Guest Post by Danielle Burby
(Note from Josh: After Thrillerfest last week, Danielle and I were sitting in my office discussing the pitches she received in the 3 1/2 hours of Pitchfest. As she was describing her frustration with the trope of "strong women" protags in fiction these days, vs "complex women" I realized her differentiation was both interesting and very instructive for authors looking to write female characters effectively. I asked her to put it out on the blog--Enjoy! JG)
I have represented HSG at Pitchfest for a couple of years now and it is always a whirlwind. There’s something energizing about looking authors in the eye while they pitch, especially because you can ask questions and engage them in conversation. It’s a nice change of pace from reading queries on a computer screen. It’s also a really good chance to see what the upcoming trends will be. This year brought a rise in the number of medical thrillers and, surprisingly, vampire books. There is another theme that emerged, however, both this year and last, that I find particularly interesting. And it likely isn’t what you’d expect.
For the past two years, I’ve had author after author sit down, look me in the eye, and confidently inform me that they chose to approach me because I’m looking for Strong Female Protagonists. Without exception, when a writer pitched a novel helmed by a woman, the character’s gender was paired with the word strong. Let me say that again. Every single time I heard about a female protagonist, the writer rushed to assure me that she was strong. Authors were so assertive about what I was looking for that I found myself actually turning around during a break to double check the description of my tastes taped to the wall behind me. I was relieved to see that my wish list reflected what I actually wanted to see—complex female characters. It was a word I had chosen intentionally.
On the surface, this may seem like a silly little thing to harp on, but, from where I’m sitting, the strong female character trope is flooding my query folder and I’m ready for it to slow to more of a trickle. I don’t want strong—I want nuanced. I want your female characters to have the same depth and dimensions as your male characters. I want them to be people.
I understand where the strong female character came from. She came from a good place. The idea was to give female characters more space to maneuver, to give them the chance to move past love interest and damsel in distress. The strong female character was allowed to be hard and powerful. She was allowed to do more than love and be loved. She had her own adventures instead of being a prize in someone else’s. But she is just as limiting, in her own way, as every other female archetype. She is still the product of a society that values masculinity above femininity and allows very little room for complexity when it comes to women.
It’s the same feeling that I have about Lean In, which tells women, ‘if you can’t beat them, join them.’ Don’t be soft, be hard. Don’t be sweet, be assertive. Femininity is bad. Masculinity is good. It’s a simplistic approach that paints the world as flat instead of round. We are more than that. We, as an industry can—and do—accommodate more than that. For example (since we’re focusing on thrillers at the moment), there are a lot of different opinions out there about The Girl on the Train, but, personally, I adored it. Rachel is pathetic and repulsive and unreliable and I loved her for it. She was a person not a trope. And, clearly, she thrived in the marketplace.
But the authors at Pitchfest and, beyond that, the ones who query me, don’t seem to trust that. One author at Pitchfest had written what sounded like a wonderful novel, but she rushed to assure me that her protagonist was strong. She wrinkled her nose in disgust as she said, “She isn’t girly and feminine and silly; I can promise you that.” I wanted to reach across the table, place my hands on her arms, and say, “Feminine is not synonymous with silly. There is nothing wrong with femininity. Your character can be both girly and strong.”
Don’t get me wrong, I love a badass lady at the helm of a novel as much as the next person, but I want more from her than just that. I think we are in a growing place in fiction right now. We are in a place where we can push ourselves harder to give all of our characters more depth. So don’t give me strong—give me real. Give me complex.