What Makes a Strong Female Character—It’s Not What You Think

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I feel privileged to be alive in a time that’s seen such empowerment for women. Though we still have a long way to go toward equality and mutual respect along gender lines, we’ve made great strides in the last decades. And I think the trend in YA fiction toward kick-ass heroines like Katniss (The Hunger Games trilogy) and Tris (Divergent series) is mostly positive in creating role models for a younger readership. But the longer the trend drags on, I wonder if we’re missing the point a bit. Katniss and Tris definitely are awesome and admirable, but it’s not their sheer physical prowess that makes each the heroine of her story, it’s something a bit more nuanced. It’s important that we’re writing characters with intentionality. Writing solely to fit expectations or trends of the market might sell books, but does it give readers characters they can identify with, look up to, and see themselves in?

So, if it’s not pure physical ability that makes Katniss and Tris heroines, what is it? I think the key is that they rise to meet the challenges of their environment. Theirs are stories of survival in a harsh world in which only the physically strong survive. But what else makes a woman strong, noble, and heroic? What other challenges do women and girls face in less brutal fictional worlds?

Timeless trends

I’m thinking of Jane Austen’s heroines. Every one of her leading ladies—each in her own way—relies on her intuition, intellect, and personal values to guide her in a world of rigid and often crushing social expectations. In a time when a woman needed to marry well for security and social approval, Austen’s heroines marry for love. And apart from their romantic ambitions, these women are navigating complicated social relationships, sometimes failing before they learn some of the most important lessons of the story, of their lives. Austen’s heroines never face situations that require them to wield a weapon, but the stakes are still high. On this front, Austen’s values about feminine strength, wisdom, and agency still apply today, over two hundred years later!

Contemporary voices

Rainbow Rowell stands out for me as a contemporary author who’s writing authentic female heroines. Her protagonists are nuanced and unique, and they give a voice to often-underrepresented demographics—plus-size, low-income, and fangirl, just to name a few. Rowell writes complex romantic relationships for her characters, which come with their own challenges. But it’s the way these girls are navigating the other struggles in their lives that I so admire. Eleanor of Eleanor & Park is worried about the bruises on her mom’s face and is so accustomed to her stepdad’s yelling that she’s learned to sleep through it. Eleanor is a social outcast because of her weight, her clothes, and her unlikely interests. Cath of Fangirl struggles with social anxiety, her twin sister pulling away from her during their freshman year in college, the fact that her mother abandoned them years earlier, and the looming threat of her dad’s psychotic break. Their bravery, their sense of self, the inner strength they draw on to survive their trials and move forward in hope inspire readers long past the last line of their stories.

And what about John Green’s Hazel Grace Lancaster of The Fault in Our Stars? Tasha Robinson writes about the film version, but the sentiment applies here too,

“The most promising signpost in recent years is the massive financial success of The Fault in Our Stars … with no supernatural elements, no kung-fu or exotic weaponry or overbearing authoritarian dystopian regime, no paint-by-numbers love triangle, and no vampires. Stars offers up a teenage-girl protagonist dealing with the effects of a long bout of cancer and chemo, and navigating the first delicate steps of a young love that can’t last long enough to become a mature love … [Hazel Grace Lancaster’s] dominance at the box office bodes well for a new wave of screen stories about women who don’t have to physically kick asses to be interesting.”

Everyday heroines

So, these are only three of many examples of how to write a compelling heroine who doesn’t have to wield a sword. But how can you apply the lesson to your own writing and shake off the pressures of market trends? Well, I’d say go deep. Identify your heroine’s genuine strengths. What is she deeply afraid of and how and when does she face those fears? What are the struggles of her environment (cultural, familial, social, physical, etc.) and how does she overcome them? The point is, it doesn’t have to be fighting a dystopian regime to show strength. It’s the reserves of our inner strength that sometimes demand the most, the best of us. And those literary friends who get us, who show us the way, who offer us solidarity are our true heroes and heroines.

I don’t mean to knock those awesome kick-ass leading ladies—there’s something so feel-good and inspiring about their stories. And it’s important and empowering to see women exert their physical strength. But this isn’t the only way that women and girls are strong in the world or in their own private lives. So, in the case of art mirroring life, few of us actually need to fire a gun, shoot a bow, or take out an assassin on a daily basis. Our battles are those of the heart and the mind and the will; we struggle in the home, the boardroom, the classroom, or—if you’re like me—to get the kids through bedtime! So, yeah, I cheer for the kick-ass female protagonist, but my most beloved heroines are the ones who show me the way of inner strength in the face of trials.

