When websites were reporting that my novel had been optioned by DreamWorks for a movie, an online commenter announced (having read that The Fire Sermon centered around Cass, a young woman) that I must be “jumping on the strong female character bandwagon.” I’ve learnt, since then, not to read comments – that way madness lies! But at the time, the anonymous comment made me roll my eyes in despair. If a novelist writes about a male character who’s perceived as strong, that’s not considered noteworthy – indeed, it’s expected: that’s the default hero. But a strong female character is apparently some kind of trendy trope.
Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about how the idea of the ‘strong female character’ has become such a common point of discussion. I don’t object to somebody assuming that my novel has a strong heroine – even if Cass’s particular form of strength might not be of the Katniss Everdeen weapon-wielding variety. But I do object to the suggestion that strong female characters are somehow a ‘bandwagon’ – as though these women are a trendy phase in which fiction is currently dabbling.
There have always been strong heroines, including in the classics – from Antigone to Elizabeth Bennett. Literature has given us an incredible range of courageous, resolute and intelligent woman – just think of Jane Eyre, Eowyn, Precious, Sethe, and Hermione Granger. True, women in fiction have too often been relegated to supporting roles, and if there’s been a recent proliferation of women who are active subjects, at the centre of their own stories, then that’s something to be celebrated. As a proud feminist, I hope that there will be more such characters.
But I also hope that their strength will be allowed to take many different forms. Because the flip side of those complaining about the ‘bandwagon’ of strong female characters are those who argue that writers (especially women writers) have an obligation to provide these characters. I hope a narrow definition of ‘strength’ isn’t going to become yet another burden for women to bear, yet another stereotype to which they are expected to conform. Women writers face enough obstacles in their writing careers without also feeling an obligation to create female characters who are role-models of courage, physical strength, and moral probity.
This prevailing idea of the ‘strong female character’ can be limiting. When I wrote The Fire Sermon, I knew that it would centre around Cass, a young woman. I wanted her to be strong – but much as I adore Buffy and Katniss, I also knew that Cass’s strength wasn’t going to lie in being a kick-ass fighter. The concept of the ‘strong female character’ can sometimes be reductive – too often, it’s used as a shorthand for a kick-ass fighter, good with a witty comeback and a roundhouse kick. There is one such woman in The Fire Sermon, and I had a blast writing her – but I don’t think that’s the only kind of strength that there is, or the only role model that women can aspire to. I wanted Cass to be complex, and conflicted, and multi-faceted. In other words, I wanted her to be human.
Cass lives in the scorched ruins of our world. Since the nuclear apocalypse four hundred years earlier, everyone is born as twins. But the twins share a fatal bond: when one dies, so does the other. Each pair includes an Alpha, physically perfect, and an Omega, who bears some kind of mutation. Society is harshly divided between the Alphas, the physically perfect twins, and their Omega counterparts, who each have some form of mutation. In this harshly divided society, the oppressed Omegas and the ruling Alphas share nothing but the moment of their death.
Cass’s mutation is that she’s a seer, plagued by glimpses of the future. But it isn’t these visions that make her dangerous to the ruling Alphas – it’s her relationship with her twin, Zach, and her refusal to see Alphas and Omegas as opposed. Society, and Zach himself, keep telling Cass that she and her twin can never be equal, but in her mulish way, she believes otherwise. In many ways, her faith in Zach is deluded, or naïve – he betrays her trust again and again. Whether this faith is self-deluding naivety, or a great act of insight and bravery, isn’t clear – not even to me. And it’s this complex, conflicted quality that made Cass fascinating to me. Would I trust her to babysit my son? Maybe not. She’s impulsive, deeply troubled, and sometimes wildly frustrating. But was I interested in her, enough to spend years writing about her? Absolutely.
A friend and fellow writer, Jen Williams, recently tweeted: “Write women like they are people. If this is so very hard, maybe the problem isn’t with your writing.” Jen has a point. There’s something dehumanizing and prescriptive about the whole “strong female characters” debate. Often, it risks becoming just another way of laying down rules about what women should be and do.
Cass’s visions drive her to the brink of madness. Her strength, if she has any, lies in her vulnerability: her feelings for her twin, which force her to risk everything. I don’t know whether the anonymous Internet commenter, if they ever read The Fire Sermon, would consider Cass to be strong. But I hope they’d find her interesting.