Men On Writing Strong Female Characters

Previously I highlighted Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Avengers) talking about strong female characters and their place in storytelling. A couple of weeks ago I finally had a chance to see Prometheus by director Ridley Scott. Elizabeth Shaw definitely shoulders the tough female character role, in the vein of Ellen Ripley from the Alien movies. Searching for interviews with Scott about his take on female characters, I found some interesting comments in a Daily Beast article:

You’re often credited with giving birth to the modern Hollywood female action hero with the Ellen Ripley character in Alien. She was a new breed of woman onscreen—an androgynous ass-kicker.

Ripley was androgynous, and she didn’t emerge until she shouted at Yaphet Kotto to “Shut the f–k up!” and that was well into the second act. This rather pretty woman who everyone assumed in the first act was going to be one of the first ones to cop it gradually starts to take up the mantle, and the weapon. To me, it’s always organic and not a specific decision to make her female, but afterwards, there’s always 20/20 hindsight, isn’t there? I read with slightly raised eyebrows the surprise and the power about having a female lead instead of a male lead, and it refocused my awareness about what we’ve done. It was a calculated risk as well in a film that’s fundamentally a traditional “who’s going to be the last one standing in a big, dark house.” In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which was significantly frightening for me at that particular point cause I looked at it just prior to making Alien, that girl was still standing at the end covered in blood, but she’d survived rather than won. The difference with Ripley was that she had won and survived.

What draws you to these strong female protagonists?

I’m used to very strong women because my mother was particularly strong, and my father was away all the time. My mother was a big part of bringing up three boys, so I was fully versed in the strength of a powerful woman, and accepted that as the status quo. I think there are a lot of men who feel they’re being emasculated by having the woman be in charge; I’ve never had that problem. All the relationships in my life have been with strong women, from childhood. The relationship I’ve had in my life for the past 30 years is with a very strong Costa Rican woman. Oddly enough, I find it quite engaging to be working with a female when I’m directing. It’s kind of interesting.

Interestingly enough, both Whedon and Scott grew up having strong relationships with their mothers, and they both admit this has affected how they view women and what they are capable of. If witnessing powerful women in real life can influence modern movie-makers, then seeing them in stories – books, television, and movies – portrayed in positions of authority, as heroines, and as equals with the male characters might shape the audience’s perception, too. Slowly, perhaps, but it will make a difference.

This weekend I was also doing some research on Brian Wood, who was announced just prior to San Diego Comic-Con as the creative mind behind the upcoming Star Wars comic. This part of the Comic Vine interview caught my attention:

CV: You basically have a lot of female characters here? Do you have some secret insight into the way female minds work?

BW: No. There’s no secret insight, and I get asked this often. The secret is to not write them as women. It’s kind of a snappy answer but what I mean by that is to just steer so clear of anything that might be a stereotype. I sort of approach them almost like gender-neutral. Once it’s done, if I have to adjust anything, I can, but I usually don’t. I write them pretty “normal” that way and it works out. I guess if there’s anything else I have going on, I was raised by my mother and sister so if there’s any in grained knowledge or sensibility I may have from that but that would be so deep in my subconscious I don’t know if I could even identify it. I really just try to write them fairly straight, not try to rely on a stereotype.

Emphasis mine, because there might be a trend here. I found quite a few interviews with Wood where he was specifically asked about his female characters, including a Newsarama interview for Northlanders and a Comic Alliance piece about his superhero mini-series Mara, co-written with Ming Doyle. (Mara lives! Just not in Star Wars…) From the Comic Alliance interview:

Mara stars a teenage celebrity whose life becomes chaotic when she  manifests superpowers. Speaking exclusively with Comics Alliance, Wood said he  initiated the project in response to the increasingly vocal opposition to dubious depictions of female characters in superhero comics.

I always like to take a look at the previous work of new Star Wars authors, and these remarks have me even more interested in checking out some of Wood’s. If he delivers the kind of stories and characters that Whedon and Scott do, his perspective will be a very refreshing addition to the Expanded Universe.


Tricia Barr took her understanding of brand management and marketing, mixed it with a love of genre storytelling, and added a dash of social media flare to create FANgirl Blog, where she discusses Star Wars, fandom, and strong female characters. She also writes about Star Wars for Random House’s science fiction and fantasy blog Suvudu.com. Her interview with X-Wing: Mercy Kill author Aaron Allston can be found in this month’s Star Wars Insider Issue 135.

In her spare time, Tricia puts the finishing touches on her first novel, Wynde. For excerpts and tales of her adventures in creating a fictional universe, hop over to TriciaBarr.com.

For updates on all things FANgirl follow @FANgirlcantina on Twitter or like FANgirl Zone on Facebook.

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