Your Female Characters Need to be More than Strong

August 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

Rosie-the-RiveterI like fiction with strong female characters. The novel I’m writing has a few strong women in it. The novels I like to read and the TV shows I like to watch have strong female characters in them. And, thankfully, there are more and more stories featuring strong female characters lately.

This is a good thing, a necessary thing.

But when your Strong Female Character’s only notable trait is her strength, you’ve committed the rookie mistake of writing a one-dimensional character.

Sophie McDougall wrote an excellent article called I hate Strong Female Characters, and it’s well worth reading:

Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius. Female characters get to be Strong.

It’s a thought-provoking article, and towards the end I realized that in the rush to write the strong female characters that readers and viewers are demanding, writers often forget that these characters are also human beings. Sure, they’re strong when they need to be, but they also have needs and desires and flaws.


Zoe, from Firefly

Two of my favorite strong female characters are Inara and Zoe, from the tragically cancelled television show Firefly. Zoe is a hard-fighting, gun-toting, steely-eyed badass … who is madly in love with her husband and wants to have a baby with him someday. She’s a stone-cold killer when faced with a threat, but off-duty, she laughs and cries and fights and makes love with her goofy spouse, Wash.

Inara is, in many ways, Zoe’s foil. Although Inara presents herself as very feminine, she is just as strong as Zoe, but in different ways. Where Zoe tends to meet threats with violence, Inara meets threats with diplomacy; her profession as an elite prostitute demands it, and has trained her for it. She is well-mannered, she is soft-spoken, and yet she is always in control. When a bullying dictator barges into her shuttle, she calmly and politely—yet forcefully—kicks him out. Inara does know how to fight; at various points throughout the series, we learn that she knows martial arts, fencing, and how to handle a gun. Those aren’t the source of her strength, however; violence, for Inara, is a last resort. 


Inara, from Firefly

Inara’s strength stems from her intelligence and her allure, and in those respects, she is very strong indeed. And yet, she makes mistakes, and she sobs over a man at one point, and is stung by the barbs of her clients on occasion (no, that’s not a pun).

Both Zoe and Inara are strong, in different ways, but they each have their weaknesses and needs and desires. Those traits don’t detract from their strength; it just makes them seem more real, and therefore easier for us to relate to.

That brings up another point McDougall makes in her article: “Strong Female Characters” shouldn’t get away with behavior that would be instantly bashed if the character were male. She cites a scene from Captain America as an example of what she means:

Later she [Peggy] discovers Captain America being kissed by the only other woman with a speaking part in the film, who has no other role except to kiss Captain America. She outwardly maintains her composure until Captain America is handling his iconic shield for the first time, and its perhaps-impenetrable qualities are briefly discussed as well as the fact that it’s just a prototype. Peggy suddenly fires off several shots at Captain America, so that he must raise the shield (which does, thankfully, stop bullets) to avoid being killed … [this action] when considered without the haha-what-a-little-spitfire framing of the film, becomes outrageous. Shooting a gun, without warning, at your love interest who has a shield you do not yet know can stop bullets (and what about ricochets?!), because you’re jealous? Or for any reason at all? What the hell, Peggy?

I have to admit, I laughed when I first saw that scene. But McDougall’s right, and if you gender-flip the scene, it’s pretty obviously an insane thing to do. A man firing a gun at a woman cowering behind a shield would seem like a psychopath, not a “strong character.”

So when you write a strong female character (or any character, for that matter), don’t forget that she’s more than just strong, and don’t have her doing dumb things just because you think it makes her seem strong. Find out what her dreams are, what terrifies her, what makes her weak in the knees, what is missing from her life, and what she’s doing—either consciously or subconsciously—to fill that void.

Make her strong, but also make her human.


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