Why I Write “Strong Female Characters”

[This post originally appeared on i09]

Greg Rucka has rocked the worlds of comics and novels for years, including memorable Batman writing, plus the Queen and Country series and the Atticus Kodiak books. But he might be best known for being a man who writes a lot of “strong female characters.”

People always ask Rucka why he chooses to write so many hard-hitting women. And now, to celebrate the release of his new novel Alpha, he’s explaining why.

The first story I can remember writing, that I truly set down on paper, was a Christmas story that I wrote when I was ten years old. The irony of this isn’t simply that I’m Jewish, nor is it that the story was about what happened to North Pole Operations when Saint Nick “went to join the bleedin’ choir invisible.”

No, it was that, in this little school assigned short-story I wrote, the mournful elves were roused from their grief by a determined and forceful Mrs. Claus, who took – ahem – the reins of the operation in hand. Under her steely gaze, toys were made, presents were wrapped, reindeer were harnessed, and the sleigh took flight with her in the pilot’s seat.

It wasn’t, I think, a terribly good story, but it had two things going for it. It had the shameless unselfconsciousness of a ten year old author, and it had a clear feminist agenda.

Shades of things to come.

When I was in high school, I started writing a serial novel, longhand, set in the Arthurian mythos, and influenced not incidentally by Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon. It was the story about a young pagan priestess, a Lady of the Lake, as it were, named Adriana, and the various adventures, trials, and tribulations she experienced. I wrote this in several college-lined notebooks. This was what I did sitting in the back of the classroom during English. My thinking was, well, I’m writing it in English, aren’t I? An excuse that, incidentally, did not impress my teacher at the time, Mr. Murray.

I still have those notebooks buried in a filing cabinet in my office. As with Mrs. Claus, the story – in memory, at least – isn’t terribly good. And like Mrs. Claus, Adriana was no wallflower. While I’m certain I never once put a sword in her hands or armor on her form, she was undeniably kick-ass, strong-willed and proud and disinclined to back down in the face of adversity.

Why I Write "Strong Female Characters"In graduate school, I wrote a one-act play called Work Ethic under the guidance of the terrific writer David Milton. There were three characters in this play, two men and one woman. The woman was a Deputy U.S. Marshal by the name of Carrie Stetko, a later-iteration of whom would reappear as the protagonist in the graphic novel Whiteout, written by me, and illustrated by Steve Lieber. Whiteout was my key through the razor-wire and spikes surrounding the comics industry.

Whiteout was made into a movie. There’s a Carrie Stetko in that, too. She shares the name, but the similarities between Movie Carrie, Comic Carrie, and One Act Play Carrie begin and end with the name. Comic Carrie and One Act Play Carrie would shake Movie Carrie down behind the bleachers, laugh her out of the You Share Our Name Club, and send her limping and mewling home to mother. And they wouldn’t feel a moment’s regret about doing it, either.

In early 2001, Oni Press published the first issue of Queen & Country, a comic book series written by yours truly and illustrated by many wonderful artists throughout its run. I later wrote three novels that are – depending on your point of view – either tie-ins or crucial parts of the series. The main character of both the comics and all three novels is a woman named Tara Chace. Tara is a Special Operations Officer for the British SIS, or MI6 if you’re the kind who likes Old School. She’s basically James Bond, except without the hyperbole and the bullshit. Quiller set in a Le Carré-influenced world might be a better description.

Tara can kill people with her bare hands and escape from Iran with two bullets in her body, but she can’t maintain a personal life worth a damn.

There are more. There are a lot more. There’s Renee Montoya and Kate Kane and Sasha Bordeaux, all over at DC Comics. There’s Black Widow v1, Natasha Romanov, and Black Widow v2, Yelena Belova, and Elektra, and currently Sergeant Rachel Cole-Alves, all at Marvel.

