Busting 6 Strong Female Character Stereotypes (What I Learned Writing Storming)

Busting 6 Strong Female Character Stereotypes (What I Learned Writing Storming)

This week’s video kills six of the prevalent but misguided notions about what makes up a strong female character—and shows you three accurate ways to get the job done.

Video Transcript:

Storming K.M. WeilandHere we are in the third video—fifth part overall—in our month-long series featuring writing techniques inspired by my experiences writing my upcoming dieselpunk adventure novel Storming—which comes in for a landing December 4th!

Today, I want to talk about the evergreen topic of “strong female characters”—and specifically some of the stereotypes we frequently see cropping up around this issue. This was something really important to me while writing Storming’s quirky female lead Jael—who has, I think, become one of my favorites of all the female characters I’ve ever written.

Female characters have come a long way from Dickens’s Dora Copperfield, but the advice writers receive about this important topic often seems to be forcing us to embrace notions that are less than perfect in their own right.

6 Misconceptions About Strong Female Characters

To start off with, I’d like to quickly bust six stereotypes about what qualifies as a strong female character. (And, by the way, the following pictures aren’t intended as a slight on the characters featured. They’re just there for illustration.)

1. Strong Does Not Equal Violent

She doesn’t have to have a gun in her hand. She doesn’t have to know how to use that gun if it is in her hand.

Kate Beckett

2. Strong Does Not Equal Bossy

She doesn’t have to brazenly get in anybody’s face and tell them what’s what.

Dr Michaela Quinn

3. Strong Doesn’t Mean She Won’t Need to Be Rescued or Coached or Guided in Her Personal Journey by Another Character

Even by (gasp!) a male character. Sometimes that’s just going to be what the story needs.

Haymitch Katniss

4. Strong Doesn’t Mean the Character Can’t Be Loved or in Love

Because, really!

Jane Eyre Edward Rochester

5. Strong Doesn’t Mean Putting Women in Male Roles

Just because she’s an Air Force pilot or a mercenary or a firefighter doesn’t automatically qualify her as a strong character.

Peggy Carter

6. Strong Doesn’t Have to Draw Attention to Itself

And by this, I mean the identity of the character shouldn’t be completely wrapped up in the fact of her being a “strong female” archetype.

Evelyn Salt

 

3 Things That Create Strong Female Characters

And that brings me to the three things that really do make for a strong female character.

1. If she’s strong, that’s going to be an inherent part of her character.

2. Her strength just going to naturally arise from her unique and interesting personality.

3. It’s going to allow her to effortlessly be a catalyst that moves the plot.

That’s what I wanted to do with Jael in Storming. She starts out lost and adrift in a strange place, barely speaking English—someone who could have been easily victimized. But even though she’s not the protagonist, she drives every single scene she’s in from the moment she shows up.

Or think of Sophie in Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle. She’s a little old lady, and yet she’s arguably one of the strongest female leads in YA fantasy. In writing your own strong female character, avoid the stereotypes and just write honestly and ebulliently.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What do you think is the biggest misconception about strong female characters? Tell me in the comments!

Busting 6 Strong Female Character Stereotypes

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I think the biggest misconception about strong female characters is that they have to exude blatant Hollywood style sexuality.
    OR ~ Secondly, that they have to reflect masculine qualities, implying that femininity is weakness.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Truth. One of the things that frustrates me most about Hollywood action heroines is that they’re dressed in ridiculously impractical clothing (heels and beach curls, for crying out loud!) while engaging in highly physical and dangerous activities. It’s all for the sex appeal, but it undermines the character. If she’s really dumb enough to wear heels on the battlefield, she’s too dumb to be out there in the first place.

      • Ain’t it the truth!!

      • PREACH

      • Andrea Rhyner says

        Agreed! It’s ridiculous. While I loved the movie Jurassic World, I felt that the female lead was exactly as you just described. While they even had the hero make fun of her shoes, she still ran around in heels and a dress, got in people’s faces and was bossy, and shot a gun and brought T-rex to save the day. When hero reached out his hand to help her, she ran past him at high speed. She didn’t show any weaknesses really. I didn’t hate her character though….I wonder why? Maybe making her career focused helped, and the fact that she happened to be dressed for work when it all went down helped as well.

