I know a lot of readers enjoy stories with a strong female lead. Some of the best books, TV shows, and movies have a brave female character who saves herself in the end – or even helps save the world. However, there are some female characters that get slammed for being too independent and self-centered – some of my own female characters included. What seems to concern some people about an individualistic woman is that it’s idealizing someone for not needing other people. In the end, a lot of people still want a woman character to fall in love, find a man, nurture others, become a mother, blend in with the crowd, etc. It’s almost as though people can handle a “strong woman” as long as she isn’t too individualistic or too self-focused.
I will talk a little bit about my own character who got some flack for being selfish, ironically in a Western novel about a female outlaw. I feel like people should know what they’re getting into when they read a story about a woman who steals and kills to survive in the Wild West (It’s freaky this needs to be said. Do people question male outlaws in Westerns?). It’s not a book showing how you should behave – it’s a portrait of a female outlaw and how she might have lived back then. I tried to make it as realistic as possible. This character whom some criticized for being “self absorbed” is named Mary. Fed up with the saloon life, she decides to set out on her own and she meets a lot of characters who have bad intentions. A woman traveling alone needs to be guarded and if she isn’t, bad things can and do happen. Mary knows this. She’s understandably guarded – anyone would be in her position.
The two critiques I got for Mary were as follows: “I have to say your protagonist is a bit self-absorbed” and “Perhaps it’s because I lack a second X chromosome, but I found it difficult to relate to the MC. She was not a sympathetic character, even as an anti-hero. I found her to be more pitiable …. I found her to be quick to act, usually lethally, and slow to reflect on the poor choices she continued to make. Her regret over hurting others seemed shallow because it felt like (for her) the ends justified her means. Overall, I found myself rooting for the other characters more than Mary.” I don’t think these things would have been said if it were a story about a male outlaw. I believe it wasn’t about her being evil or reckless, again, because it’s clearly a Western novel about a female bandit – it was about the self-confidence she possessed.
The irony of these critiques about Mary is that she does find love in the story eventually. I don’t want to spoil my own book, but she is willing to compromise and be a good person for the sake of love. It’s the reverse scenario of a gangster who finds a good woman and he decides to become a better person for her. In addition to Mary finding love and setting her outlawing aside (There’s a twist, don’t worry), she also returns to a violent situation to help out her friends – who are people she barely knows, I might add – risking her own life for them. So, while she was indeed reckless and is by no means a role model anyone should be following, she is the type who would fight along with her friends. I’d say that’s what makes her likeable and why I enjoyed writing the story so much. She’s not a cold-blooded killer like most of the men she meets, but she’s also not willing to bend for someone else’s will, either. I think that bothers a lot of people. My editor was annoyed that she didn’t choose to go with a handsome Mexican outlaw – while the guy was witty and clearly had a lot of game, he was patronizing to Mary and there’s no way I’d let my character go with someone like that. Strong women want someone who’s on their level – not someone who puts them “in their place”.
I recently came across a blog post that talked about why independent women in fiction are bad. I didn’t read the whole thing, because it would have been painful. Some people speculate that independent female characters are bad for women who read books (It sounds so primeval, doesn’t it?), because they think feminism has ruined relationships between men and woman. Firstly, these people don’t know what feminism means and secondly, just because a woman is independent at one part of her journey doesn’t mean she won’t want to find love and “settle down” eventually. I believe that everyone – male, female, or non-binary – has a right to take a personal journey at least once in their life. Not every person will, but a lot of us want to set off on our own, travel a little or live in a new city as a means of personal growth. If anything, this independence makes you a better potential partner to someone, because it’s an excellent way to really get to know yourself and develop self-love and self-care.
Another important thing to keep in mind is that there will be points in your life where you will have to be self-focused – if you’re healing from an illness or injury, working toward a goal, getting over trauma or mental health issues, writing a book, taking courses, setting up a business, etc. You should obviously be kind to others and still keep in touch with people in your life when you need to focus on yourself, but it’s okay to be independent during certain times of your life. Some people are simply built this way. They need more time on their own than the average person and that’s okay, too. Writers probably fit into this category and I’m sure a lot of people think we’re self-absorbed. Sometimes you have to be if you want to get anything done.
I don’t think that independent women in fiction are harming anything and are instead an inspiration to women and girls who are in a similar phase of their life or are considering it. Life needs adventure sometimes – and the best journeys can be the ones you take on your own. And hey, sometimes you’re snuggling up in your home on a rainy day and you feel like living vicariously though someone else’s adventure. That’s what stories are for. No harm done. 🙂
If you would like to read my novel about a sassy female outlaw, you can purchase the story here.