When I think of my favorite “strong” female characters, I think of Hermione Granger, Annabeth Chase, Agent Peggy Carter, Wonder Woman, Katniss Everdeen, Tris Prior, Emma Swan, Eleven, Hazel Grace Lancaster, and Elizabeth Bennett. We know when we read about/see one, but knowing what defines a strong female character is difficult because strength is such a subjective term. Ask someone else, and they may think my list is poppycock. And that’s okay.
A lot of people have weighed in on this topic, but I want to offer an alternate perspective. First, let’s define strength. I firmly believe that strength is not the absence of weakness, but the overcoming of weakness. Therefore a “strong” female character is not one who has no weaknesses, but one who either conquers them or turns them into assets by the end of her story.Strength is not the absence of weakness, but the overcoming of it. A strong female character… Click To Tweet
That being said, there are some keys to creating strong female characters that I have learned and employed throughout my years of writing female protagonists.
The Do’s of Strong Female Characters
- Make her human. No, not like physically human! She can be a wizard, alien, goddess, mermaid, or any other mythological being. That’s not the kind of human I’m talking about. What I mean is, she has to possess some element of humanity: empathy, compassion, fear, anger, sadness, loss. To be human is to be flawed. So embrace a female character with flaws. She’ll be more relatable to your female readers for it.
- Make her kind. Many people believe that to be strong is to show no mercy, to strike first, to be cruel and bitingly sarcastic so as to appear unbreakable. I used to think that was what made one strong, but it doesn’t. Hardening oneself and appearing unbreakable is much easier than being kind to those who hurt you, than being vulnerable with others while fully knowing they could hurt you. She doesn’t necessarily have to be kind to everyone, but kindness does not equal weakness. Kindness is its own kind of strength.
- Let her break. “A strong woman never shows weakness.” I thought this, too, once. But there are time when, as a human, one cannot help it: we cry. We lose. We break down. We can’t do it anymore. The path to a fuller, richer character is one strewn with failures and breakdowns. So let your strong female character cry. It’s okay! Crying is not a sign of weakness! If someone she loves dies, she should cry. If she does everything in her power to make something happen but ultimately fails, she should cry. Crying is a natural part of being human. It means she’s alive. Sure, it doesn’t have to be out in the open – a few stray tears in secret is enough.
- Make her active. A strong female character is one who does not just “let things happen” to her. She is not one who sits on the sidelines while the world passes her by, hoping that something happens to launch her somewhere interesting. No! She should have a choice and make decisions. She should go out and seek what she is looking for. She should be a catalyst or a participant, not a bystander.
- Let her push herself. The essence of strength lies in overcoming areas of weakness. Though she should have weaknesses and encounter hardships, it is vital that she ultimately chooses to push back against them. If she gets knocked down, she should get back up. If she fails, she should try again. If something seems too big or scary for her to go up against, she should attempt it anyway. Think the “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” montage from Mulan. Let her rise to the occasion and continue working towards her goal.
- Let her grow. Something I love about strong female characters is that their strength develops over time. I actually think it’s better to start out with a “weak” (again, relative term) character and have her grow in strength throughout her story. For example, in my current work-in-progress All That is Gold Does Not Glitter, my female protagonist starts out as a very angry, broken, depressed person. She is so tired of feeling weak and vulnerable (because of bullying and sexual assault) that she decides to harden herself and be unbreakable, almost inhuman. However, as a human, she can’t deny the anger and sadness she still feels when people reject her or when she fails after trying her hardest. By the end of the story she learns that her key to strength is not the absence of weakness, nor making herself impenetrable, but instead loving herself even when no one else will; recognizing her worth even when no one else does; and doing the right thing, even if it makes her look “weak”. This is strength.
Now for some Don’t’s:
- Don’t make her flawless or perfect.
- Don’t make her the most drop-dead gorgeous, beautiful, boys-drooling-over-her female character in the story.
- Don’t make her a man-hater.
- Or a woman-hater.
- Don’t make her emotionless.
- But don’t make her a milquetoast, either.
- She doesn’t have to “be a man”.*
- Don’t make her one-dimensional, superficial, or stereotypical. She should have deep thoughts and care about real issues.
- Her life should not revolve around her boyfriend. (Looking at you, Bella Swan.) She should have some emotional independence.
- She doesn’t have to have any set career or place in society to be considered “strong”. Whether she’s a lawyer, a doctor, a soldier, a waitress, a fashion designer, or a stay-at-home mom, as long as she’s doing what she loves (or doing what she must), she is a strong female.
- There is no “ideal” woman, so don’t feel that you have to make your strong female character look a certain way, have certain talents, have certain personality traits, be in a certain social standing, etc. A strong female character can be any woman: an artsy single mother of three; a dyslexic, unathletic middle school girl; a Marine Corps officer; a snappy forty-something CEO.
*Let’s talk about this “be a man” concept for a second. The culturally normative character traits associated with masculinity include athleticism, toughness, emotionlessness, detachment, confidence, physical strength, bravery, daring, cunning, and leadership. And femininity, according to culturally normative associations, is the opposite. This is not true. Your female character can be every bit as tough (or tougher) than any male character. However, that does not mean that in order for your female character to be strong, she has to possess these character traits. She does not have to be athletic or have overpowering physical strength to be a strong character. Physical strength is entirely different than, and is separate from, strength of character. She can enjoy doing “typically feminine” things like painting nails, styling hair, or shopping and still be a strong female character. She doesn’t have to play football or join the army to be considered a strong female. (Disclaimer: That being said, the protagonists I write about tend to be tomboys because of my own personal experience as a lifelong tomboy.)
Well, that’s all I got. What about you? What do you think qualifies a female character as “strong”? Are there any do’s or don’ts that I missed? Let me know in the comments, and let’s get the conversation rolling.
Like what you read? Let’s get this post viral! Share it on social media. (Pin that↓)