        • Andrea Rhyner says

          Although…as I think on it….in Jurassic World she did ask the hero for help to find her nephews. Maybe that’s why she’s likable.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            This is a point. Claire’s bossiness, et al, wasn’t a major turn off for me, since it was all part of her character arc. Her costume worked for me too, since it made sense that she’d be wearing the heels in the context of the story. If she was in battle gear and heels though–nuh-huh.

  2. I definitely think that there’s a prejudice against strong female characters who accept help from men (or maybe that was just in my women’s college writing groups?). I think a strong character (male or female) is someone who can admit they need help.

    • I think that’s a (unfortunate) general prejudice that goes around. I’ve seen it in a few too many books. I agree with you—someone who can ask for help, whether male or female, isn’t weak.

      • Get a copy of Amanda Palmer’s “The Art of Asking” and you’ll never look at asking for help the same way again. The *last* person I would ever call weak could very well be Amanda.

      • Catherine H. says

        Yes, I’d even say that a character who can’t ask for help is weak because they’re either too prideful or too afraid to admit that they can’t do everything on their own.

        • Yes, Catherine, but you can turn this around in making your strong character fully rounded. The best characters are complex. So you create a protagonist who is strong, who takes up the reins and confronts difficult situations – but is too proud to ask for help when help is needed.
          Two dimensional becomes three-dimensional.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          It’s always a balance. Like Lyn says, flaws are a good thing! It’s only when we’re overcompensating and presenting a flaw *as* a virtue that we start running into problems.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’ve heard this pitched from the other direction too: readers who dislike it when females “coach” the males too much. But the truth is that if the protagonist is undergoing a change arc, that character–whether male or female–*needs* the input from other characters who have already comprehended the story’s Truth. It has nothing to do with the protagonist being weak. Or actually it *does*: the whole point is that the protagonist must start from a place of comparative weakness in order to learn how to grow into a place of strength.

    • Definitely. That takes a special kind of strength and humility.

    • Andrea Rhyner says

      I agree with you. Bravery and strength comes from being afraid and doing something anyways, not just doing something tough in general. Getting help is natural and everyone needs help sometime. When I see a “strong” female character refuse help from a male even when she needs it, it feels like the author is forcing the situation just to prove that very point. All it does for me is interrupt my thought process and distract from the story.

  3. This post is great! This is something that I always try to do with my female characters. I don’t think I have to think about it too hard; I know what I like in a character that’s strong (male or female) and I just go ahead and do it, with both my male and female characters; I’ve found there really isn’t a whole lot of difference between the two.

    I love all six of your points. I don’t give my leads a romance, but that’s because I feel there’s too many romance subplots out there, a lot of it unnecessary, especially in YA. There does always seem to be plenty of loving parent and sibling relationships in my stories, so there’s love in that aspect. 😉

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Good for you! Honestly, your mindset is exactly what I’m trying to encourage in writing posts like this: don’t worry about what the critics and the Internet are telling you makes up a “strong” character. Just write authentically about *your* character, and the strengths and weaknesses will both shine through to create an effectively honest character.

  4. Fantastic post–I’m going to share this everywhere! Thank you for including a transcript… I tend not to watch videos, and they’re hard to quote from.

    I agree with Beks. However, I’m a little hazy on the difference between #6 of the Don’t list and #1 of the Do list.

    The rest is terrific! Thanks again.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      You’re right. I could have articulated that better. Basically, what I’m talking about in Don’t #6 is a stylistic choice to basically flaunt in the audience’s face that this is a “Strong Female Character.” I feel like we see this most often in female characters who are still blatantly objectified as sex objects through their wardrobes (catsuits, heels, and beach curls) while stalking through battlefields with more composure and swagger than any of their male counterparts. When the female character’s over-emphasized strengths become the *point* of her character, she ends up two-dimensional.

