A Writer’s Guide to Strong Female Characters

Okay. This post is going to be less about How To and How Not To and more about what a Strong Female Character is, and what a Strong Female Character is not.

“But Mara,” you might be saying, “obviously a strong female character is a female character who is strong. It’s all there in the name—how much is there to discuss?”

Actually quite a bit, as it turns out.

See, “Strong Female Character” is a term that gets thrown around a lot, and there are two main interpretations. Both of them are technically correct, but one of them I like, and one of them I do not. See if you can guess which is which.

Strong Female Character:
A girl who’s tough enough to beat up the guys, doesn’t take crap, and kicks major butt!

Strong Female Character:
A three dimensional character with fleshed-out motivations and emotions who acts and reacts in a way the reader understands, and happens to be female.

If you guessed the second one, you win!

I’m going to pause for a moment here and clarify some things.

Criticizing female characters is hard. Everyone has a bias, no matter how hard they try to be objective, and there’s no way around that. And because the literary canon has, for so long, been dominated by ‘dead white guys,’ people tend to react pretty strongly to stories that deviate from the ‘norm’ of books written about… well… the lives of white guys.

And by ‘react strongly,’ I mean that there are people who will hate a book simply because they cannot identify with a story outside the established patterns of the canon, and there are people who will love a book simply for the promise of diversity.

This makes genuine criticism hard, because there are times when a character is genuinely written poorly, but the latter category of people try to hold them above criticism due to the knee-jerk reactions of the former.

Which… isn’t cool.

I bring this up, because I saw something the other day that mentioned how it’s unfair to criticize female characters for being unlikable, because real people have flaws, and girls shouldn’t have to be pretty and perfect all the time. (I’m paraphrasing.) Basically, as far as I recall, the argument went that readers are more likely to dislike female characters than male characters, because we’ve been conditioned by society to hate on any girl who steps outside the norms of femininity. So if you ain’t Snow White, people won’t like you. And if you are Snow White, you’ll be called a Mary Sue, and people still won’t like you.

On the one hand, I agree, because real people do have flaws, and a character does not have to be ‘perfect’ to be worth reading about. Female characters shouldn’t have to be paragons of virtue and purity. Not to mention the fact that a double standard certainly exists (e.g. a man with a bunch of girlfriends is a ‘player,’ a hero, of sorts—where a woman with a bunch of boyfriends gets called some seriously nasty names and is pretty much completely shunned)—but on the other hand, this legitimate criticism falls apart when it’s used to defend characters who are little more than flat caricatures of humanity.

Basically, what I’m trying to say all boils down to this: bad writing is bad writing—no matter who you’re trying to represent. I can’t speak for everyone, but I personally would rather not have to settle for half-hearted lip-service to a good cause. Representation that only gets awarded points for trying really doesn’t count for much.

Now, let’s get back to the point.

Allow me to reiterate those definitions from earlier:

STRONG FEMALE Character:
A girl who’s tough enough to beat up the guys, doesn’t take crap, and kicks major butt!

STRONG Female CHARACTER:
A three dimensional character with fleshed-out motivations and emotions who acts and reacts in a way the reader understands, and happens to be female.

Note the awkward capitalization, there.

In the first definition, the emphasis is on the fact that you’ve got a girl who is physically strong.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with having a girl who can hold her own in a fight, BUT when the author focuses solely on the powers and butt-kicking strength… You end up with characters who have the emotional depth of a teaspoon. These characters run a high risk of falling into Mary Sue territory, because male or female—someone who only exists for the reader to admire tends to fall short of the mark.

There’s also that unfortunate little detail where these characters… they aren’t the feminist icons they aspire to be, by the simple fact that the characters are still defined in relation to the men in the story. If her dominant trait if that she’s a *gasp* girl, and she’s tough enough to beat up guys, who is she when you take the guys away?

Like—that’s a serious question. What does it leave her with, when her identity is based on the way she interacts with men, and you take away the men?

When the girls are constantly being measured against the guys, when they can’t stand on their own merits as people in their own right—and even worse, when their entire lives revolve around boy-acquisition drama… Your butt-kicking heroine is still as dependent as the simpering princesses she so despises.

That’s not a strong character.

Which leads back to that second definition. The strong character who happens to be female.

This definition of “strong character” doesn’t define strength as “butt-kicking potential,” rather, this definition defines strength as “the way in which the character functions as a believable, complex, independent individual who is able to carry a novel.”

 —NOTE: Nowhere does this definition say a character has to be “likable” or even “sympathetic”—this definition relies purely on the relationship between the character and the text overall.

Let’s bring on the examples. How about another hypothetical high-fantasy?

     —Princess Annie would much rather be learning to shoot a bow and swordfight than attending royal parties like all the other girls her age, but her life changes when she discovers that she’s the bearer of the awesome Power of Light—a gift that allows her to fight with never-before-seen skill.
     On top of that, Prince Jared, the powerfully alluring ruler of the Western Kingdom, has fallen in love with her—and Stephen, Annie’s heroically-handsome bodyguard and childhood friend, insists something is amiss with the foreign prince.
Is there something evil in her kingdom? Or is her Stephen just jealous of her new admirer?

