So far this year, I’ve been thinking a lot about Broken Bird characters – and apparently, I’m not the only one. Why are they overwhelmingly women? What does their popularity say about our narrative-cultural obsession with romanticising damage, and particularly female damage? Is it possible to write Broken Birds without romanticising their trauma? Can we really say that most Broken Birds are strong female characters when the trope overwhelmingly rejects femininity? And why do such heroines abound in UF and PNR in particular?
It’s an issue I’ve had Feelings about for some time. I learned and fell in love with the trope as a teenager; which is to say, uncritically and before I knew there were words for the patterns I saw in stories, let alone how to apply them. I gravitated to Broken Birds so wholeheartedly that my own early writing is saturated with them. Unconsciously, I’ve built my whole understanding of narrative on a bedrock of Broken Birds – and that makes me deeply uncomfortable, because the logic of such characters is ultimately founded on the deeply problematic romanticising of damage.
No human being is perfect. As the tattooed left arm of a recent bus driver so eloquently proclaimed, every saint has a past and every sinner has a future. Even the most well-adjusted person has hang-ups, and as conflict drives stories, it only makes sense that drama and damage be omnipresent in narrative. Traumatic origins make for interesting reading, just as terrible occurrences make for good story-fodder. No matter how grand or intimate the scale of events, calamity and catastrophe stalk the pages of every novel – and rightly so. Small wonder, then, that we routinely exalt characters who rise above the horrors they’ve endured while still being influenced by them. Show us tormented souls struggling for redemption. Show us travel-weary nomads, battle-scarred warriors, guardians of grey areas and hard-boiled detectives. Show us heroes with pasts and antiheroes shackled by honour. Show us doctors who can’t heal themselves and untrusting cynics searching for love. Show us unseen scars and visible. Show us pain, and that pain is survivable.
But never forget that damage has a cost.
Romanticised damage is heroin chic for the soul: no matter how angry, hurt or soulful it looks, its expression is ultimately constrained by glamour. Real damage is rampant, inconvenient and frequently unbeautiful. Romanticised damage self-medicates, but is never addicted; represses and explodes, but never unfixably; abuses friendships, but never beyond salvation; drinks, but never vomits or blacks out; seeks self-destruction, but always nobly; hurts itself, but never others; expresses sarcasm, but never joy. On a fundamental level, romanticised damage is an expression of authorial image-consciousness: a limiting awareness of the fourth wall that shies away from having the protagonist behave irredeemably, lest their sympathetic status or morality thereinafter be called into question.
Which is, in a nutshell, how Broken Birds work. Their tortured pasts provoke a specific empathy that their darker impulses must never negate, in order that the one continue to justify the other. It’s a precisely calibrated balancing act that annoys the hell out of me, because – among other things, which we’ll get to – it effectively hardwires the character for emotional stasis. Too much healing, and they stop being broken, which nine times out of ten kills the narrative premise; too much distress, and the dysfunction stops being cute and starts looking villainous, or at best obscenely selfish. Both transitions are narratively workable, but Broken Birds are meant to be beautiful, haunting, troubled: if they can’t rescue themselves, we have to want them to be rescued; if they can rescue themselves, then they’re not broken; and if they can but don’t, then the reason – whether selfishness or stupidity – must render them less attractive, and therefore less birdlike.
Which is where we come back to our first two questions: why are most Broken Birds women, and what does that say about our obsession with female brokenness? By way of answer, I’m going to propose a radical notion: that damage has, narratively speaking, become the go-to justification for escapism.
Consider the following hypothetical premise: a successful, happy twentysomething with a loving family, interesting friends, a good career and a caring partner is suddenly drawn into a fascinating, chaotic and hitherto unknown world of action, adventure and intrigue. This world, however, is swiftly proven to be incompatible with living a normal life. Instantly, the question becomes: Which do they sacrifice? Who gets hurt? Obviously, narratively, we know they’re going to choose whatever this new world entails, because that’s the point – but even though we’re already gunning for a particular outcome, we still want the transition to be painless. This is why so many characters in YA novels are orphans, or have distant, absent or abusive parents: because when the action calls for them to leave home and face the forces of darkness – as it invariably will – we don’t want their loved ones to be injured by the choice. Even though we’ve already chosen a thousand times over in favour of quests, we still don’t want there to be a cost to starting them, because we don’t want to begin by thinking of our protagonist as a selfish, hurtful ass – which is what we, the reader, would be if we upped and left our comfortable life for one of thrills and adventure.
But damage excuses all that. If a character has nothing to lose by jumping headlong into their brave, new world – if nobody will miss them, or if they’re so broken that it excuses selfish decisions – then the usual cost is waived. The damage heaped on the characters is a way of alleviating not just their guilt at going, but our own for wanting it to be easy. For wanting to like them right from the outset.
For wanting to run away, too.
