Wednesday, February 10, 2010

What makes a character kick butt?

Tonight on #YALitChat, we started talking about strong female characters. (I believe the term we used was "kick-ass," but strong works too.) It seems that most everyone is tired of the damsel-in-distress act, and is striving to create girls who are OMGTOTALLYKICKASS!!!!!

That's great, in my book. I'm even doing that myself - Kaia, my female MC, doesn't need a man to get her out of her biggest scrapes (though there is sometimes a man involved, to an awesome degree). But she's not like a martial arts master or a sexy assassin or something. She's just a normal girl who sticks up for herself and gets herself and her friends out of jams. But after the chat got going, it seemed people had different definitions of what exactly made a strong female character. Does a kick-ass female have to be like Lara Croft here, all brawn and no emotion?

Well, that's certainly one way to look at it. No doubt that Lara was a kick-ass character. I mean, she's a TOMB RAIDER. WITH GUNS. And just look at those biceps!! I'm pretty sure she could kick my butt.

But I don't think Lara makes a very interesting character. She's definitely textbook kick-ass, but is she really a strong female character? I mean, yeah, she can beat up some evil-doers, but can she crush on that hot new guy, even though he gives her the stink-eye in biology? That would be the other extreme, the one who's all emotion and no defense, the one who's more like:


Bella Swan. I don't think there is a single blog reader who would disagree with me when I say that Bella is pretty much the complete opposite of a kick-ass female character. Sure, she can be emotional when she needs to, but let's face it: She watches a car come flying toward her and hardly does anything. Every scene where she's in her OWN car with a boy, the boy is usually driving. She drops her entire life to be with her boyfriend, and when her boyfriend totally bails on her (sorry, I didn't give a spoiler alert, but those New Moon previews were everywhere, and if you haven't read these books by now, you're not going to) she literally curls up into a ball and DOESN'T MOVE. Then she leaves her diary blank (or has a moody emo montage, depending on the medium you're enjoying your New Moon experience in) for months while she thinks about the good ole' days with her Adonis boyfriend. Yeah. Not strong, in the head, heart, or body. At least she shows her emotions, though. 

So I tried to think of the perfect kick-ass female character. And I couldn't decide on just one. I thought of three that I loved, all from YA, because that's what I write. I'm going to talk about them here, but you can feel free to mention your favorite in the comments!

Kick-ass character No. 1: Princess Cimorene from The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede
I'll admit that most of you will have no idea who Princess Cimorene is. (Shout-out to my sister, who I know for sure is squealing with delight at her inclusion on my short list.) That's really a shame, because Cimorene was my first introduction to the kick-ass female character. Cimorene is a no-nonsense princess who turns the very notion of a damsel in distress on its head. She gets tired of living in the castle and runs away to live with dragons. While there, she scrubs floors and teaches other princesses how to think for themselves. She even turns away knights when they try to rescue her. She solves very serious problems for the king of the dragons. But later in the series, when she finally does meet someone who is a good match for her, she marries him. They even have a child together. This shows that, even though she's totally kick-ass and knows how to fence, she still isn't afraid to find love. She is a kick-ass female character.

Kick-ass character No. 2: Lyra Belacqua from His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
Petulant and impulsive and totally bratty, Lyra is one of my favorite characters in YA literature. You can see how much she matures as the series goes on. She starts off in Oxford College as a disobedient little girl, but by the end of the series she is making very grown-up decisions about love, loss, life, and the fate of the universe. And riding polar bears! I'm not going to say any more because I don't want to spoil this incredible series for anyone who hasn't read it yet, but trust me when I say: Lyra is definitely a kick-ass female character.

Kick-ass female character No. 3: Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games/Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
No list of kick-ass female characters would be complete without Katniss. She stands up for her family, and yet she's emotionally conflicted about boys. She can kill you with a bow and arrow, but she can't decide whether or not kissing Peeta feels right. She is strong physically and emotionally. She is a kick-ass female character. 

The truth is, a 100% kick-ass female character just couldn't exist. Because it wouldn't be realistic. No matter how much we ladies like to pretend we're strong all the time, all of us, even the most hardened, have our emotional breakdowns. We are all vulnerable at times. The best way to create a strong female character is to let her be strong in every way possible - then show her weaknesses.


  1. I've only read the first book so far, but Rose from Vampire Academy is pretty kick ass.

  2. I haven't read that one yet, but it's on my (never-ending) TBR list!

  3. Yeah, I don't think you have to be all Lara Croft to be considered kickass! I think our MCs would get along... I *think* my MC Jane is pretty strong... Just a regular girl (with extraordinary ability) who totally stands up for herself, but also is emotional with the boy she loves... Okay and she also has maybe a couple Lara Craft ass-kicking scenes...

    Katniss = awesome example of a kickass female lead!!

  4. I've only read HG/CF but Katniss is a fantastic example of a kick-ass female MC

  5. Katniss Squeee! And I have to second the vote for Rose. I think the MOST kick ass heroines are the ones who combine elements of Bella and Lara. Lara is the definition of kick butt but she's not complete, and like you said, not that interesting. Bella...could be WAY more active, but she is emotional and not afriad to fear and I think the ultimate is a balance between them. I think its about being strong all over, in your mind and body--or learning how to be strong--we all got to start somewhere and sometimes those are the best kinds of stories when you go on the adventure with a character to find their kick-assness...yeah...totally a word...

  6. LOL I wrote Bella is not afraid to fear! I meant, Love! Oops! Also my word verification was ballyo like throw me the ball, yo! Possibly something a kick ass female would say.

  7. I love kick ass females! Women are strong, and we are just now getting around to showcasing it! Better now than never!!!

  8. You're right. And a 100% kickass character female or male would be boring. I think we need to see some weakness so we can relate to her.

    I like Max from Maximum Ride by James Patterson. She's pretty kickass.

  9. *squeals with delight at your inclusion of Cimorene.*

    I wonder what the difference is between a female character who is kick-ass because she has to be, like Katniss, or kick-ass because she wants to be, like Cimorene. I like them both, but I think I like Katniss better because she is not just tough for toughness sake, and not tough because that is what suits her selfish whim. While Cimorene does work to help Kazul and Mendenbar and Morwen and all, a lot of the times she gets into situations - such as being a dragon's princess in the first place - because it is what she wants (or wants to avoid). All of Katniss' toughness is for other people; Prim, Gale, Peeta, Rue. She needs to be tough.

  10. Oh, and just a side note: I don't think Bella fared that badly in the emotional department until Edward started effing with her...

  11. Vulnerability is totally an element of strength. I hate it when people simplify strong female characters to mean the traditionally male definition of strength. It's so unbalanced! Hermione's a terrific female character. And... Luna Lovegood's actually one too, though less obvious.

  12. I've read Graceling and there is no doubt in my mind Katsa is a woman that enjoys a really good fist fight, just like me. She's great with bow and arrow and she loves to use swords, she's better than most men. But I also enjoy how she handles her love situations.

  13. Katniss Everdeen has the physical strength but still in touch with her feminine side. She's the complete package!
    The Hunger Games

  14. I believe Katsa (Graceling) is the ultimate warrior but let's not forget Kate Daniels (Ilona Andrews' series)

    Great Blog you have here


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