And Again:

   Princess Annie never cared for balls and parties—she much prefers the stillness and focus of archery, and the artistry of swordplay. However, her life changes when she discovers that she is the bearer of the awesome Power of Light—a gift that allows her to fight with never-before-seen skill.
     Not only has her new power taken away the challenge of the art she loves, but it has attracted the attention of Prince Jared, the powerfully alluring ruler of the Western Kingdom. Jared declares his intent to marry her—but Stephen, Annie’s heroically-handsome bodyguard and childhood friend, insists that something is amiss with the foreign prince.
     A marriage would unite the kingdoms, but Stephen might have a point. Does Jared only want her for her power? Or is Stephen just trying to keep her to himself? The fate of the kingdom hangs in the balance.

Okay. So both these examples show the same basic story, but framed in different ways. Assuming that these descriptions are accurate representations of the story and accurately reflect the focus of the narrative, we can see how one would yield a strong female character, and one might fall short of that mark.

The first example—I’ll call it A—is more likely to fail at female empowerment. The second example—B—is more likely to succeed.

Why?

Example A shows that Annie is ‘not like other girls’ because she prefers combat to dancing. This is questionable, because it insinuates that ‘other girls’ are somehow lesser for liking these things, and through that, it insinuates that things classically associated with femininity are also somehow lesser. Rather than showing us what Annie is, it tells us what she is not—putting down other girls instead of actually lifting Annie up.

Example B is better, because it actually tells us about Annie as a person. She enjoys the stillness and focus and artistry of combat—and logically, a person who values those things probably wouldn’t have much fun at an event that’s all about movement and noise and such. It’s not trying to insinuate she’s somehow better than people who like parties—it’s simply giving us an impression of who Annie is as a person.

Example A mentions the Power of Light, then completely fails to mention how it impacts the plot. You could just as easily replace ‘Power of Light’ with ‘mathematic ability’ and it would still make just as much sense. In this case, the power serves as nothing more than another little detail to set Annie apart and make her special.

Example B uses the power to introduce a character-centric conflict—the fact that her power means she can no longer enjoy her hobbies, thus hinting that Annie will have to face conflicts that revolve around her relationship to herself and her power. (This is cool, because it gives her a better shot at a complex inner life.) The use of the Power of Light in this example also serves to set up the conflict for the rest of the story. It makes sense that Jared might want her for her awesome magic power, but it would make less sense if he wanted her for her math skills. (I suppose a story like that is theoretically possible, but that’d be more likely in sci-fi than fantasy… But I digress.)

Example A features a fairly baseless love triangle. Why do these people like her? I dunno. But if it’s love-at-first-sight, there’s a high probability that we’re going to have a problem. (Not to say love-at-first-sight is automatically bad—it can work well, in some stories—but a relationship needs more to it if the reader is supposed to accept it as healthy, desirable, and plausible. Moreover, it has to be more than just an excuse to handwave inconsistencies. But I digress again. Maybe that should be my next post…)

Example B ensures that the love triangle is more than just ‘two hot guys think she’s pretty’—Jared might love her, he might just be in love with her power, or he might only want to use her for her power. Stephen might love her, he might just be possessive and jealous, or he might genuinely want nothing more than her safety for the good of the kingdom. This suggests that the story deals with the choice as more than a simple matter of “Do I like blonds or brunettes?”

Example A shows Annie as facing a choice between men, and nothing more. The most important thing in her world is the choice between Jared and Stephen. That’s it. Her boyfriend is all that matters. Her entire life revolves around her man. Yet somehow, because she likes swords more than dresses, we’re supposed to see this as somehow empowering women.
…I don’t get it, either.

Example B has higher stakes. Plain and simple. The love triangle is still a vital aspect, but it’s not everything—because we also have to worry about what will happen to the kingdom. She’s not just choosing her ideal beau, she’s also trying to deal with the real responsibility of doing what’s best for her people. And the tone of the example suggests that both guys could be controlling jerks—in which case, Annie has to deal with maintaining her autonomy and independence in the face of manipulation. Personally, I find that a story about that conflict much more compelling AND empowering.

In Summary: 

  • A strong female character IS NOT just a girl with a weapon and an attitude
  • A strong female character IS NOT just a girl with ‘masculine’ interests and attributes
  • A strong female character IS NOT automatically a Mary Sue.
  • A strong female character DOES NOT have to be likable
  • A strong female character IS a well-written character who:
    • has a complex internal life
    • can function on her own, without constantly being compared to/influenced by men
    • can function on her own, without constantly being compared to/influenced by other women
    • is able to make independent decisions about her own life
    • is able to move the plot forward through her own actions
  • However, a strong female character does not make a book automatically good. Nothing makes a book automatically good, except… being good.

-Female characters deserve and require the same degree of depth and characterization as male characters, and Strong Female Characters are fictional women who reflect this and are treated with the same respect as any other character within the narrative.

That’s it.

For one final example:

A GOOD strong female character is Hermione, from the Harry Potter books. She is smart, independent, and very much in charge of herself and her own life.

A POOR ‘strong female character’ is Bella Swan, from the Twilight books. She is bland, codependent, and her life revolves around the men she interacts with.

Question:
Who’s your favorite Strong Female Character? Why?
What about ‘Strong Female Characters’ who don’t live up to that hype?

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