On “strong” female characters

I’ve been thinking about strong female characters a lot lately, and almost as though the universe was on to my post plans for Pub Crawl, the internet exploded with some fabulous discussions on this very topic earlier in August. Namely, Sophia McDougall’s ovation-worthy article on why she hates strong female characters.

Go on and read it. It’s long, but I’ll wait.

Sophia says pretty much everything that has been on my mind, and far more eloquently than I ever could. In case you didn’t read while I waited so patiently (shame on you!), the article subheadline says it all:

Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius. Female characters get to be Strong.

She goes on to discuss, with examples, how men get to be a variety of things in literature/film, and while we don’t often ask if said man fits into the “strong” box, we always ask if the female does. As though being strong is the only way she can set herself apart. Without that strength she’s just another weak, boring, worthless female character.

Many of Sophia’s points remind me of this quote that I’ve seen circulating on tumblr:

Screw writing “strong” women. Write interesting women. Write well-rounded women. Write complicated women. Write a woman who kicks ass, write a woman who cowers in a corner. Write a woman who’s desperate for a husband. Write a woman who doesn’t need a man. Write women who cry, women who rant, women who are shy, women who don’t take no shit, women who need validation and women who don’t care what anybody thinks. THEY ARE ALL OKAY, and all those things could exist in THE SAME WOMAN. Women shouldn’t be valued because we are strong, or kick-ass, but because we are people. So don’t focus on writing characters who are strong. Write characters who are people.
Lori, on tumblr, answering a writing question in her ask box

Women are people. People are varied. As varied and complex as male characters like Sherlock, who might be considered strong because he Gets Things Done and Solves All The Crimes, but who is a multitude of other things first.

When I think of some of my favorite female characters, many of them do not easily fit within the “strong” box. They might be strong in some regards, but not because they are jacked and buff.

Look at Hermione. Yes, she punches Draco in the face and withstands torture at Bellatrix’s hands, but this isn’t what makes her strong, and these two acts don’t define her. First and foremost, she’s smart. And resourceful. And loyal and clever and confident. Sometimes she cries over boys (when Lavender is dating Won Won). Sometimes she cheats (confunding Cormac so Ron gets on the Quidditch team). Hermione is a million things. Strong is one of them, but it’s not her biggest asset (imho), nor is most of her strength physical.

So is the problem just how we define “strong” in these discussions? My gut reaction is yes, but I’m really not sure. As Sophia points out in her article, redefining the bucket with a more nuanced label isn’t going to solve things. She says:

We need get away from the idea that sexism in fiction can be tackled by reliance on depiction of a single personality type, that you just need to write one female character per story right and you’ve done enough.

Agreed. I don’t want every book I pick up to feature a ____ female character. I just want females. Like Lori said on tumblr, I want girls who are a whole mess of qualities, because that’s what makes them human. Sophia ends up saying almost the same thing in the conclusion of her article:

I want a wealth of complex female protagonists who can be either strong or weak or both or neither, because they are more than strength or weakness…And besides heroines, I want to see women in as many and varied secondary and character roles as men: female sidekicks, mentors, comic relief, rivals, villains.

Where have I seen such a thing?  Harry Potter. (Yet another reason why I think J.K. Rowling is brilliant, and why I’ll never stop praising the series.) Yes, Rowling’s world is huge, and the series is long, both of which gave her plenty of time to cram it full of characters, but even still she gives us such a varied cast of females.

female characters in Harry PotterHermione, McGonagall, Luna, Ginny, Bellatrix, Umbridge…

If you must use the word, they are each strong, but in different ways and for different reasons. Some are bold, daring, quiet, quirky, wise, stubborn, evil, and so on.

Luna is herself and unapologetic for it. Molly is a nagging mother with a heart of gold. Ginny dates widely after a childhood crush on Harry, and later keeps the DA running when he leaves her to hunt horcruxes. Umbridge is a racist and Bellatrix is a sadist.

