Q&A

What Does “Strong Female Character” Even Mean?

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Hello Mythcreants!

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.

Any advice?

-Thomas

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!

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    Yes, a strong female character doesn’t have to be a badass fighter (go that road, if you want to, but it’s not necessary). They need agency and actual character (meaning they shouldn’t be a stereotype). They could also be the daintiest princess who, behind the scenes, keeps ruling the kingdom, because her father has no interest in politics and it’s her bread and butter.

    Oren’s suggestion to write them as a man and then change the pronoun is a good approach.

    I think it might also help to look at other positions a female character can take when they’re not the badass fighter. There’s the political and diplomatic approach (a queen or princess who rule a country, or Senator Leia Organa, or of a rising political star who wants to change things for the better). There’s the caregiver approach (a caregiver who will do whatever is necessary to take care of her charges, no matter how hard or dangerous). There’s the magic user (whose physical strength usually doesn’t matter). There’s the scholar (who might travel far through dangerous areas to find the books she really wants to study).

    The classic heroic trio is made up of leader, foil, and heart – with the heart position often going to a female character. The heart keeps the group together, balances out leader and foil when they are at odds (and they will be), takes care of the emotional needs. It’s a classic female stereotype at first glance, but you can switch all of those roles around. The female character can be the badass fighter who leads the group. She can be the foil who is the opposite of the leader and will stay calm where the leader acts rashly or forge ahead where the leader wants to wait (more seasoned leaders often have a youthful foil, youthful leaders usually a seasoned foil). And, yes, of course they can also bring balance to the other two as the heart (while, at the same time, being a badass diplomat or mage, for instance).

    Characters are characters first. A strong character is a character with agency, with a full set of traits, strengths, weaknesses, wants, and needs. If your female character has all of those, she will be a strong female character, no matter what kind of person she is.

  2. Leon

    Here’s a short “reading” list.

    My Little Pony – lots of conflict, no violence.

    Steven Universe – strong character, but soft and sweet as a marshmallow (mmm, animal bi-products). Just pretend he’s a girl.

    Wentworth – exceedingly violent Australian prison drama. The Main character spends most of her time trying to prevent violence, and drug abuse.

    • Bunny

      A few additions off the top of my head:

      Prue from the book Wildwood – gets swept up in a violent magical conflict but never joins the fighting herself, lots of conflict with malignant forces in the search for her lost baby brother who got kidnapped by crows, uses wit and grit rather than aggression to solve problems

      Kate from The Mysterious Benedict Society – has the tools, the daring, and the creativity to solve any number of dilemmas she’s presented with (and she’s presented with a LOT); nonviolent but extremely crafty and upbeat

      Various hen characters in Chicken Run – a weird one, I know. This is a claymation movie about chickens trying to flee their farm and using the various implements at their disposal to construct means of escape while avoiding being sent to the slaughter

      You’re right about difficulty coming up with nonviolent heroes; both Prue and Kate are teenagers, and most other examples that sprang to mind when I was thinking about this were also from YA or children’s books. It’s surprising – and a little distressing – that there aren’t a whole lot of peaceful, prominent adult characters which fit the criteria.

      • Dysole

        Winry Rockbell from Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood is one of my go to strong female characters. Feminine, but also with a typical masculine interest and while the protagonists take several steps to protect her from villains, she still has agency when she’s in a tight spot. She is a support character though, since she has no alchemical skills, but I absolutely love every minute she shows up and is my favorite character from that series. While not a protagonist, she does fit strong non violent female character.

    • Cay Reet

      Strangely enough, there are strong female characters who are not badass fighters in the Fu Manchu novels. The novels do have a big problem with racism (everyone outside Britain is inferior, to put it short), but they are very light on sexism on the whole. Female characters are rarely reduced to damsels or to trophies and men hardly fare better in the damsel department.

      Two strong female characters which come to mind for me are Karamaneh (who has some racist undertones, being from Arabia) and Fu Manchu’s daughter (whose name I can’t get together at the moment and who has a Russian mother).

