Lydia Kang, author of the newly released The November Girl, explains why it’s time to change our definition as to what being a strong female character really means.
About ‘The November Girl’
I am Anda, and the lake is my mother. I am the November storms that terrify sailors and sink ships. With their deaths, I keep my little island on Lake Superior alive.
Hector has come here to hide from his family until he turns eighteen. Isle Royale is shut down for the winter, and there’s no one here but me. And now him.
Hector is running from the violence in his life, but violence runs through my veins. I should send him away, to keep him safe. But I’m half human, too, and Hector makes me want to listen to my foolish, half-human heart. And if I do, I can’t protect him from the storms coming for us.
Why we need strong female characters in books and teen pop culture
When you read the title of the article, what did you think?
“Yay, we need more Katnisses in the world! More Hermiones!”
And I agree with you. Sort of. But here’s what I think we really need.
I would love to see more characters who can’t physically punch out a bully when they’re insulted. I’d like to see ones who can give a knock out punch and choose not to. I’d like characters that feel weakness, fear, anxiety, depression, and crippling doubt. Or characters who are so flawless, it’s not until the last page that you realize you were duped the whole time.
I’d love to read of characters who can, at one moment, do incredibly brave things in the face of the worst odds, and yet also cower when faced with other terrible challenges.
We can show how characters can be bountifully generous, and inwardly so selfish it makes your mouth pucker just to read their thoughts. Others that are so money-hungry that they can’t see beyond the glint of gold in the distance, yet end up dying for the one and only thing they truly care for, the abandoned puppy they found a mere twenty-four hours ago.
Do they sound strong?
Do they sound female?
Aha. Did you notice I didn’t once mention the gender of the above characters? That’s because I think we need, and will always need, to write complicated, three- and four-dimensional characters regardless of their gender. Because when you think of “strength”, you shouldn’t automatically think of one gender that immediately pops out at you for being sorely lacking in such, and therefore, a character of that gender with strength must be super speshel.
I for one am not terribly surprised by strength in women and girls and female teens. I see it every day. I am strong myself, and I have no shame in saying so. In residency at 90 pounds, I lifted patient-filled gurneys onto unevenly leveled elevators; as a kid, I survived bullying; all my life, I’ve not let racism and sexism stop me from my goals.
Also? I got through one of the most horrible birthing experiences ever. I’m also related to some of the strongest females in the world—my mother is an example. My sister. My mother-in-law. My sister-in-law. They all kick ass in a multitude of nonphysical ways.
So yeah. Female strength never surprises me, actually.
But. I don’t take well to concept that the “Strong Female Character” must continue to be this mythical, wonderful, celebrated, rare creature when in truth, gender ought have nothing to do with it. It also ignores the nonbinary gendered humans, or genderqueer, or transgendered peoples that we live with and also belong in stories. What about them?
So here’s what would be lovely: writing complex humans in whose stories we should immerse ourselves. Period. And they may be any gender (by their definition, not ours), any sexual orientation, any ethnicity, any race, any religion or lack thereof, from everywhere and anywhere.
Sure, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was awesome. But Buffy’s been done, and I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to dig into some great, new characters with a complicated definition of strength that doesn’t consist of a string of cartoon superhero punches.
Our readers deserve that.
About the author
Lydia Kang is a physician, geek-girl, and salt-addicted foodie who spends too much time instagramming her moody dog. She writes young adult fiction, adult fiction, and adult nonfiction, and lives in the Midwest with her husband and three kids.