Our columnust Charlie Humphies is tired and frustrated with the ages-old excuse of “women are hard to write” when a new comic book has only a token white female in it. She takes a look at what makes compelling female characters.
I’m tired and frustrated with the ages-old excuse of “women are hard to write” when a new comic book is announced with one white female character as part of the line-up and even then she turns out to be a one-dimensional flat thing upholding the un-obtainable social ideal of perfection and beauty.
While, yes, creating a female character will always be the ultimate test of walking-on-eggshell ability because “how does one write a woman’s voice” but good grief you get points for trying! But it’s not as hard as people think – first acknowledge that nothing will ever be fully inclusive or feminist no matter how hard you try to cram it all in (but please, creators could try a little harder to be more inclusive and feminist!) and then don’t set out to write a female character as a woman but rather as a whole person! A multi-faceted person of interests, backstory and personality. And, you might want to brace yourself: they don’t have to be born in a woman’s body. Let’s get some transwomen representation up in here! Because let’s face some more facts: identifying as a woman in your head doesn’t mean you were born as a biological woman. So with all this in mind, what does make a compelling, well-rounded female character?
Flawed characters are usually the most interesting to read about because then you can begin to question their motives and actions. Men are never put on the pedestal of good morals, so why should women be? Take Kate Bishop a.k.a Hawkeye as an example. She may be a white skinny rich girl but the most compelling part of her character is her great huge flaw: she’s incredibly ableist – prejudice against disabled people. Just take a look at her treatment of Deadpool in Hawkeye versus Deadpool #1. Telling him that his “Halloween costume” (his scarring) is the best Freddy Krueger costume she’s seen. So not only do we get to see what disabled people get to go through at Halloween, but also how easy it is for ableism to bleed through our personality. This was very evident in the uproar surrounding the particular panel in question as disabled people rallied around it and said “this is what we go through every Halloween” whereas the abled audience (those without a disability) were embarrassed by finding Kate’s trait in themselves and having not realised that their words were hurtful. Women teaching us things about ourselves!
Character flaws are always great to include because they’ll always bring to question future actions. Will Kate Bishop learn from her mistake? Will she grow as a person and become more considerate of her language and actions? Or does she not know any better because she, herself, is not disabled?
Another way in which female characters can be compelling is through their purpose – something a bit more interesting than being the love interest, nurturing the lead male, or being the damsel in distress. Women who are not a passive participant in the story but rather doing things.
However, saying that, Sera from Angela: Asgard’s Assassin and Angela: Queen of Hel could be argued is a little bit of all of these but is an active participant in the wider story because it’s her story (and she tells it in such a fantastic way!) And okay she nurtures and helps Angela grow as a person, is her love interest, and ends up in Hel due to Angela’s actions but the most compelling part of all of this is that Sera is the storyteller – these comics are from her point of view and all in her own words. Women telling their own stories! Women with agency of their own!
Now, let’s take a step away from the mainstream comic books and take a closer look at the more indie on offer. We have I Love This Part, an exquisite indie comic from Avery Hill Publishing written and drawn by Tillie Walden, and it’s the most beautiful comic book you can have in your collection. The watercolour artwork is simplistic and yet the perfect background for the story, and the small amount of dialogue really slows everything down and makes you linger over each beautiful page.
I Love This Part is so compelling as a female-led story because it doesn’t need sex appeal and a big battle or stolen kisses in the heat of a trial. No, it’s a calm, realistic story that maybe some of us have gone through – it’s relatable. The story focuses on two girls waiting out the end of school and they find solace in one another. They share their favourite music and internet videos, and their relationship develops into something very special and very sweet indeed. It fills your heart up with joy and then breaks it into a million tiny pieces. A really bittersweet piece of artwork that you’ll just keep returning to over and over again.
And it’s just nice to have a story that doesn’t involve lasers or swords or magic. The two protagonists are realistic and relatable. They’re not the Chosen One and don’t need to stop some giant world-ending threat; they’re just trying to get through school and end up finding that their relationship is deeper than they initially thought. And the writing isn’t stereotypical of the “feminine” voice.
Compelling female characters are just well-rounded people. They aren’t women first and then scientists or warriors second because, as much as people love putting labels on things or things into boxes, that’s not the way life works.