Just Write Strong Characters

Thingy pointed out something I haven’t really addressed in my posts about John Steinbeck: that his preponderance of flat, unlikable and (in the case of Cathy from East of Eden) downright evil  female characters may not have been simply a reflection of animosity towards women on his part, but symptomatic of the era in which he wrote.

Maybe so.  As I said in my comment on Thingy’s blog, I can think of some female characters from other periods who were better than Steinbeck’s, but still, her point is a good one: maybe that was just how things were back then,

I’m glad this came up, because I’d been planning to do a post about this article in The New Statesman by Sophia McDougall. The point of the article is basically that “Strong Female Characters” can be almost as bad as “Weak Female Characters”, in the sense that both imply a dearth of character development.  They are equally simplistic and flat as characters.

I don’t like to list “favorite” fictional characters, because you can get to comparing apples to oranges very quickly.  Nevertheless, if you forced me to choose, I would say my favorite female character in all fiction is (you guessed it) Kreia from Knights of the Old Republic II.  In fact, she’s probably my favorite fictional character, regardless of genderAnd the reason is because she’s complicated.

None of Steinbeck’s female characters are that. They are all very one-dimensional.  Now, as Thingy said, some of his male characters are pretty much cut-outs as well, but I can’t think of any female of Steinbeck’s who is as interesting as Mac from In Dubious Battle.

But back to Thingy’s point: was that just Steinbeck’s attitude, or was it the spirit of the time? I think probably both, but I also think it’s significant that I couldn’t think of any ’30s-era female characters in books written by males that I’d consider good examples.  Perhaps you, dear reader, can think of some?


  1. Well rounded characters are hard to write period. The problem is if you spend a lot of time making your characters nuanced the plot suffers. The conflict in the story is what drives the story and characters react to it. If you spend ten pages dealing with all the different ways a character or characters analyze the problem before acting the reader closes the book.
    Perhaps the most recognizable female character in American literature is Scarlet O’Hara and she is one dimensional- she only thinks about herself and what she wants. To be a great character doesn’t need nuance.

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