  5. You did SO well with this post until the very end. Sophie was NOT an old lady. She just happened to be stuck in an old body by the Witch of the Waste.

    Another excellent female lead can be found in chapter 8 of “And the Mountains Echoed.” My favorite chapter in that whole book.

    Good post! Keep busting those myths.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I realize that. 🙂 But I love her as an example, since she’s not only a woman, but, for most of the story, trapped in an *old* woman’s body. Physically, she’s among the weakest of the weak, but that never holds her back in any measure.

  6. Great post! Especially the first two points, which highlights today’s misconception of equating violence with strength. Often the opposite is true, as stated by Asimov: “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” Or of cowards.

    Another quote I’ll never forget is from Liv Tyler, who said about her role as Arwen: “you don’t have to put a sword in her hand to make her strong.” Bravo. Though Arwen is an elf, in every other sense she is human–which means being both weak and strong, and sometimes at the same time–like her struggle to choose between immortality and the love of her life, Aragorn.

    What this really is about is an over-emphasis on gender. That doesn’t mean you ignore the fact that your character is a woman; quite the contrary, that’s just as bad. But just the idea of using “strong” before the word “female” raises questions. Why the adjective? Why not just make her human, and let the “gender chips” fall where they may? Male or female, a character who is always strong is just as boring as one who is always weak.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Totally agree. I think the the emphasis on “strong” female characters is the heart of the problem. It tends to emphasize strong physical capabilities or dominant alpha personality traits. These are two tiny aspects of all that can be encompassed in the discussion of “strength.” We are all flawed in unique ways, which means our strengths are unique too. It’s like saying physical beauty has to be blonde and 100 pounds. That may be beautiful, but it’s hardly the *only* manifestation of beauty. We need to give our characters the space to be strong in their own unique ways.

  7. “Ebulliently”! I’m impressed! [Recovering high school comp teacher talking]

  8. June Sullivan says

    I found this SO valuable. Recently I began to worry that my female protagonist wasn’t a Katniss-character (a character I like by the way). Mine isn’t strong in any traditionally masculine terms, i.e. blessed with warrior abilities. She has strengths and weaknesses, but none of them relate to the physical. She just bumbles along, sticking with her elevated sense of fairness, until the culmination of her journey is not only a success for her but helps transform those around her.

    Anyway, I was worried that I hadn’t made her gifted with physical strength, the martial arts, or even an in-your-face defiant personality. Now I’m much more comfortable with my choices. Thank you for that.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s important to let characters (male and female) be who they are. We *all* have strengths and weaknesses. Few of us in real life have warrior abilities, and yet many of us exhibit admirable strengths. Same goes for our characters.

  9. Catherine H. says

    As someone who has been working her entire life to not be bossy and to keep my temper in check, it really irks me when I see female leads who are portrayed as bossy and having a temper…and it’s supposed to be a good thing?! Always mouthing off to authority and being a hothead does not give me the impression of a strong character, female or male. It just shows me that the character has no respect for others and no self-control. If my characters have those traits, they are character flaws which need to be overcome, not strengths.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I agree. I think this is kickback from early heroines were who were mousy types that always got run over by others. But as with most of the female stereotypes here, it tends to go too far in the other direction.

    • June Sullivan says

      Nicely said.

  10. I didn’t realize until well after I finished my first novel that the strongest character is really the mc’s wife. In her pivotal scene she spends most of the time hiding herself and her kids from home invaders. But at the end, she traps these men in her house and burns it down. Another example of her power is noticing that her leaving her first husband is what made him the main antagonist of the story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      She sounds like a shaker and a mover. Maybe she’s the protagonist and your MC is the main character?

  11. One of the worst stereotypes about “strong women” is that they don’t fit in, that they are on the outside looking in, loners.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, and usually because they’re masculine lone-wolf types.

    • June Sullivan says

      Oh I don’t know if that’s always true. You can be an outsider because your beliefs make others uncomfortable. That kind of outsider doesn’t want to be that way usually. But that would hold true whether male or female character. Just a thought.

