by Savannah J. Foley
I don’t know when the myth that strong female character = sassy began, but I’m here to stop it.
First let’s define sassy so that we’re on the same page:
Dictionary.com: fresh, impertinent, impudent, overbold, saucy
Merriam-Webster: impudent, vigorous, lively
Of these words, I’d like to pull out saucy and impertinent. When I think ‘sassy’, I think of someone who is really sarcastic to the point of rudeness. She is primarily defined by her ‘attitude’, and her mouth is always turned up in a smirk. She rolls her eyes a lot. She had demeaning nicknames for authority figures. In real life we’d call her a raging brat, but she seems to get a pass in the world of fiction.
I get that there might have been a point in time where girls weren’t usually sassy, so to see a sassy character come along and kick butt was unusual, and enjoyable. But in today’s society no one’s keeping girls down (as much), and sassy, to me, comes off as unnecessary. Cynical, sarcastic MC who goes off on long, internal asides dedicated to hyperbole about a hypothetical outcome of her current situation? Boring and exhausting. I cringe. I’ve just seen it so much, and I don’t find it interesting any more.
But maybe that’s just me. I’ve never really been one for sarcasm, so maybe it’s a matter of personal taste. Here’s my real problem: Sassy automatically gets a pass as a ‘strong female character’. If your girl talks back to an authority figure, BAM! Sassy! Vocal! Strong!
Therefore, I think that a lot of young writers might lean towards sassy characters in an effort to shortcut their way into a ‘strong character.’ But strength doesn’t lie in the causticity of a verbal sting. Strong characters are always developed through their actions.
You’re probably heard of Active vs. Passive characters. Active characters propel the story, while passive characters are pushed through the story by external events. If your character smarts off while getting dragged around against her will by another character, she’s being passive (even if her mouth isn’t).
I googled to get an accurate picture of what everyone else thought were strong heroines, and I came up with the following list of books that star strong heroines:
The Secret Garden
The Bean Tree
Clan of the Cave Bear
Memoirs of a Geisha
True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle
Island of the Blue Dolphins
A Wrinkle in Time
Does anyone see any ‘sassy’ characters? And yet these are all very popular books with very strong heroines.
I’m not saying sassy can’t be done right. But sass (and its sister sarcasm) are like very powerful seasonings – they can make a dish, but too much can break it. And most of all, beyond her sassy personality, your heroine should be active in creating her own destiny. Then she can make a few snide remarks about it 😉
Savannah J. Foley is the author of the Nameless (originally known as Woman’s World) series on Fictionpress and is signed with the Bradford Literary Agency. Nameless is currently out on submissions. Her website is www.savannahjfoley.com, but she updates more frequently on her livejournal. You can read an excerpt from Nameless here.