This week I’m going to highlight one more strong female character from science fiction – and I have to discuss my favorite sci-fi show ever, Babylon 5. For anyone who’s watched Babylon 5, you would probably agree that the two main female leads – Susan Ivanova and Delenn – are strong women. But as much as I’d agree with you, and as much as I’d like to discuss either of those characters, I’m going to talk about the character of Lyta.
Lyta Alexander from Babylon 5
Lyta is a telepath, and she initially serves as the diplomatic aide to the enigmatic Ambassador Kosh of the Vorlon Empire. Throughout the story of Babylon 5, the Vorlons – at first allies, then enemies, but always mysterious – alter Lyta’s telepathic abilities. She becomes stronger than average telepaths, and by the end of the series she reveals that the Vorlons had intended to use her as a doomsday weapon in their war against the Shadows.
I believe that Lyta is a strong character, but unlike Delenn or even Ivanova, she has a negative character arc. At the beginning of the story she starts out “good,” as it were – she’s a good person, she wants to do the right thing, she readily sides with the Army of Light. But through both circumstances and her own poor decisions, her character arc descends from the positive to the negative. By the end, she is hated and feared by her friends, and she herself has become belligerent, distrustful, and a terrorist.
So here is my listing of elements that go into making a strong female character:
Bravery or boldness. Lyta is not a shy person, though she is not always the first one to step into a fight. Her hesitation is rarely out of fear, though. Partly because of her personality, and partly because she’s a telepath, she’s a keen observer of people and situations. Even as she descends into anger and hatred, she thinks and plans before she acts. She is plenty brave, though, when she needs to be, and she never runs from a fight.
Intelligence or creativity. Lyta is the one who figures out that the Shadows can be injured by telepaths. Lyta is the one who thinks outside the box enough to risk merging her mind with a Vorlon to save its life (this is not a normal or safe activity – Lyta is the only human to survive such an encounter). She’s smart enough to not resort to violence as a first line of defense, even after she feels that her friends have betrayed her. Her intelligence is one of the things that, at the end of the story, makes her that much more dangerous.
Faults and weaknesses. This could be the biggest list, perhaps, because of the negative character arc. She’s emotionally volatile, and despite her creativity and intelligence, she is not always wise. She allows bitterness to eventually control her – however justified she might be in feeling that way, based on everything that has been done to her.
Character development. Her character is very developed and every bit as nuanced as all of the other main characters of the series. As I said earlier, character development does not have to be in a positive line going upwards. A character who goes from good to bad can be just as developed – perhaps even more so – than a character who goes from bad to good.
Lyta is a complex person. She wants to do the right thing, is often conflicted about what that “right thing” is, and fights diligently with the Army of Light as the weapon that the Vorlons created her to be. She also has tearful tender moments when she wants to give up, or when she just wants a friend.
Femininity. Lyta is not an exceptionally “feminine” person, but she’s not a male character who’s been written as a female just to gender-balance the main cast. There’s not a lot of time for any of the women characters to be overly feminine in any kind of relaxed atmosphere, since the entire five-season show is a war. However, there are times when Lyta’s tender and even nurturing side come through.
A strong character does not have to be a positive or “good” character. Lyta is a strong female character because of her complexity and her humanness. By the end of the series, the audience is forced to reflect: if I had been through everything that Lyta had been through, might I make many of those same decisions? This is the mark of great writing and a strong character – a character who elicits our sympathy, perhaps our anger, and who makes us think.