“Badass Girls”, Diversity, and the Elements of Character

So, I got in a bit of a long-winded rant on Twitter in response to a piece mocking a clearly awful video about “badass girls” that hilariously included “SCREW DIVERSITY” in the title. There were a lot of aspects to the concept of that video I find objectionable, from the obvious dogwhistling of reactionary social politics to the unnecessary and gross inclusion of “hot” in the thumbnail (as the original thread pointed out), but the thing that really got me thinking was that the video is 22 minutes long, when the method of making a “badass girl” character is so easy that I would struggle to fill a mini article with info about it, let alone 22 minutes’ worth of writing. Not only that, but I think the emphasis on what makes a character “badass” largely misses the point of why characters in that archetype are interesting. To that end, here are my extended thoughts on the subject.

So, when I say that making a female character cool is easy, I really mean it, you just need to run down a short checklist of traits that they should have. The video thumbnail in question includes Toph Beifong from Avatar, Erza Scarlet from Fairy Tail, and Yang Xiao Long from RWBY as three examples (there is a fourth in the thumbnail, but they’re halfway hidden by the others and their inclusion feels like an afterthought, also I don’t actually know who they are) of how to do “badass girl” characters, and each of them just so happens to check every box on the list in similar ways, while two of them also show how this framing is deeply flawed and largely misses the point of why these characters are interesting. So, to start, the traits that make a female character (or a male character for that matter) “cool”. First and foremost is agency. You hear this talked about a lot in discussions of character and story analysis, for good reason. Agency, that is, the ability of the character to decide the path of their own life/actions, is a crucial aspect of compelling characterization. It’s common knowledge that characters with autonomy who drive the story themselves are generally considered more compelling than those led by the nose or subservient to the autonomy of another character, and I think that recognizing this need for independence is the first and most important aspect of making a character your audience will perceive as “cool”. We see this in the examples provided, Toph sneaks off to fight for fun, joins Aang’s group of her own volition, disobeys her parents to do so, and refuses to ever be pushed around. Yang is consistently the most independent member of team RWBY, and has no qualms about taking action the moment she decides it’s the right thing. The second, almost as important aspect, is to give the character both a goal and the will to see it through. In the case of the examples provided, all three have the exact same one, they’re loyal to their friends and want to protect that aspect of their lives. But for an even better example, I would point to arguably the most driven character in anime history, Satsuki Kiryuin. Anyone who likes Kill la Kill, and even most who don’t, will acknowledge that Satsuki is a being of pure condensed awesome for eighteen episodes straight. And even after she shows moments of vulnerability and doubt late in the story, she never ever gives up on her ultimate goal of defeating Ragyo, and her unshakable drive and iron will towards that end are her two most iconic character traits. Sure, she has incredible charisma and a very dominating presence, and those certainly don’t hurt, but the biggest reason she comes off as being so cool is how strong her willpower is and how it keeps her going through impossible odds, an aspect she and many other characters in all of the team’s entire portfolio share. The third and final aspect that all “cool” characters have is the strength to back up those previous two traits when the chips are down. This doesn’t always necessarily equate to physical strength, in more psychological stories, this can often manifest as intelligence or skillful decision-making, but given that all the examples given are from fighting-oriented stories, physical power becomes a very common method of including this aspect. But however it manifests, it is there in some way or other with all “badass” characters. They don’t just have the will and autonomy to see their goals through, they have the strength/cunning to ensure that they get there. Those three aspects, autonomy, willpower, and strength, are all that’s necessary for making a character “cool”, and as long as you pull off all three competently, you’ll have a character that the audience will see as being cool. Yes, it’s really that easy. But one thing that comes from being so simplistic is that this structure is lacking on its own. You have a character driven and able to achieve their own goal, but if that’s all you have, you’ll still have a flat character. And that’s where I think the whole framing of this goes wrong, it gets “cool” mixed up with “interesting”, when the two are not synonymous, and indeed often exist independent of each other. There is some overlap between what makes a character cool and what makes a character interesting, but far too often, writers will focus too much on striving for the former and ignore the latter.