How about you? Which heroines do you most admire and why? How do you navigate the pressure to cater to market trends?


9 thoughts on “What Makes a Strong Female Character—It’s Not What You Think”

  1. Batmansbesfriend

    I’m currently proofreading what is currently a 706 page book that I wrote over the last year. I say currently because as I proofread, and realize that many of the longer paragraphs need to be split in two sometimes three, the page number grows, slowly and be grudgingly, but surely, lol.

    Anyway, I realized about half way through that the book could be subtitled (and if it was so, it would be only as a joke): (book title), or the complete objectification of women. But, as I rethink the book (mentally go through what I have written without changing anything) I realize that even the simplest of characters that have more to do with the plot than simply existing as background props have whatever depth that makes sense for their amount of existence within the story. This includes women as well. If a women exists in one scene, and only one scene, as more of a prop (story device) than a human being, I still throw in something about her past (even if it’s half a sentence).

    I cannot mention the existence of a person without mentioning something about them, even if it’s only to mention that the one line of dialogue they spoke was done so with whatever emotion they did. When I do this I make sure it’s noted, even if insignificantly, that it’s intrinsic of their person (you can glean a general understanding of them in a veague way based upon how they spoke that single line).

    The world my book is set in is heavily influenced by film noir from the 1940s. Everything is dark, to varying degrees, and cynnical (more or less). I do however like to have redeeming qualies hidden underneath, but the basic feel of the novel is that everythnig is the way that it is and no other…if that makes sense. Anyway, there’s a fair amounft of description of night scenes. The main character goes to sleep and a brief description of the night takes place, then the next scene is morning. The descriptions of night include poeticized prose passages about the “underbelly” of the city. Usually it’s descriptions of women of the night leaning into car windows…hint, hint. But even these women I give some substance to. I never just say that they’re whores and leave it at that. I insinuate they’re doing what they do in order to survive in a world that left them with no other option. I make them as much human beings as I can within the few words I devote to them.

    Strong female characters, not that all the females characters I write are, don’t require vast amounts of rounding out to be strong, or just “not weak”. What they do require, however, is something above and beyond just being props. Give them something, anything, that suggests they have a life outside the here and now (the scene) in which they are…even if it’s half a sentence. Make the reader believe that they’re real people with real lives. It doesn’t require a character to be anything more than a background character for them to feel alive. You don’t have to spend an entire chapter expositing about their past life, their favorite tv show, or their relationship with their parents, to make them feel like if you got to know them more they’d have substance. Do they have kids? Do we care? Probably not. However, you could simply mention the shirt they’re wearing is their favorite…”…as she noticed the stain on her favorite blue shirt.” or, if it’s a waitress in a diner (and there are a few in my book, at various points) you could simply have a song play obverhead and mention that her stone face becomes what almost looks like a smile as she walks with an extra half step for the duration of the song. If you mention something about the song…well, you get the idea. It’s something…something more than nothing. Don’t just describe her eyes, her legs, her hair, and leave it at that. Some of the women in my books I don’t even do that. They could be mole women for all you know, but the point of their existence isn’t to make your pants grow tight (lol)…their existenmce is to function as a normal believable part of the world in which the main charactyer exists (waitress, bank teller, police woman, etc.) Unless, of course objectification of the feminine is the entire point of the character’s existence (but then you cannot call her a strong character…and I might argue the quality of your writing).

    1. I think you’re so right about strong women being nuanced characters. I find I’m most drawn into a book when I feel the characters taking on a life of their own–as you said, “they have a life outside the here and now.”


  2. I’m so thrilled to read about woman’s strength, what it is or not.
    I always wondered what was so good about women taking over the world, when all they do is copy the men. I truly felt disgusted, seeing them act like men and the lower the thinking the worse the shock.
    Thank you so much for your support in my idea about women who are nurturing and need to keep the motherhood or we are destined for a total collapse of this world as a whole. Why was the creation of a male and a female, to fight each other? I doubt that very much. I am not putting words int what you mentioned in the blog, I know you were more diplomatic in this.

    1. Hi Annamarie,

      Thanks for your comment! I agree that there are so many ways that women find empowerment. As you say, a woman doesn’t have to “copy the men” to embrace her power and live a meaningful life of her choosing. Whatever a woman’s role, it’s that sense of inner strength, purpose, and autonomy that resonates with readers.


  3. Exactly. The omnipotent heroines like Marvel and Rey are boring because they master everything easily. A hero/heroine needs to be afraid, and weak, and overcome those fears, grow to be strong and best villains or challenges that seem insurmountable.

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