The Only Thing You Need to Know About Writing Strong Female Characters

The Only Thing You Need to Know About Writing Strong Female Characters

This week’s video tells you the only true definition of strong female characters—and how you can use it to make your own heroines even more compelling and interesting.

Video Transcript:

An issue we hear a lot about these days is that of strong female characters. A lot of people argue that strong female characters are under-represented in modern books and movies, and there’s certainly a good deal of truth to this—although we’ve undeniably come a long way from the sugary one-dimensional heroines of Charles Dickens.

Dora Copperfield David Charles Dickens

But I think it’s really useful to analyze what strong female characters actually are.

There’s the Bechdel Test that says that, in order for a story to qualify as having strong female characters, it has to feature a plot that allows at least two women to have a conversation about something other than a man. That raises some interesting points, but what it definitely doesn’t do is define character.

So let me tell you how I define strong female characters. It’s really simple: a strong female character—or really any character—is one who is a catalyst. She’s someone who causes things to happen in the plot. She’s not a passive object.

Director Joss Whedon took some surprising flak for his treatment of Black Widow in Age of Ultron. And he took this flak for the simple reason that he allowed Widow—after three movies—to finally show a softer, more feminine side.

Black Widow Scarlet Witch Age of Ultron Nightmare

Did this somehow make her a weaker character? Well, let’s see, is she still a catalyst? Is she still out there making things happen and moving the plot? Yup. So I’d say that’s still a strong character.

Because this is another really important thing to note: strong female characters don’t mean masculine or emotionless or flawless female characters—because, frankly, more often than not, that’s just going to be unrealistic. (I would argue that the most sexist representation of Black Widow in any of her movies was the first one, in which she was nothing more than a beach-curled, bad-guy-kicking, leather-clad, tough-chick stereotype.)

Black Widow Scarlett Johansson Iron Man 2

A strong character—female or male—is one with realistic strengths and flaws who acts as an integral catalyst that moves the plot. If your characters are doing that, then they’re not going to be weaklings.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How do you define strong female characters? Tell me in the comments!

The Only Thing You Need to Know About Writing Strong Female Characters

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. It is very interesting to hear a woman’s perspective on female characters, especially as I conceive a story with female lead characters. And as a man, of course, I don’t want to fall into the cliché pitfall.

    Hence, a helpful article.

    Besides, I do deem a character weak because he or she has a soft side. A Person who is 100 percent tough is a loner and not capable of real teamwork.

  2. Here’s my question, K.T. You’ve read my Schellendorf novels. If I were to write a novel from Britt’s POV (3rd person intimate) do you think she would be a strong character? HOW would she be strong? The only really strong thing she did was with the gun – and that was a mistake (spoiler).
    Her inherent weakness was the position of upper-class women of the day, the weakness of the position they were held to in society = Kinder/Kuchen/Kirche. (Children/Kitchen/Church)
    Was her only strength that she tried to revolt against the constraints of society?

    • By the way, “Kuchen” in German is “cake”.

      “Kitchen” is “Küche”. (Or, if you do not have the umlaut, “Kueche”. The plural is “Küchen”.

    • I haven’t read your stories, and I hope I’m not misunderstanding you – it sounds as if you consider “strong” to be synonymous with “action-hero” (the gun reference).

      I would consider your character strong if she has principles and does what she can within her constraints to live up to her principles. Hypothetical – if Britt were in the Middle Ages, and her husband arranged for their daughter to marry an utter brute, what would Britt do? Spirit the daughter away to a convent? Pledge her to someone decent who her husband could not refuse without losing his standing? She doesn’t have to get physical to protect her daughter, or get physical to be strong.

      In Lois McMaster Bujold’s “A Civil Campaign,” Miles lives in a patriarchal society, and one of his foes discounts that women will be a threat to his evil ambitions. Miles is amused. It turns out that Miles has employed his aunt Alice to use her influence with the other noblemen’s wives, to see to it that the noblemen either vote as Miles wants or to not show up at all. Miles is the series character, but if Alice Vorpatril were the main character in that story she would have been just as strong for taking the actions she does and for the reasons that she does it.

      I have a story in which the main characters live in a society where women have escorts and guardians to protect them. When my heroines need to take down a powerful man, hand-to-hand combat is not an arrow in their quiver. Instead, one of the characters leverages her family’s reputation and connections to ruin the man’s name. She calls into question the traitor’s loyalty to the empire and his competence to do his job, all so that more powerful authorities will take him down for her. It works, and she doesn’t have to lift a sword against him. Although, there is a combat scene shortly after, but it involves magical creatures 🙂

      I call this “Jackie Chan-ing.” If you’ve never seen his movies, Jackie Chan will use whatever is at hand to fight his opponents. It could be a frying pan or the clothes someone’s wearing; if he can grab it he will use it against them. What skills does Britt have at hand? Let her use what she’s got to do whatever she needs to do.

      • I really love your concept of “Jackie Chan-ing”, Jamie. I used to watch his movies at the Golden Dragon Theatre in Toronto, long before the Western World heard of him; and his improvisation with ordinary objects enchanted me and made him much more watchable than a super-fighter. Thank you for reminding me of that.

        KM, thanks for a thought-provoking article. I’m trying to figure out a main character of mine, right now. She is NOT what you call a strong character–at least at the beginning of her story–but there is huge growth and she is a catalyst of proportions she herself doesn’t realize. Articles such as this (and all the thoughtful comments) really help me navigate my way through shores like this.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          I think we too often get hung up on characters who *need* to start out in a place of weakness in order to grow into that strength. Absolutely nothing wrong with that, on any level. If they all start out strong, they have nowhere to go from there.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hmm, looking back, I’d have to say Brit rarely acts as a catalyst. If anything, her power comes more from the fact that she *refuses* to move. But, in this instance, I don’t think that’s necessarily a problem. That was kind of the point of her character.