  12. As usual, you make some good points here. I have always struggled with female characters so this is a big help. The closest I get in my last novel is the character who gets involved with my protagonist. While I don’t actually say it, I allude to the fact that, like the protagonist, she is getting bullied as well. There are clues on the effects of the bullying like when she finishes things with the protagonist because she doesn’t feel she’s good enough for him. However, her becoming a strong character happens after the protagonist gets his revenge on his bullies. It gives her the courage to stand up to hers.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I think we sometimes equate strength with someone who is *never* victimized. But some of the strongest people are those who *are* victimized and find the strength to rise above it.

  13. “Coach” too much — reminds me of “show, don’t tell”

    “*needs* the input from other characters who have already comprehended the story’s Truth” — but Glinda only gives Dorothy directions to see the Wizard (and sends snow, and says “she has to learn it for herself”) — is this the kind of input you’re talking about?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      More or less. Glinda is definitely the Mentor character in that story. How the mentoring manifests will differ from story to story, but the internalization of the Truth will always be something the protag has to do for herself or himself.

  14. I have a “strong girl” character (that’s her nicckname everybody calls her) but she’s emotionally weak. She has aa “nice girl” friend who always dominates or controls her when they’re together. “Nice girl” tells stories making it sound like “strong girl” is the leaader, when in fact she herself is.

    There is a third friend, whom I haven’t figured out. She likes to “stir the pot” and she puts herself down compared to “nice girl”

    I think all their friends want to be strong so thy emulate “strong girl” and wonder what they’re missing

  15. I love this post; I think this summarizes every misconception I’ve encountered whenever people talk about “strong female characters.” I love the photos you picked for this, they perfectly illustrate the points 🙂

    Strong doesn’t equal violent. Exactly. I have characters who do use weapons, but it’s not their first resort; their advantage is in their ability to maneuver situations so that they have the upper hand, or in biding their time when they’re in someone else’s power.

    I have a scene where the more “Action Girl” part of a trio shows her strength — not through violence, but in finally letting her friends see her suffering. I established from the get-go that she’s had a lifelong habit of not letting people see her cry. At first its just a quirk, but then it becomes a crisis when I put her in a situation where she could either follow the pattern of hiding her suffering and perish — or reveal what had been done to her and be saved. She chose the second option, happily.

    But *why* did she reveal her pain? Because she wanted to save her friends from imminent danger and the only way to do that was to reveal her horrific misfortune to them. It was her love for her friends and her determination to retain her honor in a dehumanizing situation that I considered to be her true show of strength. She chose to do the right thing instead of the easy thing.

    2. She doesn’t have to be bossy. Agreed, bossy is stupid. My characters are authoritative. If they’re in a situation where they’re out of their depth they will do the sensible thing and defer to the person with more expertise. First rate managers hire first rate staff …

    5. They don’t have to do masculine jobs. Miss Marple. Granny Weatherwax. Jessica Fletcher. Case closed 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I like that. Many of my favorite scenes happen when outwardly stoic characters finally break down and reveal their emotions. It always feels like those scenes are “earned”–both by the characters and the readers.

  16. I love this post! I have SUCH a hard time with “strong female” characters that are completely masculine – except they look like a supermodel. C’mon.

    And #6 is a great point. Make me think of Melanie Wilks in Gone with the Wind. Scarlett O’Hara gets all the attention, but holy moly Melanie is a strong woman. People overlook her because she is KIND. But her kindness leads her to some incredibly strong stances that lots of the other characters aren’t strong enough to make.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Indeed. I have no problem with a woman who can beat up the boys. But the rest of her life needs to realistically reflect the path she had to take to get to that point.

  17. Great points. I always remember hearing somewhere that men are often guilty of writing female characters who only talk to other females about men. Keeping this in mind (and avoiding it) when I write helps me. I also will sometimes plan a character and just go back, changing him to a female without changing his personality. Many times, the character can become more interesting that way and I avoid falling into the trap of just thinking of the character as a potential love interest.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This is the old Bechdel test. It’s an interesting angle that raises some good things to consider. But we also don’t want to fall into the trap of engineering conversations between women that don’t advance the plot.

