Anne Bean

I make delicious words. // I make words delicious.

All The Single(-Dimensional) Ladies

Or, If You Liked Her Then You Shoula Put an Arc on Her

At the moment, I’m in the process of revising my upcoming anthology of retold fairy tales, tentatively titled Behind the Magic Mirror.

With each tale, I tried to peel back the known facts of the characters and situations, and write what seemed to be hidden stories that were jumping out at me when I read collections  of original tales. For one tale, a comic called “The Boy Who Went Forth to Learn About Fear and the Girl Who Knew Perfectly Well What It Was,” I did a fairly straight retelling of the Grimm Tale (The Boy Who Went Forth to Learn About Fear) on the left of the page, and the story of his wife-to-be, a.k.a. the Princess Prize, on the right.

Now, a year ago I thought I had a pretty good version of this story going on. And it was decent. I could give the script to self-respecting artists and they wouldn’t laugh at me or anything. But reading it a year later, I was shocked to find that I’d fallen in to the trap of making the female character basically reactive and passive. It’s shockingly easy! And if you’ve read any of my princess-related rants on this blog, you’ll know how much I dislike reactive, passive heroines. But lo, there I was, doing it.

First off, I fixed the problem: rather than waiting to be rescued while being “strong” and enduring the tortures of her family, the princess (unseen) goes about solving her own problems at the same time as the boy. Of course, her father still beats the crap out of her. But she saves her own ass anyway.

When I was done, though, I thought long and hard about why I keep accidentally writing passive heroines. What is it about the stories we’ve been told again and again that makes writing passive female characters so easy?

In film, when there are actually named female characters (*coughBechdeltestcough*) there are lots of stories where the female characters are static (which makes being active and having agency very difficult).

By “static,” I mean basically having the same characteristics of personality and action throughout the whole film; a static character might be strong or weak, good or bad, brilliant or idiotic, but in any case she won’t have any huge shifts during the film. A static character won’t go from good to bad or weak to strong.

Here’s some examples, so you can see what I mean:

  • Belle, from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Starts smart and sassy, finishes smart and sassy-ish. I mean, if anything she gets domesticated a bit, and of course she’s Found Love and all. But she doesn’t really have to undergo character change. Also, the film is Beast’s arc, not hers. Beast is dynamic: at the beginning of the film, he’s an irredeemable fuck-up with a spell that makes him look at beastly as he acts. At the end, he has become, literally and figuratively, a reasonable human being. The midpoint of the film is not Belle’s decision to leave the palace, ’cause she would have done that anyway. That didn’t represent a turning point for her. The true midpoint, Beast’s decision to follow her and thereby save her from the wolves in the forest, represented a turning point for him. He’s the dynamic character. She’s static.

*pant pant* Okay. I think I *might* be done ranting about Beauty and the Beast for a while. Maybe.

  • Bella Swan, and by proxy Anastasia Fuckwad of 50 Shades of Grey: “Since I’ve decided I am the only one who can save this troubled man by staying in this abusive relationship, I will literally jump off cliffs and/or put myself in harm’s way just to get his attention so that he knows I LURRRVE him and would totally literally die for him and stuff.” <–This is not “agency.”

    Bella with her mouth open, looking like a dumbass.

    Do I really need to say more?

  • Every Manic Pixie Dream Girl ever, including some of my favorites: Sam in Garden State, Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

    four images of manic pixie dream girls from film

    Love ’em, hate ’em…your male protag can’t live a full life without ’em.

  • Trinity, The Matrix. Trinity is a good example of a “Strong Female Character” who starts out as a huge badass with no obvious flaws and ends up as a huge badass with no obvious flaws.

Or, just look at this
GIANT DAMN FLOWCHART OF ALL 2-DIMENSIONAL FEMALE CHARACTER ARCHETYPES.

On the flip side, here are some stories with dynamic female characters:

  • Brave: This movie actually has two (!) female characters with character arcs. Merida starts out as a bratty, overconfident girl who hates tradition, and learns how to function within her family without sacrificing her beliefs. Her mother starts out uptight and bent on a traditional marriage, and then relaxes and learns how to connect with and love her daughter for who she is.
  • Legally Blonde: Elle starts out as a SoCal sorority girl bent on romantic revenge. She ends up as a woman who believes in herself on her way to becoming a high-powered Harvard lawyer.

    Elle buying her laptop in Legally Blonde

    Look! It’s a moment of personal decision making! How dynamic!

  • Thelma and Louise: Thelma in particular starts out as a sheltered housewife and ends up on a crime spree, blowing up trucks with guns. Pretty major arc going on there.

    Thelma and Louise practicing shooting

    They started out all milquetoast. Really.

  • High Noon: If you haven’t watched this, do. It’s worth it. The wife character, who you expect to be as bland as most wives in Westerns, goes though major character shifts and becomes a vital figure in the climax of the movie.
  • Star Wars Episode IV-VI: Princess Leia has a character arc, you guys! She starts out as a  political activist who wants nothing to do with Jedi or that scruffy nerf herder. She ends up as a major player in action as well as politics who has loosened up enough and taken enough risks to find meaning in the Force, have a meaningful relationship with her long-lost, and find a romantic partner in Han. …
  • I suppose it’s arguable that Queen Amidala has a character arc. But it’s a pretty sucky arc. Correct me if I’m wrong here, ’cause I only watched the prequels once, but wouldn’t it go something like: Be badass politician. Fall in love with unstable Jedi. Lose all interest in doing anything other than moping around in pearled evening gowns and having babies. The end. Is that even a character arc? Shit, that’s more like a character nosedive, if you ask me. Whatever.