These women are so unique. And even in a fantasy series, in a world that is not ours, they feel incredibly real.

Coincidentally, Rowling has even commented on how physical strength means little to these characters/in this world.

I’m a female writer and, what’s interesting about the Wizarding World is, when you take physical strength out of the equation, a woman can fight just the same as a man can fight, a woman can do magic just as powerfully as a man can do magic and I consider that I’ve written a lot of well-rounded female characters in these books.
JK Rowling

I feel like Rossi’s Under the Never Sky series also weaves a variety of females into the cast. There’s adaptable Aria, brave Liv, empowered (and sometimes catty) Brooke. Our own Susan Dennard has a wonderful cast of females in her novels: Fiesty Eleanor has complex relationships with several women–her mother, Jie, Allison.

In contemporary-land, I just read an ARC of Fangirl (Rowell), which has some unique female characters, and Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall gives us a tightly-knit group of four girls, non of whom are instantly very likeable.

I’m starting to ramble and lose steam, which means it’s probably time to stop. What I’m trying to say, and what I hope has come through, is that all this discussion on “strong” female characters has left me thinking about female characters in general. How they are portrayed in my own works and in others’. How I’d like more of them in books and on screen. How I want to love them, hate them, admire them, hug them, help them, smack them, anything.

Strong reactions to a character means they are coming to life on the page.

Give me female characters who make me react. Better yet, give me a large cast of them. In my opinion, these are both far more important than a lone female character being merely strong.

Some discussion points: What are your thoughts on strong female characters? Do you think our definition of “strong” is the issue? Can you think of other works of fiction with great female casts? Did Sophia’s article make you look at your own writing (or other works of fiction) in a new light?

Further Pub Crawl reading: JJ has given us some great posts on the topic of female characters: “Strong Female” Fallacies and The Importance of Womance.

  

36 Responses to On “strong” female characters

  1. cait Aug 28 2013 at 7:34 am #

    Such a good post! I totally agree. It sucks how women get defined as just “strong”. How are we as readers supposed to always relate when all we get to work with is “strong”? I’m a teen and an avid reader, and I way prefer reading books where the girls are kick-butt — but not just in a strong way. You can be kick-butt in your shyness and in your creativeness and in your ability to get things done, or to just dream about them. Putting characters in the “Strong” box feels constricting not releasing.

    • Erin Bowman
      Erin Bowman Aug 28 2013 at 10:42 am #

      Exactly. Girls are many things. Lets celebrate all of them.

  2. Alex Ray Aug 28 2013 at 9:09 am #

    Fantastic post, Erin! I couldn’t agree more! Women are so diverse that just to be labeled as “strong” is rather insulting. I applaud any woman who can pick up a [really heavy] sword (or any extraordinary power, really) and kick some ass with it, but I certainly can’t do that and so I can’t exactly relate to such a character if that’s the only thing that makes her “awesome.”

    One of my favorite female characters is The Second Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. She’s shy and timid and barely has a back bone when the novel opens. She doesn’t even get a name! She compares herself to the beautiful and brazen Rebecca and she knows she’s a sniveling wimp. But I love her because I’m shy and timid and she overcomes, and THAT is totally kick ass.

    The reason I love Celaena Sardothien isn’t because she kills better than any man – though watching her do that was so freaking amazing. It’s because she can kill better than a man and still be so damn girly it’s adorable. And she has one of the purest souls I’ve seen.

    Celaena and the 2nd Mrs. de Winter are two COMPLETELY different characters from completely different books, but they are both amazing in their own way. THEIR OWN way.

    Again, great post! Thank you!

    • Erin Bowman
      Erin Bowman Aug 28 2013 at 10:41 am #

      That is one of my favorite things about Celaena–that she can kick butt one moment, and put on a dress and daydream about shopping the next. She doesn’t have to sacrifice her femininity.

  3. tracikenworth Aug 28 2013 at 9:24 am #

    I agree whole-heartedly. We should follow the characters that breathes to life inside us making them wimpy, strong, crazy, sadistic. etc. Whatever makes them wholly them is what will bring readers to our books.