      • Madeline T says:

        I like to think that a strong character is one who simply makes the hard choices. In this example Britt makes a choice that could ruin her relationship with her husband in order to do what’s best for her daughter. It may or may not be a pivotal moment in the plot, but defying the social norm and standing up for what she believes in makes her a strong character in my opinion. The “Strong and silent” type isn’t exclusive to men in reality, so why should characters be subject to such limits?

  3. Uh…which one is black widow’s first movie? I thought she was introduced in avengers.

  4. Both of the definitions of strong female characters you quote raise some interesting ideas for plot development. I was wondering how this would play out with female characters who are antagonists or ‘villains’ in old parlance. (Should that read ‘villainesses?’)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I would say it ultimately plays out exactly the same. Villains definitely have to be characters who are strong enough to move the plot. Villains tend toward two-dimensionality anyway, so looking for ways to surprisingly soften strong female antgonists can always create added interest. I talk about one of my favorite examples of this here:

  5. That whole thing with Black Widow in Ultron made me so mad! God forbid she have a desire that can’t actually happen. She wasn’t a “monster” because she couldn’t have children. She thought she was a monster because she could kill people without remorse, because it was her job. It’s something that doesn’t sit well with her. And she looks at Clint and Laura’s life, and wants it, but she knows she can’t have it. She’ll always be strong, but what I think Joss did was make her much more rounded.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree. Widow has turned out to be one of the most interesting characters in the series, simply because she so messed up and complicated. Exploring her “weaknesses” only makes her more interesting and compelling. It certainly doesn’t diminish my respect for her in any way.

  6. Interesting article! I’m fed up with writers and readers interpreting “strong” as masculine or kick-ass. This fixation with the kick-ass really does create some boring, stereotypical characters. And, in my opinion, it has also forced the love interests or male characters to be even more masculine, to keep “the balance”. Stupid and boring.

    I’m all for characters as catalysts, and in my experience, that’s what make the readers fall in love with the ones I’m writing. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Agree. I like to see physically strong and proficient women (like Widow), but I hate it when a story refuses to acknowledge that most women *are* physically weaker than men. That’s one thing that irks me about Castle. Kate Beckett’s awesome, but not for one minute do I buy that she can throw 300-pound mobsters up against the wall. Or catch up with them in high heels, come to that. :p

      • Zofia S. says:

        Thing is though, women aren’t weaker than men. And I don’t (just) mean that in the narrative sense; I mean most women have the advantage of wider hips and a more compact build (thus a lower centre of gravity) than men. Men may be more massive, but women generate more momentum; F=m*a and while men have an advantage in “m” women will generate more “a”. (Momentum is m*v, a=D[v]; as the velocity of the arm increases with the rotation of the hip, acceleration will increase.)

        The high heels are stupid though and exist purely to make their legs look better. And huge 300-pound guys don’t get slammed around all that easily, but this is TV-land, where bad guys are chivalrous and come up against the protagonist one-by-one rather than bring seven or so of their big burly mates armed with guns and lead pipes. Personally, I’d take the inhumanly strong lady over the screaming damsel any day, if only because it seems script writers don’t realise female characters don’t need to fall into one of two stereotypes.

        I have a bit of a mixed relationship with the “tough chick” stereotype. On one hand, it is trite and overused; on the other, when writers try to “feminise” the tough chick or “give her hidden depths” it usually feels like an excuse to make her dependent on the male protagonist. I mean, consider the stereotypical 90s action heroine: tough-as-nails, balls-out, cool and unfriendly… until the protagonist wears her down by sheer perseverance and she ends up confessing her dark past to him, crying and weeping and needing to be coddled. Then he saves the day and she rewards him with sex. Consider the current trend in YA heroines, who are tough and cool and independent… until Mr. Right comes along and sweeps them off their feet so they can giggle and feel “protected” by the designated love interest, regardless of whether or not this makes sense for their character. (The Hunger Games was a pretty bad offender, iirc, mostly because the narrative treated it like Katniss should be grateful to Peeta for trying to protect her — regardless of the fact that he was good with words and she was good with murder. Because… reasons?)

        I think what I’m trying to say is that it is better to present a Tough Chick stereotype than try to “feminise” her if the writers don’t understand human nature well enough to just straight-up humanise her. Some writers, like George RR Martin, are clever enough to write women at all ends of the action spectrum; Catelyn Stark is not a warrior, but she is still one of the strongest characters in the story; Sansa Stark lives as a hostage but, despite her naïveté, is shown to be both clever and capable as a diplomat; Asha Greyjoy grew up in a hypermasculine environment and is at a political disadvantage because of her sex but she still has agency and is an accomplished warrior and leader in her own right while still being in touch with her emotions; Brienne of Tarth suffers because she’s an ugly, masculine woman in a patriarchal society, but she is still sweet and kind and not some emotionally constipated stereotype. Tamora Pierce is another author who writes “real” humans; there is no artificial divide between Kel or Alanna’s masculine pursuits and their femininity. Their identity as women is never compromised by being knights; Alanna is a woman, a noble, a mother and a knight; Kel outright states that she’s glad she’s a girl and wears dresses in her free time to emphasise the fact. Their complexities as characters doesn’t come from false tension between the “masculine” and the “feminine”; they have failings and go through struggles that aren’t just gender-related. It’s a very sad truth that a lot of writers, especially in mainstream TV and movies, think Strong Female Characters should kick ass and be one of the guys until she gets a love interest, at which point he should kick more ass than her and she should get some real feminine interests, like domesticity and children.

