Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Strong Female Characters or Strong Characters that are Female

Watching the Hunger Games movie last weekend reminded me how much I loved Katniss. She was at her best in the first book, tough, resilient, and self-sacrificing, and yet vulnerable and so full of pain and self-doubt. She was strong and weak, smart and blind, compassionate and unforgiving.

She was a strong female character and a strong character that was a female.

On absolute write (a writers forum), someone posted the question about which type of female character do you prefer a strong one who does the rescuing or a weak one who needs to be rescued. My answer is I enjoy both as long as they are interesting and fit the story being told.

There is nothing wrong with a damsel in distress as long as she is not saccharine sweet who would never hurt a fly and is beloved by all woodland animals and small children (or dwarfs). Some idealized version of what some think a woman should be. Or a plot device to show off how amazingly awesome the hero is and a reward for him once he saved the day.

A weak female character can be compelling. She can be a delusional faded southern belle, so damaged that she hides from truth of her past, preferring magic to realism and what should’ve been to what really happened. She can be past her prime and no longer able to rely on her charms and beauty to get by, completely at the mercy of the kindness of others.

A damsel in distress doesn’t have to weak. She could be a strong, smart, witty woman who isn’t afraid to speak her mind and follow her heart but is constrained by social conventions and therefore is unable to save herself and her family from disgrace and poverty. It is okay for a female character to need to be saved especially if she is saved by a hero as awesome as Mr. Darcy.

And sometimes that damsel in distress grows into the strong-save-the-day heroine, and yet is still deeply flawed and emotional scarred by what she knows is coming but can't stop.

Just because a strong female character saves the day does not make her a good character. She can be smarter, stronger, and braver than every male character, but be as two-dimensional as a damsel in distress and feed just as easily into a male fantasy. Just a different idealized version of what a woman should be, only this time with a big-ass gun.

But a strong female character that saves the day can be a compelling and amazing character. One who doesn’t show the men up, but holds her own among them. Who speaks her mind and fights for what she believes is right and even has a maternal instinct. Who isn’t afraid to use a big-ass gun but does so wearing sensible attire.

The thing is that making a female character physically or mentally strong does not necessarily make her a good character, and having her save the day does not automatically make her the embodiment of feminism. There is a difference between a strong female character (a female character that is strong) and a strong character that is female. Explained much better here (read it; I promise it is worth three minutes of your time).

Strong characters (male or female) are ones that are well-rounded, compelling, complex, contradictory, and real. They don’t have to be strong people, they can be weak, but they have to be interesting enough to carry the story.

I think sometimes writers are so afraid of showing weakness in female characters that they go to the other extreme and think every female character needs to be like Buffy (for the record, I love Buffy). But if this strength is forced on the character, she can come across as just us two-dimensional as the Princess who sits in the tower waiting to be rescued.

Don’t be afraid to let the female characters have some weakness, vulnerability, and even be saved every once and a while. Even Katniss was saved by Rue and Peeta, and indirectly by Cinna and Haymitch.

Remember it is more important to have a strong character (male or female) than a character that is strong.



  1. I love reading about strong females. As a dude, it's very attractive. Katniss is a great character - she's very flawed (especially in Catching Fire and Mockingjay), but you feel for her.

    My favorite strong female in literature: Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird.

  2. I like strong females too, but there are a lot of different kinds of strengths. Not everyone has to be a Kick-butt Buffy type.

    Scout is a great example of a strong girl with a different kind of strength. I love her too.

    Thanks for commenting. :)

  3. I love this. One of my favorite pictures of all time is this photo of a female soldier on her knees at an airport hugging her daughter with tears running down her face.

    Being strong doesn't mean an absence of emotion. I think that's the hallmark of a male fantasy cardboard figure. Snow White doesn't feel much, other than fear and happiness, and neither does that model with a prop gun. But in real life, real honest characters, and people, feel everything.

    One of the reasons I read, is to connect emotionally to a character, male or female. When writers cheat their readers out of having an emotional connection with a character, because they want to treat the character, ( male or female) as a prize, and not a person, then they are missing out on a tool that will make their story memorable.

    I used to have trouble writing male characters, because I was treating them as my perception of men, and not as people. As human. All characters, male or female, have fears, doubts, grumpy times, happy times, needs, and things that will cause them to stand up and fight.

    As writers, we need to respect that, and show that, or else we aren't being honest.

  4. Sheena, that girl with the big gun is not a model.

    It is Milla Jovovich in Resident Evil playing Alice. But she does look like someone who is just posing and not a real character like the Sarah Connor and Ripley. It just goes to show you what a non-character Alice is. She is just someone who kicks butt without any real depth. Yeah, she's strong and she wins, but she's not an interesting character.

    I'd take a Blanche Dubois in Streetcar Named Desire (second picture) over an Alice any day. Blanche is weak person who can't even take care of herself nevertheless save the world, but she is real and tortured and interesting.

  5. I've been thinking about why I love Buffy so much. As much as I like a lot of the concepts of urban fantasy, I often get frustrated with characters who seem to be too Buffy-like. I've realized it's because some UF authors seem to be borrowing Buffy's strength without learning from her weaknesses. I think characters of either gender need to have some balance - if the character is very strong physically, then you have to create vulnerability other ways for them to be interesting and relatable. If they are very weak physically, then their psychological & emotional strengths can take center stage more.

    Romantic subplots can come in handy in rounding out a "strong" character, because no one is immune to heartbreak :) But I don't need my heroines to be able to fight off ten attackers at once. I just need to care about them.

    Great post!

  6. Wonderful post! You make an excellent point and you say it so well. When I get my butt in gear for the morning, I'm going to throw a link of this post onto my blog.

    Oh, and as long as we're discussing female characters we love, since you already mentioned Ms. Bennet and Ripley (two of my favorites), I nominate Francie from "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn" as a great example of strength and frailty bringing true depth to a character.

  7. @Sarah, that is a very good point about Buffy. I love her, and think she is an amazing character.

    Her very strengths are tied into her weakness. Being the Slayer makes her strong, but it also isolates her and makes her different, which was tough for someone like Buffy who really wanted to fit in. I think it is why she couldn't handle a normal relationship with a nice guy like Riley, and was a little self-destructive in her romantic relationships. Anyway, that balance between strength and weakness is hard to get right.

    @Adam, Thanks. I really appreciate the link to my post. I have to agree with you that Francie is a great example of a strong yet vulnerable character. I loved that book.

    @Sheena, I meant to say earlier that I loved what you said about bringing emotion to the character. I think a lot of times writers think that emotion is weakness, so they make their characters emotionaless so that they will seem strong, but emotion is what makes us real and what makes a character feel real. And I think that is usually the goal in creating characters is to make them seem like living, breathing people. At least that is my goal

  8. Great post Maryann. I love strong female characters more then strong men. I don't really care if they can beat up men or not. I more care about someone who stands up for what she believes in and questions the world around her. I love that Scout and Francis was mentioned as strong characters. Scout I believe is only seven-years-old. I hate females that sell sex while shooting a gun. Seriously who thinks about being provakative while shooting a gun.


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