I was on Twitter the other day, lurking on #MGLitchat, sticking my 2 cents in every now and again, and the topic of “strong” female characters in middle grade literature came up. I said I’d blog about it this week. So, looking for ideas or an angle to approach the topic, I asked my Facebook friends what they thought of strong middle grade girl characters. The following exchange ensued between two of my clients, one a middle grade writer, one not. They are both strong characters themselves and much better writers than I, so I’m just going to share with you what they said:
RS: Wisdom beyond her years, in some way. For me, a strong MG girl is human and vulnerable and isn’t oblivious to the changes underway in her peers. She sees that the people who are becoming what’s expected and accepted are generally having an easier time of it. But she already values herself enough to choose to endure painful experiences if necessary.
RH: I like this answer. But I also wonder how would a strong MG girl character be different from a strong male or non-MG character.By strong do you mean the character is a strong person, or the character is strongly portrayed — three-dimensional, nuanced, an individual?
RS: I think the conversation stems from the misconception that if you stick a female middle-grade character in a baseball cap (that’s a dumb example, but you know, just something stereotypically “tomboy”) and give her some extra super sassy comebacks, she’s a “strong girl.” Yes, though, three-dimensional, nuanced, and individual definitely applies the the creation of any character worth reading.
RH: And as for a character who is a strong person, I would say active rather than passive, and thinking for herself rather than automatically doing what’s expected.
RS: The topic still creeps up in chats and forums. Good to think about what “strong girl” means, but also why, when, and if making that distinction even matters. Great thoughts, as always!
RH: A standard I try to apply to my own writing is expressed by the Bechdel Test, which is usually used for movies, but works for any narrative form. To pass the test, a story has to have 1. at least two female characters 2. who talk to each other 3. about something other than boys. It would be interesting to see how that rubric applies to MG novels, and whether talking about something other than not boys would be more appropriate for the age group.
At which point I jumped into the conversation! I said: How about sticking a girl in a baseball cap and having her advocate for her right to play baseball, when she’s told she has to play softball (different game, different skills, different rules) just because she’s a girl? The issue of being strong for a MG girl character isn’t the same as with all characters, I don’t think. I think culturally we’re still quite constrained by stereotypes. And these are girls on the cusp of kid/teen. What makes them strong? What if they are passive not active because of circumstance? What if they are outspoken but stereotypically girly? Are they still considered strong?
RS: Yes. That’s the when/why/if part, for sure.
RH: I’ve been thinking about the outspoken but girly model. What if the girl’s parents were pushing to get her on the baseball team, but the girl really didn’t want to do it, and stood up for her right not to be made into a poster child, because she just wanted to be part of the group?
RS: Strong, too, IMO.
RH: In mine, too. But the premise I just described makes me a little queasy.
RS: Girl raised with gender neutral toys by parents she calls crazy hippies, going through middle school and just wants to be girly already….just wants to wear cute bras, paint her fucking nails, and get a professional keratin treatment. Haha! This story exists somewhere. I just don’t know what it is. And yes, that would take strength of character, even if it isn’t the character we’d wish for our daughters.
RH: Right. But can’t she just have regular nails? Do they have to be ones that fuck? And what the hell’s a keratin treatment? Going to google it now, in case I ever decide to become a real girl.
Let’s just say the rest of their conversation devolved from there! Click here for more on the topic from another of my middle grade fiction clients.
But what do you think about writing strong girl characters? Do you think it’s different in middle grade and young adult literature? Do you think it’s different in real life?