  4. Maureen Wallace Aug 28 2013 at 10:01 am #

    I love this post and completely agree with so many of the analyses. Thought you’d be interested in reading this New York Times op-ed by Anna Gunn, who plays Skyler on “Breaking Bad.” We’re all on the same wavelength — and frankly, it’s one of the reasons I’ve so enjoyed Gillian Flynn’s complex, flawed characters (OK, and it’s fun that they’re a little crazy).

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/24/opinion/i-have-a-character-issue.html?_r=0

    • Erin Bowman
      Erin Bowman Aug 28 2013 at 10:38 am #

      Maureen! I actually saw that post the other day and nodded my head through the entire thing. So many amazing points in her opinion piece. (Like I said, it’s been an awesome month for discussing female characters!) 🙂

  5. Anna J. Boll Aug 28 2013 at 10:24 am #

    Strong can mean so many things, and while Ms. McDougall ponders the semantics a bit, she seems to spend most of her argument on strength as physical strength and well– ability to be violent/fight. (Not surprising as she seems most concerned with superheroes and comics.) I actually believe that when writers talk about strong characters they mean characters who live an breathe on the page, who have a unique voice, who make decisions- suffer the consequences of those decisions- and learn from them enough to grow and change. Perhaps it is because I am so steeped in the kidlit community that I find these characters, both female and male, in abundance. For new releases I’d point to the graphic novel, Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas, by Ottaviani & Wicks; Parched, by Crowder; The Language Inside, by Thompson; Brotherhood, by Westrick, and The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates (series), Carlson. What resonates for me in her argument, is the issue of double standards.

    • Erin Bowman
      Erin Bowman Aug 28 2013 at 10:37 am #

      “I actually believe that when writers talk about strong characters they mean characters who live an breathe on the page, who have a unique voice, who make decisions- suffer the consequences of those decisions- and learn from them enough to grow and change”

      ^ I completely agree. But because this term seemed to pop up and be used more frequently after Katniss came on the scene (on the tail of a much quieter, subdued Bella), I really wish we could all find a different word instead of “strong.” Because even though we can all agree that a character can be strong in more ways than physical, the fact that the term is rooted in a “that character literally kicked butt” place does a little damage, I think. Even in the writing/entertainment world, if you’re attending a panel on “strong” female characters, chances are 90% of the featured characters will be able to wield a weapon or throw a punch.

      Personally, I’d rather we just celebrated female characters that we love/admire/hate/empathize with/etc rather than using the label strong. It all comes back to the double standard issue you brought up. Because yes, it seems male characters are celebrated for being an abundance of traits, but women are often shrugged off unless they can put on that cape and kick butt. And that’s not right.

    • jeffo Aug 28 2013 at 10:32 pm #

      I agree with you, Anna. When I see people talking about ‘strong’ female characters–or ‘strong’ characters, period–I’ve always assumed they’re talking about well-written characters, characters with depth and strengths and flaws. The focus on ‘strong’ female characters is because too many female characters were written without that, and were written simply to serve the well-rounded male characters who drove the story.

      • Anna J. Boll Aug 29 2013 at 3:27 pm #

        Exactly. Women as window dressing to support the story of the more authentic male main characters. But this isn’t just the issue for women (of course). It’s also the issue for characters of color who are two dimensional side-kicks, secondary and minor characters in too many YA and MG novels.

  6. Bess Aug 28 2013 at 2:27 pm #

    Maybe the focus on strong was a band-aid to remedy a problem. Maybe now we’ve gotten to the point where fiction isn’t full of unbelievable and stereotypical women. It seems like the best way to remedy any stereotypical character is to not think of types but of individuals. So, yes, I agree. Why have all characters of one “type” be the same when no two people, even if they share many things in common, are exactly the same?