There’s Bridgett Logan, and Natalie Trent, and Alena Cizkova, all from the Kodiak series of novels. There’s Miriam Bracca from A Fistful of Rain, and there’s Dexedrine Callisto Parios, from Stumptown, and there’s Her Ladyship, Captain Seneca Sabre, from the webcomic that I write and that Rick Burchett draws, called Lady Sabre & The Pirates of the Ineffable Aether. There’s Victoria Black from a Project That Is Yet to Go into Production but by the grace of God will soon see the light of day.

There are a lot of women.

You will have no doubt detected a theme, here.

Why I Write "Strong Female Characters"If you’re familiar at all with my work, you’ve noted that, not only do I frequently write stories with female characters as my protagonists, but these women share certain traits. They tend to be quite smart, if not all of them well-educated. They tend to be physically active, most capable of taking a punch as well as throwing one. They tend to be driven, goal-oriented, and willing to go to great lengths to secure their aims.

Many of them are flawed, some of them quite terribly so, but few, if any, are cruel or mean or malicious, though all of them certainly share the capacity to be such. They are rarely, if ever, portrayed as victims, and if they are ever impediments to the story, it is because they impede themselves through their own character flaws. They are not sex objects, though many are sexual, and several certainly desirable, and often-times they are desired by others to varying degrees. A few even have healthy libidos.

And because of these things, and because I’ve got a Y-chromosome, and because I have not only written about women in this fashion, but have done so professionally for nearly fifteen years, this has been remarked upon.

It’s been remarked upon a lot, in fact.

Most interviews with writers revolve around the same basic batch of questions, albeit with minor variations on the theme. Where Do You Get Your Ideas? is quite popular, for instance, along with How Do You Do It? I’ve been asked both many times. Many, many times.

But there is one question that I, personally, have been asked more frequently. This one:

How Do You Write Such Strong Female Characters?

This past year, 2011, I was asked this question a lot, and here we are into the first quarter of 2012, and it’s happening again (or still, if you rather). Most frequently, it comes up in regard to my work in the comics industry. If you know comics, and if you know superhero comics specifically, you’ll likely be familiar with the reasons why. Last year was not banner for the ladies, and this one isn’t off to a strong start, either, in fact. Wasn’t good for women within the industry itself, nor within the pages of the stories being told.

Why I Write "Strong Female Characters"Those who’ve had the unmitigated temerity to actually comment upon this state of affairs publicly have ended up paying a surprisingly heavy price. The gender of the speaker has been largely irrelevant, though to be sure, it’s the women who’ve stepped up have taken the harder hits. But all who’ve pointed out the absence of women both on the page and behind it have been ridiculed, insulted, and, absurdly enough, even threatened with violence. Conversely, those attempting to defend their mistreatment of women within the industry have revealed a staggering lack of understanding, empathy, and self-awareness, while seeming to rejoice in an arrogance that is near heart-stopping in its naked sexism and condescension.

To say there are those who don’t get it is an understatement; it would be like describing the Japanese tsunami as ‘minor flooding.’

So, to the question.

I have two answers I tend to give, the Quick Answer and the Long Answer. Both are entirely true, for the record.

The Quick Answer goes like this:

Q: How do you write such strong/well-realized/positively portrayed women?

A: I don’t. I write characters. Some of those characters are women.

The Long Answer:

Writers don’t write Men or Women or Dogs or Salmon. Writers write characters, and at our best, if we do it well and with care and with thought, we invest in those characters a spark of life, a realism and nuance that makes them believable and relatable. We seek to craft characters who inspire empathy, characters our audience will care for, and as a result, will care about what happens to them, and thus will share the journey we have charted. A story, after all, is the character’s journey.

No character – no well-created character, at least – is defined by only one trait, by one aspect. Sherlock Holmes is not simply brilliant. He’s also a malfunctioning human being who, perhaps ironically, possesses a strong moral compass and such a compulsion to pursue justice that it eclipses any fealty to the law. He’s also a junkie.

Harry Potter is not the scar on his forehead, nor is Matthew Scudder solely an alcoholic, nor is V.I. Warshawski just a “female” private detective. Character is biology, countless cells and processes, many of them invisible to the naked eye, yet together forming a whole. A character’s gender, like their religious upbringing or their faith, like their favorite book or food, like their sexual orientation and experiences, like their education and their childhood, is a component of character.

