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How We Can Build Strong, Diverse Female Characters In Our Stories

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Books were always my haven. My place of escape. I don't remember my first, but I certainly remember all of the ones that followed. All the worlds I've visited and the lives I've lived.

Infinite. Endless.

In school, I devoured a book a day while other kids grudgingly struggled to carve through one in a week. I couldn't read enough. Fast enough. An addiction that fed my other far greater compulsion: to write.

Fifteen years later and not much has changed.

Save one. The single thing that escaped my notice in the innocence of early youth is something I can't overlook any longer: Representation of women and diversity. Or, rather, the lack thereof.

We live in a world of bold, dazzling Technicolor. Feel and emote in an array of vibrancy and texture.

It galled me to discover how many protagonists were male (white -- along with the vast majority of the supporting cast) and (outside of romance) how many of the female characters were slotted in as fluff or filler, with no real purpose other than to prop up the hero on his journey.

Or to be his prize at the end of it.

The tide, mercifully, is shifting in both arenas. And it's about bloody time.

Character creation is a vital process of weaving a story together. Without the characters, there's no point. No purpose. They are the vessel the reader slips into to experience, live and discover your world.

We live in a world of bold, dazzling Technicolor. Feel and emote in an array of vibrancy and texture. So it's important that our characters reflect that same richness all around us; otherwise, the alternative is to fade away into the desolate landscape of the white default.

A blank page, void of life and individuality. Boring.

So, when developing a cast of strong female characters, where to start?

The easy answer: Create a character that happens to be female. What that means is at the core, the emotional heart of the story, should center on the human emotions/experience. Simple. At least, it should be but rarely ever is.

People are people. Your writing should reflect that truth. Gender or culture should not rise to the forefront of molding your protagonist and absolutely should not determine whether they are good, strong or worthy.

Having said that, strong doesn't mean flawless. Perfection is a lie. More importantly, it's boring. We are all inherently flawed. Everyone, from hero to villain, has vices to counter their virtues. The same should be true of your (female) characters.

Give her hopes, fears, and motivations and let her be defined by more than her breasts, sexual allure, or how much of 'non-typical girl' she is to prove she's worthwhile. Your women don't have to be likeable, but they do have to be human and should serve a greater purpose than to be the "love interest" or the "hero's prize."

Added to that, strength does not always have to present itself in the form of a tomboyish anti-girlie-girl. A woman is capable of saving the world in stilettos as well as combat boots. Sansa's cunning mind is no less worthy of respect than Arya's skill with a sword, and Elle Woods' legal savvy is not diminished by her penchant for wearing head to toe pink.

Ask yourself why this character, why this story, and why are you the one to tell it?

Characters drive the plot forward through actions and choices. They don't sit around waiting for things to happen, or for someone else to save the day. If your female character is frantically biting her nails on the sidelines while the hero is fighting the villain, or falls limp and helpless when seized by the arm, question why? The answer lies in weak characterization.

As for writing diverse characters, it requires thought, thorough research as you step outside what you think you know and slip into someone else's skin. Diversity for the sake of 'diversity' is not honest representation and there's been enough harmful representation to last a lifetime.

With #BlackLivesMatter and #WeNeedDiverseBooks movements shining a light on the void that is true, authentic representation (and quickly spiraled into a hot-button a trigger topic), it's high time we as writers and readers held ourselves accountable.

Ask yourself why this character, why this story, and why are you the one to tell it?

Once you've answered those fundamental questions, next is to avoid the obvious clichés. Know what they are and steer as far from them as possible. To write what you don't know, the first step is to learn, explore and grow. Tap into resources (like #ProjectWomanUp or #FreeTheLGBT or various other groups on Wattpad), research, ask questions and talk to others about their culture. Be genuine, curious, open-minded, and respectful.

After all of that work and effort, when your manuscript is ready, turn it over to sensitivity readers: the betas of diversity/marginalized voices and there to flag issues of representation. Use them. Respect them. Listen to them.

And if a sensitivity reader tells you that you've got it wrong, hear what they're saying, and why. As authors we invest so much time 'researching' events, historical facts, and architectural details -- can the same not apply to people and cultures for character representation? Those who have tried and failed to meet the mark, who have been or fear being called out, need to understand is not about forcing or shaming authors who don't, but asking why not?

Be afraid, do the work, put in the effort, ask for help -- TRY! And don't stop there. Be an ally. Read books by own voices authors, signal boost and advocate. Do more. It won't ever be enough until we shatter those glass ceilings, both in life and literature.

Somewhere out there is a little girl: bi-racial, bi-sexual and lost as I was, who deserves to see herself when she opens a book. A girl who dreamed of riding dragons, going on magical quests, falling in love with a boy (or a girl), who will find herself in your words and finally know who she is.

That she is good, strong and worthy.

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