  18. R. R. Willica says

    Thank you for the part stating that a character might need help from someone (and it might be a guy.) The one thing that really gets on my nerves is when people say “Oh, she was helped by someone, that means she’s a damsel in distress.” Everyone needs help sometimes, that’s just life and realistic. If a character never needed help with anything ever then it gets harder to relate to them.

    My current favorite female character of the year is Clair from Jurassic World. She’s the hero of the whole movie and a lot of people don’t give her a chance.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I agree: Claire was great. I know Whedon bashed her the trailer for harking back to “’80s sexism,” but I actually thought the movie did an awesome job with her. She’s a flawed character, who grows over the course of the film and uses both her own skill set and physical courage to get the job done. I also appreciated that the film allowed her to have some really great moments of bravery, especially the scene with the T-Rex at the end, while Owen stayed behind and protected the kids. It didn’t feel forced in the least (see Don’t #6) and created a really nice moment that, frankly, *wouldn’t* have been as interesting if Owen had performed it.

      • R. R. Willica says

        I also want to say that moment with Clair and T-Rex was a fantastic moment because it was a mirror of when Sam Neil had the same moment in the original film. It was fantastic from a storytelling in showing that Clair knew the history of the park and what had transpired there.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          That’s true. I hadn’t thought of how Claire the character might have been responding to previous events in the series. I did love that the T-Rex had scars from its battle with the raptors.

  19. Sarah Caroline says

    I love your mention of Sophie from How’s Moving Castle! She is such a great example of a female lead that defies stereotypes. She’s feminine and she isnt’ physically strong or gifted in magic like other characters, and she DOES worry over her “family” and worries over the house and cleans – but she does all this while being such a strong personality who moves the plot forward. And she also falls in love, because yes, women do that, but her love makes her stronger.

  20. I’m a bit late to the party. But, I enjoyed Janet Evonovich’s Stephanie Plum. Actually, all the characters worked for me. Suspension of disbelief should always be this fun. On occasion, I thought the strongest female character was a toss up between Stephanie, Lula or Stephanie’s grandmother.

    The other “strong” female character I remember is V.I. Warshawski. While the series has gone on
    for years I think in the early 80’s there was a brief run at a T.V. series. If I have the right character the the series was gone in only a few weeks. Why? They put V.I. in a Peter Gunn formate that always led to the private eye decking the bad guy. Didn’t work.

    Bottom line. For me a character can be strong , any character, as long as they generate energy of som e sort in the situation. Also, the strength of a character must be native to the character. It is their energy. Stephanie’s strength is not Lula’s strength nor the grandmothers strengh. But, they are all strong women.

    I enjoy your posts. They help me think though to new insight. Hope you have a good Thanksgiving.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I like your analogy of “energy.” Basically, that’s what I’m going for when I talk about “catalysts.” We want our characters to be lightning rods, of a sort: always attracting or generating something happening.

  21. Andrea Rhyner says

    I see what you mean about strength being inherent in her personality and therefore she is naturally a catalyst. Katniss shows (got?) her strength from the natural instinct to protect her sister. It makes sense because of her past events which made her into the person she grew up to be. She then shows fear when she’s going to the battlefield….but gets her strength again when she needs to protect Rue and later Peta (did anyone else notice he is a baker and named after bread?). This need to protect the weak (as she perceives them) makes her naturally strong in those situations, and at other times she naturally needs help. As you said, strength enough to use a gun but not necessarily knowing how to use it. Maybe strength shows up in some situations and not others based on their personalities.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Exactly. Katniss wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting if she’d been indomitable. She was brave, but she was also broken because of that bravery–which I think is one of the most interesting things about the series.

  22. I think you caught these points really well. Nowadays, when I see the term “strong female lead” used to describe a book or movie, it automatically makes me cringe!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Same here. Which is a crying shame. Storytellers need to step back from the political correctness and just get back to writing great characters.