        I’m going to agree with the spirit of the post but I don’t agree with using Black Widow as an example of a strong character, not since the new Avengers came out. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I really hated how Age of Ultron treated her; it felt like all her characterisation revolved around the romantic subplot (so by extrapolation, her characterisation revolved around a man, which is exactly the trend that the Bechdel Test is a response to). And juxtaposing her “Who’s the monster?” line with the flashback to her forced sterilisation is… unfortunate. It was a very poor cinematographic choice. It would have been much less ambiguous (and have far less unfortunate implications) if that flashback had been shown earlier in her monologue and if the “monster” line had coincided with a scene where she actually DID something. As it was, it seemed to imply that she was a monster because of what had been done TO her rather than what SHE had done.

        Anyway, sorry to hijack the conversation. I do agree with your post, by the way, if that wasn’t clear. (I am not very coherent when writing in English, sorry.)

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Great thoughts! I haven’t read Game of Thrones, but I really like the variety shown in the examples, as you’ve presented them.

          Also, very interesting re: your comments on the respective physical strength of men vs. women. I would still add, however, that the *average* woman is not going to be able to physically take out the average man. But I totally buy that Widow (even with her ridiculous shoes in the first Avengers) has the skills and training to use her physicality wisely and effectively in beating up the boys. I find that to be an exception with my reaction to tough girls in action movies, because most of the time, the story fails to sell me on the character’s ability to actually accomplish these feats.

    • Anna, so nicely said!

      • Good thing about stereotypical characters (of all genders) tough: There are a lot of characters out there waiting to be written. With just some “out of the box”-thinking you can actually create characters that are so well rounded and human and make the readers feel they’re getting to know someone really unique and interesting.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          It’s true. Just peeking a little bit around the corner of a stereotype can bring some really great things to the table. Which is kinda what Whedon did with Widow.

  7. Catriona McKeown says:

    Hmmm, so is a strong female character, who is the protagonist, allowed to be pulled along by the story initially, but at the mid point, she begins to turn it around and drive the story? Is that okay for a strong female lead character?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      A strong character will always have a goal, but if she’s following a positive change arc, she won’t be particularly effective in reaching that goal in the first half. Only at the Midpoint, when she learns enough about herself and the true nature of the conflict, will she really grow into herself and be able to be effectively active in pursuing that goal. More on that in this post:

  8. Fantastic article! I’m crafting a strong female character for my next WIP, but don’t want her to be a tough-chick stereotype. This gave me some good pointers, especially the part about being a catalyst. 🙂 I’m hoping to do something that’s strong and capable without the male-female power struggle that is overused with strong females.

    ~Schuyler
    http://www.ladybibliophile.blogspot.com

  9. Natasha says:

    Conpletely agree. If a female character does not do anything to move the plot forward, then she can’t be qualified as “strong”. One other example of a strong female character is Letty Ortiz in the Fast and Furious series. She not only plays an important role in the plot development, but she is also a well-rounded character with emotions, positive and negative personality characteristics.

    Awesome post! 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’ve only seen the first two movies with Letty in it, and she didn’t get much to do in either one. But I know she comes back! So I’m interested to see what the series does with her.

    • What if she’s had it so rough that she’s in survival mode, taking it day by day…would that be considered “moving the plot forward”?

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        On it’s most basic level, what you’re describing here sounds like reaction. Nothing wrong with that, as long as you’ve got your character eventually moving forward and taking action at some point. Those actions are what are going to influence and move the plot.

  10. strong female characters don’t mean masculine or emotionless or flawless female characters

    That can’t be stressed enough. I’d add “jerk” to that list as well. This is an annoyingly persistent confusion for some people. For whatever reason some people believe that girly = weak, that being feminine = weak, and that the only way for a woman to be strong is to be a man. But not any type of man, specifically a cad. A jerk. It’s a meme that needs to die; with a stake through its heart.

    I know some people criticized Black Widow for showing a little trauma from the Hulk’s attempt to kill her in the first Avengers (I actually saw that one!). They thought it made her weak. That’s ridiculous.

    If mighty Gandalf can tremble in terror before the Balrog, I see no reason why “Gandalfa” should be considered weak for doing so. If anything, I’d assume failure to do so to be a sign that she was too stupid and arrogant to be afraid. It would mean that the story gave her plot armor so she was free to lurch around being stupid about one thing or another. It would get on my nerves and I’d start waiting for her to die.

    It’s the fact that Gandalf stood his ground and did his “You shall not … pass!” move in spite of his terror that made him interesting. It meant that he was “human” enough to feel terror, and it proved to the audience that the Balrog really was a terrifying creature and we really should care if it catches the Fellowship. The Black Widow fleeing the Hulk demonstrated that the Hulk really was a terrifying being. Her shaking after escaping him showed that she was smart enough to know that she was mortal, that she cared about her own life enough to be upset about a friend almost ending it.

    Letting Gandalf show fear as well as showing him overcoming that fear for the sake of defeating a literal demon and protecting his friends is what made him strong. Acting in the face of his fear meant that he had enough mastery over himself not to give in to his emotions. It meant he valued his duty and his friends enough to stand up to the Balrog. What I wish people understood is that if Tolkien had switched out Gandalf for “Gandalfa” the exact same thing would be true, and for the same reason, and thus Gandalfa would be just as strong.

    I don’t think writers of “strong” heroines should be scared to make them feel grief or be afraid (or be nice). It’s how, and whether, the heroine deals with her grief or her fear that will make her strong.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yeah, I totally didn’t take her reaction to the Hulk as weak. Thor fought him only because he was actually strong enough to challenge him (and Stark can only challenge Hulk when he’s a mega Hulkbuster suit). Widow would have been dead in seconds–and that’s no shame on her. She’s *not* a superhuman, which is kinda the whole point of her existence in the series. There’s a huge difference between characters who show weakness (and are endlessly fascinating) and characters who *are* weak. Strong characters are characters who rise out of their weakness, fear, and pain. If you don’t have weakness, fear, and pain to start with, then there’s no place to rise from.