Because no matter what else they might achieve, stories with a new world component are always going to have escapist elements. Narratively, damage is used to justify that escape, to the point where trauma preceding adventure has long since become a cultural default. As a result, we readers absorb the pattern. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we connect damage with freedom; and that makes damage romantic, because it implies – however carelessly, however unintentionally – that the best way out of our everyday lives is to wait for them to implode. In the real world, enacting life-altering change takes extraordinary courage. Travel, changing careers, moving away from our loved ones, swapping partners, going on adventures, living wildly – none of this comes easy, or quickly, or free. But in stories, we can fantasise about all our responsibilities being taken away by fate, thus freeing us up to go on as many adventures as we like without ever having to justify wanting more than what we have.
And this is not a bad or unhealthy thing. The very attraction of ‘my life explodes and then I have adventures’ fantasies is that the vast majority of us never really expect – or, crucially, want – these things to happen. Their safety and entertainment value both stem from their supreme unlikelihood. We know we only get one life, and yet it’s human nature to want more than that; infinitely so. Stories, at their most fundamental level, exist to mitigate this knowledge. Like the third good fairy at Princess Aurora’s christening, we cannot alter this truth entirely, and so, instead, we soften it a little. Thus, like Aurora, instead of pricking our fingers and dying, we enter prolonged dream states and become Sleeping Beauty. We conjure up the ghosts of other existences so that we may live more, not less, continuing down internal roads when real ones are closed to us. Or, as Lewis Carroll put it:
Anon, to sudden silence won,
In fancy they pursue
The dream-child moving through a land
Of wonders wild and new,
In friendly chat with bird and beast —
And half believe it true.
But there is a world of difference between the offhand way we can treat with personal tragedy in our own private, escapist fantasies and the way we ought to treat them out loud, in reality, on paper. Because the thing we all know – the thing we must forget in order to dream our funny, broken, parallel lives – is that real trauma isn’t romantic. Without wanting to imply any necessary, absolute causation between an author’s personal experiences and the stories they write, I would suggest, as a matter of empathic intuition, that someone who has (for example) suffered the loss of their closest family members would be much less likely to casually include this fact in their protagonist’s backstory than someone for whom such personal grief remained purely hypothetical. Or, to put it another way: we respect such rights and losses as we have taught ourselves to respect, which is why good authors – or at the very least, well-intentioned ones – do research. If, on setting out to write a story, we can recognise our own cultural, sexual, historical and/or racial ignorance in areas relevant to our narrative, then why not acknowledge emotional ignorance, too?
In SFF, the simple answer is: because half the fun is making things up. If escapism is still the order of the day – if we can still tell stories where the culture, sexuality, history and races are imaginative extrapolations on the real – then why are emotions any different? And on the surface of things, that’s a fair point. I don’t have to think it’s plausible that a group of sheltered Hobbits from the Shire would find the courage to walk into the fires of Mount Doom in order to enjoy the story, because part of the willing suspension of disbelief inherent in the fictional act – and particularly in SFF – is accepting that, however rare such people might be in the real world, the majority of leading characters tend to be exceptional. Fiction is not like reality TV, shoving a metaphoric story-camera into the homes of ordinary folks in the hopes of striking an eventual dramatic jackpot. Instead, we have already decided our protagonists are different or special, because that is why we are there.
But the leeway this buys us is limited. Real-world causality must always apply to some extent, so that even if we’ve already decided the protagonist is exceptional, their actions still have to make sense. In order to create believable stories about imaginary cultures, races, gender relations and histories, the narrative has to be grounded in something familiar. And, while there’s no rulebook stating this has to be emotional content – which could easily prove impractical in stories about alien, hybrid or other inhuman characters – more often than not, we mean it as a default. No matter how strange the society or how impossible the scenario, protagonists must still adhere to the rules of the world we’ve written them; and where we’ve left humanity as the default social setting, that means we have to understand their emotions.
Which is why romanticised damage comes off as an indicator of bad writing: even allowing for the fact that your mileage may vary, it still suggests a lack of emotional research; and as such damage is arguably a defining characteristic of Broken Birds, that puts them at a high risk for poor characterisation. To be clear: this is not a blanket attack on stories whose protagonists have traumatic pasts or origins or who continue to undergo suffering, for the simple reason that not all damage is romanticised. As a rule of thumb, romanticised damage is damage portrayed without realistically negative consequences, or whose consequences tend towards the protagonist being cursed with awesome. Such as, for instance, describing a character who has all the behavioural hallmarks of being an alcoholic without ever actually calling them one, or making them black out, or showing them throw up, or do anything but function at 110% while living almost entirely on hard liquor.
This is, I suspect, the main reason why Broken Birds abound in UF and PNR – or rather, the reason why Broken Birds in those genres stand out as being particularly problematic. Remembering the implied covenant of exceptional characters, it can be harder for readers to gauge how exceptional a protagonist situated in a sufficiently distant or fictitious setting actually is, comparatively speaking. If we don’t know anything about their world, its culture and history except what the story tells us, then the emotional narrative becomes something of a closed system: the only facts available to us are those the author chooses to relate, and unless some misstep of writing or characterisation makes us question that system’s integrity, then it only makes sense to accept what we’re told as true. If, on the other hand, a story is set in the present day – however altered by magic, weird technology or alternative history – then the system is automatically thrown open for comparison with our existing knowledge-base; and that’s where things get interesting. Because if the story fails to invoke the unquestioning sanctity of our private loss/escape fantasies – if we expect greater emotional verisimilitude from a published narrative than from our daydreams – then we can claim to know exactly how exceptional a character must be in order for us to believe in their survival.
