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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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!

  5. 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.

  6. 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

  7. 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.

  8. 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

  9. 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.)

  10. 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!”

Trackbacks

  1. […] 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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