      Despite being completely at Fu Manchu’s mercy as his slave, Karamaneh repeatedly risks her life to help the heroes (especially viewpoint character Dr. Petrie, whom she later marries) and cross her master’s plan. She is not a fighter at all, but still a person with agency (saving herself and her little brother, who is the only family she has left) and follows it throughout the books she’s in (mostly 1-3; in book 2, I think, she even gets to shoot Fu Manchu and save them in the end, but that guy is harder to kill than quite some comic book villains).

      Fu Manchu’s daughter is just as likely to work with him as she is to conspire against him to take is place within the Si-Fan. She’s no less of a manipulator and mastermind than he is (albeit with less experience) and always has her own interests in mind.

  3. Leon

    I actually struggled to come up with a list of non-violent heroes.

    I cant think of a better time for this than Christmas; lets put together a list of stories or characters, that are about being a hero, without being violent.

    • Dinwar

      I always liked “The Bean Trees”. The protagonist doesn’t do any fighting, as I recall–the struggles are mostly confined to internal struggles (leaving home, acquiring a child, dealing with a harsh environment) and interpersonal (finding a job, keeping said child). The lead character is strong, not because she’s good in a fight, but because she simply doesn’t give up the quest for what she wants.

    • Matt

      Newt Scamander from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a pretty peaceful guy, while also being one of the most original heroes I’ve seen in a Spec fic movie.

      • Dernhelm

        Yeah, I actually think the “female characters can be strong without being fighters” line is overplayed, since it’s not actually hard to find female characters that are strong without being particularly violent, just look at all the Disney heroines from the 80’s and onwards. And I’ve never heard anyone actually say that every single female character has to be physically powerful just for the sake of it.

        Meanwhile, I can’t really think of ANY adult male hero in mainstream media except Newt Scarmander who doesn’t casually resort to violence for most of the movie, or who’s character arc doesn’t mainly revolve around becoming the strongest dude around. Seriously, we don’t need to show women being strong without being fighters, we need to show MEN being strong without being fighters.

        • Petar

          Mark Watney (The Martian) is a good example of a non-violent male hero from a relatively popular book/movie.
          Then again, he never gets in a situation where others would use violence.
          Some other hard science-fiction heroes (such as Dave Bowman from 2001: A Space Odyssey) might count, too.
          Unfortunately, these tend to be forgettable.

          With all this advice on the web on how to write strong female characters, I wonder if there should also be advice on how to write non-violent male heroes (okay, technically, Oren has already given it in his last two sentences).

          • Dernhelm

            Yeah, I think it would be pretty hard to logically include heroic violence in a story about a man alone on an otherwise lifeless planet, and similarly, Dave Bowman doesn’t encounter any physically existing enemies you could really fight in the movie either.

            But you’re right that they are pretty forgettable, it feels like if writers can’t make them the butt of a joke, it seems non-violent male heroes just end up blank slates instead. It’s probably a big reason I’ve often found biopics on famous men boring, because it’s so ingrained that a big range of emotions are “feminine” and real men shouldn’t show them, so when you have a story where it wouldn’t work to give the hero something to be raging against or throwing smirky one-liners, writers have no idea what to replace those with.

            I’d really want to see an article dedicated to writing good non-violent men now.

          • Dinwar

            Apollo 13 had non-violent heroes. Like “The Martian” it’s hard to get violent in those situations–but not impossible, and the fact that those men don’t crack under pressure most of us can’t conceive of is by itself impressive. It’s “Man Vs Nature” in a big way, and violence doesn’t do much against hard vacuum.

            Sam Gamgee may count, as he avoids conflict where possible. His main strength is in his love for Frodo (the books make it clear that they’ve gone well beyond master/servant in their relationship). He mainly functions as a support character for violent characters, though. Sam’s conflict is mostly “Man Vs Nature” when you boil it down. He’s got nothing against orcs or spiders, they’re just in the way; they could easily be replaced with wolves or cold (and in fact were in a few places) without reducing the tension or stakes.

            I’ll get blasted for this, but Hank Rearden also springs to mind. I’m not saying you have to agree with the philosophy or his actions–however, it’s undeniable that Hank is a strong character, and mostly non-violent. The conflict here is “Man vs Society” and, more significantly, “Man vs Self”.

            I think the type of conflict you opt for is important here. If you’re opting for epic conflicts of nations, you’re going to have violence, at many scales (see “Thud”). If you opt for Man vs Nature, you have more room to embrace nonviolence, because what are you going to be violent against? Same with internal conflict: the stakes can be high because the tension is VERY personal, but violence isn’t going to end well (unless you opt for an extremely dark story, anyway).

