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Readers love a strong female character. Just remember you can be vulnerable, unreliable, uncertain, or even physically weak and still be a strong character.

For decades, fans and publishers alike were eager for strong female characters. People were tired of damsels in physical or emotional distress. They wanted women who were smart, strong, brave, capable, and who didn’t need men to solve their problems. Then we started getting them.

Hooray, right? Well, the problem is, we’ve mostly been getting one type of strong female character (SFC) — the ass-kicking kind — as opposed to women who are strong in other ways. This has led to a slew of characters who are often less interesting than their forebearers.

There’s no denying the empowering appeal of an ass-kicking SFC. The British TV show, The Avengers, featured a few of them, especially Dr. Cathy Gale and Emma Peel. These women were genius scientists, masters of martial arts, and fashion icons to boot (because why not). They inspired millions of girls, worldwide, and are considered iconic characters. No wonder. They were trailblazing characters … back in the 1960s. The problem is we haven’t really progressed beyond these women since then.

It’s not that fully developed, interesting strong female characters don’t exist in modern literature. They do. Esch in Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones and Ifemelu in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah come to mind. The problem is most pronounced in genre fiction — especially male-written genre fiction — where SFCs have become one-dimensional male-fantasy figures who don’t have nearly the emotional depth of their male peers.

Or, we get characters like Hermione Granger: amazing, capable characters with depth who get overshadowed by their male counterparts. (The “Simply Potter” Facebook group hilariously re-named the Potter books to fix this, e.g. Hermione Granger and that time I used the power of research and deductive reasoning to make sure Harry didn’t die; Hermione Granger and that time I was a Time Lord.)

Sometimes writers just can’t win when it comes to creating great SFCs. Female characters get criticized in ways that male characters don’t. Nancy Drew, who first appeared in 1930, has gone through several changes over the years (in an effort to keep up with the times) and each iteration has been equally praised and lambasted. She’s too bossy. She’s too outspoken. She’s too passive. She’s too submissive. The Hardy Boys have changed too, but they don’t receive the same criticisms as Nancy.

Of course, our idea of what a strong female is changes over time, too. Consider the case of two genre heroines: Ellen Ripley from Alien (1979) and Wendy Torrance from the film version of The Shining (1980).

Ripley was immediately hailed as a feminist role model. She wasn’t the typical “final girl” of slasher films. She was smart, outspoken, and, most of all, tough. She beat the alien, and she did it in a recognizably strong way — or, specifically, in a way that men recognized as strong. (It’s worth noting that the writers put a note in the Alien script that read: “The crew is unisex and all parts are interchangeable for men or women.”)

Wendy, on the other hand, was roundly criticized at the time. Stephen King led the charge of critics, calling Wendy a “screaming dishrag” and “one of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film.” Yes, she and Danny ultimately prevail, but she was terrified and crying half the time, and seemed totally unsure of what to do the rest. And the fact that Kubrick famously harangued actress Shelley Duvall during filming only added to the sense that Wendy was the opposite of an SFC. Wendy wasn’t just considered weak, she was hated.

But times have changed, and opinion is shifting on Wendy. Many are now considering her a real-world example of a strong female character; she just happens to be strong in ways that are different from the cliché. She’s a caring and attentive woman caught in an abusive relationship. She’s a loving mom to her troubled son. She’s terrified, yes (who wouldn’t be?), but she manages to overcome her fear and prevail over Jack. She resourceful. She’s even brave.

In short, Wendy is a woman. A strong woman. (I would even argue that The Shining, whether intended by Kubrick or not, is a feminist film that clearly satirizes the crumbling world of the patriarchy: e.g. Wendy does all the work Jack was hired to do, on top of making all the meals and raising their son; Jack is merely an abusive, alcoholic, whiny, loser; Dick Hallorann, the proverbial knight in shining armor, gets killed — foolishly — the minute he shows up; “Your wife appears to be stronger than we imagined, Mr. Torrance;” etc.)

