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.
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…
…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.