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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.

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.

== TEASER ==

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.

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?

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?

50 Comments
Posted by jsphsmth

Since he is back at Marvel, I would love to see him writing Elektra again.

Posted by JonesDeini

Yup, Rucka basically nails this on all of his work.

Posted by fred9101

I agree at all.

Posted by cosmo111687

"We confuse arousing with sexy in the same way we confuse strength with cruelty."

Please come back to DC, Mr. Rucka.

Posted by The Impersonator

I ate cheescake before but I didn't eat beefcake. :P

Posted by ulrich200

Spot on, Mr Rucka. Spot on.

Posted by InnerVenom123

Right on.

Posted by Neverpraying

Hold on a moment, he's at Marvel now?!

then who the heck is making Batwoman D:?

Posted by Deadcool

Cool...

Edited by Wattup

Marvel should promote a woman to icon/Wonder Woman status. I would say Storm but that would probably engulf this website in a deluge of fanboy feudin'.

Maybe Ms. Marvel should be the one. I mean, she's got the company's NAME in her moniker! Do it, Marvel! Strike a blow for women's comic book lib!

Posted by Mayo88m

I like the article, and agree with it, but what is up with all these "Strong Female" articles? Just seems that late I see a lot of talk about sexism plaguing the comic industry, and poorly written females. I agree that sometimes it's a problem, but a lot of the characters people point to as examples of this I don't agree with. Between these articles, and storm topics in the forums I may go crazy! lol

Posted by PhoenixoftheTides

@Wattup said:

Marvel should promote a woman to icon/Wonder Woman status. I would say Storm but that would probably engulf this website in a deluge of fanboy feudin'.

Maybe Ms. Marvel should be the one. I mean, she's got the company's NAME in her moniker! Do it, Marvel! Strike a blow for women's comic book lib!

I'd like to see Photon get this major push. She has so much potential and keeps getting pushed off to the background.

Posted by Maki_P

First thing that comes to my mind is newStarfire. I haven't read anything beyond Outlaws 1, but I can tell you she ain't sexy there, why? Because she has no character, no confidence; it's just cheesecake

Posted by CrimsonTempest
@Neverpraying said:

Hold on a moment, he's at Marvel now?!

then who the heck is making Batwoman D:?

The artist, JH Williams III, who's co-writing with W. Haden Blackman, who wrote The Force Unleashed.
Posted by RainEffect

"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."

That was so spot on it is almost absurd.

Posted by zombietag

i want more articles like this in general! writing is cool.

i liked this, except the article just kinda repeated what rucka already said :/

besides that, more this please

Posted by Daveyo520

Batwoman was/is pretty awesome.

Posted by fables87

I loved his run on Batwoman. He's the reason Batwoman is now my #2 female chick. Although Wonder Woman is my #1, his run on her was okay in my opinion.

Posted by thewhitequeenofhellfire

I wish Marvel puts him in an X-book. The X-ladies of Utopia could use a major overhaul. I'd love to see what he can do for Storm and Emma Frost. Mike Carey's done a wonderful job with Rogue and Rick Remender has done great things for Psylocke. Jason Aaron's Kitty Pryde looks promising.... now we need Storm and the White Queen to get a good characterization face-lift.

Posted by doordoor123

Now if only he would go back to DC where he belongs.

Posted by SC

I like this again. Similar to last thread, it makes me really annoyed this isn't just the default understanding of everyone, especially comic fans, especially anyone who interacts with people past a mirrow, not necessarily as their sincere default, with the element of subjectivity, but just an understanding people have. Its not even to do with comics or female characters, just basic critical reasoning. I feel like I am reading a guide on how to not fall over and stab your brain out with a plastic bag. (still cool seeing reinforced all the same)

Moderator
Edited by ArtisticNeedham

I liked this article very much. I saved in as a word file for reference. You guys should keep this series of articles going and ask more and more writers about this. Has Rucka written any "How to Write Comics" books like Peter David? This was very educational and interesting. I'm going to have to go back and read the last one by Marz.

It also makes me feel better that, while I am not an expert and will apply this stuff to my writing, I am approaching writing my own female characters correctly.

