Last week I read and then re-read “We’re losing all our Strong Female Characters to Trinity Syndrome,” a fascinating essay posted in June by Tasha Robinson at The Dissolve.
Robinson’s essay — which, FYI, uses some non-gratuitous adult language to make its argument — traces the evolution of female characters in action films from the cringing victims/trophies of the 1980s to the post-Aliens “sexless yet sexualized” toughs to today’s Strong Female Characters. That seems like progress, except Robinson makes the point that too many of the Strong Female Characters (the capitalization contains some irony) wind up with nothing to do. They’re fully realized characters when introduced, which is exciting, but then decline into subservient/secondary roles designed to reflect the greater glory of the male protagonist. (Robinson calls this Trinity Syndrome, after the heroine of The Matrix.)
It’s sharp, incisive stuff, concluding with an eight-point questionnaire for filmmakers “who’ve created a female character who isn’t a dishrag, a harpy, a McGuffin to be passed around, or a sex toy.” All of which Robinson boils down to one simple question that goes right to the heart of the problem, and suggests the solution: “[W]ould you—the writer, the director, the actor, the viewer—want to be her?”
Robinson’s questionnaire and final question stuck with me, and I put Yana Hashoone to the test — not the 12-year-old Yana of The Jupiter Pirates: Hunt for the Hydra, but Yana as I see her story unfolding across the arc of the entire series.
Yana’s my favorite character in The Jupiter Pirates, and as a writer it’s tempting to sideline Tycho and his doubts and anxieties and just let his twin sister carve a swath of merry destruction. But then Yana’s in some ways an easier character to grapple with — the yang to Tycho’s yin, the Han to his Luke. Yana’s cool, even icy certainty and snap decisions get her into plenty of trouble as the series unfolds, but where Tycho agonizes over what he wants, Yana already knows that. She spends her time strategizing about how to reach her goals rather than torturing herself about what they are. In Hunt for the Hydra we learn that she’s impulsive, fearless to the point of recklessness, level-headed under fire and possessed of a certain ruthlessness; in Curse of the Iris we’ll see that she’s ferociously loyal, albeit it on her own terms, and we’ll learn how ruthless and devious she can be. Then, when we meet her again in The Rise of Earth, she’s made her mind up about some important things, and simultaneously become an ally of Tycho’s while beginning to follow a path that’s quite different from his.
(And beyond that? Sorry, that would be telling.)
I ran down Robinson’s checklist and sighed with relief. Yana has plenty to do in the series, she’s a counterpoint to Tycho but not just a spur to motivate/develop him, she does a lot more than provide exposition, she remains at least as strong as Tycho throughout (and is definitely meaner), she evolves right along with him, she’s always cooler than he is, she’ll prove perfectly capable of rescuing herself, and she doesn’t disappear.
Would I want to be Yana? Absolutely. I always have. (In the real world, alas, all I got was her flaws, as well as all of Tycho’s.)
That conclusion gives me hope that I’ll avoid Trinity Syndrome, and readers who stick with me to the last Jupiter Pirates book will find Yana every bit as memorable and evocative a character as Tycho, and perhaps even more so.
My perspective is obviously different than Robinson’s, but I’ve found a useful storytelling rule that will help guard against Trinity Syndrome: Every character is the hero of his or her own story.
If a normally talkative character lapses into silence while in peril or while other characters argue, you’re doing the character a disservice — in The Making of Return of the Jedi, Carrie Fisher grouses (correctly) that Princess Leia falls uncharacteristically silent once Jabba the Hutt puts her in a metal bikini. “Strip me — and I’m silent!” Similarly, if an assertive character hangs back during an action scene, there better be a good reason for his or her inaction. Think about, say, a scene where the protagonist storms across a crowded room to confront an antagonist. That seems like a dramatic set piece, but what about all the other people (on whatever side) between the two principals? Are they all really going to watch the proceedings while remaining still and silent? Wouldn’t some, many or most of them intervene in one way or another?
Most storytelling centers around a single protagonist, and that’s OK — we have millennia of accumulated stories as testament to the power of that form. But all characters think of themselves as protagonists. No matter what gender they are, they should act that way.