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Greg Rucka On How To Write A Strong Female Character

The writer discusses what characteristics and qualities are needed to write a strong female character.

Last week we spoke to writer Ron Marz about how best to write a strong female character. Marz revealed that to him, writing a female character is just like writing a male character, just more emotionally mature. The discussion really got a lot of you talking about what characteristics a character needs to have in order for her to be strong, and what that meant to all of you. We teased that we would be talking to Greg Rucka next, and that we would pose the same questions to him. We thought it was pretty appropriate to do so considering we feel that Greg Rucka is one of the definitive writers of strong women in comics.

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Although Rucka started out as a crime novelist, he parleyed into comic books with the release of his successful graphic novel, WHITEOUT, which was later adapted into a film. The story was centered around Carrie Stetko, a United States Marshall in Antarctica who, while investigating a murder, finds many more victims. Stetko is a strong character who overcomes the odds against her, and often finds herself in near impossible situations.

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Rucka later published Queen and Country, also through Oni Press, which became his most well known series. The story followed Tara Chace, a British Secret Intelligence Service officer who, after intesive training and a Cambridge education, rises the SIS ranks. Tara is an incredibly powerful, intelligent and cunning character -- and with these two books, Rucka proved he had what it took to write a strong woman.

Rucka was later signed by DC and asked to pen Wonder Woman, DC's most deifnitive lady. It was during his run that Diana began to evolve and become a really strong, secure and self aware female character. Some of her most well remembered moments come from Rucka's run. When she pierced her own eyes in order to defeat Medusa, that was all Rucka. Remember when she opted to break Maxwell Lord's neck? That too was Greg Rucka. His understanding of Diana as the halfway point between Batman and Superman revolutionized her character. Under Rucka's pen Diana not only came into her own, but she sacrificed herself and pushed herself to the edge.

Let's also not forget Greg Rucka's run on Batwoman: Detective Comics, a series that seriously popularized the character of Kate Kane and brought her to the forefront of comics.

With so much experience writing strong women, it's no wonder why we chose to approach Rucka to gain an understanding of how he writes a strong female character. Here's what he had to say.

The answer to all of these questions is the same, fundamentally. One does not write a "female" character any more than one writes a "male" character. One writes character, and character is derived from many, many different components, gender being just one of them. Education, background, childhood, religion, sexual orientation and experience, unique history - all of these things influence character, and the writer's job is to present the whole package in the form of an individual. The problem isn't that writers forget they're writing one gender or another, it's that they do so without due consideration for the factors. To write any character, one must inhabit their life, evaluate it, and then see both through their character's bias, and objectively.
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The fact that she is a woman, according to Rucka, should not not be her defining characteristic. There are layers involved and many different elements ranging from where she comes from, what her background is that make up her identity -- and each of those qualities is equally important in making her into a strong female character.

There isn't really any one set of characteristics that is more or less important than any other - it's a question of working with the whole, and honoring those component parts as well as the entirety. This requires a kind of honesty that is, frankly, rather rare; it demands the writer be fair to their character while still being that character's advocate.

One of the biggest challenges for many writers is how to go about making the character strong without exploiting her, and how does one differentiate between what is sexy and what is sexist. Is it solely in the art? Is it much deeper than that?

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By the same token, sexy is not exploitative, and exploitation is dishonest. Reverse that chain and you can see that, whoever you are writing, if you are honest about them, fair to them, and allow them their moments of brilliance, you can create that sexiness without it becoming pandering. Sexy is not a visual trait - that's titillation. Cheesecake, beefcake, those are entirely visual matters. What makes someone sexy - what makes anyone sexy, in my opinion - is less how they look than how they do. Competence is sexy. Capability is sexy. Confidence is sexy. Smart is sexy. A character who clearly embodies these traits in some capacity or another is a character who is going to be attractive.

Bending over to pick up a dropped pen with your ass high in the air isn't sexy, that's just a butt shot. We confuse arousing with sexy in the same way we confuse strength with cruelty. A strong character isn't, by definition, a mean one, but the confusion between the two has lead to a shorthand where the attempt to depict a female character as "strong" translates to "bitch." They're not the same. Strength is part of character, as well - those characters who know what they want, know what they're willing to do to achieve those goals, and who rise again and again against opposition are, by definition, strong.

What is sexy, by definition, is different for everyone; but it's no question that many of the more "sexy" female characters in comics are also very confident and capable. They are able to do things independently and solve conflicts using their own strength, intellect and capability -- and it's the fact that they are presented in this way that makes them sexy, not necessarily what they look like. Being sexually arousing and being sexy are two very different things, and are sometimes misinterpreted by readers. A girl can show a little bit of cleavage and still kick major butt if she has a solid story, background and identity to go along with it. Rucka gives a perfect definition of what characteristics not only make female characters strong, but what makes a strong character, in general.

What do you think of Greg's definition? Do you agree that the sexiness of a female character has more to do with her capability than how she is drawn? Do you think that there really is no difference between writing male and female characters? What characters would you like to see Greg Rucka write?