I want to write strong female characters but I also want some diversity in terms of characterization, and I don’t really know how to make a female character look strong past the easy “action woman who fights good.”
How can I make strong female characters who deviate from that stereotype or completely avert it? I know you can love pink, and flowers, and stuffed animals and still be strong, but I don’t know how to make it work myself…
And for male characters, it’ll be interesting too to have strong non-action types… but I’m even more stuck here.
Hey Thomas, great to hear from you again!
The key to what most people mean when they say “strong female character” is agency. Chris has a post on agency that’s really useful in this regard, but the simple version is that characters have agency when their choices matter. Their choices influence the story’s events, whether that’s in their favor or not.
In a lot of spec fic stories, that means giving characters badass fighting skills because so many spec fic stories are about fighting. When most of your story’s conflict is focused on sword fighting, it’s easier to give a character agency if they know how to sword fight. If you focus on that, the character’s other traits don’t matter as much. A female character can be into dresses and dolls or DIY construction and football (or all of the above), so long as her choices matter in the story. The only way her aesthetic tastes are likely to be a problem is if the story derides traditionally feminine things in order to make her seem “not like other girls.”
This is why we recommend that writers who are really struggling should write the character as a man, then switch the pronouns later. That way, you can get a character with agency without overthinking the question of gender. In most stories, the character’s gender is actually not relevant to the plot.
Once you’ve mastered the basics, there are more advanced options you can try. Consider the film Mad Max: Fury Road. In that movie, most of the conflicts involve gunfights and car chases; yet, there’s a group of female characters who aren’t good at either of those things and still have agency: the wives.
Some of the wives have agency because they learn how to fight. Others have agency because they help with planning or provide critical emotional support. One of them has agency because she literally uses her body as a shield to protect the others. None of them have to become stoic and hard bitten like Furiosa to have agency, but of course there’s nothing wrong with Furiosa having those traits either.
If you’re stuck looking for ways that your female characters’ choices can affect the plot, then I recommend Chris’s post: 18 Ways for Protagonists to Contribute. That’ll give you plenty to get started. You can also use that list to diversify your male characters by giving them the more social and support-oriented roles. It’s rare to see male characters performing those roles, so it makes for a strong subversion.
Hope that answers your question!