Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Strong Female Characters

What do you think of when someone says “strong female characters”?

I always thought it was a female whose characterization is strong, however I was reading this article, where author Sophia McDougall seems to take issue with females who are strong. In fact, she insists that the former interpretation is being conflated with the latter and females are now being written as fighters in place of actual characterization.

I have to admit, the examples Ms. McDougall cites are accurate. But those examples are also from movies rather than books, and face it, Hollywood isn’t exactly on the ball with progressive female characters in leading roles (certainly not without a male counterpart). Hollywood writes formen because they say women can identify with male characters obviously it’s impossible for men to try to identify with females.

But are books the same? There are some that are. THE HUNGER GAMES series features a female lead who is not physically strong, but still an exceptional fighter with her archery skills. She also has some other characteristics, but Katniss is very much a “strong female character”. But let’s look at another book, the post-zombie-apocalyptic FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH. Main character Mary is not a fighter by any means, is involved in a love quadrangle, and spends more time than she should worried about her relationships with the male characters. She is also strong willed, stubborn, resourceful, and emotional. She is a real person. Well, you get what I mean.

What say you about strong female characters? Do you know of any strong characters who aren’t necessarily strong women?


  1. I think firstly that the word "strong" needn't mean physically--or even by other descriptions, so much as characters that are believable and "real". So to me, "strong female characters" means ones who are not token or shallow, but Genuine, I suppose is the word. I also really dislike the ideas of female characters being "tough", "fighters" or violent would make them strong. What is often the case in the popular culture is that those whose work is presented to us have chosen to represent female characters with masculine extremes, such as being violent or revengeful. I hate to call those things "masculine" because what makes a strong male character for me is also that they are genuine people, not extremes or ridiculous "ideals". I've followed the show "Dr Who" since I was a wee kid and that show has not only strong female characters, but strong males too. The current Doctor, who wears a bow-tie and never acts violently and is very emotionally vulnerable is one of the strongest male characters I've ever seen. And the female companions the doctor has often had are also amazingly strong--I found even annoying ones like Tegan to be stronger sometimes than even Leela, the savage "fighter" woman. So to me, to be strong means to stand by the things you believe in no matter what. And that's about it, really.

  2. I think strong willed qualifies. I tried to make the female lead in my second book a strong character and an equal match for my main character. And she pretty much gets the best of him. But she's not physically strong. (Mentally strong is another thing...)

  3. I think we should aim to make all our characters as rounded as possible - men or women. It's unrealistic to have a strong character who doesn't have any weaknesses.

  4. There's a difference between strong and strong-minded. A lot of up and coming female leads are strong-minded, like Katniss. And Tris in the Divergent series. And sometimes strength is their weakness, too, eh?

  5. Whether Stephanie Plum, female bounty hunter, qualifies but I do know that my teenage boy students like to read the Evanovich's series.

  6. A strong character of any type is a character that is their own person, so to speak. "Here is what I believe in," and, then, the character sticks to it. The character just doesn't go along with events or people or whatever but stands and shapes them herself.

  7. A well put article.

    I agree with the commentary here... a character who's their own person is strong, and particularly when they're well rounded and smart.

    I write in the spy genre, so my female characters have to be able to take care of themselves in a fight just as the men do, but I'm more interested in developing characters and making them smart. It's much more compelling that way.

  8. The main character in my book is puny but develops a stronger will as the book goes along. I liked Katsa in Graceling. She is strong physically, but it's her inner self that changes so much as the book goes along.

  9. That's what happens when people see the headlines but don't read the article. It says that female characters should be "strong"? Well, then, she must be physically strong.

    And what is it with pointed questions? As soon as someone asks me for an example of something, my mind goes totally blank. So, of course I have no good strong character examples to give you. I'm sure I'll think of one. At about 2 AM.

  10. I don't think a strong female character refers to physical strength, it refers to the ability of the character to act rather than wait for someone else to take the decisions. This is mainly a reaction to the kind of stories where the girl is just the prize at the end who has to be saved by the dashing knight. The need to defer to others and hope they save the day (basically a cheerleader) has a lot to do with the status of women at certain times in history. Cinderella waiting for her prince to come isn't a strong representation of a woman but it is indicative of the time it was written.

    Any woman who makes a choice and acts on it is a strong woman in narrative terms. Any woman who stands around hoping she gets picked by Prince Charming isn't.

    It's taking action to deal with problems that's important; the kind of action taken, whether it's hitting someone with a rock or hiring a lawyer or buying new shoes, is immaterial as long as it fits the story.

    Moody Writing

  11. I hadn't thought about the meaning of 'strong' and the many ways it could be taken until I read your post, but I can see how interpretations could vary.

    I always took it to mean strong physically (at least somewhat) and tough. Headstrong, fighter--that type of thing.

    I prefer to write heroines who are inwardly strong. Female leads who kick butt and take names are fun to read about, but I can't relate to them.

  12. Sandra Bullock plays what I would call a strong female character despite her panic and fears in GRAVITY. A strong female character to me is one who attempts to seize the day rather than letting it seize her, to act rather than to react. I wrote Olive Carey, Angie, Marlene Dietrich, and Lilly MacKenson in my HER BONES ARE IN THE BADLANDS as strong female characters though none of them you would mistake for Xena. Strong, whole humans are more fun to read about because they are good company in your thoughts, would make for good trip mates! :-)


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