Strength 101

Sunlight shines through floor-to-ceiling windows as ten young women file into the classroom. A few wear ballgowns, another a school uniform, others jeans or tailored suits. To call them a mixed bag would be an understatement. Their expressions and mannerisms are as varied as their clothing. Some appear apprehensive. One twists a strand of unnaturally red hair around her fingers as she takes in the blackboards, the bookshelves, the ceramic tiles and fluorescent lights. The blonde with big blue eyes and a dress that looks like it’s worth more than the GNP of some small countries–

“Excuse me?” The blonde in the gown is the first to speak. “Yes, THE BLONDE. I have a name. Princess Marischina of Glabbledyglornk.”

Very well. Princess Marischina–

“No. Narrator, you need to stop describing us by what we look like. We’re people.”

Princess, it’s all we have to go on right now. These readers have never met you. We’re just setting the scene here.

“Fine. But I’m keeping my eye on you. My ear. Whatever.”

My apologies, readers. As I was saying, Her Grand High Princessness Marischina of Glabbledyglornk, whose name we as of yet have no reason to know and who is probably a very wonderful person under that gaudy gown–

“Hey!” Marischina glares at the ceiling.

Moving on.

A girl with hair as dark as the circles beneath her eyes helps a young woman with a strawberry blonde pixie haircut find a desk. The pixie girl immediately takes up a one-sided conversation with the globe to her left, and her new friend backs away slowly. There’s some talk, some doodling in notebooks, but most students have their eyes fixed on the door, waiting for the teacher to arrive.

The sky outside the windows darkens as clouds block out the sun. The door slams open in a gust of wind. It’s an impressive trick, to be sure; that door leads to an indoor hallway. The redhead bites her lip. The woman beside her smirks and leans her head forward, black hair falling over her face to cover a few faint scars.

The teacher enters, clothed in tight leather that shows off an impressive physique. It’s curvy enough to draw the attention of every man she’s ever met and shot down, muscular enough to take them out if they don’t back off when she says, “No, I do not care to have you bag my groceries.” The guns at her hips and the knives strapped to her legs do nothing to impede her progress as she strides to the blackboard and scrawls STRENGTH 101 across its surface. She snaps the chalk in half and tosses her wild blue hair over hair shoulder. It is perfection.

She digs through a desk drawer and pulls out a thick file.

“No need for introductions,” she says. Her voice is like gravel, and like water over the pebbles in a brook, and other interesting-things-that-are-rocks. “You’re all here because you need some %&*#ing help.” She scowls. “Hey!”

Sorry. Can’t have too much swearing here. Some of these women are barely YA.

“Shit,” she mutters, and quirks an eyebrow.

It’s a fine line.

“As I was saying. I’m Angstina Darkington, but you can call me Tina. I’m here to teach you little wimps how to be strong female characters. Some of you are getting passing grades from a lot of readers, but have had complaints. Others are failing your way to the gutter, probably stumbling there because clumsiness is your only flaw.” Someone giggles, and Tina shuts her up with a dark glare. “I’m here to whip you all into shape.”

A pencil taps against a desk. Tina’s sharp eyes search her class until she finds the culprit, a skinny kid in ripped jeans. She strides toward the student, leather boots silent on the floor. “Did you have something to say?”

“Nah.” But the young woman refuses to look away.

“Good start.” Tina moves back to the board and picks up a fresh piece of chalk.

“What we need is strong female characters, and you’ve all fallen down on the job. Take a lesson from me. I am strong. I don’t take shit from anybody. I’m skilled in weapons, and have been since page one.”

She points the chalk at the curly-haired girl in the front row. “What is your weapon of choice?”

“Um, actually, I had a question about that?” the girl asks. No… says. It’s a statement, she just up-talks. “See, my story arc starts out with me, um, not knowing everything? I’m just a small-town girl, and I didn’t know I was the chosen one? So when I started out, I only knew about running the shop with my parents–“

“Your parents are alive? Do they at least beat you?” Tina asks.

“Well, no. They’re pretty cool. But I had to leave to fight demons? My question is, it’s a series, so by the end of book one I’m not exactly a badass yet. My author says that’s to leave room for character development?”

