The Disappearing Strong Female Character or “I Must Go Alone From Here”

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My flash fiction Curelom Riders is now available on Nook and iBooks for free.

Recently, I had the chance to go see How to Train Your Dragon 2. This was after I had read commentary bemoaning the fact that Hiccup’s mom, Valka, while introduced as a really interesting character, fades away in the second half. I am more inclined to disagree with the full review, since Valka did participate in the second act battle. However, her only role in the climax was to see her reaction to Hiccup’s action.

Valka is not the first character to fall to this treatment. There is Wyldstyle from The Lego Movie. She was also interesting in her introduction, but through the rest of the movie seems uncapable of anything except her “It’s Freedom Friday but on a Tuesday” speech.

Part of the reason I believe this happens is not necessarily overt sexism, but the fact that the (male) protagonist does need his time to shine in order for the narrative to work. When my writing group read The Gods’ Blessings, they pointed out that I had the opposite problem – the Strong Female Character was completely taking over the climax, leaving nothing to do for the hero, who we’ve been following the entire rest of the novel. And that was a let down.

This is also the result of the common trope This is Something He’s Got to Do For Himself when side characters of all genders get blown off in order for the hero to go one-on-one with the villain. Sometimes the hero gives a reason – such as honor, or revenge. But other times, it’s because having more people complicates the choreography, and/or makes it too easy for the protagonists to win.

So how can we overcome this? In The Gods’ Blessings, I decided to solve it by making my Strong Female Character more of a neutral antagonist than a good sidekick. That way her very presence creates as many problems as it solves.

I realize that’s not a great solution for everyone, so let’s look at some movies that get it done right. Avengers and The Incredibles had awesome climaxes where everybody got to participate. In Avengers, each member of the group used their own unique strength to beat back the Chitauri in the way best suited to them. Captain America directing and defending, Iron Man and Hawkeye taking out the ones in the air, Hulk smashing the giant flying beasts, and Thor and Black Widow taking out the ones on the ground.

The Incredibles, on the other hand, had each character using their power in a mad scramble to bring the robot down any way they could. Elasti-girl sling-shotting the gun, Frozone slowing it with ice, Violet protecting with force fields, Dash leading it on a chase, and Mr. Incredible holding back the robot hand so he could aim it.

This tells me that if you don’t want side characters to disappear, the conflict has to be big enough for them all to do something. Preferably if it works to their area of expertise, because the hero can’t know/do everything. How easy would it have been for Hiccup to ask Valka for advice on how to deal with Drago’s alpha dragon, since she’s the only one who knows alphas?

What are your thoughts on this trope? How else would you subvert it?

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About Annaliese

Author of the fantasy short stories "Infant Insomnia" and "Curelom Riders." Also a mother of three, one of which has outgrown allergies to gluten, and dairy, though he still reacts to nuts.
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4 Responses to The Disappearing Strong Female Character or “I Must Go Alone From Here”

  1. The same thing happened in the first How to Train Your Dragon. Towards the end, Astrid melts into a girly puddle and does everything Hiccup says. I attributed it to Astrid being an inconsistent character, but I think you’re right here about letting the MC shine at the end. I guess it’s a tough balance to strike.

    • Annaliese says:

      Yeah, at least in the first one, Hiccup gave the other side characters something to do that played to their strengths. All Astrid did was bring the others to Hiccup, and then take him to the nest. She didn’t have a unique skill that let her shine next to Hiccup.

  2. Nice post. I’m working on a strong female MC whose son is getting increasing attention in my story. The mother will allow her son to do something that he struggles with so he can also have a conflict to overcome, but is also a struggle for the mother to let him have that opportunity. I will see how two connected conflicts work out or not. You gave me something to think about. Thanks.

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