            (I’m using “Man” here because this sub-discussion is about men; no sexism is intended.)

  4. Dave L

    Part of it depends on genre

    If you’re writing a post-apocalypse martial arts story, then any character who cannot fight will most likely be sidelined (w/ perhaps one or two exceptions)

    OTOH, Miss Marple, while unable to compete in any physical arena, was definitely quite a strong character

    One suggestion: If an otherwise strong character (male or female) likes pink, or flowers, or pink flowers, don’t make a big deal about it. Just let it be a part of them w/out them having to defend it. That might or might not be appropriate for your story, but it’s something worth considering

  5. Kenneth Mackay

    People can have both ‘strong’ and ‘soft’ characteristics – they’re not consistently one or the other. For a real-life example consider Barbara Cartland, who loved pink and wrote mushily sentimental romance novels, but was also a daring amateur pilot, and the inventor of in-flight refuelling!

  6. Dvärghundspossen

    There are two “strong female character” tropes that are really annoying. In both cases, the woman starts out as the bestest of the best, but a flat character, with no real flaws and not much of a personality. Add a man who’s pretty useless.

    In the first annoying trope, some contrived reason comes up as to why the man rather than the woman has to save the day. So the woman trains him, the man becomes better than her, and she’s demoted to mere love interest.
    In the second annoying trope, the man might improve a teeny weeny bit, but he mostly stays useless. In this version, he’s often really annoying as well as incompetent. Despite this, the woman falls in love with him. It’s 100 % incomprehensible that the bestest person in the world would fall in love with someone who’s both useless and annoying, but nevertheless she does.

    • Dave L

      You mean like the first Ant-Man movie?

    • Dernhelm

      I think a huge part of the problem is that what many label “strong female characters” aren’t actually strong in any sense of the word, and no, not even physically strong when it actually matters. Like, I’ve lost count on all the action movies I’ve seen when we’re told a female character is strong because we see her training, or she takes out some nameless henchman in the beginning, but when the big action-packed finale is about to go down she invariably gets captured, trapped somewhere or falls unconscious, all her supposed battle prowess conveniently nullified so that the male hero gets to have the big final showdown all to himself.

      Really, most of these characters aren’t even strong in the most literal sense of the word, they’re just love interest damsels 2.0 given a thin coat of badass-paint because some dudes think tight leather pants are hotter than long pink dresses.

  7. LazerRobot

    A Song of Ice and Fire has a good array of strong women, even though it’s a patriarchal setting.

    Arya is a tough tomboy who resents what “ladies” are supposed to be like. She hates sewing and wants to learn sword fighting.

    Sansa is very feminine, loves dresses and pretty things, but learns to use her brains and diplomacy to get ahead. She learns a lot of this from Cersei, who, although she’s a villain, is also a strong woman.

    Daenarys is a little of both. She’s feminine, but she learns how to earn respect of the people she needs, so she can get what she wants through intimidation tactics rather than physical fighting skills.

  8. Martin Christopher

    The “man with tits” is a character who is female and strong. And I guess that’s technically better than not having female characters at all. But they don’t really do anything to further the acceptance of feminine agency as valid in fiction. It only says that a woman can be a valid major character if she acts like the stereotype of a man.
    That by itself is not a bad thing, and it’s a valid life choice for women. But if this is the only way in which female characters can have agency in a work, it might even do more harm than good.

    If someone is absolutely incapable of writing decent female characters, then this is maybe a first step to eventually get somewhere. But it’s still only going from square zero to square one.

    • Bunny

      I’m unclear on what you mean by “feminine agency,” since agency is agency no matter the gender of the character it’s given to. Are you saying that an ideal female character responds to stimuli or goes about solving problems in a somehow “feminine” way? That doesn’t make much sense, and could be interpreted rather recessively.

    • Alicia

      Martin, I see your point. I’m female, and I don’t want the females that I read to be written as males who are later turned female. I want them to be written as females. On the other hand, if it helps a new writer avoid stereotypes to write females as males and then change them, then it might be a good place to start. Though it seems in that case like a better alternative would be to write genderless characters and then randomly assign them a gender at the very end.