“Your author’s an asshole,” Tina growls. Tina growls more things than should be humanly possible. “And so are your parents for not wounding you deeply enough to make you strong. And that wasn’t even a proper question. Listen, class. You are allowed one muck-up, just for show, and then one–ONE–training montage to find your inner strength. You are allowed ONE book to get rid of all of your stupid emotions and self-doubt. Understood? Your goal in later books is to become MORE badass, if that’s possible. If not, it is to use your supreme badassery to kill many bad guys. Or good guys, depending on your genre.”

Several of the students shift uncomfortably in their seats.

The redhead raises her hand. “What about if we were just ourselves? What if we acted like real people with doubts and fears and flaws? We could be strong by fighting against our weaknesses, by going on even when we want to give up. Maybe making stupid decisions sometimes, but making them for ourselves and learning from them. Doing better next time.”

The class murmurs its collective agreement.

“But then you still have to HAVE weaknesses and doubts and fears. Unacceptable.” Tina whips a page from her file, looks it over and grins. “Tell me about yourself, Little Red. What else makes you strong, other than trying to be a ‘better person’?” Disdain drips from her voice.

The young woman twiddles her hair. Tina slaps her hand, and the redhead winces. “No spoilers, but I got myself out of a few bad situations. Saved a guy’s life. Stood up to a villain. Normal stuff, I guess.”

“Hmm. Did you ever cry?”

“Yes. I was afraid. And lonely.”

Tina snorts. “Have you ever fainted where readers could see you?”

The redhead squares her shoulders. “I was in an incredible amount of pain. I also threw up. Does that hurt, or help my grade?”

Tina thinks it over. “The barf helps. Puking isn’t stereotypically feminine or attractive. But tell me, this guy whose life you saved… did he also save your life?”

“Yes, but–“

“On more than one occasion?”

“Well, given the situation–“

“DAMSEL IN DISTRESS!” Tina shouts this, and points a finger at the redhead. A fly that had been buzzing at the window drops dead from the peripheral force of the accusation. “You never let the man save you. Not even a woman gets to save you except in special circumstances, and especially never if you’re in a romantic relationship with either of them.”

The raven-haired woman rests her chin in her hand. “So we are allowed romance?”

“Only as a subplot. And you can’t rely on your partner like some kind of…” She searches for the right word.

“Like some kind of partner?” Black-hair asks with a smirk.

Tina glares. “Crutch. A strong female character doesn’t need anyone. Romance can be a sub-plot. But you call the shots, and you always save yourself. Got it?”

A few of the students look skeptical. Maraschina raises one pink-nailed hand.

“Okay, first off, enough with the physical descriptions, NARRATOR. And secondly, let’s review. Tina, you’re saying that we need to be fighting machines, or that we at least need to have access to some inner badass that we can channel by the end of one book.”

“Yes.”

“We need to be able to deal with horror, illness, pain, fear, uncertainty, loss, and icky monsters without screaming, crying, or fainting. Bonus points if we’ve been hardened by past trauma.”

“Right. But nothing that’s considered cliche.” Tina reaches for another paper. “Maraschina of yadda yadda. Oh, my. You’re not strong at all, are you?”

Maraschina adjusts her skirt. “I suppose not by your standards. I was raised–“

“No passive voice. Don’t be a victim.”

Maraschina rolls her eyes. “Fine. I grew up in luxury. I’m a princess. I was–I mean, my parents spoiled me. I wanted for nothing, I had everything I wished for. But I realized one day that all was not well in the kingdom. I learned that a prisoner was to be executed, an innocent man accused of crimes he didn’t commit so that my father could get rid of him. And I stood up for that man. I was terrified to do it. I think I made a fool of myself. And I failed. He died. But I decided that day that I would change things, and I started working on my education.”

Tina yawns. “Did you burst in and kick the executioner’s ass?”

“No.”

“Maybe your innocent man would be alive today if you had. And I see your nails are perfectly manicured, and your dress is lovely.”

“I still enjoy luxury.”

Tina can’t even look at the princess now. “Weak. Foolish. Shallow.”

“Hey, this was hard for me!”

Tina mimes playing a tiny, sad violin.

