Monday, March 24, 2014

The Problem With the "Strong Female Character"

Right off the bat, I want to disclaim: I am NOT AGAINST strong female characters. After last week's post, you might not believe that. I do like weak characters, particularly when they have to get strong through the story. It seems real to me; I don't buy it when a teenager from our modern world falls into Medieval England and suddenly knows all the social customs as well as how to fight with every weapon. NO. People have to grow, and I prefer to see that. I want to read stories about people, male and female, who seem real.

Which brings me to the problem I have with strong female characters. Stop calling them "strong female characters."

Seriously. Stop it.

We don't call strong male characters "strong male characters." We call them "male characters." And I think that is a heck of a lot more freeing to a writer than feeling the need to write a strong character. It's kind of crippling to sit down and feel like you have to write a STRONG character, because there's so much baggage that comes along with that word, especially when attached to a female character. Especially nowadays, when there's so much political discussion about gender roles in books.

I think that's why all the "strong female characters" in stories now look the same: a headstrong girl caught in some kind of love trouble and somewhat gifted at physical combat. Like this one:

And this one:

 And this one:

And her:

And, hey, how about one more:

Lot of bows, I've just noticed. This is Katniss, Tris, Clary, Merida, and Tauriel, in case you were wondering. Honestly, it didn't take me long to come up with this list. I could have found more. Personally, I think this profile works sometimes (Katniss and Merida), but it also fails (In my opinion, Clary is basically Bella Swan with a stele. I don't buy that she can legitimately fight better than a trained warrior because I've read the first 3 books and I've never seen her do it). When I picture Tris and Clary, I never see them fighting. I see them standing too close to a dangerous, overprotective boy.

The problem, to me, is that there is a profile. And if any character fits that profile, she's automatically considered a strong female character. Because when we say "strong," apparently what we mean is a headstrong warrior princess with men falling over themselves for her.

I dislike this because I think it discounts other kinds of strength and can cripple a character. We don't think a male character is strong if he's stubborn, capable of fighting, and chased by women. There's much more diversity, and I wish that on the female characters.

To me, a strong character, male or female, is one who understands what must be done and does it. He or she might have to sacrifice for it, but it must be done and the hero will do it. Because he/she is the hero. Everything else is characterization to make a character come alive, feel like a real person and not a gingerbread cookie.

I want to see women who are stay-at-home moms. I want to see nuns and traveling saleswomen and chefs and computer programmers who have never touched a butter knife. I want women who can't fight worth a bent arrow but will defend their loved ones to the end through words and persuasion. I want women who put aside immediate wants because they know what needs to be done. I want sensible, clever women who know when not to use their power (I've been reading a lot of Terry Prachett lately). I want men who do these things too. I want varied characters, real characters, who resonate through their humanness.

Which is why I like characters who fail. They are so much stronger for failing, accepting the consequences, and coming back to try again. Calling a character "strong" right away makes it harder to let them fail. Or even make mistakes. I don't want a formula anymore; that all I see when I go to the YA section of Barnes and Noble. Let's do something new and write characters who are strong, but maybe only after you got to know them a little.


  1. Amen. I have long thought that, if we're going to label them anything other than just "female characters" let's aim for "REAL female characters," women and girls we can believe in.

  2. Thanks! I'm glad someone else agrees with me on this.