    • Cay Reet

      Yes, especially for a male writer, it can be a good first step to write a female character as a male character and then change the pronouns, because it might be much easier for them to write a man as a character instead of a stereotype.

      As a woman myself, I’ve never needed the detour and I feel like women have an advantage there – we get a lot of male points of view and a lot of male characters to study in all types of media and we know more about how a female character can be expanded beyond stereotyping, because we are women.

      It also doesn’t say that a woman can only be a major character if she acts like a man. What it means is to give the female character the same depth as a male character – which is something a lot of male writers seem to miss out on. They give their male lead that long and detailed backstory, but the female lead just gets a stereotype tacked on, because they don’t think more is necessary or simply can’t write her better.

      Ideally, you learn to write every character as a person first and foremost (traits, strengths, weaknesses, needs, wants) and assign gender as you need for the story. There are some stories which demand a main character of a certain gender. With others, you’re free to choose as you want.

  9. Brenda Nichols

    I have no problem with the beta hero, love interest or not. The alpha male is very much overdone and often expected in certain genres. The woman doesn’t have to be hard as nails to be heroic either. Often the best, most believable hero is the one who fights through their own fears and does something extraordinary against all odds. Many historical novels are based on this premise.

  10. JXMcKie

    Strong female characters that immediately spring into my mind, are Commander Shepard (FemShep) from Mass Effect, but she is very much an “…action woman who fights good…” and thus really not applicable here. Ellen Ripley from the Alien franchise is a bit more relevant, since she is not a soldier type as such, but she might still be too much of an “action woman”. Her daughter Amanda Ripley, as portrayed in the horror game “Alien Isolation (2014)”, is certainly also a strong, independent female character, but again perhaps too much “action woman”.

    Examples of strong women, but without too much “action woman” about them, are rather April Ryan and Zoe Castillo from The Longest Journey, Dreamfall The Longest Journey and Dreamfall Chapters. Besides these protagonists, there are several other strong female characters portrayed in that series; NPC´s, adversaries, allies, etc. Even April and Zoe however, do engage in occasional combat scenes, though the combat sequences are limited, and the heroines are more cunning/stealthy, rather than “fighting women”. The female Alex(andra) Denton from Deus Ex II Invisible War can also be an example of a strong female character from a video game, if she is played in a style, with emphasis on stealth/sneaking/ hacking, rather than on combat.

    Strong male characters that are NOT combat oriented are unfortunately rather rare in Science Fiction, but examples could be some of the protagonist in Isaac Asimovs old “Foundation” trilogy, especially the Cunning/Scheming Terminus Mayor Salvor Hardin comes to my mind. In some of the later “Foundation” novels (“Prelude to Foundation” and “Forward the Foundation”) psychohistorian Hari Seldon is a good example of an intellectual, non-action male hero. Another example, though he does engage in quite a lot of action, and thus does not fit the bill entirely, is Jason DinAlt, the protagonist of Harry Harrison´s “Deathworld” novels. Finally the main protagonist´s of some of Ian M. Banks novels; Jernau Morat Gurgeh in “The Player of Games” and historian Fassin Taak in “The Algebraist” are good examples of non-action male protagonists.

  11. 3Comrades

    For action movies, or stories an action character is expected, but even switching around common tropes that are considered masculine as villain or side characters can be a breath of fresh air.

    Christmas examples: The Scrooge-miser type, Frosty- lovable trickster type, Santa- The devoted giver/must get job done type, Old man winter- cranky cruel type, it’s a wonderful life- reluctant giver who won’t give up type, The grinch- bitter but ridiculous type.

    All strong characters in non action oriented stories.

    As for male characters that are not action oriented in action oriented stories cartoons provide us with some examples;

    Beauty in beauty and the beast, Moana from Moana, Tiana from princess and the frog, thumbelina in thumbelina, Alice from Alice in wonderland, all are characters that further the stories based off of their choices even if other characters were more action oriented.

    In fact the princes in princess movies often come off empty and lifeless despite being action heroes because they do very little overall to further the plot.

    If you don’t want love interests to feel tacked on and lifeless, Make sure they fill more than just that role. They can be comedic support, the foil, the best bud, the henchmen, the sidekick, but just being there to love makes them boring

    • Bellis

      I think you’re really onto something there with “just being there to love makes them boring” and giving female characters more than one role!