And Broken Birds, by definition, are limited. Integral to their nature is the requirement of our sympathy: there are some lines they cannot cross, yet they must still be damaged and mangled by circumstance enough that the question of their doing so arises. This creates what I’ll call the Dark Side Shortfall: a contradiction between the negative emotional trajectory objectively suggested by their circumstances and the author’s desire to keep them looking beautiful. A successfully written Broken Bird is one where the writing, characterisation and worldbuilding are solid enough that this limitation never looks like a limitation, but rather the only natural course of events: one where we believe, despite the existence of the trope, that the character would always have made those choices. But if we suspect we are being shielded – if it feels as though the only reason our hero keeps faith is because the author wants them to – then Houston, we have a problem.
Which is where the gender card comes into play, because despite all the advances of feminism and equality, we still think it’s less acceptable for women to be made unbeautiful, whether physically or emotionally, than it is for men. The reason most Broken Birds are women is precisely because we’re more prone to limiting female characters than male, and especially when those limitations are designed to keep us sympathetic – and attracted – to the characters. This is not necessarily a conscious process, although it certainly can be. Rather, it’s a problem of lineage. The classic literary antihero is the hardboiled detective, who, when recombined the femme fatale, becomes the Broken Bird – an incestuous bleeding together of noir’s most powerful archetypes. But unlike Blade, who inherited all the strengths and none of the weaknesses of his diametrically opposed parents, the Broken Bird is a creature of contradictions. From the detective, she takes strength, cunning and a certain maverick flare. From the femme fatale, she takes vulnerability, a damsel complex and tragedy. In other words, the Broken Bird’s strengths are masculine, while its weaknesses are feminine. And, not unsurprisingly, this is not a combination that works out well for female characters.
Femme fatales, as the name suggests, are dangerous and duplicitous, with both qualities invariably tied to their gender. Classically, if they were ever redeemed, it was through love; but otherwise, while the hardboiled detective was constrained by a personal code of honour (if not the actual law), the femme fatale remained morally suspicious. She was traitor and adulteress, whore and heartbreaker, a liar on the run and a bad girl out for what she could get – and yet, crucially, never an antihero. That mantle was reserved for the men, who worked outside the letter of the law in order to preserve its spirit. In noir, it was the women who made the hard choices, who rode their downward spirals and betrayed to stay alive; but they were also feminine, owning their sexuality and their gender even as they defied the culture and times that sought to label them.
But the typical female Broken Bird rejects femininity. Not sexiness – she’s still the femme fatale’s daughter, after all – but sorority, domesticity, and anything else that’s traditionally been deemed the purview of women. She will not like fashion; she will not wear dresses; she will not want children; she will not cook or clean or shop. She will, instead, be hard and beautiful and broken and, in the vast majority of cases, emotionally vulnerable, unsettled by her love for a man (or possibly two men) with whom, for various reasons, a traditional life is impossible. That’s a key word, impossible, because it points to a redaction of choice. Always, Broken Birds are sculpted by fate and damage: they can’t have normal lives or be like other women, they can’t can’t can’t – so loudly and so frequently that the question of want becomes buried. Broken Birds have trouble wanting. They’ve been burned so many times that they don’t (can’t) know their own desires; they don’t (can’t) know what’s possible in terms of their own happiness, except in the immediate short-term. But it’s this very confusion which frees them up for complicated, uncertain – but undeniably passionate – relationships, and for being rescued, over and over again, by white knights: men who, in a weirdly Freudian twist, quite closely resemble their hardboiled, femme fatale-redeeming fathers.
Does this make them inherently bad characters, or mean that they can’t be strong women? On both counts, no – but as an archetype that seems only to be growing in popularity and whose appeal is often taken at face value, I am much more uncomfortable with the idea of not asking these questions than with poking the trope and seeing what it means.
Footnote: I have, of late, become extremely leery of the phrase ‘strong female characters’ – or rather, of the fact that trying to identify protagonists as such invariably means holding women to higher standards than we do men, because we’re more invested in their measuring up to our personal, feminist ideals. This bugs me, because while the goal of encouraging more and varied fictional ladies is one I endorse wholeheartedly, the risk of unconscious left-wing bias actually making things harder for the groups we mean to support – whether characters or writers – is very real, and something I think we’re blinding ourselves to. Which possibly negates this whole post, inasmuch as I’m talking almost exclusively about the gender-oriented problems inherent in a particular trope, but still: if equality and progress is what we ultimately want from our stories, then we really need to start unpicking male tropes at least as vociferously as we do female; not just in terms of how those characters interact with women, but in terms of the negative lessons they unconsciously impart to men. That includes Broken Birds – and the romanticising of damage – across all genders.