I will admit I do love a good novel with a female lead that kicks some serious ass. I read the entire Hallow Series by Kim Harrison, Mercy Thomson series by Patricia Briggs, The Baine Chronicles by Jasmine Walt, The Little Flame by Melissa Lummis, and almost every single book by Anne McCaffery, who really preferred strong women as her leads. I even wrote my own series with strong female lead characters, Witch’s Trilogy because I love it so much.
The characters in all of these books have something in common. Things happen, sometimes horrible things, sometimes world destroying things, and sometimes more personal. The main characters don’t sit and wallow because they can’t do anything about it, they get up and they find a way to deal with it. But they have one other thing that is vital to their journey. They fail. They fail a lot. Then they get up and try again.
Failure is a big part of a good story. Within the hero’s journey it is actually a phase that english teachers teach you. Luke Skywalker looses all his friends. Frodo Baggins has to leave the Fellowship of the ring. Neo is ambushed in the matrix. They all fail, they have to get back on the horse and try again. This shows dedication, resolve, persistence…things every person could use. It also shows that even a hero, like a fire fighter, police officer, or teacher, can make a mistake sometimes. We can all fail, and we can all try and get back up and do it again.
In the Hallow Series the main character gets near death in many of her books. Mercy Thomson is kidnapped, abused, hurt, and lost. In the Baine Chronicles the main character is lost in time as well as space. Each of them have their own flaws to overcome. Each of them have weaknesses that can be exploited by others that they have to learn to overcome. And each of them aren’t afraid to ask for help from friends and loved ones.
This is just good storytelling. When you put a “strong female character” into a story that has no flaws, no weaknesses, no room to grow, then your story ends up feeling flat. The only time it does work is when there is no overall story, say like in John Wick where the whole point is mayhem, or Commando from early Schwarzenegger, or any other high action movie with little plot and all action. If you put a woman in the same sort of no plot high action movie I am sure people would enjoy that too. The trouble comes when you put a wooden character into a plot, give them nothing to add to the plot, and no personality to really endear you to them.
This wooden character with no flaws that always wins no matter what….It’s called the Mary Sue who masquerades as an infallible character. Highly prevalent in fan fiction, the Mary Sue has made it’s way to main stream writing, and even tv and movies. They are stoic, unchanging, they don’t need anyone, and they never really fail. Granted, some people really enjoy this type of strong female character since it keeps cropping up in main stream media. Many don’t. It’s all down to taste.
I would say it’s not conducive to good story telling. There isn’t a lot of difference between John Wick and Alice from Resident Evil. Both movies were well received, both movies centered on the main character fighting their way through a bunch of bodies. Not a lot of plot, mostly action. That’s all the needed.
But when it is bad for the story is where there is clearly a plot and the plot suffers because the main character does not change, has no flaw, and never fails. In fact John and Alice both have a moment where they fail. They loose their weapons, seem outnumbered, and have to fight back. They just don’t have an emotional story line to go with it for the most part, which is fine, it isn’t that kind of movie. On the other hand…. and here is where I don’t want to say the name because I don’t want people to get pissed at me, but I need an example….Rey, from Star Wars, is inside a rich universe, with lots of emotional things going on around her, but she remains very much the same from start to finish. She’s good at everything, she never really fails, and she has no flaws.
The difference between Resident Evil and Star Wars is everything going on outside the action. Resident Evil is mostly action from start to finish. Star Wars has political posturing, heart felt moments, love stories, and a whole lot of history behind it. Resident Evil has zombies.
Because Rey is set against this backdrop of a rich world with all this characterization, successes and failures, she ends up coming off as more wooden. She doesn’t really need anyone, not even Luke in the long run. In the original series Luke was a bad ass, but he needed his friends, and was stronger for them. Rey ditches everyone, goes and does her own thing, and is fine. When Luke went off on his own he regretted it and realized he needed his friends.
This Mary Sue story telling, especially in a world that already has a huge fan base, leads to a divide in the fan base. Some like it, some don’t, and the fans decide….I’m going to go watch something else.
For a better story telling experience add a flaw. Add a moment when the character looses everything, and has to fight their way back up from the brink of destruction. Have them evolve and change over time. Have them overcome an inner conflict of some kind. Give me, the reader, something to root for them about. I want to love your character! I want to go along with them on this journey, and care about them. I want to laugh at funny things they do, or cry when they are hurt, or cheer when they finally overcome their trouble. I want to FEEL. Do that and I’ll keep coming back for more.