      • Where did all this “political correctness” come from, anyway? How can we possibly apply ‘PC’ to a historical novel, for example, where the novel may turn on the custom of slavery, or the protagonist be a German general in Hitler’s Wehrmacht? How does a writer observe PC in either of those examples?
        Possibly the subject of another discussion?

        • There are a couple ways. One is to ignore it and write your character in conformity with the time in which they lived. The other is to be anachronistic and use 21st Century sensibilities to inform 19th Century (or earlier) conversation.

          My favorite is the Quentin Tarantino approach – be so over-the-top-un-PC that the concern becomes inconsequential to story. I’m not saying we need the extreme violence and profanity that he uses, but neither our heroes nor our villains need to fit today’s PC standards. In context historical characters are far more interesting than today’s characters in an old setting.

  23. You hit the nail on the head KM. Many times the supposedly strong female comes off as soulless badass wannabe. She feels forced and breaks believability. You feel this out-of-universe intervention that pokes you and screams “Isn’t she cool? ISN’T SHE COOL?!”. No sir. You just failed at character writing.
    If she happens to be “badass” there has to be a in-universe reason that has nothing to do with gender, for example: she grew up in a dangerous environment and had to learn to defend herself, or her profession obliges her to face danger. One could even subvert the ideal of being a strong person by showing that she still feels immense fear each time she has to fight or that fighting causes her nothing but grief over dead comrades.

    • Yes, Khalid, but then I go back to first principles and I have to ask WHY a strong character is only seen as strong if it involves danger or fighting or killing or other such violence.
      At the opposite end of the spectrum, a character may be shown as strong simply by standing firm.
      My personal preference is for understatement, which is possibly the hardest way to demonstrate strength.

  24. Totally agree. That was just one example of being strong, not the only one. Actually in my current project, the main female character has no fighting ability or kickass factor, but she shows willpower and resourcefulness.

  25. Jaisen Mahne says

    I have several female characters I am writing. Each has their own strengths and weaknesses. My lead female protagonist is tough on the outside; because she has to exert her authority – however, she is filled with self-doubt, conflict and a desire to break out of the mould that she has been cast in by others.

    I find that writing strong women can be difficult, but I don’t like to make them totally unrealistic. Even the toughest woman has weaknesses – they don’t always let them show, but in developing their story arc, it’s nice to watch them grow and change.

    I also like to give my characters a sense of humour. A lot of the strongest women I know have a wicked wit, or pin-sharp sarcasm that appears when they’re managing ways of coping with their dilemmas. I only wish I was smart enough to write half of the stuff down that I have heard over the years… comedy gold!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Flaws are the secret to good characters. No matter the angle, it’s the flaws that make the strengths all the more interesting.

  26. Hannah Killian says

    YAAAASSSS! Especially #3 and #4! I hate it when people think strong women can’t fall in love.

    That’s one reason why the Frozen fandom is so divided. There are people saying they want to see Elsa fall in love in the sequel. Then there are people who are saying that Elsa falling in love would be against one of the first movie’s themes.

    And I’m just sitting there, like, “Where in the first movie did it say or imply that?” Nowhere! Frozen’s themes were love and family, if I recall correctly. And since when did a LI become an obstacle between a girl and her family?

    The way I see it, that’s how the anti-shippers act. They act like a LI for Elsa would be an obstacle between her and Anna’s sisterhood. And if that’s true, then what about Anna’s romance with Kristoff? Shouldn’t that be an obstacle between her and Elsa’s sisterhood?

    There is nothing wrong with Elsa falling in love and if she did get a love interest, then the guy she fell for wouldn’t be an obstacle between her and Anna. Instead, he’d be a part of their family. Right?

    Besides, Anna and Kristoff would get a BROTHER! And nieces and nephews! Nothing wrong with that! (Assuming, of course, that Elsa is able to have children, which I think she can)

    As for my stance, I’m sort of in the middle. I’m not against Elsa getting a love interest in the sequel, but at the same time, I don’t care if she doesn’t.

    Okay, rant over. If that even was a rant. Still, that’s one thing that irks me. The Anti-Romance attitude concerning strong female characters.