 

Gosh. I think I’ve worn myself out. Please comment! Tell me good examples of either, disagree with my examples, give folks ideas of how to write dynamic characters, whatever!

8 Comments

  1. OMG, can I just…female characters whose only purpose is to be rescued. I hate them. I hate them so much, and we seem to be in the middle of a particularly heinous rash of them, what with all the almost-washed-up action heroes who need daughters to rescue (see: Taken, Taken 2), and also Emily in the Raven and O in Savages (seriously, fuck that movie and its absurd sexism, it is the worst), and while we’re on the subject also Buttercup in the Princess Bride. What the hell kind of person makes zero effort to rescue themselves? What use are they? How the hell are we suppose to root for a character that pointless?

  2. I feel like Hanna in, well, Hanna, was a good example of someone with an arc. She was designed literally for the purpose of lacking empathy/fear and to kill, but yet during the plot, she connected the other teen, and had to balance the first time she was having feelings with her mission of killing what’s her ass.

    Hunger Games I think is a more pop culture example, and although there is a shit ton of love story built in, there is also a woman going from being a care taker/protector of her family to fighting to stay alive, and also figuring out how she feels about a society that is forcing her to kill others in order to win, etc.

    I feel like Love Actually is a tough one, because there are lots of female characters, and they do talk to one another, sometimes not about men/love. However, since the whole plot is about relationships and how we interact, a lot of the conversation is about love/frequently men.

    Side note; LOVED Brave. Not only good female characters (including a lead who DOESN’T end up with a man), but also; CURLY HAIR! Real curly hair, not like “oh, I’m playing Hermione Granger, but have straight hair, so they are going to crimp it!”

    • Anne Bean

      January 28, 2013 at 2:37 pm

      Word, on all counts. Hanna is a particularly good example of a character with an arc, good call.

      I think only some of the characters in Love, Actually are given a chance to have too much of an arc, since it’s such an ensemble piece and they each get less screen time. But still, most of them have a moment of decision-making that profoundly affects their lives. (To cheat or not to cheat? To move on or keep mourning? To spend time loving needy brother or sexing up hot beefcake? etc) Only a few (e.g. Colin, God of Sex) seemed truly one-dimensional or filler-like to me.

  3. Alexandria Darcy

    January 28, 2013 at 7:24 pm

    So excited to learn more about this at writing group on Thursday! I often sit and wonder if my female main character is good enough to be three-dimensional. Unfortunately, she does need rescuing near the very beginning of the novel, but in her defense, she’s being attacked by a vampire, she is still a mere human at that point, and also has no idea that she’s being attacked by a vampire. Since I do love a good dose of romance in my novels (both those that I write, and those that I read) there is a bit of that going on, but the two main characters go back and forth between saving each others’ asses. My main character also has a strong motivation to learn how to protect herself from all these antagonists that start coming after her. She is definitely not content to be taken care of – far from it. My point is, I think she has a good arc, and she is dynamic, but sometimes I wonder if I have succeeded in this, only to make her an unlikeable main character. Hopefully things will become clearer as I continue to work on revisions.
    My other WIP is a steampunk novel about two sisters. I am fairly certain that they aren’t rescued once in the entire novel. But I’m not sure they go through any dynamic character arc. I also haven’t looked at the MS for about a year, so I suppose I’ll tackle that when the time comes!
    Excellent post! I enjoyed reading it, and I’m definitely going to use it as a reference!

  4. First off, love the Disney princess movies, mostly because I watched them with my two daughters when they were young. I was probably wrong to smother them with images of passive girls who only wanted to find love and security, but they turned out okay in spite of that 😉
    Loved Thelma and Louise, but still sad that they had to die. It seemed like a pretty high price to pay for finally experiencing life.
    Recently watched Hanna and thought she only existed as the instrument of her father’s revenge. Born into as sucky a life as Cinderella, but with fireams training.
    Whenever I’m writing female protags, I always keep in mind a comment an agent made that she was looking for strong female characters, not female characters who were men in a skirt. I tend to get annoyed with overly feminized characters (like Janet Evanonich’s Stephanie Plum) and lean more toward female characters like Chuck Wendig’s Miriam Black. Females can be every bit as psychotic as men.

    • Anne Bean

      February 5, 2013 at 8:54 pm

      Thanks for bringing the psychosis, Renee. 🙂 I hope you have some deliciously batshit ladies in your work.

      Also, thanks for reminding me that Strong Female Characters shouldn’t be like Michelangelo’s women, viz, dudes with boobs.

      Now that someone has asked me to review multiple versions of Cinderella, I might have to include Hanna as one of them, see what that does. Bwaha.

      (And I love to hate on Disney film; you’re still allowed to love it. I, too, like problematic things. Lord of the Rings, to name just one…)

  5. I have an alternative headcanon in which Anakin and Padme both fall to the dark side at the end of Episode Two. She would make an awesome Sith Empress.

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