To write any character, one must inhabit their life, evaluate it, and then see both through their character's bias, and objectively.

I loved this point, along with the rest.

Posted by RedheadedAtrocitus

Thank you Rucka, its just what I was trying to point out in my post regarding Marz's opinions on strong female characters...."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." There is NO difference between writing a female or male character as long as one has done their proper research and immersed themselves in the character they are about to write. As for the sexiness vs. exploitative issue, yes, there are clear differences and its not just art but also beholden in the written word. Sexiness is not being merely physically stimulating, its offering the whole package. Rucka's ideas clearly mirror my own and it was definitely great reading this. As for what I'd like to see him do...I personally think it would have been interesting to see him write Karen Starr when she still had her ongoing...but as we all know that's quite impossible now. Maybe Red She-Hulk? Could be interesting.

Posted by Rise2Ragnarok

Great article and interview. I loved his run on Batwoman. Really wish he would come back and write for DC again!

Posted by lorex

I would love to see Mr Rucka take on a character like Ms Marvel, since she has been treading water in the background of the Avengers since the end of the Dark Avengers store line. She is powerful, intelligent and sexy but never seems to get the attention she deserves.

Posted by thecomicscove

I'm not very familiar with Rucka's work, but I recently read Batwoman: Elegy and really enjoyed it.

I agree that writing women characters in comics has generally been a hit or miss endeavor, but it's one that I think isn't necessarily intrinsic to gender. It's simply more noticeable when the writer writes a woman badly. My guess is that, by and large, writers to write women badly probably aren't writing their men all that well either. There is of course the possibility of gender discrimination.

I enjoy writers from TV like Joss Whedon and Steven Moffat, who I think do a good job of making their women at least as strong as their male characters, so these articles are of keen interest to me. Hopefully if/when I ever publish something, I'll be able to do as decent a job of writing women as I do men, demons, monsters, and whatever. Please keep these articles coming!

Posted by ALdragon17

I think its cool these days to read female characters. Most people want to see a heroic women versus a jerk of woman. I like the pics of Wonder Woman, makes me think of The 300. The Batwoman pic have a mystic to them. It would cool to have woman who is a hero, I think of that 80's song "I need a Hero". Instead of "he got to strong", input the words of she got to be strong. Ha, I don't need to be rescue or anything, its more of the lines of moral character.

Posted by CrimsonTempest
@doordoor123 said:

Now if only he would go back to DC where he belongs.

Co-sign, dude.
Posted by Honor_Finesse

I am in love with this man's writing. His take on this could not be any more spot on. <333 Please Mr. Rucka, never stop.

@thewhitequeenofhellfire: Oh man. I think him writing Emma would be a serious treat for us, especially after Fraction. Although, I must say, Gillen's got her spot on.

Posted by Eyz

It simple.

The same way you write a strong male leading character. Make them lead the way, kick their foe's butts, stand for themselves and be represented.

First off, don't turn them into bimbos/sl#ts or depending on the next male character!! And some clothes or a kickass costume at least, like their male counterpart!

Anyways, why do American comic book fans/writers have so much complexes regarding strong female character? Be it arguing about it or the lack of them...why not enjoy them and make stories featuring them without questioning all this? I mean, I follow plenty of Euro-comics featuring strong and badass female characters, it has always been a given to me, as a reader :P

Posted by Adnan

I'd love to see him on Supergirl. Not that I dislike the current ongoing (love the art, indifferent on the story), but she's always come off as rather...forgettable, if you know what I mean.

Posted by victoriancuckoo

I loved his run with Batwoman, one of my favourites of the genre, I must find his storyline with Wonder Woman, would really be interested to read the plucking her eyes out, storyline.

Posted by Gordo789

I LOVE Batwoman.

Posted by mbembet

and DC relese Rucka but keep a douche like winick WTF!!! damn you didio

Edited by fodigg
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.

Christ, somebody make a poster out of this, NOW.

Perfectly stated.