Championing Wendy doesn’t mean dissing Ripley. Ripley is a great character. She’s much more interesting and three-dimensional than most of the characters she inspired. She is, as author John Scalzi puts it, “pushy, aggressive, rude, injured, suffering from post-traumatic syndrome … tired, smart, maternal, angry, empathetic, and determined to save others, even at great cost to herself. All without being a spinny killbot.”

In the ‘60s, or even as late as 1979, the notion that “women can be strong, too” may have been groundbreaking. But today, that sentiment is patronizing. Strength can be expressed in ways that don’t involve the physical. Your heroine can be scared, inept, sick, suffering, depressed, shattered, haunted, cocky, bipolar, unreliable, uncertain, selfish, and even physically weak and still be a strong character — just the way so many male characters have been. The world is ready to embrace the notion that a well-written, compelling female character — who actually behaves like a woman — is strength personified.

One last comment: Many agents and publishers will claim they are searching for strong female characters — they will even use those exact words. I would urge you, however, to avoid using that term in any queries you write, as it has become somewhat toxic. (After all, people never seem to feel the need to include the word “strong” in any description for a male character.) Instead, show how strong your heroine is without actually using that word.

What strong female characters have inspired you?

 

The End

 

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Scott McCormick

About Scott McCormick

Scott McCormick has written 22 posts in this blog.

Scott McCormick is the author of the Mr. Pants series of graphic novels for kids. He also runs Storybook Editing, offering developmental editing for authors. His new audiobook, Rivals! Frenemies Who Changed the World, has been described as “drunk history for middle-grade kids” and is available on Audible. Scott can be reached at storybookediting@gmail.com. Photo credit Karen Cooley.

14 thoughts on “Avoid The Cliché “Strong Female Character”

  1. Hi, Scott. I really like your blog. All of it is very helpful and good information. I myself am a writer and am nearly done with an e-book on how to write about disabled characters ( the right way).

    Keep bloging. I will be sure to check out more of your post.

  2. Gianna says:

    Write with your heart. Edit with your head. Want to connect with your readers? Then don’t stereotype your characters. Why would you anyway?

  3. Sally M. Chetwynd says:

    I despised Nancy Drew as a child (in the early 1960s) as a busybody incapable of minding her own business and causing more trouble than that which she exposed. I was disappointed in the woman in the comic strip “The Phantom,” who was capable and independent until she and The Phantom married, at which time she was drawn as completely helpless. I’m not the feminist type, and am an incurable tomboy, but I appreciate a good story with well-developed characters, no matter whether they are male or female. I’m not drawn to a story because its lead characters are women; the story draws me in because it’s well written.

  4. Jenny says:

    This article was great, as well as really inspiring. I am writing a female lead who is also not typical, and her mentor is a likewise atypical strong woman. Aside from this article being almost like a checklist for these characters, it also excites me to know that there is a place in literature for them to be the strong, wonderful people they are.

  5. Wendy says:

    Actually, I think the “strong, but vulnerable” female character is cliche. Writers are so addicted to the idea that everyone has to have their personal kryptonite that they get predictable.

    Though, as an author, I find one of the more inspirational (as in “I oughtta steal that idea”) characters is Teletha Testarossa from Full Metal Panic, who fits what TV Tropes calls “Crouching moron, hidden badass”: She’s an accident-prone super-clutz (and only a teenager, to boot) that designed, was general contractor for, and commanded a super-submarine and its strike force. Her XO, a former British sub commander that was good friends with her father (also a sub commander), could easily (and often is, by outsiders) be taken for the skipper, but is sincerely subordinate to her.

  6. Aside from Dagny Taggart none, perhaps Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird. What you point out though is much, much worse in the visual medium, namely film and television. Girls with guns trying hard to look menacing, 115 lbs cuties beating up on 200lb grown men – absurdities on top of cartoons – patronizing, predictable and boring…

  7. Larry Bone says:

    Scott:
    Your comment that agents aren’t looking for physically strong heroines even though they say they are is really true. They are looking for a heroine that most people could identify with without her going past her limits. My favorite heroine is the Linda Hamilton character in Terminator 2 because she will do anything to protect her son from being killed. As a male character she be totally acceptable but she pushes the envelope like an alternate cinema heroine. But my other favorite heroine is Donna Reed as the wife in it’s It’s A Wonderful Life. Perhaps the most acceptable strong woman character would seem somewhere in the middle. Definitely your observations are well worth considering when there is strong woman in an author’s short story, novella or novel.

