In books and movies lately, we’ve mostly seen one type of strong female character — the ass-kicking kind. This has led to a slew of characters who are often one dimensional and less interesting than their side-characters (Legend of Korra, I am looking at YOU). Black Widow and Wonder Woman are cool, but women can and are strong in other ways. They don't all have to be martial artists. Some can sit at their computer late at night and write blog posts...
Many agents and publishers will claim they are searching for "strong female characters". However, I encourage authors to avoid using that term, especially in queries, as it has become kinda toxic. I mean, people never need to include the word “strong” to describe a male character, so why should we include it for a woman? Instead, SHOW us how strong your heroine is without actually using that word.
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We didn't need to be told thatJane Eyre was strong. We watched her go through trauma after trauma and come out of it again, always determined to be a better person.
We didn't need to be told that Scarlett O'Hara was a strong woman. We watched her single-handedly pull her plantation from the brink of destruction.
We didn't need to be told that Princess Leia was strong. We saw that in her dialogue, leadership, actions, and choices, all which ultimately led to the rebels beating the empire.
What are the traits of a strong woman?
She has a big goal. Big, memorable characters have big, memorable goals. It's the author's job to place stumbling blocks and hazards at every turn that make it almost impossible for the characters to achieve their goals. The bigger the goal and the harder it becomes to achieve, the stronger your female character will have to become to achieve it. Learn more about how to write deep character goals here.
She has an enemy. This doesn't mean your character has to face a super archnemesis. It can be their own vices, such as addiction, self-sabatoge, mommy/daddy issues, etc. Whatever their adversary is, the meaner and more powerful it is, the better. Your protagonist’s strengths become clearer in the face of conflict and contrast where their ideals are put to the test and their reason for wanting to achieve their goal is truly brought into question.
She is flawed. Strong women are not perfect (Remember: disabilities don't count as flaws!) One of the most common problems I see is that the strong female character NEVER messes up. Even when she does mess up, it is always portrayed as an innocent mistake that she can correct and is forgotten, or it was really someone else's fault and she was being the better person and taking the blame. Or, worse yet, her mistake is actually the thing that ends up saving everyone. That is weak storytelling. Strong women in real life make terrible mistakes that have consequence and that haunt them at night for years to come. They screw up and they have big emotions that get out of control - they are not perfect. Thank God! I would feel terrible if every strong woman had her act together and never made any mistakes.
She learns. Every strong woman learns from her mistakes and changes so she does not repeat it. That's part of what makes her strong. Some have to repeat the mistake a couple of times more than others, but she ALWAYS learns from it. Don’t skimp on her emotional development. What does she learn? How does she change? How is she a different person now compared to the beginning of the story?
She is realistically beautiful. There are lots of different ways to be beautiful. Let your strong female character stand out by giving her physical attributes that mirror the real world. Remember that many women throughout history don't fit our modern definition of "beautiful" and yet have been called beautiful and strong because of their actions and choices (look at many female saints in the Catholic church, for example). She can be a beautiful soul without having a beautiful face, body, or hair.
Remember, it's all been done before. To write a character who is more than a walking cliché in heels, it’s important to approach her as someone you are committed to getting to know. Use a list like this to help you write a well-rounded character. If some of her traits feel similar to someone else, that's okay. Remember, we enjoy the familiar. Making her predictable and flawless is the part you should avoid. Let your character surprise you! The best characters sometimes have traits that seem unlikely but are spot on. For example, your character might be an upstanding officer of the law, but is married to a former convict who made her feel special, and she now is secretly plotting to steal someone else's baby after she learns she's barren (have you watched Raising Arizona?).
Take time to discover your character’s secrets, don't be scared to let her be imperfect, and you’re more likely to create a well-rounded character.
The beasts of the field shall honour me, the dragons and the owls. - Isaiah 43:20
Self-published author of the fantasy series, Tales of the Wovlen, Kathryn spends a great deal of time in the world of her imagination, having tea with fire breathing dragons, writing books on flying space ships, and practicing her mad scientist laugh with gusto. However, on occasion, she returns to this world just to play with her dog, blog about her fun, and coach people through writing self-doubt.
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