    • Jamie, you brought up an interesting point, especially because it makes me think that this attitude is actually general. It isn’t just about the strong female character, it’s about all characters.

      If you ask someone how they think a strong character should be, most people will aswser they need to be fighters on a physical level. And if they show any signs of not being up to the fight (they hesitate, they show fear, the show doubts, they show confusion, ect), people will automatically think they show weakness.

      I think this is particularly true for female characters only because there is such an obsession now to show strong female characters that there’s a particular focus on them on the part of readers/viewers and therefore storytellers tend to be overly zelous about it.

      It’s just crazy.
      People is so much mor ethan their physical strength, so characters should be the same.

  11. I just finished a novel entitled “Jimmy My Hero” with a woman named Sally and her k-9, Jimmy, as the lead characters. My two beta-readers (both female) liked the story. But as a male writer, I hope that I portrayed her properly, which seems to go along with what was said in Ms Weiland’s blog. It’s on Amazon and if anyone wants to read it, let me know and I’ll gift the ebook to you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Smart! And finding beta readers of the opposite sex is something I totally recommend. There’s always an valuable outside perspective to be gained there.

    • Herb, I’m a female, a doctor & a service dog owner. So, I know a bit about strong women and K-9s. I’d love to read your book and would gladly give you feedback.

  12. India Cable says:

    Thanks for this, Katie. And love your comments, Jamie. I think what frustrates me most is how reactionary stereotypical “strong female characters” are. I rarely like the “tough girl” because they are usually arrogant jerks. Also, there often seems to be an undercurrent of man-hate (or at the very least, the attitude that women are better than men) in many “strong” female leads. I find this just as distracting and distasteful as when a man has the same attitude toward women. Instead, I’d rather see a truly strong character who takes action despite her flaws, “ghosts” and other issues or obstacles. It’s much more enjoyable to read/watch a story where men and women are fully rounded with their own flaws and strengths instead of stand-ins for a not-so-subtle message about the superiority of either one.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree. I have no problem with characters who are arrogant jerks or female characters who hate men (or vice versa) *if* there’s a story reason for it. But if authors are just chucking these stereotypes at us and expecting us to consider them strong characters? Nuh-huh.

      • I agree. Jerk characters always annoy me (unless they have a purpose in the story) and female jerk characters particularly annoy me because I always feel as if I’m expected to actually like them, because they’re so spanky and outspoken.
        Personally, I think that more times than not, a character that is too much outspoken is showing their weakness, not their strength.

        I’ve just read a novel where a female character wanted to go fight on a plane during a war. Because she the head of the state so she’s adviced not to go: it would endeger her and that would endanger her people, if anything should happen to her.
        In my opinion, the sensible thing to do would have been for her to think (an very hard) whether she cared more for her pride or the future of her people.
        What she did was reminding the man (and quite ‘outsopkendly’) that since she was head of the state and therefore the highest in rank among them all, she would do what she wanted and nobody could do anythign about it.
        Let me tell you I truly dispised her.

        This kind of female characters often end up dealing with male characters that are rendered intentionally weaker so to make the female character’s outspokeness and boldness more apparent (it surely was in this novel) and this is another thing that I truly dispise. Characters should all be strong in their own way.

        • I agree. Assuming responsibility (for the greater good) does not mean one is weak.

          “There is no I in team.”

          I guess to some extent it’s the Star Trek syndrome: high ranked officers who go on missions normally destined for the lower ranks.

  13. Marissa john says:

    Great article!

    I’m thinking of these definitions in light of the MS I’ve completed and I’m fairly sure my heroines pass the test. In my contemporary, my heroine blatantly makes the transition from rescuee ( is that a word?) to rescuer as she regains her confidence. I restructured key scenes so she’d drive the action.

    I’m stuck on a few plot points in my current WIP and this will really help with my Arizona rancher who discovers that she is expected to be this warrior Fay princess. (Circa 1900) “who me? Someone took a drink from the wrong jug on that.” In my fantasy-western.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Fantasy-western?! That sounds insanely awesome!

      • Marissa john says:

        They end up battling the villain(ess) & antagonist aboard an air station floating a few thousand feet above the Sonora Desert. It’s disguised inside a cloud bank. Then they have to get off the thing in a glider – or ultralight. I haven’t decided which.

  14. Zeb Ramcharan says:

    I think you nailed it. the difficult thing for any male writer is that women are complex characters in themselves often contradictory. example: a woman will talk bad about her man, yet she will fight anyone who would do the same. A good reference for building three dimensional character is Bullies Badasses and Bitches by Jessica Morrell.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Honestly, I approach characters of either sex in exactly the same way: they’re all complicated human beings full of dichotomies. What makes a good is the same for either gender.

      • Yes, me too.
        Sometimes, we may think handling a character of our opposite sex it’s triekier. I don’t think it is. We only feel it it, because we THINK it is. You know what I mean?

  15. Brilliant. Amen, sister.

  16. Your post had me thinking about the young girl in the two Kick Ass films. In spite of her youth, she is a strong female character although in the second film she shows a softer side when she decides she wants to be a “normal girl.” However, she soon discovers that she can’t.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Haven’t seen the second one, but I agree she was the best part of the first one. But it’s important (as that film did, to some extent) to show the consequences of the lifestyles and choices that make a character that way.