So, if making a character cool doesn’t automatically make them interesting, then the logical next question to ask is “What DOES make a character interesting?” Now, this question is a rabbit hole in and of itself, as there are many widely different ways of making interesting characters, but for the sake of keeping this article at a tolerable length, I will stick to the archetype of the “cool character” and how they’re made interesting. Broadly, there are four main aspects to making an interesting character: their psychology, their conflict, their relationships to other characters, and their progression. Their conflict is the easiest to explain, characters are made interesting by going up against obstacles that challenge something about them, be it their physical strength, their beliefs, or their emotional well-being. Tied into this is their progression, that is, the way that they change as people in response to the conflict, and the ultimate person they become as a result of their journey (that is, their character arc). These two are fairly simple on their own, but what really makes them compelling is how they tie into the other two. A character’s relationships with other characters are interesting because of how they modify every other aspect at play. Toph’s loner persona changes and melts away as she bonds with and grows to trust her friends, Satsuki learns the folly of her chosen path due to the loyalty of her four closest friends, etc. And all three of these tie into the fourth one, which is a juggernaut all its own. Essentially, the complexities of a character’s psychology and how they interact with every other aspect previously mentioned are the real secret to what makes characters interesting. And this is where the video in question really drops the ball, because in trying to make the point that characters can be cool without being diverse (which is true in a vacuum, but oftentimes is contradicted in practice), it misses the far greater point that making interesting characters often comes directly as a result of them being diverse. The video was mocked for the fact that it says “SCREW DIVERSITY”, yet one of the examples it uses is Toph, a blind character. Something really important to note about this, though, is that what makes Toph interesting is specifically that she’s blind and therefore uses her skills to overcome the aspects of her disability, enabling her to fight alongside the rest of the cast as arguably the strongest character aside from Aang himself. Her blindness also ties into her major character conflicts and much of her psychology. It caused her parents to be doting and overprotective, which created her rebellious tendencies and short temper, as well as prompted her to run away from her home, kickstarting her conflict for the rest of the season. Her complex relationship with them gets addressed frequently in the series, even up through the final season, and the moments of emotional intensity around it are some of the most powerful in the show. Ditto with Yang, albeit in a very different way. It shouldn’t be news to anyone that Yang as a character carries heavy bisexual overtones from the beginning of the show until now, but an aspect of this that I think often goes ignored is how it affects the rest of her character. This is most apparent in her affections for Blake, and the way their relationship progresses throughout the series. Almost all the most powerful scenes in RWBY are in regards to the emotions and psychology underlying this, be it Yang relating to and curtailing Blake’s obsessive search in season 2, their moment of choosing trust after the leg break in season 3, Yang nearly dying while trying to protect Blake, Blake subsequently leaving out of guilt, and Yang being hit hard by this abandonment, the way they both process this over the next 2 seasons, and how they mend that bond after they’re finally reunited and grow in their friendship/understanding (even as the romantic overtones between them get stronger and stronger), this conflict is the most deeply explored and consistently the best written in the entire series, and it deeply enriches both characters, making them extremely interesting. So, both of these characters are made interesting by the traits that make them diverse and the complexities related to it, which is the real secret to making interesting characters in this archetype. For an example of doing this wrong, I would point to Erza. While she is a fairly cool character, with a likable enough general personality, some cool powers, moments of doing cool stuff, and the best voice actress in the entire cast, she ultimately comes off as very flat, because her conflicts are very lacking in depth and largely do not relate to who she is as a person beyond the most surface level. She doesn’t have a philosophy or set of beliefs to fall back on either, the way someone like Satsuki does, so ultimately she’s just kinda there, her character is the most plain and uninteresting of the lot (which is really saying something, ha ha). What she could’ve really used most of all is something that deviates her from “the norm”, be it in terms of diversity or even just personality traits, that could’ve been used to drive conflict. This is a key aspect of character diversity that goes often ignored in wider discussions about the topic. While traits like race, sexuality, or gender identity can be completely benign traits (in the sense that they don’t affect the story beyond the fact of their own existence, e.g., the lesbian implications of Satsuki and Nonon in Kill la Kill don’t affect much beyond the way the two of them interact throughout the show), they don’t have to be, and indeed, if one were to take the additional effort of really exploring the implications of the trait and conflicts that can arise from it, it can add mountains of interesting story to a given work. Returning to RWBY one last time, there’s one more aspect of the dynamic between Yang and Blake I haven’t mentioned, which is that Blake, as a faunus (read: catgirl), is discriminated against as an underclass in a similar way to how Black, Irish, Asian, and Latinx people have historically been treated in America (and in many cases, still are). Where this introduces additional conflict is when you incorporate the fact of her relationship with Yang into that discussion. It’s possible that their society has a very different view of miscegenation than America did, but given the way the Faunus are treated, I strongly doubt it. This is an excellent source of conflict if followed through on, especially for Yang. Having your love for someone treated as wrong is a very distressing thing, and there’s a lot of potential to show off the effect it has on both Blake and Yang as they deal with the racism of wider society. Stories like this, where core aspects of characters interact with the environment around them and create conflict, as well as opportunities for development, are something almost inherent to making diverse characters, especially in stories set in the real world, and I think that’s an aspect that should get more focus, because it’s a shining example of the genuinely positive effect that diversity can have on stories.

Big thanks to The Pedantic Romantic on Twitter for tweeting out the original image that gave me the idea to write this, I’d also like to thank them for introducing me to Happy Sugar Life, since I probably wouldn’t have ever seen it otherwise, and as my piece on it from last month made pretty clear, I’m very glad that I did watch it. This article was very impromptu in response to a string of thoughts I had on the subject, I’ll try and get more regular stuff (like my Fall season impressions) out by the end of the month.

Edit: I was just made aware that the title of the original video has changed to “Diversity is Killing Badass Females”, which is honestly even worse. The change doesn’t necessarily add anything new to the discussion, because I’ve already talked a great deal about how making a character diverse can, and often does, actively contribute to making them better, but the new video title is so terrible that I felt it worthy of mention anyway.

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Author: WhenSomethingCriesAgain

Several years ago, I found myself positively brimming with opinions and insight, with no way to express them, so I began writing, and found that I liked it. I decided to start a page to keep records of my writing, and hopefully convince a few people to agree with my ideas.

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