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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!