  17. Wow! Loved reading this comment thread. I agree with the main point in your post that a strong character is someone who is a catalyst.
    My sword-wielding MC of my book Champion in the Darkness actually starts out fairly weak since she is pushed and pulled by the circumstances around her. She doesn’t really own up to being the next Champion until 3/4 of the way through the book – yes, she agrees before that, but she doesn’t really mean it until she “owns” it on the inside, and then her sword-wielding ends up kind of besides the point since that isn’t what really makes her the Champion. It was a tough thing to try and show with my first book, but I’m glad I tried.

    A strong character, like the Black Widow, can have softer emotions, feel like a “monster” because she’s the perfect killing machine, or live in a world where women don’t carry guns or swords – the strength of any character comes from inside them – a decision to change the world around them and not just follow the crowd.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, you raise another really important point, which is that change arc characters must *necessarily* begin from a place of unempowerment if they’re going to be able to grow into that needed place of strength by the end of the story.

  18. Some great thoughts here, both on writing strong characters, as well as the Black Widow issue.

  19. Not only did Joss pass the Bechdel test, he also had two male characters – Cap and Banner – talking about a woman. Yay Joss.

    I’m trying to approach my own female characters primarily as characters, while recognising that part of what makes them is that they’re female, if that makes any sense.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah! You’re right. I hadn’t thought of that. And don’t forget Stark and Thor’s little exchange about their ladies. 😉

      • Madeline T says:

        While we’re on the subject of The Avengers franchise, can I just put in that Pepper Potts is another very strong female character. She doesn’t necessarily have any plot-driving fight scenes, but she’s got to be a strong woman to put up with Stark’s narcissism!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          I’m quite a big fan of all the ladies in the series. Jane in the Thor movies is great too.

  20. Helpful article, as always. I think that it’s okay for two female characters to talk about a man, especially if the book is romance. And it’s also okay to have a female character weaker physically or even mentally than a man. After all, we’re different and our roles in life are different. However, you’re absolutely right that it’s not okay to have any character, male or female, that is nothing but a passive object and doesn’t move the plot forward. In my current WIP, I have a mini-antagonist I’m battling with, because he came out flat and stereotypical, nothing more than someone to make life difficult for the heroine’s love interest. The said heroine, by the way, thinks mostly of men in the entire story, lol. One of the men being her father she’s desperate to save.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree. The Bechdel test is interesting, but extremely flawed. If a relationship with a man is central to the story, why *shouldn’t* women talk about it? However, I think the point is that they should also have faceted lives and interests, so the man isn’t the *sole* focus of their attention.

  21. I couldn’t agree more with everything you said in this post.

  22. In my view, the woman with strong character is realistic. She knows what she wants . She doesn’t want to be disturbed by anyone. She hasn’t intended to wait for her husband to decide to do something. When she thinks that the problem is at her level, she commits hersel to take the right decision which she’ll not regreat after. When her husband travel away from home for a long time, he knows that his wife has a strong character, she can be able to look at the family and she can’t put the wind up even if her mother-in-law is in a coma. She’ll behave like her husband and the first reaction is to call a doctor or to bring her to the hospital. Then she will call her husband when the situation is stable.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      All good descriptors of what might make a woman “strong.” However, I also do have to say that there are a lot of “realistic” weak women (same for men) out there. So we can definitely write weak characters who are also realistic, when the story calls for it.

  23. This has certainly been an interesting discussion, but I wonder if writers go off course when they separate characters into strong male characters and strong female characters.

    What we should be doing is developing strong characters. Especially lead or main characters.

    We should also be willing to stop and consider what makes a strong character based on the period in which they live.

    I live in Kansas, for example, and have read stories of the women who traveled into the plains when it was still native prairie. They were strong women characters and yet I wonder how many look at bonnet fiction (and similar types) and see strong female characters. I do.

    I grew up on a farm and saw my mother, who never graduated high school, putting in long days during the summer, taking care of five kids, battling the school board (when necessary), and otherwise taking a stand on the things she thought was important.

    K.M. and others have pointed out in the comments how strength is revealed and manifested. No two characters are the same. No two novels featuring the same character are the same. (I like the Jackie Chan example.)

    It behooves us to develop our characters in the best way possible, to test them, to give them the opportunity to reveal their strengths whether they’re a Black Widow, a stay-at-home mom, a Sunday School teacher, or a corporate CEO.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally, totally agree. The basics of a good character are the same regardless of the character’s gender. It’s just that there are some obvious stereotypes storytellers are falling into when trying to create strong *female* characters. They get so hung up on the idea and so worried about doing it right that they forget that the complexities and dichotomies are what make women–just the same as men–interesting. Kudos to Whedon for *not* forgetting.

  24. I think that what makes a strong female character is a character who is herself. I don’t want a carbon copy of the latest popular heroine in every book i read. So many people get caught up in what a strong female character should be (e.g. not a damsel in distress, a warrior, a girly girly, sassy, etc..) and not having a weak female character but what they don’t realize is that they are the problem. Everyone has different views of what makes a good character and there is no one answer. People are diverse and unique, why shouldn’t your characters be just as individual? I think that Katniss Everdeen, Luna Lovegood, and Ahsoka Tano are equally strong female characters, yet they are so incredibly different from each other.
    That is my take on it at least:)

    Keep on writing!
    God bless!
    -Megan

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Awesome points! The problem with “tough girls” or “girly girls” is that they’re both stereotypes. There’s nothing interesting, surprising, or complex in their personalities.