The one with bags under her eyes looks up. “But isn’t that a kind of strength? Turning your back on everything you were raised to believe and seeking out the truth? And showing compassion, even when it costs you?”

Tina crosses her arms. “Only if you’re handing people’s asses to them along the way. And not if you cry. Or get rescued.”

The girl who was talking to the globe earlier raises her hand. “Someone called me ‘milk-toast’ once. I don’t even get that. I’m on a low-carb diet, and dairy gives me gas.”

Tina does not dignify this with an answer.

“I’m calling bullshit on this class.” A new voice, from the back. No one noticed this student when they all came in. She stands now, small and frail, leaning on a cane, brown hair covering her eyes. “There’s more than one kind of strength. When my Ma went without food so me and my sister could survive the famine, that was strength. Even if she didn’t sass off to the authorities or kick anyone’s ass.”

“It was,” Tina admits, “and a fine back-story for you, whoever you are.”

“Dayna. What about when she let the Duke take us into his house? When she went to be his maid, even though everyone knew she was his mistress. Was she still strong then?”

Tina shifts her weight to the other foot. “Well, he did rescue her in a way, but as long as she didn’t love him, as long as she was using him for her own purposes, I suppose she was still strong.”

“No. She fell for him, actually. What about her?” the girl points to one of the teens dressed in designer jeans. “You’d call Kelley shallow and weak, I bet. But it took guts for her to stand up for this girl at her school who everyone was picking on. She got dumped over it, and she cried. Like, she BAWLED. Over a boy.”

Kelley blushes.

“And after that,” Dayna continues, “she just got made fun of, too. Her actions haven’t changed the world. And she’s never picked up a knife or had a training montage or got revenge.”

“Well, she should go hunt vampires or something.” Tina’s face is turning red now. “She needs to channel her rage.”

“I have no rage,” Kelley whispers. “I’m just really sad. And my story’s not all written yet.”

Dayna starts toward the door, cane tapping out a slow rhythm until she reaches the front of the room. “Here’s my show of strength,” she says. “I reject these rules that say a strong female character can’t cry, can’t show weakness, can’t follow her heart instead of her head if that’s who she is. For most of us, insta-strength is as much of a lie as insta-love. Some of us need time. Some of us don’t want to be mean to everyone just to show how tough we are, or act like emotionless robots. Real life’s not like that. For some of us, getting out of bed in the morning is a struggle, and surviving the day is a victory.” Kelley nods, and perks up a little. “Sometimes it takes all of the strength we have just to step out of our comfort zones and make big decisions, and that’s okay. Just like it’s okay to be nice, or a little naive, or to like getting our fingers done.”

“Manicures,” Maraschina says.

Dayna nods her thanks for the word. “Just like it’s okay for you to be angry, Tina, if that’s your story. Just don’t expect all of us to be you. Rules about being strong are just as restrictive as rules about being a proper lady. I don’t want any of it. I’m going to move my story forward in my own way. That’s what makes me a strong character.”

Princess Maraschina tilts her head to one side. “Tell me you don’t get shit from readers, Ms Angstina whatever-your-name-is.”

Tina throws her hands up. “Fine. Yes, I’ve been accused of being unsympathetic and not ‘likeable.’ My male counterparts never get those complaints, but I do. But at least I’m strong. And I don’t care what anyone says about me.”

The black-haired woman with the scarred cheek gives Tina a sympathetic glance as the students gather their things and file out.

“We’re all strong in our own ways,” the redhead says. “Don’t listen to the haters. You’re great, Tina, likeable or not.” She glances at the clock. “Crap, I’m going to be late. Heavy stuff’s heading my way in an upcoming book. I might have a bunch of lives to save.”

Tina shoots a suspicious glance at her. “But you’re weak. I saw it in your file.”

The redhead pats her on the arm. “Character development, love. Look it up.”

And then the class is gone, leaving Angstina alone to practice her swearing-and-ass-kicking skills in private.

Not that she needs to practice. She’s had this stuff down since her first montage, you know.

Kate Sparkes is a Fantasy author who likes to think that surviving Depression/migraines/children and following her dreams makes her a strong female character. Tina disagrees. 

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This story was originally published as a guest post at A.M. Leibowitz’s site.

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