That said, some components certainly weigh heavier than others. Green eyes don’t tend to affect character, unless that story is Big Trouble in Little China, for instance. But to define any character by gender alone makes about as much sense as defining a character by hair-color, or – ahem – judging a book by its cover.

Normally, I’d leave it there. I’m not going to.

There’s a second part to the question. The unspoken part.

It’s the part where I’m being asked and not, say, Laura Lippman. Because Laura is a woman, and it’s presumed therefore that she knows how to write about women, what with having been one her entire adult life. By the same token, Laura Lippman is not asked how it is she can write such convincing, strong male characters. Implicit in her job as a crafter of fiction is the demand that she must. No question need be asked.

The source influences, of course, but it’s not simply a matter of me being male that brings the question. For some, the question seems born from genuine confusion and curiosity. Yet for others – for many others, I think, it’s not simply that they’re asking How Did You Do This Thing? What they’re really asking, I think, is this:

Why aren’t more men doing it?

Why is it that so many male writers, when trying to write strong female characters, fail?

Why do they default to a shorthand, lazy equation, where strong equals bitch?

I can speak for myself, and I can share my suspicions. First? Many men simply don’t see it. They don’t read what they’ve written, or if they do, they’re blind to the content of their words, or they just don’t recognize that there’s work to be done here. For many, sadly, stereotype is enough, and the implicit failings in such writing either don’t factor or don’t matter.

But second, and far more damning? I think it comes from ignorance. Plain and simple ignorance, a crime no author should be allowed to commit.

Think about it like this; if I write a story in which one of my characters is deaf – and I have, it’s called Alpha, and it’s going to be released by this illustrious publishing imprint in May – it’s incumbent upon me as the author of the work to know at least something of what I’m talking about. I don’t, perhaps, need to learn American Sign Language (I didn’t), but knowing something about ASL seems, at least to me, the very least I can do. Finding someone who can speak with authority about the nuances of deaf communication, about the rapidly-changing nature of it, who can educate me enough that I begin to understand the limitations and benefits of ASL communication, that would probably, possibly help.

If I’m writing a story about a pilot, it might, conceivably, be of use to me to know something about how to fly a plane. A pursuit of a pilot’s license all my own would certainly make me more convincing, but sitting down with some solid reading, and perhaps an interview or two, would help to cover my bases.

This isn’t a matter of authenticity alone, though certainly anything that helps invest a story with verisimilitude – and I would argue that such investment comes via character far more than it does via plot – is worthy of pursuit. Rather, this is a matter of respect, for both the story itself and for the audience receiving it. The reader is smarter than you. The reader is always smarter than you. And the reader knows when you’ve taken a shortcut, or phoned it in, or are trying to pull a fast one. And the reader don’t like it one bit.

So why do so many writers seem to get away with such poor portrayals? If the audience is as smart as all that, why does this perpetuate? It’s not that they don’t care, nor even that they don’t mind. More than any other reason, I think, it sadly comes down to this: it’s what they’ve come to expect. It is, as the saying goes, par for the course. Or to put it in a worse light, when we fail to demonstrate the appropriate respect, we’re living down to their worst expectations

Why I Write "Strong Female Characters"Gender isn’t simply a biological trait; it’s a societal one. The female experience is different from that of the male, and if, as a male writer, you cannot accept that basic premise, then you will never, ever, be able to write women well. A man walking alone through Midtown Manhattan at three in the morning may have concerns for his safety, but I promise you, it’s a very different experience for a woman taking the same walk, and it’s different again for a man wearing a dress. Think about it. That’s a societal factor, and it’s a gendered one, and this is not and can not be subject to debate. If you’re looking to argue that sexism is a thing of the past, that the world is gender-blind, you’re not only wrong, you’re lying to yourself.