  25. What I love about this entire discussion is that it highlighted one very important point: a strong female character (male also, but it always have been tougher for women) is a free person. Free to be herself, free to live like she deems right, without bothering with other people’s opinion. I remember arguing online about Bella Swan from Twilight. I was unsuccessful to prove that there is nothing anti-feminist and wrong about her decision not to go to college (which, by the way, she’ll have all of the eternity to do do) and become a wife and a mother instead. She made this choice because of who she is and what she values most in life. It doesn’t make her weak, quite the opposite.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I haven’t read the Twilight books, but my perception has always been that Bella *is* a weak character because she’s *not* really much of a catalyst. Yes?

      • The books aren’t fresh in my memory, but I’ll try to answer this 🙂 I always pictured Bella as a quietly-strong character. She doesn’t dive headfirst in the action, but she doesn’t let things happen around her either. It may seem at first that she’s passive, but her character arc (over the entire four books) turns her from reactive to active by the end of book 2 when she rushes to save Edward from certain death (which is, perhaps, the midpoint of her arc, come to think of it). From that point on, she makes more and more independent decisions, chooses who are her friends and who aren’t, who to protect and who to fight with.

        Maybe it’s less obvious because she’s not wildly-aggressive like Katniss Everdeen, for example, but I think she’s a catalyst anyway, because, progressively, she doesn’t just let stuff happen to her, she makes stuff happen to her and because of her.

        I hope this made sense 🙂 I always had a connection with her, but since I’ve read the books a long while ago, I don’t remember all the plot details (besides the big drama with Edward trying to kill himself in book 2).

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Thanks! That’s not a perspective I hear often, so it’s good to hear the other side from someone who enjoyed the books.

          • That’s a bulletproof way to start an argument with fellow writers: just bring Bella Swan up in the conversation and sparks are flying! Lol. More seriously, I think that what helped so many teen girls relate to her was exactly that she started out passive, weak and ordinary in the beginning of the story. I know I was a lot like her in school (minus clumsiness). Katniss or Hermione Granger are cool, but scary. They’re super-smart, super-strong, super-active, super-everything, while average kids (and adults) aren’t.

            So, for me, it was gratifying to see a girl like I used to be to become someone better (shinier, stronger, more beautiful and confident) as she grew up and discovered that she too was unique and deserved her place under the sun. In a way, this made more impact on me than Katniss’ running around and saving her world ever could (you can tell I don’t like her, don’t you? 🙂 )

  26. I like that old saying of creating good, active characters that “happen” to be female, instead of making “the girl” a character trait.

  27. Why a ‘strong’ female character? How about a female character, strong or not, who is authentic, an ‘individual’ who is believable, one with whom a reader can identify? Why not female characters who have minds of their own, right or wrong; those who are authentic, like those in “Alex in Wonderland” Or like Berta and Loris in “Robert’s Choice”? I prefer female characters like Susan in “That Summer” who has a mind of her own, so to speak, and she’s authentic, even though flawed with father issues. Even a weak female character like Susan’s mother can further the plot just as well as a strong one, as long as she’s authentic and individual.
    To take it a bit further, why not instruct on a ‘strengthened’ female character, or a ‘weakened’ one. There are too many axioms and rules imposed on Writers so their work can be “awesome”, a stupid, pop culture cliche that is shallow and meaningless and has no actual descriptive value what so ever. Why not use terms that have some instructive value, terms like those I have used here? I, for one, prefer my writing to have authenticity, relatability, believability, not awesome.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think you’re wanting to say this as a contrast to what I’ve written, but I actually agree with it wholeheartedly. It’s the emphasis on *strong* *female* character–as if people somehow have to be reminded that the two go together–that is the heart of a lot of the problems we see with writers over-emphasizing masculine traits in an attempt to create with is ultimately an artificial strength divorced from the character itself. Much better to just write *good* characters, regardless of gender.

  28. I enjoyed reading this information and all the comments. The word “strong” can be viewed in many forms and with many genders. Characters can have silent strength. This can be the character’s nature–to speak only when he/she are compelled to express a truth that is evaded. After all, strength can be a discipline aligned with prudence and principles. In other words, mastering the ability to bridle the tongue, and/or speak out when a situation requires sound judgment. So strength itself can be reserved with an outward expression of shyness and subtlety, yet stand out as strength. My mother was such a woman; a woman of steel AND velvet.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think this is totally true. Strength has so many facets, and, as writers, we need to be considering as many of them as possible when bringing our characters to life.

  29. Got my bases covered by both standards without even realizing it, but this still helps anyways, for now and for the future. Thanks for the post.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I always find it incredibly helpful to join good instincts with conscious understanding. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  30. Love that you mentioned and emphasized that a strong female character doesn’t have to be cold, flawless, or masculine to be strong and badass. She can wear heels and love make up and don a dress every fricking day and still be a strong female character.

    I’m so tired of people thinking only a boyish girl can be a hero (and I am quite a boyish one meself, but really), and that a strong female character can’t show weakness like, you know, a real person.

    Love this post so much, I will bookmark it for life.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Absolutely. I grew up a total tomboy and still am anything but girlie. But female characters who act like men just for the sake of making them look “strong” drives me nuts.

  31. Elizabeth says:

    This is so true! There are so many times that female characters are sort of thrown into a plot without anything to do or they’re mega-tough and completely emotionless. I think a strong female character has flaws, strengths, preferences, and a backstory, just like anyone other character does in addition to NOT being a wall flower for the entire story. A lot of weak female characters could turn into stronger female characters if someone just put a little more thought into their creation.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “A lot of weak female characters could turn into stronger female characters if someone just put a little more thought into their creation.”–which, ultimately is true of so many facets of writing!

  32. I think the issue with Whedon’s portrayal was the issue he choice to show her softer side, that her sadness was over not being able to bear children. Sure, it’s traumatic, but a bit lazy in the story sense. Her past is so dark, he could explored any number of less overused tropes.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Eh, I honestly don’t have a problem with it in that sense. If it had happened in the first movie, yes. But she’s earned a “softer” regret by this point.

