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 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 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.

  2. 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? 🙂 )

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

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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!

  7. 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.

  8. 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!

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. “. . . 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.

  12. 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.

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

  14. 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.

  15. Great insight!

  16. 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.)

  17. 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.

  18. 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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  1. […] The Only Thing You Need to Know About Writing Strong Female Characters @KMWeiland […]

  2. […] 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 […]

  3. […] I want to show they can still be “girly” while being kick-ass. I recently read an article which discussed this very problem. Some writers think strong female characters have to exert […]

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