    • Erin Bowman
      Erin Bowman Aug 28 2013 at 7:26 pm #

      “Why have all characters of one “type” be the same when no two people, even if they share many things in common, are exactly the same?” <-- Preach it! 🙂

  7. Alexa Y. Aug 28 2013 at 2:49 pm #

    I am just going to say this: I love this post. It’s thought-provoking, and I agree with most of what you had to say. Plus, I’m a sucker for the fact that you managed to reference Harry Potter in such a fitting fashion. YES, we do need more female characters! And female characters that cover a variety of personalities and traits!

    • Erin Bowman
      Erin Bowman Aug 28 2013 at 7:26 pm #

      You know me and my Harry Potter love. How could I *not* include references when the examples were so perfect. 😉

  8. Ifeoma Dennis Aug 28 2013 at 4:27 pm #

    Yes Sophia’s article made me believe a little more in my present WIP!

    My protagonist is not the stereotypical “strong” female character, although she becomes a bit stronger as the story unfolds. But I’ve been worried about her “weakness” from the get-go because much emphasis has been placed on creating “strong” female characters.

    I love what you said about people being varied. That said, I don’t think we should create characters to fit into a box. Our characters should fit our stories, and should be as diverse as all our stories are.

    Thanks for posting this, Erin!

    • Erin Bowman
      Erin Bowman Aug 28 2013 at 7:27 pm #

      Yay! Glad the conversation was useful for you and your WIP! Good luck with it.

  9. Bennett Aug 28 2013 at 4:37 pm #

    Two things make a good character: she should be interesting and she should be real. (Even a vampire or a wizard should be real in some way.) Whether she is “strong” or not is not really very relevant to the question.

    • Erin Bowman
      Erin Bowman Aug 28 2013 at 7:29 pm #

      Amen.

      Geez, Bennett. Between your twitter response and this comment, I want to name you King of Succinct And Insightful Summaries on this topic. Also, a high five is in order.

  10. Annie Aug 28 2013 at 6:13 pm #

    One of the most interesting examinations of a strong female character to me is Sarah Connor from the Terminator series.

    Linda Hamilton in the original Terminator movies played a very masculine heroine (much like Sigourney Weaver in Aliens) because that was Hollywood’s idea of a strong woman. It always frustrated me.

    But then in the tv show with Lena Headey she became a much more interesting and complex character. Sarah Connor was still tough and decisive and used a lot of guns. But she was also weak and her love for her son made her vulnerable and she made mistakes but she dealt with the consequences of those mistakes and she cried and she held her son when he cried and she was also unflinchingly strong when she had to be.

    It’s a really interesting dynamic to me.

    • Erin Bowman
      Erin Bowman Aug 28 2013 at 7:32 pm #

      I’m a huge fan of Terminator (1+2), but I’ve never watched the SC Chronicles. This comment is making me think I need to look into it… *runs to check netflix*

  11. Patrick Stahl Aug 28 2013 at 9:43 pm #

    I think you hit the nail on the head here. Male or female, your characters should (in many cases) be at least somewhat interesting, realistic, and relatable. Beyond that, a variety in the genre is a need/definite plus.

    I haven’t actually read any female characters that seemed poorly done, to my memory. That being said, I’m male, so I don’t know what women would find offensive.

    • Erin Bowman
      Erin Bowman Aug 29 2013 at 9:56 am #

      “poorly done” <-- It's so subjective, you know? I think that's why this topic of "strong" female characters keeps coming back up. What's strong? What's poorly written? Heck, what I consider to be an interesting, complex character might bore another reader stiff. But yes, interesting characters should be the goal. Real, complex, feel-like-they-could-be-living-next-door characters. Writers should strive to write them, and readers/viewers should be demanding more of them.

  12. Rosanna Silverlight Aug 29 2013 at 3:56 am #

    Thanks for writing this great post, Erin.

    I’m just reading Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders trilogy at the moment and I have just counted off fourteen female characters who inhabit roles large and small and encompass three different species and ALL of them are interesting. They have interesting, realistic relationships with each other as well as the male characters, and there is a HUGE spectrum of female involvement and agency.