  33. I fully agree with you here–a strong female character is one that is a fully fleshed-out person with strengths and weaknesses.
    I write almost exclusively female characters so I understand what makes for a “weak” and “strong” female character.
    The one thing that really angers me is when people say a female character is weak because she has a feminine side. Two of my favorite characters I’ve worked with–Raftina and Solana–are pinnacles of femininity. They both wear dresses more often than not, have typical feminine pastimes (cooking, sewing, cross-stitching, etc), and are very maternal and caring toward others. When you first meet them, they come across as very soft spoken and kindhearted which makes them seem submissive.
    So I know MANY people would classify them as weak because of this.
    But when you look at their characters, you realise they are incredibly strong characters despite their inherent femininity.
    Solana actually starts out a quite a weak character as her upbringing STRICTLY enforced gender roles. She’s incredibly submissive and unable to defend herself due to basically being raised in isolation from the rest of the world, but she escapes that to pursue her dream of becoming a Pokemon Ranger (yes I’m dealing with fanfic characters here. Just humor me). Her entire arc focuses on overcoming that submissiveness that’s been instilled in her and becoming her own person. She owns herself after dispatching of Generic Evil Team #2857 and becomes one of the most respected Rangers in the force.
    Raftina is probably the absolute paragon of traditional femininity. Her color of choice is pink. She wears medieval-style dresses due to being from a high fantasy world. When you first meet her, she acts much like a stereotypical noblewoman of the time. She’s kind, soft-spoken, gracious, hospitable, etc. She loves kids and wants to raise a family and loves cooking, cleaning and all that sort of stuff. To top it off, she’s the goddess of love on her world.
    Seems like she should be one of the weakest female characters you’ll ever see, right?
    Wrong.
    She is probably one of my most badass characters. Yes, she wears dresses, cooks, and sews, but she’s also one of her world’s most ruthless and cunning politicians. Five and a half thousand years of experience has forged her into one of the most respect, revered, and feared divinities on her world. One common title for her is “the Blade of Love.” She developed her world’s most deadly (and dangerous) swordplay style and trained an order of knights she hand picked. She’s drafted more laws than she can count. She’s learned over a thousand different alien languages and mastered all of them. She acted as an ambassador and peace keeper for countless conflicts on different worlds. She led her world’s forces in an almost hopeless war that lasted over a hundred years and is an almost unrivaled tactician. Few people can cross her and walk away alive.
    What I love about both Solana and Raftina is that they show you can still be stereotypically feminine while being able to be respectable and self-confident.
    If anything, I think we need more characters like these two. It shows that you can still enjoy dresses, sewing, and wanting to have a family while still being able to kill somebody twenty different ways with nothing but a teacup is possible.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree. Great examples! The secret to why these characters are working for you is that they’re *not* stereotypical. They have some of the stereotypical trappings, but they’re much more dimensional, unexpected, and interesting than just that surface glimpse–as almost all people are.

  34. “. . . strong female characters don’t mean masculine or emotionless or flawless female characters . . .”

    THANK YOU!

    This has been one of my biggest gripes with action movies over the last few decades. Too many confuse physical strength and athletic prowess with genuine strength of character or integrity. They’re more interested in depicting a woman that can “hang with the boys” and I feel like this does a disservice to women in general. Telling women (particularly younger girls who are more likely to be influenced by movies than an older generation) that the ideal woman is a Black Widow type who can take out a half dozen armed soldiers by herself without messing her hair only serves to denigrate women who may be overweight or otherwise physically “subpar” but contributing to society in far more important ways as philosophers, teachers or social workers.

    Working with special needs kids and their (sometimes belligerent) parents? Frustrating. Doing 80 hour shifts sewing up gunshot wounds in the ER? Exhausting. Are those women (of which there are tens of thousands in the U.S.) not “strong” because they cant kill a guy six times before he hits the ground? Crap.

    As pointed out in the comments above, princesses and queens can be strong characters without ever throwing a punch or leading an army. Housewives and school teachers can be strong characters by showing integrity and fortitude.

    Honestly, a great example of this is in Alien 2. On one hand, you have Ripley who, throughout the franchise, clearly shows her fears, traumas and even motherly instincts, never takes on the “tough chick” persona, but is still a strong character. On the other hand, you have the buff, heavy weapons toting, cussing, bandana wearing, tough talking, Latina space marine who was nothing but annoying.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Honestly, I think “annoying” is a great word for the tough chick stereotype. Now, don’t get me wrong: I *like* tough chicks. Personally, I think Black Widow has been presented extremely well for the most part. But she’s the exception because she’s makes me believe in her skill set (not to mention the fact that she’s also a complicated and interesting character). Most of the time when the skinny girls start throwing punches and the bad guys start flying across the room, I just roll my eyes.

      • Speaking of Joss Whedon (we were, a while ago)… Buffy. **STRONG** female character. Also a total mess. I think the thing we need to remember, is that characters need to be nuanced–they need to have weaknesses, and those weaknesses are what make them human, relatable, and therefore, strong. As we watch them search themselves and dig among the hot mess of their personalities to find their strength, and overcome those weaknesses, we see them become strong. Those are the really satisfyingly strong characters–male or female.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          I have to admit I only got through two episodes of that show. But I definitely hear good things about Buffy all over the place.

  35. Nichole says:

    I don’t write strong female characters. I write strong characters who happen to be female.