  12. Bellis

    For me, the “strong” in “strong character” has nothing to do with physical strength or fighting skills, just like a “likeable character” doesn’t have to be someone I would be friends with.

    Strong character to me means a well written character, a well developed character: They have agency, are three-dimensional, have motivation (!), feelings, backstory (if relevant) and an arc. They usual fill more than one role in a story.

    Not every side character needs all of the above, but how much you develop and flesh out a character should depend on how important they are to the story, not their gender. Plus you should in most cases avoid a male-dominated cast!

    One thing to watch out for is not to unintentionally create sexist-racist stereotypes with the “strong black woman” who is often depicted as not needing support or not being allowed emotions etc.

    I think putting a female character in the action hero role can be great, but it’s not the only way to have a strong female character. While most main characters in certain genres primarily use violence, a lot of other character archetypes don’t rely on violence either at all or at least not primarily. Most of them could make a main character with some thought. Plus, you can have other plot-types in sci-fi or fantasy settings, like mysteries or romances or sports competitions or coming of age stories or travel stories…

    The other consideration is, whether you want to tell a story that deviates from cultural expectations in other respects as well, like focusing on a non-toxic-masculinity approach to problems or centering other kinds of problems altogether. Trying to write about “womens issues” could get tricky, but as several other commentators have said, conflicts with nature don’t rely on fighting (although they can be about physical strength and endurance too, but it’s just as easy to have a character overcome them with knowledge and fine motor skills).
    Diplomacy and exploration are also topics that make it easy to avoid violence-first approaches, think: Captain Picard!

    Otherwise it could help to just shift the emphasis. Most stories aren’t 100% about fighting, and in most cases there’s no problem with including some fights. But if you want to put the emphasis on other aspects or other strategies, that would be interesting.
    Show how important social conflicts and networking are, studying and preparation, medical and emotional support, navigation, wilderness survival, engineering, hacking or magic, etc.

    • Cay Reet

      “The Mummy” from 1999 (the movie with Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz) is a good example for an action-oriented movie with a female hero, as it were.

      Once you analyse the story, you quickly realize it doesn’t revolve around Fraser’s character Rick, but around Weisz’s character Evie. She is the one who decides to go to the City of the Dead to prove herself worthy of an organisation of scholars who deny her entry on account of not ‘having enough experience’ (but, most likely, actually because she’s the first woman to apply in the 1920s). She reads the map, she frees Rick at the last moment, because he’s been to the City of the Dead (a place you can only find after having been there, so everyone needs a guide to find it the first time). She’s not stopped by the Medjai attacking the ship she’s travelling on, she’s not stopped by the American expedition claiming rights to the space where the Book of the Dead should be by means of better weapony. She undercuts the expedition (literally) and thus finds Imhotep (the mummy). She reads from the Book of the Dead and wakes him. She’s also the one, though, who immediately is ready to take on responsibility and do all necessary to undo what she did (the mark of the protagonist). She refuses to ‘stay safe’ and ‘let the men handle things.’ Even when she is put into Imhotep’s hands, it is her decision to sacrifice her freedom to save the rest of her team. She is the one who figures out how to make Imhotep mortal again. Rick is the one to perform the deadly strike, but up to that point, he’s only keeping Imhotep occupied so Evie has the chance to figure out how to stop him.

      In the romance between her and Rick, it’s also he who changes himself and who shows he appreciate Evie for who she is (including stealing her new archaeologist’s tools from the Americans after she lost all her stuff when the ship was attacked). She doesn’t change one bit for him, unlike a lot of formerly independent female leads who become a different person for their hero/protagonist.

      This works for the story, because it is immediately made clear that no regular weapon and no amount of phyiscal strength will defeat Imhotep. It’s a fight of Evie’s intelligence and her (not properly recognized) skills against Imhotep’s immortality and plague powers which she decides in her favour.

      • Bellis

        “She doesn’t change one bit for him, unlike a lot of formerly independent female leads who become a different person for their hero/protagonist.”

        Good point! That’s definitely something to avoid when writing strong female characters – “consistency” should instead be part of it. And avoid sexist tropes in general.

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