    For television, Battlestar Galactica comes to mind – a show in which the military and the President’s Office square off with one another almost as much as they do with the Cylons. In which the President of the Universe, Laura Roslin, is a woman. And when she’s facing flack for being voted in by default at the beginning of the series, the most common insult thrown at her is the fact that she came from being a benign educational secretary and is a ‘schoolteacher’, not that she’s a woman.

    Oh, and relating to Sophia’s excellent point about film posters – on the BSG DVD covers, we see equal space given to men and women. Or just ONE woman (Six).

    So, your post really got me thinking, Erin. It made me think A LOT about my in-revisions WIP, which features a female protagonist – whom I’ll no longer be referring to as ‘kickass’. 😉

    • Erin Bowman
      Erin Bowman Aug 29 2013 at 9:57 am #

      I’m not familiar with the series, but it does not surprise me at all that Hobb has packed it full of uniquely drawn females. 🙂

      And BSG — yes! How did I not think of that originally? Six, Boomer, Starbuck, Roslin…so many complex, amazingly rendered females. This makes me want to rewatch the show!

  13. Krispy Aug 29 2013 at 4:05 am #

    I think often when we’re talking about “strong” female characters, what we really mean/want is a fully realized and well-developed female character. We want a female character who is an equal to the male characters in the sense that they seem like real people with real motivations and emotions and personalities. So often and traditionally, female characters play supporting roles or even if they are the main characters, they fall into tropes where they become defined by their roles or relations to other characters. And then of course now, the definition of “strong” female character seems to be equated most commonly with physical strength or female characters who take on traditionally male characteristics/roles.

    So I think the problem is a little bit in the definition of “strong.” I think everyone means something a little different when they say it, but it has become shorthand for wanting female characters who hold their own in some way. And I honestly think that if the character comes across as an authentic, nuanced person, then that makes them a “strong” character.

    Harry Potter is a great example of a cast that includes a lot of different, interesting, realistic women (but Harry Potter is always a great example of many things). I also enjoyed the women of SERAPHINA, though Seraphina as the main character had the most page time. I admired her because she was not physically “strong” – she didn’t go around kicking butt or slaying dragons – but she was strong-minded. She had a stubborn streak and a strong will and smarts , and those were the things she relied on to save herself and her friends. But she also had what could be perceived as “weak” traits – she wasn’t physically butt-kicking; she didn’t like to take on leadership roles, she was a loner.

    On Twitter though, I mentioned the female cast of Melina Marchetta’s Lumatere Chronicles. I think that set of women is incredibly well done. It’s especially interesting because the women actually occupy traditionally female roles in this fantasy world. They are queens, priestesses, servants, mothers, lovers, witches, princesses, sisters, wives. They take care of their households and raise their children and cook for their families. YET so many of these women are more than their obvious roles. None of them are great warriors, but they show such strength of character. They call out their husbands and sons on their rash actions; they participate in the political discourse; they literally risk their lives to protect the people they love by lying or diverting or hiding. They are resourceful and enduring and noble – and they’re also fallible. These are such well-drawn characters who have these great qualities, but they too are prone to prejudices and fear and pettiness and grudge-holding. I am constantly impressed by how Marchetta does such subtle character building.

    And lastly (before this is a real essay), this post and your quotes reminds me of the Women Who Kick Ass panel I saw at Comic Con, and while all of the actresses called for more and better female roles, one of them specifically talked about wanting these more nuanced portrayals of women. Katee Sackoff cited her mother as an example of a type of “strong” female character she would like to see more of. She said that her mom wasn’t extraordinary in the sense of being an action hero or community leader or anything like that, but she said that she really looked up to her mom for her quiet strength, her kindness and love. And so it’d be nice to see more of these everyday women shown in media because they’re multi-dimensioned, interesting, and admirable too.