    Although I completely agree that there are few female characters in the media that can be used as role models when looked at from a consumers standpoint, seeing creators discussing and trying to “create a strong female character” worries me. Gender is certainly an important detail, but I fear that as writers we get too caught up in gender and worrying about how to accurately portray strength in a woman; so much so that at some point the character is once again lost behind the gender of said character in our attempts to prove that we can write a “strong-female character”

    What does that even mean anyway? I liked your reference to a strong character as someone who is a catalyst, a doer of things. I think a large part of the issue on how to define a female character comes from people mistaken “strength” as the masculine qualities we recognize as strength, stoicism, independence, and so when a female character is written with what society deems to be feminine qualities she is automatically derided “weak” and possibly a stereotype of female traits. Our tendency to rely on masculine traits in order to bring strength to female characters only furthers this line of thinking and makes the issue even worth.

    Joss Whedon is indeed an excellent creator of strong female characters, but most of those strong characters, especially the famous ones, are characters that have the traditional masculine “strength” of actually being strong and a good fighter (Buffy, Black Widow, Zoe, and even River) I think better examples can be found in his works, for instance Cordelia and Anya from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Neither are physically strong characters when they are actually part of the main cast, but neither of them would be seen as weak characters. Their decisions and actions affect the series and they never come across as plot devices that are there only for a pretty smile and a quick love interest.

    Rather long winded, sorry. I just have strong thoughts about this topic.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally agree. This is an important distinction. Good characters are good characters, regardless of gender. And really good point about Whedon’s warrior women.

  36. If you really want strong female characters, then someone should write a story about the US Women’s Soccer team. They deserve it.

  37. K.Alexander says:

    Really helpful article! When I got around to designing one of my female characters, my teacher had me compare her to a lamppost. If the character does not move the story, it is just a lamppost. The way you put it sounds much simpler. 🙂

    I’ve been having some difficulty designing the personality of one of my characters.

    In the setting she is involved, she was raised as an outcast and shamed for being a ‘Peregrinus’ (basically the equivalent of being inhuman in the society). She is very determined to stop the Emperor’s corrupted son from beginning a preventative war with the world. She is aided by an Imperial German veteran who washed up on the island, after the sinking of a German warship.

    She’s a polite, warm-hearted young woman (18-19 y.o) who detests violence and is affected by very stressful situations. She is a somewhat mischievous and naïve individual due to a lack of life experience, leading to some regretful decisions.

    I just don’t know if this is an overused personality or in some way stereotypical of the early 20th century women.

    I’m sorry if the description is a bit vague, I’m trying to be a bit tight lipped about the project.

    Thanks in advance.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Nothing wrong with a polite, kind, non-violent, naive character. Hopefully, events will help her grow out of the naivety, but the others are all great character qualities. As long as she’s not polite, kind, or non-violent to the point of letting plot events run over the top of her (in short, as long as she takes a stand when it counts–and it will count in most scenes), then you have nothing to worry about.

  38. Great insight!

  39. I’m going to expand on my earlier comment from Facebook. My superhero protag has a certain backstory. And… for expedience, I’m going to copy/ paste some of my notes about it here…

    “One day after Tala had been picked on for being a “wimpy girl” by some boys, Nina sat her down to speak to her. She told her that Tala was strong, and when men say that women are weak it’s because they [the men] are weak, and that when men want to be around strong women it’s because they are strong.

    After her mother’s death, Tala struggled with feeling weak. She stopped crying because she saw it as a sign of weakness and as a result, she often became angry and confrontational and acted out…” etc.

    Of course right away you’ll see the connection between my protag trying to be “strong” and her reaction to “men”; however, this isn’t the whole story. For one thing, Nina didn’t intend this advice to be taken solely in response to the males in her life, it was just the topic starter. For another, Tala never wanted to impress/ out-macho the males in her life in order to obtain their affection, but rather to shut them up and make them leave her alone. But she also has mostly grown out of this mentality by the time the story starts. She recognizes now that she misunderstood her mother’s advice, so her vision and definition of “true strength” is different. Of course, she can’t un-work-out and become physically weaker, nor does she wish to, and she’s perfectly comfortable remaining as a tomboy; she’s just not so aggressive about it.

    • TL;DR– Tala’s mother told her that a weak man believes women are weak, and that strong men desire to be around strong women. Tala was broken by her mother’s death and misunderstood her advice, acting out and becoming overly competitive against the males in her life, but eventually came to learn that she didn’t need to act that way in order to be considered strong. She has reached the point where she is comfortable with herself, and no longer antagonizes men for the sake of antagonizing men. (She’ll still antagonize them for the sake of fun, however.)

  40. StarGirl starts out as not confident in herself in the first book, since she doesn’t think she is good enough, and in the second, doesn’t think she can do the things she can do, but she manages to grow out of them, and does her best to help people as a superhero fighting crime.

  41. Yulia Perch says:

    My story features almost all-female cast, so I’ve been pondering on this “strong female character” topic for a long time. I think there is not much precedent in the literature for a truly varied, strong, fascinating female characters, because the whole idea of what female character is/should be is rapidly evolving. So we writers are actually at the frontier of imagining what a female character of the future will be like. I definitely agree that simply stealing male virtues is not it. There is something else, uniquely ours, that will make it strong. And this is buried in the deep psyche.
    Ok, another thing in this article that made me wonder is this. You said that female character must drive plot forward. She must not being passive. It is true, however my question is – what is passive? Is it simply not doing anything, or, as someone said “having nothing left undone by doing nothing?”. For example, in “The Story of O” the protagonist is not doing much of anything. I know this is rather unconventional example, but O is one of the most fascinating female characters of the last century. I am still pondering on what made her such a strong story character while she was so seemingly passive…
    Ok, this is it for now. I’m sorry for a long post.

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  3. […] for any standard male protagonist and simply make the character female. This has been formalized in a variety of ways, perhaps most succinctly as the “Mako Mori Test,” which states that a strong […]

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