An ignorant writer is a poor liar, and a poor liar makes for a bad crafter of fiction. If we accept that a story, no matter how grounded, is ultimately a tapestry of falsehoods, then it must follow that the author is required to tell his or her lies with as much skill as possible. As every politician and con artist will attest, nothing sells a falsehood better than a kernel of truth at its heart. Honesty at the correct moment, presented in the correct way, can buy the author an awful lot of rope with which to make the absurd seem plausible.

The way writers achieve this is through research.

My fourth novel in the Kodiak series, Shooting at Midnight, is told primarily from the point of view of Bridgett Logan, a Bronx Irish-Catholic private investigator who is also a recovering heroin addict. I am not from the Bronx, I am not Irish Catholic, and despite rumors to the contrary, I have never chased the dragon. The novel – as the novels in the Kodiak series are – was written in first-person. This meant that not only did I need to have Bridgett’s voice clear in my mind before I tried to put it on the page, but further, that I needed to know her view of the world. I needed to know her better and more intimately than I had ever before.

Why I Write "Strong Female Characters"Bridgett was not my first female protagonist, clearly, but it was the first time I was diving into such deep waters. I was going to be in her head, see through her eyes, and while I knew her personality, there were many gaps. I didn’t know what it was to see the world as a junkie. And despite my best empathy, I didn’t know what it was to see the world as a woman.

And I knew if I couldn’t do those things, the novel would be a car crash. I knew if I wasn’t honest, the reader would know, and not believe in Bridgett, and they would be lost to me. And I knew enough to know how much I didn’t know, and that my ignorance was a problem.

Why I Write "Strong Female Characters"When in doubt, research. Research a lot. Read. Read a lot, and there is no shortage now – and there was no shortage then – of material to plumb. The women who work in the mystery and thriller genre are many, skilled, and I read them voraciously, just to see what they did with their characters, those points of view. But the best thing I did, the thing that helped the most, the thing that became the guiding principle, and has been ever since, was also the simplest.

I talked to women.

I talked to them about Bridgett, and I asked them questions, and much more crucially, begged them to ask me questions in return. Twenty Questions with Bridgett became a recurring game, and if I couldn’t answer, or couldn’t answer precisely, I’d ask for input, help, critique. I asked to be removed from ignorance, and I went to people I trusted to help.

It was amazing to me how few answers I actually had at the start.

Little of what was discussed, what was asked, ultimately made it onto the page, but all of it – all of it – influenced every word. Not every question revolved around gender, but many questions revealed a gender-influence and perspective that, despite my best efforts, I’d been ignorant to.

The cell analogy again, the million parts to the whole.

Writing is one of those professions where you can never be good enough. Where what you write tomorrow must, at the least, be an attempt to become better at your craft than you were yesterday. What I learned writing Bridgett unquestionably made me a better writer of women, yes, but more importantly, it made me a better writer, period. It changed how I approached my characters, made me re-examine my process and my assumptions.

Why I Write "Strong Female Characters"World building is what writers do. The good ones, the really awesome kick-ass take-no-prisoners crafters of fiction, they’re able to invest such honesty into their tales that you believe in them. This is accomplished not through the alchemy of the letter-dance alone, but because they sit and they think and they play if-then games, they create a world and then honor their creation’s internal logic. They breathe life into their world by finding the details that reveal the whole, by setting the laws of their universe and then adhering to them. If I write a story and set it in Antarctica and then I take Carrie Stetko outside for a walk, I’d damn well better remember that it’s cold outside.

That’s world building. There’s no secret to it. If a writer -– any writer -– wants to make their story worthwhile, then the characters deserve as much consistency and attention as the world they inhabit.

How do I write such strong female characters? I write them the way I write all of my characters. With consideration, with respect, with honesty.

As much as I can muster of these things while lying to you for your entertainment, amusement, and sometimes, perhaps, for your consideration.

Greg Rucka is the New York Times bestselling author of a dozen novels, including the Atticus Kodiak and Tara Chace series, and has won multiple Eisner awards for his graphic novels. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife and children.

Greg Rucka’s ALPHA is now available in bookstores everywhere.