    • Erin Bowman
      Erin Bowman Aug 29 2013 at 10:03 am #

      I completely agree with you on what writer’s often mean when we say “strong” female characters, but as I said to Anna in a comment above, I wish we could settle on new terminology. Because at it’s core, I think the term rose from a physical definition. (Think: describing Katniss when she emerged on the scene in the wake of Bella.) It still carries that undertone that you can actually kick butt, and if not, you are at least empowered/tough/confident/etc.

      I just want to cut the word out together. Write female characters. Write them authentically and honestly and give them a complex range of traits. Make them feel human. The end.

      It’s nothing new. I think we all agree with this deep-down and I think most writers ARE trying to do this. Honestly, I think it’s the promotional side of things–“oh this has such a STRONG female lead.” Well, unless she’s a weight-lifting champ, I want us to stop doing that. What’s wrong with “this has a fantastic female lead and here’s why…”

      Okay, sorry. That turned into a bit of a rant.

      I never managed to get through Seraphina (stopped halfway, but maybe need to pick it up again.) Marchetta’s series is high on my list though, and this only makes me want to read it more. I’m so glad the women on that CC panel touched on some of the quieter aspects that make a compelling female character.

  14. Marie Lu
    Marie Lu Aug 29 2013 at 12:21 pm #

    This is such a fantastic post, Erin! I especially love your breakdown of the wonderful variety of females in the Harry Potter world. Pretty much the golden standard. Totally agree–give me ladies who are unique, flawed, strong, and weak. We want them all. (I’m also super jealous you’ve already gotten to read Fangirl!)

    • Erin Bowman
      Erin Bowman Aug 29 2013 at 2:02 pm #

      Thanks, Marie!! <3

      (And I think you will adore FANGIRL. Such a fun read.)

  15. CL Mannarino Sep 28 2013 at 12:52 pm #

    This is a fantastic post and such a great extension of the discussion! I’m so glad I got to read it. 🙂 Thank you for posting.

  16. Emmax Sep 30 2013 at 4:25 pm #

    I think the problem is seeing strength as a virtue. Have strength is not necessarily something good wether you’re a man or a woman, so you could write a strong woman and not necessarily have to be the protagonist or a well written character. I really like the phrase “Write characters who are human” think a little on that phrase and maybe you get a lot of answers.

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  18. Alexandria Dec 26 2013 at 10:16 pm #

    I agree. Funny, before reading this–and Sophia’s–article, I’ve always wanted strong female characters. But this opened my eyes.
    Growing up (I am now 23)–I’ve never looked at a female character for inspiration. Never. In fact, female characters simply annoyed me. Grated my nerves and my response to them all was “how typically female” (I know, terrible, but I couldn’t help it).
    Anyway, all my inspirations came from male leads or male sidekicks. You know how, when you read a book or watch a movie, you tend to put yourself in a certain characters position? Well, I’ve always put myself in a mans position … simply because male characters were the only ones I could identify with, the only ones I could admire, the only ones to whom I found inspiration from. Female characters in books and movies tend to bother me … and this article revealed why. All the female characters I’ve come into contact with have lacked depth. Sure, some were strong, but they were very flat–there was nothing to them. They were annoying, and I often wondered why anyone would bother putting them there? Sad, really. I haven’t read nor watched the Harry Potter series–so I am going to have to do just that. It’s time I try to find female characters with the depth that all my favourite male characters have.

  19. Melissa Mar 26 2014 at 8:30 am #

    Veronica Mars! Veronica Mars! Veronica Mars!

    She is everything you describe and more. Smart, quirky, funny, and yes strong. She’s an outsider who used to be part of the “in” crowd and she digs for the truth, not matter what the truth turns out to be. She has a boyfriends and relationship drama, but it doesn’t define who she is. And she is fiercely loyal to her friends and father. If you haven’t seen it — watch the t.v. show and follow up with the movie and then spread the word, because Veronica Mars is a character with depth and issues who is kickass but also completely human.

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