On Writing Strong Female Characters (Make Them Human)

harkavagrant

Couldn’t resist. Copyright Kate Beaton at Hark! A Vagrant.

I have a lot of thoughts about how to write strong female characters, but first I wanted to address the idea of “strong.” For female characters, strength tends to be equated with physical prowess. Think of “strong female characters”, and most people will immediately list the Buffys and the Xenas, because they are warrior women with superior fighting skills. But in creating strong female characters, it’s also important to look beyond the physical. The Sansa Starks of fiction are not any less strong than the Arya Starks just because they can’t pick up a sword and slay their enemies. There are the Felicity Smoaks of the world who find strength in their intelligence, and the Cersei Lannisters who use manipulation and cunning to drive their enemies to their knees.

To quote Neil Gaiman on this subject:

The glory of Buffy is it was filled with strong women. Only one of those strong women had supernatural strength and an awful lot of sharpened stakes. And people sort of go ‘Well yes, of course Buffywas a strong woman. She could kick her way through a door.’ And you go ‘No, well that’s not actually what makes her a strong woman! You’re missing the point.’

 

By defining “strength” as physical, people are pigeonholing the roles of women in fiction. Real women are not limited to “strong ladies” and “everyone else who can’t fight.”  All women are different, because all humans are different. In fiction, we should be celebrating differences in women. We should be celebrating creating realistic, diverse characters.

One of my favourite female characters is Mako Mori from the movie Pacific Rim.

mako_mori

While Pacific Rim has been the subject of a lot of feminist debate, Mako Mori is a great example of a well-realized female protagonist whose entire character arc is separate from supporting the main male character’s story. She’s a character whose Japanese upbringing shapes her personality but does not define her; she’s a loyal friend; she’s respectful; she’s a survivor whose PTSD is something she shares with the male protagonist, Raleigh Becket, and she is forced to overcome it in order to help save the world.

She’s not strong just because she’s great with the quarterstaff…

DF-05678.DNG

…she’s strong because she’s sensitive, intelligent, but she is also a rookie to helming a Jaeger and makes her first mistake when she “drifts” (connects minds) with Raleigh. His PTSD triggers her own and she is drawn into the memory of watching her parents die during the destruction of Tokyo. It is a great example of hero/heroine sharing weaknesses and also sharing strengths. They are drift compatible because they are equal, and they are also equally vulnerable to the effects of their pasts.

Characters like Mako Mori are strong ladies because their humanity — their realness, including their vulnerabilities — is emphasized over badassery. Just like how Katniss Everdeen is not “strong” or “badass” because the bow and arrow she carries makes her so, she is both because she shows compassion in the face of adversity (her friendship with Rue during the Games), and because she is a survivor, and yet her survival does not come without a mental cost — because Katniss is human first.

Physical prowess should not solely define a “strong female character.” Women have many types of strength.  Indeed, characters are strong when they are strongly written and fully realized. And I think the most important thing when writing any female character isn’t necessarily “how can I make her strong?” It should be: “How can I make her feel real?” Women are people, so write female characters as human beings first. A character’s strength comes from what they do and how they act; it is a combination of all their other characteristics, including their weaknesses.

Write a realistic, human character who just happens to be a woman. Strength will follow.

 

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176 thoughts on “On Writing Strong Female Characters (Make Them Human)

  1. Loewe Chan says:

    Nice read! I especially like the term “badassery”.

  2. alicejblack says:

    You brought up a lot of great points here. I agree that the strength of a female character is often seem in terms of physical power but I wouldn’t say that it’s necessarily the strongest a woman can be when she’s kicking ass!

  3. So sick of the boot-kicking character….much prefer the character who doesn’t buckle under pressure. God knows there’s many role models out there – we need to give them a stage, or a story!

  4. Wonderful to read my own thoughts echoed. Women should be shown as empowered through their femaleness not despite it.

  5. Reblogged this on josiecortez777's Blog and commented:
    Rethinking strength!

  6. Roe Malan says:

    I battle to write female characters because I want to keep them balanced. I think your post has clarified a few things for me though, thank you so much

  7. I will admit that my knee-jerk reaction to the title (preview version) was to be annoyed. I’m glad I popped in and read the full post because you nailed it. Thank you. I think there are few things that irritate me more in a description of a female character as she was a strong character and the only basis of that supposed strength is her (in my experience) weakly defined badassery. So thank you for this post. The FP is well deserved.

  8. Perfectly put. I think we need to rewire our brains to rethink things when it comes to how we see gender in general. Why is a “strong female lead” so wonderful…it should be common and natural.

  9. […] characters. Specifically creating strong female characters or characters of color (there was a great Freshly Pressed post that talked about this with female characters). When you get down to the bottom of it all, the […]

  10. saraannon says:

    I thought I was just being snarky when I was feeling fed up with good looking smart fit competent fictional women being typecast as villianesses. Until I ran across a real-world US military recruiting policy that said that women in recruiting posters should not be too good looking, smart, fit, etc because it gave people the wrong idea?!
    Most of the above fiction is written by women, so it seems like we have a long way to go… Personally I vote for complexity in characterization as in life, period.

  11. Very well said and I wholeheartedly agree. Strong should be better defined as a characteristic of their will and personality not one of physical prowess. I feel it goes for male characters as well.

  12. Reblogged this on Sosyalsiginti's Blog and commented:
    Like the comment about Katness

  13. bigdave1583 says:

    OMG!! You are so right!! I’m happy that there are strong female characters in movies, TV, and video games I just wish there were more Hollywood needs to wake up.

  14. What a great article! You’ve raised some really important issues. Thank you for posting this.

  15. Theophania says:

    Oh, yes!

    And it’s so disappointing to come across a female character who initially seems to be strong (in ability to kick serious ass), but then you realise spends most of the book worrying about how she can’t find/keep a man… I’d trade ass-kicking for a female character with confidence in herself any day.

  16. I encourage these great reads, in depth synopsis of varied strengths owned by women explore the possibilities.

  17. […] last I posted, some fifty days ago, it was to comment on and share a discussion from Corsets, Cutlasses & Candlesticks about strong female characters. The presenter of this discussion quite hit the nail on the head […]

  18. Julian says:

    LOVE this. I always try to find better ways to make my women characters stand out!

  19. kyabola says:

    Reblogged this on Wet Windows and commented:
    Something I’ve thought about a lot, recently. This post was a godsend 🙂

  20. […] On Writing Strong Female Characters (Make Them Human … […]

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