  27. Helpful. The female lead in the first novel of my fantasy trilogy, Granny Maberly, is in her nineties and one of the strongest characters I know. She doesn’t use violence; she uses her experience, wisdom and ability to see the truth (and psych people out, when she has to). She originally started out as a minor character in a flash fiction forum but everyone loved her and urged me to write a book about her–so I did. But I have been worrying about her not fitting the North American butt-kicking, heel-wearing mold.

    Ditto the heroine in the second trilogy: She’s definitely gentle. But I realized, reading your Story Structure and Character Arc series that not only does she have a huge character growth arc, she is also a powerful catalyst on those around her. So I have more confidence now as I write.

    Thanks!

  28. I think that the right type of home-maker can create a real strong character. This is either the woman managing the entire household because the man can’t or won’t, or a woman managing to keep the family going even if the man is a failure. (Not all men are evil in this model, some accept that she does a better job of it or that it’s a fair division of time spent.)

    Patience and Endurance are strong female traits. Discretion about when to be sneaky and when to stand up for themselves is also a strong trait.

    “Castle in the Sky” Studio Ghibli seems to have female characters who are strong, but most of them don’t need to be. The miner’s wife seems like the strongest at first. When her husband rips his shirt while proving how manly his muscles are, she says that she’s not going to sew it back together for him and he balks. The main boy seems trained to naturally fall into “women should be respected” role.

    The sky-pirate lady seems to have trained all of her boys to “respect your mama” and it bleeds over to letting the main girl twist them around her little finger while she’s being genuinely naive. The main girl does turn into the beginnings of a truly strong woman.

  29. It looks like I’m on the right track, then. Actually, my female main in my sci-fi is sorta recovering from some of the stereotypes, in a way. XD Basically, she misunderstood someone’s advice long ago on what it meant to be “strong” and she has been relearning it now.

    1. Strong does not equal violent.
    – Well, she’s a superhero, so I can only go so far avoiding this stereotype. Plus she’s a cyborg with a super-strong arm. XD Years ago she used to act out in frustration and get in fights and stuff. Nowadays she’s more controlled, works out, lifts weights, and only fights to defend people. She used to want to be a cop or join the army, so that goes into it as well.

    2. Strong does not equal bossy.
    – I don’t know if I’d call her “bossy” exactly… She can lose her temper too easily sometimes, and I put that in as a character flaw.

    3. Strong Doesn’t Mean She Won’t Need to Be Rescued or Coached or Guided in Her Personal Journey by Another Character

    Even by (gasp!) a male character.
    – Ah, one of my favorite factors in play in the story is the self-defense instructor who came into her life and taught her self-respect and confidence. <3

    4. Strong Doesn’t Mean the Character Can’t Be Loved or in Love
    – See above about self-defense instructor. (Oh, they haven't fallen in love… yet.)

    5. Strong Doesn’t Mean Putting Women in Male Roles
    – Depends, do you count "superhero" as a male role? Or robot-building scientist?

    6. Strong Doesn’t Have to Draw Attention to Itself
    – She's kind of a show-boater as a superhero. But it has more to do with her fascination with her powers. And the fact that she has a rival "hero" that is losing his popularity to her, and he's being a butt to her about it, so it's hard for her to resist just for the sake of pissing him off. Does that count? XD

  30. I think that the biggest misconception is that strength has to be physical. And that’s not true. A character can be strong emotionally, intellectually, spiritually or morally and be physically frail or disabled or whatever.

  31. Gosh, so many…I think for me, is that there has to be certain characteristics in the first place, as if they don’t have one, they’re not strong. It’s funny, writing female characters has become such a tricky business. No matter what you do, someone’s going to shout the “Mary Sue” card.

    What people need to realize is that there are the tomboy characters, and the girly characters, and the in between characters, but what matters is that you make them unique and show a range of traits, not just the stereotypes.

