Friday, January 17, 2014

Writing Strong Female Characters

In our feminist society, it’s easy to believe that women are only portrayed as strong in media if they can fight just as well as the men can. But that’s a lie. I don’t believe that women are misrepresented in stories, but I really don’t have a wide-enough knowledge of pop culture to expand on that.  The
Courtesy of Pixabay
fact of the matter, though, is that women and men are different. Thus, they should be portrayed differently.

In my opinion, the best way to make a female character strong is to make her real. The housewife who cares for an adoring husband and five children can be just as strong as the female colonel in the Army who fought her way through the ranks. Our job as writers is to make them both real to our readers.

I love both Arwen and Eowyn in Lord of the Rings. Each is a princess of her people, and each woman shows strength in her own way. Arwen chooses mortality, going against her father’s fears, to stand by the man she loves. Eowyn literally does battle to save her people. They each make difficult choices for what they believe in – for Arwen, it’s love, for Eowyn, freedom. Thus, my first thought on creating strong female characters:
  • Give her something to believe in. In my book, Raiders’ Rise, Zana believes in her family and in the necessity of saving them. She has a purpose. Give your female characters a goal and a mission (not always the same thing), and you will develop the first layer in a strong woman.
I also admire Elisa Lindheim in The Zion Covenant series by Bodie and Brock Thoene. If you haven’t read them, investigate the series. They’re complicated books, but I love them. Elisa is a half-Jewish violinist in 1930’s Europe, facing the threat of Hitler. I could have just as easily used her for my “Something to believe in” example, but I chose to let her represent femininity:
  • Let her act like a woman. One of my biggest problems with female characters created as a nod to feminism is that they are often portrayed as overly gruff, stern, non-feminine versions of their male counterparts. One of the biggest strengths of women is their emotion. It’s also our greatest weakness, but that’s how most people’s traits go. Our emotional fabric is very different from that of men, and it gives us unique abilities. So it always feels wrong to me to see women like that. Are they out there? Yes. But it’s not the norm. Woman are emotional. That’s just how we were created. Elisa Lindheim is a beautiful cauldron of emotions, torn in several different directions. Her strength comes by channeling those feelings. And she’s feminine. She wears dresses and heels. She loves romance. At times, she’s incredibly sweet and soft. But you can’t doubt her strength. Celebrate your female character’s femininity, even if it’s only minimal. Don’t destroy it; used correctly, it will make her a better creation.
I’m going to go with my own character, Zana, for this next one. She’s a princess of Meristos, used to privilege. She doesn’t know what it’s like to truly suffer. Others do the heavy lifting for her usually. But she surprises even herself on this journey.
  • Give her a rescuer, but let her come to the rescue as well. It’s bogus to say that a strong female character should always be able to rescue herself. Sometimes things just get out of control, and we’re faced with the fact that we can’t do everything on our own. That’s a real thing, and thus you should portray it. It’s not wrong for her to be protected by someone – it can be incredibly poignant. But that doesn’t mean she can’t do some rescuing, too, both of herself and of others. Zana performs both roles – rescued and rescuer. She’s not a visible tower of strength, and she doesn’t flaunt what she does. But she isn’t helpless either. Don’t make your females completely helpless; if you do, any illusion of strength will disappear.
Most of what I’ve talked about already could apply to both male and female characters. But now I want to focus on those women who do fill a traditionally male role. Natasha Romanov, also known as the Black Widow, has appeared in two Marvel movies so far, Iron Man 2 and The Avengers. She will also play a role in the upcoming film Captain America: The Winter Soldier. She is a former assassin-turned S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who could be considered the epitome of strength. She takes on bad guys without blinking and holds some impressive skills. But that’s not all there is to her. In Iron Man 2, she acts as a personal assistant. When The Avengers roles around, we find that she has a deeply personal history with Hawkeye. We see a vulnerability, a realness, to Natasha Romanov. And that’s the key. If you choose to give your female character a tough façade, make sure that’s not the only element to her personality.

There are lots of other things that could be said about character development in general, but those will have to wait for another time. Female characters are strong when you make them real. Strive to be genuine and the readers will believe you.

How do you make your female characters unique and strong?


  1. Like this!
    To make them unique and strong? I try to give them a sense of humour and resilience! :)

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for commenting! Ooh, humor and resilience? Excellent traits! And resilience certainly shows strength. :)

  2. I agree with you. :)

    I've also noticed that popular culture tends to portray "strong" female characters as always being harsh and even angry. They're always so severe with their male companions, especially in action-oriented stories.
    The explanation for this is usually that it was hard for them to work their way up to where they are, because of their feminine nature, and that struggle has made them hard.

    But I personally don't care for that bitter, competitive nature. I think it's much better to make your character understandig and patient, but also not too golden. Let them have their flaws and their tempers, but only in moderation with good, normal qualities. :)
    Peggy Carter is a fairly good example of this in Captain America: The First Aveger. She's strict and no-nonsense, but she's also very caring and gentle. :D

    1. Yes! Peggy Carter is an awesome example! I thought of her while I was writing this, actually. But your are very right. Hardness often turns me off from a character, and most women just aren't like that. Thanks for reading and commenting!


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