What Makes a Strong Female Character?

Why is it so hard to write a strong female character? This came up in conversation at a recent writers event I attended.

Someone offered the advice (and I’m paraphrasing), “If you write the character and it would work just as well as a man, then you’ve got it.” I don’t want to slight the person who said it, because I’ve heard many people say the same. On the surface, this sounds fine, because hasn’t the whole argument in the Battle of the Sexes been for equality? Only, I think this advice sells women short. Going by that advice, you’re defining a strong woman based on how much she acts like a man.

Angelina Jolie in Salt

Angelina Jolie in Salt

Personally, I don’t have a problem with bad ass, gun-totin’ action ladies. Angelina Jolie comes to mind as a prime example. Unfortunately, I think it’s become a bit of an American cliché that for a female character to be strong, she has to kick butt and take names later.

Think about that for a minute. Do we really want to say a woman’s (or a man’s) strength is determined by how violent she is? I don’t know about you, but that sounds awful.

Part of what opened my eyes to this discrepancy was the TV series Broadchurch. My wife and I tuned into the BBC drama mainly because the cast included David Tennant, the incredible tenth Doctor from Doctor Who. As we watched, I realized the women in the cast really stood out. None of them fell within the American stereoype of a strong character, and the show had a wide range of women: the mother who loses a child, a police officer, a mistress, an ambitious reporter, and more. Every one of them was strong and interesting.

So what ties these different characters together that makes each one strong? I’d argue each of them knew what they wanted and made a conscious decision to get it. That doesn’t mean they went all Godzilla and trampled anyone in their path, but they didn’t wait for others to do it for them either.

Andrew Buchan and Jodie Whittaker in Broadchurch

Andrew Buchan and Jodie Whittaker
in Broadchurch

In the first season, Beth Latimer (played by Jodie Whittaker) learns her 11-year-old son has been murdered and her husband has been having an affair. Beth wants the suburban dream but loses all of it. She doesn’t wait for others to put her life back in order. Instead, she acts to make things change, but when her husband comes to her with a way to get their marriage back on track, she doesn’t kick him to the curb. She considers what he’s suggesting, decides it makes sense and chooses to work with him to fix their lives. It was stunning to see a female character whose suburban ambitions, on the surface, are the antithesis of what we expect from a strong woman, and yet she was a very strong character.

I was originally going to post this tomorrow, but after seeing a recent article on PolicyMic by Julianne Ross on Why Sansa Stark Is the Strongest Character on “Game of Thrones,” I decided it made sense to let this post go live a day early to join the discussion.

So now it’s your turn to join the conversation. Which female characters stand out in your favorite books or films? And if you think I’m way off the mark or missing an important detail, then post your reply.

In the end, I believe a strong female character doesn’t sit in a bar having a martini or a shot of whiskey and whining about how she’s been done wrong. Strong women simply decide what they want and then get shit done.

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About Bill Blume

Bill Blume discovered his love for the written word while in high school and has been writing ever since. His latest book Gidion's Blood is being released on August 11th by Diversion Books. His short stories have been in many fantasy anthologies and various ezines. Just like the father figure in his first novel, Bill works as a 911 dispatcher for Henrico County Police and has done so for more than a decade. He also served as the 2013 chair for James River Writers in Richmond, which produces one of the nation’s best annual conferences for educating and connecting writers.
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5 Responses to What Makes a Strong Female Character?

  1. Great post! Not only do I agree with your points, but I appreciate hearing these points coming from a man. It’s sad that in today’s Hollywoodized culture we equate strength with violence, no matter the gender.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Margarita Gakis says:

    hooo boy, I have a lot of feelings on this and I’m not even sure where to begin! I’m going to try to sort out the mess in my brain and make a few notes.
    1. I find a lot of problems with strong female characters is that our media’s definition of ‘strong’ tends to be a very masculine one. So to make a female character strong, it tends to mean that we defeminize her and make her more like a man. As a society, we tend to classify traditionally female characteristics as ‘weak’ so when we want to make our heroines ‘strong’ we cull those characteristics out. But then, aren’t we missing out on a whole representation of women? She can’t cry, she can’t like makeup, she can’t care about her appearance, she can’t like to knit, she can’t want to be a mother, she can’t be kind….. All these things that may generally be ascribed to woman must be culled out from heroines before they can be considered strong. and that’s not right.
    2. The Mary Sue Phenomenon – I also find that women may be the strongest obstacle against strong females. If you have a strong female, she sometimes gets quantified as a Mary Sue – an author self insert. We generally DON’T see this happening with men. And, in MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE [I don’t want to generalize too much here], it’s other woman that can be the hardest on female characters. Why? I’m still figuring this one out and I’ll let you know when I do! Are we jealous? Are we angry? I’m not sure.
    3. The Pigeon Hole Characterization – I have found in a lot of cases when I read what ‘should’ be a strong heroine, she tends to fall into a VERY SPECIFIC characterization – she must be tough, funny, and take no shit. All things I REALLY ENJOY. But then, I don’t get to see anything else about her. Again, it seems like there only seems to be ONE kind of strong heroine and if you don’t fall into that pigeon hole, it doesn’t count. I guess I want more diversity with my female heroes and I’m not sure how to get it?
    4. Imma put her up by putting other ladies down! – We’ve ALL Read this. In first person POV, it’s when the heroine says “I’m not like the OTHER girls” – thereby implying that there’s something WRONG with the other girls and all the things they do, and our heroine should stand out because she’s different. In third person POV it shows up as “She wasn’t some simpering female. She wouldn’t cry like other women.” I worked REALLY Hard not to put ANY of these lines in my book. Jade doesn’t get her strength by comparing her to other females and having them fall short, thereby making her seem ‘stronger.’. It’s a disservice to ALL THE OTHER WOMEN out there.

    There’s a post that goes around on tumblr and it says something like “Screw writing strong women – just write women” – and I agree with that! By putting the qualifier down that you want to write ‘strong women’ you end up pre-defining your heroine. I’m not sure I’m saying this right. what I mean is, decide what you want from your character and then write her. When I write men, I don’t’ sit down and say “I’m going to write a strong man!” – I say, Here is Paris [my hero in my book] – he’s a leader, he’s circumspect. He’s thoughtful. Okay, now I’m going to write him. I don’t have to put the qualifier of ‘strong’ on him. and I try to do the same with my female characters. Here is Jade. She’s a little emotionally stunted, she wants to belong, she’s been hurt in the past. What does that look like? How does that ‘feel’ and ‘act’? and then, hopefully, what comes out is a well rounded person who is more than just one quality.

    Let’s look at Buffy Summers – Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Is she strong? I would say there is no question. But if I take the word STRONG out of my allowable definers for Buffy, I still have LOTS of ways to describe her. She’s loyal, she fights for her friends, she wanted to go to prom, she struggled with being the Slayer, she fell in love with Spike and Angel and struggled with her feelings for them. She loved her sister, she was funny.

    My final thought – when asked how he wrote women so well and so different George RR martin responded with the BEST ANSWER EVER – http://imgur.com/nu2Mipb
    “You know, I’ve always considered women to be people”

    AMEN, GEORGE, AMEN.

    This comment is about as well organized as my laundry basket! It’s all just a dump of my feels/thoughts. I hope it all makes sense!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Margarita Gakis says:

    Reblogged this on Margarita Gakis and commented:
    A great post by Bill Blume on strong females in media

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Trinity Syndrome | Bill Blume

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