    In my fantasy book, I’m planning a female mercenary side character. She’s an axe user, standoffish, and snarky. However, in a scene where the group she’s in finds two children hiding after a bandit attack, we also find out she used to be the oldest of five siblings and is amazing with kids (much as she tries to deny liking them). We also learn she was the one who cooks (another part of being the oldest daughter), and certainly has a personal code and morals, no matter how much she may think she doesn’t care. Once trust is gained, she’s loyal as she is stubborn. If she opens up, you find she’s honest as she is blunt, and far more vulnerable than she tries to make herself seem.

    Is she any less of a warrior because she’s good with kids and can cook? Is she any less of a woman because she carries an axe and armor? Is she any less complex for one part or the other? A character is a collection of multiple traits, and it always irks me how often people seem to overlook this simple fact.

    • Seems I can’t edit. I also meant to point out that it also depends on the weaknesses and how they handle it. A strong character is only as tough as what she faces. It’s not impressive to see someone overpowered with no fear. It’s much more interesting to see one with doubt, conflicting ideologies, phobias, and personality drawbacks. Even the greatest warriors need someone(s) to watch their back when surrounded. Even the most proud should have to be humbled.

      Somehow, it seems that many have started to think they can’t have that and be strong anymore, or that they’re too strong. It’s growing increasingly harder to make people realize there’s a middle ground, and that middle ground is what makes them so relatable.

      • Shadowkat, it took me a while to respond. I suddenly realised that you are not talking about strong woman characterisation, you are talking about character characterisation. Period.
        And here’s the thing I also suddenly see.
        I have never thought that women were stronger or weaker than men, or that they have to be handled differently in our writing. They are themselves. Women with individual characteristics participate in the unfolding story.
        What makes a strong woman character? The same things that make a strong male character.
        IMHO

        • The problem is that mainly in Hollywood all we have is flawless female characters who masters everything. That’s boring as hell. All the good male characters have arcs, they suffer, they have to be knocked down , over and over again to the point of the “ALL IS LOST MOMENT” then comes the turning point and the climax. We haven’t seen this in most of female characters. It’s been always those choreographic stupid fight stances, always bossy, always defensive against men and always followed by making men looking utterly stupid. I loved Kill Bill, Aliens, T2 among others that follows good concepts. I mean, in terms of female heroes! I don’t know if I have much else to say.

  32. Hannah Killian says

    K.M., do you think that there are misconceptions about independent women?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Oh, certainly. There are misconceptions about every type of person. 🙂 But my take on a lot of the “strong chick” stereotypes we see today is that male filmmakers got together, decided “Oh yeah, we need to start including some strong women,” but basically just made them act like men while looking as sexy as possible.

      • Spot on, Katie.

      • What does that really mean though, to act like a man? Is it leadership? Stoicism? aggression? What defines male behaviour?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          If you can stereotype it as “extreme testosterone,” then it’s “acting like a man.” Basically: violence and lack of relational skills. (No offense to the guys on this; I hope we all know we’re talking about extreme male stereotypes in these instances.)

  33. Joe Long says

    I’ve spent this afternoon thinking about my portrayal of my female lead to see if I’ve fallen into any stereotypes. I don’t think so! I was most concerned about her having a consistent personality – that the various things she does don’t contradict and present a realistic mix.

    I see her as strong. She’s not afraid to tell people what she thinks and is quick to stand up for herself to not allow herself to be pushed around or be a victim, and sees herself as equal to guys while not superior. Thinking about it now, I hoped that wouldn’t conflict with a personality type that also had her wanting to please people.

    I reconciled that she reads people well, deciding who she can trust. For those she lets inside her circle, she is quite charming and eager to please. She’s also willing to challenge those she doesn’t trust, even adults – along the lines of, “I see what you’re doing, I don’t like it, and you better stop – or else!”

  34. Hi K.M.,

    Thank you for writing this article. I realize I’m way late in reading this article, but I was brainstorming over an idea I have that ties directly into this article.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Then Katie busts six stereotypes of strong female characters. […]

  2. […] November 20, 2015, K.M. Weiland wrote an entry on her website, Busting 6 Strong Female Character Stereotypes (What I Learned Writing Storming), that goes over 6 common stereotypes that writers let their characters fall into when creating […]

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