@Maki_P said:

First thing that comes to my mind is newStarfire. I haven't read anything beyond Outlaws 1, but I can tell you she ain't sexy there, why? Because she has no character, no confidence; it's just cheesecake

Yep. All--and I do mean ALL--the problems with Starfire would be fixed if Lobdell just invested some time with developing her character beyond the cheesecake. She was cheesecake and asking for sex (literally) before she was established as "sexy" according to Rucka's list of criteria:

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.

But Starfire (in issues #1 and #2 at least; slightly less in #3) was none of those things. And that was the problem.

Posted by Joe Venom

@Gordo789 said:

I LOVE Batwoman.

too

Posted by JonesDeini

@fodigg said:

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.

Christ, somebody make a poster out of this, NOW.

Perfectly stated.

Word, folk. He'll be greatly missed on Batwoman. But hell, I get a a great Punisher book out of it and he's doing a great job on Frank and Norah Winters and Rachel Alves.

Posted by master_wright
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.

I really do enjoy this article, I say do because I keep reading it. It made me think of a lot of my favorite female characters and how they play in stories. Storm, Maria Hill and She Hulk come to mind simply because they are the most contriversal for being themselves.

Posted by DreamerOfEden

I can't express how great his answers are! Thank you, Greg Rucka, for shedding light on this controversial topic with such finesse!

Posted by DreamerOfEden

@fodigg: I agree completely, especially concerning Starfire! She's getting better, but she's still far from what she's capable of.

Posted by lykopis

This entire article was enjoyable to read - beginning to end. Awesome.

Posted by LP

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.

Greg, I love you.

Posted by Erotolepsy

Very well put. Marz' "like a man but more emotionally mature" argument seems incredibly reductive, and just sounds like a tricky way of admitting you have no idea how to write an emotionally nuanced male character.

Posted by thecomicscove

@Erotolepsy: Not that I had a problem with Marz's point, but the phrasing reminded me of Jack Nicholson's response to a fan in As Good As It Gets when she asks him how he writes such good women characters.

"First, I imagine a man," he replied. "Then I take away reason and accountability."

Funny? Yes. Particularly helpful? Not really.

Loaded and one-sided? Most definitely. That's how Marz's quote there came off to me.

Posted by jrock85

@Mayo88m said:

I like the article, and agree with it, but what is up with all these "Strong Female" articles? Just seems that late I see a lot of talk about sexism plaguing the comic industry, and poorly written females. I agree that sometimes it's a problem, but a lot of the characters people point to as examples of this I don't agree with. Between these articles, and storm topics in the forums I may go crazy! lol

I just don't see a lot of merit to these accusations of sexism in comics because there are so many female characters who are not portrayed in an oversexualized manner, such as:

  1. Wonder Woman
  2. Barbara Gordon
  3. X-23
  4. Supergirl
  5. Batwoman
  6. current Huntress
  7. Black Canary
  8. Dawn Granger
  9. Zatanna
  10. Storm

et cetera.

Posted by Ingstrand

I agree that gender is just one character component among many, but it's one of the trickier ones to get right. I have lived in different places, so I have some idea of what living in those places are like, but as a male writer I can never be entirely sure what it's like being a woman. Then again, using your imagination is kind of the point of being a writer ... /Ingstrand http://ingstrand.tumblr.com

Posted by yo_yo_fun

Beautiful.

I agree with Mr. Rucka completely!

I think that if a female character is portrayed visually more than half naked and so on, that blocks her strength and her abilities.

"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." FREAKIN BRILLIANT! :D

Posted by kartron

Awesome article. one of the best!!! Love it! Love it! Love it! 
The point where he says "confusion between arousal and sexy" and then "competence, capability, smart is sexy" is something that can only come out of an extraordinary writer and can make ordinary characters extraordinary! It is clearly evident in Batwoman!!

Posted by StarKiller809

I like Greg Rucka. I really wish that he would still be at DC writing all the strong females, and males they have there. However, he is working and I really want to get into some of his stuff. It looks cool.

Posted by CaptainCockblock

Very insightful. I just finished reading one of the trades of Rucka's run on Wonder Woman and everything he says here rings true.