A New “Test” For Female Characters (Involves Cats)

I wound up moderating a panel at CONvergence to promote female authors in fiction. This was my first time at the show and I had heard its reputation as the Con of Many ThingsTM. It truly was, but with an emphasis on socialization. I realized this very quickly on my panel because we were able to take this in a familiar direction and the audience was saying things out loud that were already in my head. Joining me on the panel was the esteemed Tamora Pierce, publisher/author Tim Lieder, avid reader Kelly Pesola, and academic/author Jonna Gjevre.

Time for a commercial break.

What’s that you say? You didn’t know I was going to CONvergence? Yes, I’ve been bad. AWFUL bad. As in: I should have posted my schedule and told you about it. Apparently prepping for vacation is a lot more work than I thought it was going to be. Combined with the Clarion Writer’s Workshop, day jobTM, some short stories and other projects (I forgot my Clarion password again so it looks like I haven’t been writing, which is a total lie.) I’m a bit busy this summer but sane. So, the COnvergence aftermath will come in bits and pieces as I wrap my mind around this very unique con.

Annnnnnnd we’re back.

I could not spend an hour talking about female authors without testing the waters on two very hot button points happening in our sphere today. Feminism and “strong female characters.” Mind you, there’s a reason why I did that. As moderator, I felt that an hour spent reciting names of authors wouldn’t be as valuable to the audience as the reasons why we were recommending them. A lot of the time, readers want female authors because they’re searching for something — but what? Really, a lot of my own confusion about why focus on one gender or another boils down to a money question I asked my fellow panelists late in the panel: Think of all the female authors you know. Now, could male writers pen the same stories? But, to get there, we had to start somewhere especially since the panel was comprised of authors who always write about heroines rather than heroes. Not to mention, there is a wide berth of gender exploration and other feminist related ideals, too, which was well met by veteran Tamora Pierce who was able to put female characters in context through a historical lens. She asserted that that’s where you began to see so-called “strong female characters.” (And she’s brilliant and right, by the way. But that would be its own post.)

One of the concepts we learned as a result of this discussion was very interesting. That the phrase “strong female characters” means two different things depending upon which side of the author/reader fence you’re on. To an author, a strong character is well-defined as (an audience member used this word and I loved it) one who has agency. To a reader? Strong can mean a lot of things but not necessarily related to the structure or plot. You have physically strong, mentally, emotionally, etc.

As the panel went on, we talked about books written by female authors and why we’d recommend them within this framework. From brain candy to gender explorations, I felt that the discussion was deepened by the talks about “why pick female writers in the first place.” Interestingly enough, the response to my earlier question toward the end? To the panel and to the audience, a man could just as easily write the same books a woman could and vice versa. We did have laundry lists of female authors for the audience and many of mine mirrored everyone else’s, too. Readers were concerned about discovery, which is something I’ve heard from many of them before, that they don’t know “how” to find new writers they would be entertained by.

By far, though, my favorite part was when an audience member piped up a quote (which I will no doubt slaughter here, so I won’t even bother trying) about how a playwright thinks of strong characters. Basically, it comes down to the difference between an actor or actress and a prop. That was so compelling to me, I immediately thought of using that concept with cats.

Here’s the test in a ball of catnip:

Pick a story. Any story. Take the characters you think are weak and replace them with an “animated prop,” which in my case is cats. If the story does not break, then that character needs some loving care.

So… Let’s try an example. Remember, this isn’t The Bechdel test, because this is testing the strength of an individual. Hrmm… Well, let’s take a look at a very obscure film. The Neverending Story.

Let’s replace the Empress with a cat by the same name. In that film, the Empress is luring him to the Ivory Tower. Interestingly enough, the character doesn’t even speak until the end. And it turns out? She doesn’t have to. Now, there are some slight tweaks but the basic (e.g. larger) story arc does not change with them.

    ATREYU: I have failed you, Empress.

    EMPRESS rubs up against ATREYU’S leg.

    ATREYU: I don’t know what to do. I’ve failed you. I’m sorry.

    EMPRESS jumps onto the table and lays down on a PHOTO ALBUM. Atreyu walks over to Empress.

    ATREYU: There are strange markings on this book. Is that the super sekrit symbol of our land?

    ATREYU flips through the photo book. It shows earlier scenes where BASTIAN is being bullied.

    BASTIAN: But that’s impossible!

Fast-forwarding a bit here, but then the Empress serves as a vehicle for Bastian once again. Bastian must name her or else Fantasia is destroyed.

    EMPRESS lies upside down in her CAT BED. She is obviously weak and too sick to run away from the EARTHQUAKE. A small NAME TAG on top of her cat bed spells out her name. As the palace crumbles, the Empress’s name disappears in a magical PUFF OF SMOKE.

    BASTIAN: But I can’t! You’re just a cat!

    Empress reaches out a paw and then drops it as the palace crumbles.

    BASTIAN: Where did your name go, anyway? Why can’t I remember it. What was it? Miss Princess Poofy mcLipstick pants?

Annnnnnd the final act in the movie is once again dependent upon Bastian. He has to re-imagine Fantasia from a grain of sand.

    BASTIAN and MISS PRINCESS POOFY MCLIPSTICK PANTS are locked together in a BLACK VOID. A grain of SAND appears.

    BASTIAN: Oh, Miss Princess Poofy McLipstick Pants. I wish I knew what to do.

    MISS PRINCESS POOFY MCLIPSTICK PANTS balances the grain of SAND on her nose. BASTIAN picks it up and experiences a FLASHBACK of the friends he’s made in Fantasia.

    BASTIAN: I wonder what Falco would do if he were here. . . Do you think he’ll come back Miss Princess Poofy Mclipstick Pants?

    MISS PRINCESS POOFY MCLIPSTICK PANTS: Meow!

There. I gave the kitty a line.

Now, here’s the thing. This is silly, I know. And I’m not dissing the writers, either. I like the movie and props in a story have a use. The point I’m trying to make is that characters who can, with a few tweaks, be replaced by props are not strong. Like Shakespeare said. Know thyself. Like I say? KNOW THY WORK. The further you get into prop territory, the more the other actors/actresses are diminished, too, because their motivation shifts based on what an animal or inanimate object does. And if you own cats? Yeah, they have personality and they’re not afraid to use it, either — especially on their human slaves.

This bout of insanity brought to you by the same mind who wrote about Nyarlathotep possessed in the body of a bunny rabbit.

Peace out.

    Mood: Post-haze of downtime vacation-ish.
    Caffeinated Beverages Consumed: Nowhere, no how, not enough.
    Work-Out Minutes Logged Yesterday: Head. Thump. Stairs. Thump. Car. Snore.
    In My Ears: The sound of a 1,000 blades whirring. Don’t worry, these are fans.
    Game Last Played: Ermm…
    Movie Last Viewed: The Aristocats
    Latest Artistic Project: A grey and aqua bracelet
    Latest Release: “Don’t Ignore Your Dead” included in Don’t Read This Book for the Don’t Rest Your Head RPG
One Response to A New “Test” For Female Characters (Involves Cats)
  1. [...] Valentinelli writes about a new “test” for female characters involving cats.  I understand ... kjd-imc.org/2012/07/12/links-of-the-week-july-12-2012



Monica Valentinelli is a writer, editor, and game developer. Her portfolio includes stories, games, comics, essays, and pop culture books.

In addition to her own worlds, she has worked on a number of different properties including Firefly, Vampire: the Masquerade, Shadowrun, Hunter: the Vigil, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, and Robert E. Howard’s Conan.

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