  8. Marilyn Carvin says:

    No SFCs before the’60’s? Can’t think of the names of the movies, but I remember when I was young I admired Barbara Stanwyck in some of her roles. You might want to look them up. I suspect they would seem sort of a cliche now, but I just remember thinking how strong she seemed.

  9. Scott Boyer says:

    Loved the post. You comment that strength doesn’t always have to be physical is a great point. It reminds me of one of first lessons I learned when I started writing: while there are suggested guidelines and conventions for effective writing, there are no rules. It’s our responsibility as writers not to simply follow a formula when creating SFCs (or any other type of character for that matter), but rather to use our imaginations to create unique personalities. When the creation process is genuine, the character declares themself strong, not the other way around.

  10. R. John says:

    I wrote two books on strong females. One wanted to become a TV producer-writer-creator-director and the other was about two girls putting together a top 40 club band that eventually made it to the big time.

    Neither book excited the female population. In fact my TV producer book got 2 stars because it didn’t have enough romance and had too much about what it takes to be a TV producer. (I used to produce films, commercials, my partners brought a show to Filmways that went to pilot for NBC, but didn’t get picked up. I was also in bands and produced acts with women front people and musicians.)

    So I’m not sure females who read books really want mentors and icons. They want a good romance. So I started giving it to them and I sell books and make money and get 3, 4 and 5 star reviews.

  11. “The world is ready to embrace the notion that a well-written, compelling female character — who actually behaves like a woman — is strength personified.” I’m not even sure what this means. How does a woman behave, exactly? All women are different. This is a terribly sexist statement. And how and where do women who are non cis hetero find themselves in a character “who actually behaves like a woman.” That one sentence just undid everything written in this post.

  12. Unfortunately, when people hear strong woman character, they think of a woman kicking ass and beating everyone up–when it should be good characterization. I grew up reading action books and science fiction. Women were non-existent in the science fiction books. In the action books, the girl was the victim and pretty much wall paper while the boys got the action. I would like to see more action books with women characters who veer towards realistic. They’re often written like the woman is a guy in a skirt because it’s darn hard doing action with a character who generally can’t punch her way out of things like a guy.

  13. Kelvin says:

    It seems the trend of the SFC isn’t winding down anytime soon. I’ve seen the headline of many publisher/agents/authors using the lines in the likes of “kick butt heroine,” “strong independent woman” and last but definitely not least the “feisty female protagonist.” When I write female characters (I’m a man) I treat them no different than my male characters. What I mean by that is that I treat them like ordinary people. I treat them like real life,

    Not all women are the same, but everyone can agree that strength isn’t just about fighting and or physical power. I’d take a cunning protag over one who fights any day, one who could determine for herself of how to get out of a situation that doesn’t resort to the obvious cliched fight scene.

  14. Mel Hughes says:

    Wow, I saw this post late, but had to put in my .02.

    No SFCs before the ’60s? I can name TWO, in the same movie, from 1939, and no, I don’t mean Dorothy and the Wicked Witch of the West from the Wizard of Oz. What about Melanie Hamilton Wilkes and Scarlett O’Hara from “Gone with the Wind”? Scarlett single-handedly pulled her plantation from the brink of destruction. She never restored its former glory; at best, Tara was only a farm, but considering most of her neighbors either lost their land entirely or were reduced to living on hand-outs, this was a major thing. Scarlett went on to become a great business-woman in an all-male business, lumber milling and selling. And Melanie was never physically strong, but she was fiercely courageous and devoted to those she loved, working herself half to death in the cotton fields during the early days of reconstruction.

    Thanks for making me think…

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