you have actually heard of Ms. Marvel? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?
With shows like Arrow and The Flash, stories about boys saving the world, there’s a crying need for a female counterpart. A Bonnie for every Clyde, a Scully for every Mulder. Oliver Queen has Felicity Smoak. Barry Allen has Caitlyn Snow and Iris West. Even Kara Danvers on Supergirl has her sister Alex. All badass secondaries in their own right. But the grandmother of all these awesome OFCs is the intrepid right hand of Smallville‘s Clark Kent – Chloe Sullivan.
Chloe was my idol growing up. She was whip smart, witty, brave, and indomitable. She wasn’t just a love interest or just a sidekick. She was a person, with an identity and a personal life and a mind of her own. Yes, she did have a crush on Clark for a while, but it didn’t define her. Helping Clark and the Justice League was important to her life, but it wasn’t the only aspect of her character. She wasn’t stuck as a prop in the narrative. Chloe was so freaking awesome, she actually was put in DC Comics as a real canon character. That is the way you write new female characters.
So let’s just make a little list of dos and don’ts when writing strong, three dimensional women:
- DON’T make a woman just a love interest or helper for the main protagonist.
- DO give your female characters a backbone (or have them develop one over the course of the narrative – because character development is always a great tool for a writer to use!).
- DON’T presume that a “strong” female character just means a woman who punches people a lot (because let’s be real, without the ass-kicking, Black Widow would just be Ms. Fanservice).
- DO give your female characters a storyline of their own! If they don’t have a life of their own, they’re not really a character, they’re just a object in the narrative. There’s an easy test you can use called the Mako Mori test. There’s only three requirements: 1) have a female character, 2) who gets her own story arc, and 3) her story arc doesn’t support that of a man. That’s it, that’s all there is to it. Believe me – it’s not as hard as you think.
- DON’T make a woman a damsel in distress. It’s fine if she gets saved sometimes, but it’s great to turn the tables occasionally! Lois Lane saved Superman a few times, you know.
- DON’T define a woman by traditional gender roles (romantic interests, mothers, etc.) – be original!
- DON’T have “strong” women be romantically interested in jerks or weak guys – because that doesn’t happen in real life. I know men don’t really want to have to try when it comes to getting women and they think they just deserve us because that’s what our society has taught them, but in reality, truly strong women don’t love men who obviously aren’t good enough for them. Instead, have a man truly earn her love – that does not mean automatically receive it just because. Or have the man and the woman be on equal footing from the beginning. When a woman says she’ll never love a man because he’s a jerk, DON’T have her do a 180 by the end of the episode and throw herself at said jerk (lookin’ at you, Supergirl).
This is turning into a rant, I’m gonna stop myself now.
To provide a cautionary tale of what NOT to do, I’ll bring up the infamous BBC Sherlock. The original Holmes canon doesn’t lend itself very well to strong ladies. It’s essentially the excellent adventures of two “heterosexual” male life partners. The only long running female characters are Mrs. Hudson (sometimes Turner), the voiceless housekeeper, and Watson’s
beard wife, who except for the one story where she’s a client, pretty much has no dialogue either. So naturally, there’s a crying need for girl power.
Enter…Molly Hooper. Oh, Molly.
In the very first scene she’s in, it’s made apparent to everyone that she has a gigantic crush on the eponymous detective. Okay, that’s fine. But that’s literally where her characterization begins and ends. Throughout the entirety of the series, Sherlock either ignores her, makes outrageously rude remarks to her, or uses her feelings for him to get her to do things for him. There was a brief respite in the beginning of series 3 where it seemed like there was some growth for Molly’s character in being able to move on from Sherlock, but in the last episode of the show, Molly has hit rock bottom in the pit of patheticness, getting weepy over Sherlock and demanding that he tell her he loves her, even though she knows it’s not true, instead of just realizing that Sherlock is kind of a dick to her and moving on with her life.
I pity any woman who thinks they should have been together. If that’s your idea of romance, don’t be surprised when none of your boyfriends respect you.
So, TLDR, don’t make a Molly Hooper. Make a Chloe Sullivan. ~TRL