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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Workshop Wednesday - On Female Leads, With Buffy Summers

source: pinterest
Every year, when I get the reminder email about the annual romance writers conference, I notice a class on the lineup that truly, truly puzzles me. They call it different things, but it's the same basic subject matter: How to Write Heroes. Or How to Write Men.

This is disturbing for several reasons:
1) A man, a hero, is a human, after all. If you have trouble writing men, chances are you have trouble writing convincing people. Why single the man out, as if he weren't human? As if it weren't more a case of learning how to bring flesh and blood humans to life in your story, rather than some flat, archetypal "man."
2) Heroes come in all shapes and sizes. While there are some pivotal heroic traits, there is so much room for diversity within your hero. To assume that all readers want to root for a stereotype is short-sighted. Not to mention, different women are attracted to different attributes; that's why we need variety in our heroes. I'm attracted to slender men with prominent noses, who are well-educated and have more brains than muscles. The overbulked, oversexed, trash-talking jerks in such prominence today are not only getting old, but aren't really heroes at all.
3) And, most importantly, what about the heroine??? Should the leading lady not also be likeable, relatable, dynamic, strong and interesting? An author should put just as much thought and hard work into the lady as she does the lad. Female readers are coming at the story from the female perspective; the heroine is equally important.

So how does one concoct a female lead who isn't merely a cipher for the male lead's overwhelming sexuality? Who isn't merely a pair of eyes through which the reader can observe the hero? A female who is a hero herself?

I have so many favorite examples. Lizzy Bennet is my spirit animal. But today, I want to talk about everybody's favorite teenage vampire slayer, who proves that age and fingernail polish color have zero bearing on one's status as a super strong woman who audiences can fall in love with.
If you were a geeky child of the nineties, you probably watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and if you were like me, your mother wanted you to stop watching it. Too bad, Mom (I say with the deepest respect and affection). The show was a hit for so many reasons: it poked fun at itself; it balanced truly hokey moments and teen moments with drama that, used sparingly, packed a real punch. The dialogue was fantastic, the one-liners perfect, and the entire cast of characters was lovable.

Buffy worked so well as a hero because she was several archetypes rolled into one, all of them conflicting, but somehow maintaining a certain ironic harmony. She was the girly girl, and she was the dangerous girl her classmates whispered rumors about. She was the sexy girl, but was awkward with boys. She looked like a popular kid, but was an outcast, not a nerd herself, but sweet to nerds, and found two best friends in Xander and Willow, respective King and Queen of the dorks. Her physical strength was explainable, through her slayer powers, and was never something she flaunted. It was just a part of her, like her blonde hair, an attribute, rather than bragging rights. In fact, what made her so endearing was that she didn't really want to be the slayer, and her constant struggle with having a normal teenage (and later young adult) life turned slaying into a calling, and a duty, rather than something cool. She had to be violent, to keep her loved ones safe; what she wanted was to watch movies and spend time with her friends.
While her physical strength gave her the edge on the vamps, it was never what made her truly strong, or made her a hero. She was kind, compassionate, and merciful. As Giles explained to Ben/Glory, Buffy would never kill an innocent man, just to kill an evil goddess. As a side note: Giles had no such qualms, which, in this instance, made him pretty heroic in a different way.

Buffy's most heroic moments were those in which she made the hard call, tears coursing unashamedly down her face: sacrificing herself for her sister, sacrificing Angel, to save the world; going down into the actual mouth of hell. And we loved her for it because she was afraid, and she was in pain, and she grieved, and that was what made her human. Because it isn't about being invincible or fearless or having super powers. Heroes and heroines are the ones who make the hard calls, the impossible calls. There is strength in tears, and in smart comebacks, and in finding a way to tell a joke at the end of the world.
The entire show was full of heroes and heroines, really, all of them showing tremendous strength when it counted, counterbalanced by the most human frailty. Heroes and heroines have feelings, deep emotions; what makes them heroic is what they do despite those feelings.

Buffy is one of many examples of a female lead who is both tough, and feminine, fragile and resilient, brave and frightened, loving and kind. So let us please, as writers, stop focusing on the "alpha male," and start focusing on ALL of our characters, hero, heroine, Scoobies and all.
Joss wrote it, Spike said it, as part of the most awesome monologue.


  1. So glad you enjoyed Buffy!! But, certainly not "my cup of tea". So glad there is chocolate and vanilla!!