What makes a ‘strong’ female character?

21/03/2017 Discussions 27

What makes a 'strong' female character?

Thanks to the rise of feminism, representations of women in fiction have never been as varied and empowering as they are today. Gone are the days of two-dimensional, doll-like heroines, whose only purpose was to be coveted, fought over, or rescued by the male characters – today’s heroines are complex, nuanced and have agency.

However, there’s a term that’s commonly bandied about in regards to some of our modern-day heroines that I feel is often misused or misinterpreted, and that’s the idea of the ‘strong female character’. For one thing, it does slightly irk me that we still have to define female characters as ‘strong’ in a way that we don’t with male characters, as if it is somehow surprising that a female character would have any kind of strength. But I also feel like this phrase is commonly applied to a certain kind of character, which doesn’t necessarily always represent female strength.

This new breed of female character, commonly referred to as the ‘strong female character’, is generally tough and a skilled fighter and a little bit snarky…and in many cases that’s all there is to her, as this kind of character slowly becomes an overused stereotype. Thanks to the success of tougher female characters like Katniss Everdeen and Arya Stark (both of whom are awesome characters!), many authors seem to think it’s enough just to give female characters traditionally masculine traits, and that immediately makes them a ‘strong’ female character.

But personally I don’t think that’s the case. Why does a character have to be made ‘more like a man’ to be strong? As much as I love a tough, badass female character who can use a sword or shoot a gun, and just generally kick butt, I don’t think that’s the only way to be a ‘strong woman’, and so it seems wrong to deem only these types of characters as ‘strong’. Not to mention the fact that these characters can often come off as flat, as many authors fail to develop them past the ‘she’s good at fighting and kind of sarcastic’ stage.

Therefore I thought I’d discuss what I think truly makes for a ‘strong female character’, using a few of my favourite examples:

  • Hermione from Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling

Hermione is pretty much the original ‘strong female character’ for me, and it certainly isn’t due to her fighting skills (however fierce that punch she gave Malfoy in Prisoner of Azkaban was!).

Hermione was the first character I can remember reading about to make me feel like it’s OK to be any kind of woman you want to be. You don’t have to be beautiful and perfect like the heroines of old, or tough and combative like many more modern heroines – you just have to yourself and own it. Hermione gets plenty of teasing for her bookish ways, fierce intelligence and willingness to stand up for what she believes in (S.P.E.W., for example), but she doesn’t care – she’s just who she is, and I think that shows the ultimate strength.

  • Kestrel from The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski

Generally tough heroines who know how to fight are considered oddities in the world of their stories, and so often they have that annoying ‘not-like-other-girls’ (and how I hate that phrase!) quality to them. Therefore I absolutely loved the world of The Winner’s Curse, where it’s a perfectly normal thing for a woman to be tough, militant and extremely physically capable, and I loved even more how Kestrel was none of those things.

Despite being the daughter of a well-regarded general, Kestrel accepts that she is not an accomplished fighter, and whilst this puts her at a disadvantage within her world, she knows how to play to her other strengths. She is incredibly intelligent and quick-witted, and wields her mind as her greatest weapon, and usually comes out triumphant because of it.

  • Sorcha and Liadan from The Sevenwaters Trilogy by Juliet Marillier

As healers and dutiful daughters of the Sevenwaters household, Sorcha and Liadan have a lot of typically ‘feminine’ traits, yet they are easily two of the strongest characters I’ve ever read about. They are the opposite of fighters – they heal and nurture others – yet both of them suffer through some of the most horrific trials and tribulations, and go through terrible grief and fear, yet they never give up in the face of evil and adversity. They are fiercely loyal to their family and those they love, and are not afraid to be quietly controversial in their life choices and choice of partners.

They are perfect examples of how female characters can be more traditionally feminine, yet strong: they can be gentle, caring and compassionate, whilst still being courageous and bucking convention.

  • Mara from The Empire Trilogy by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts

Mara is an incredibly strong character, as she rises to the challenge of being a female leader in a world where women are considered second-class citizens, and does it better than any of the men. Despite being thrust into a position of great power at a young age and with no experience, she rises to become ‘Mistress of the Empire’, through her intelligence, resourcefulness and skill as a politician, not to mention her devotion to her people and family.

Throughout the series you see her grow as a person, and as a leader, inspiring devotion in her servants and subjects, and fear in her enemies, as she shows herself to be a force to be reckoned with in the brutal political landscape of Tsurani.

  • Cath from Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Cath is one of those characters who despite being perceived as weak by others and by herself, is actually incredibly strong. Her social anxiety means that things that would be easy and not very scary for other people (e.g. her twin sister) are incredibly hard for her, and she struggles to come to terms with her new surroundings. However, throughout the novel you see her truly facing her fears and opening herself up to others, an act that takes immense courage and strength!

She’s what I would describe as an ‘everyday heroine’, and I think we can all relate to her feelings of fear and loneliness, and draw strength from her story of conquering her fears, and finding her place in the world.

So these are six females characters that I see as ‘strong’, and I’d love to know some of yours! What do you think constitutes strength? Is it fighting ability and physical prowess, or something else? Do you even think the idea of a ‘strong female character’ should exist, seen as we don’t often reference ‘strong male characters?

27 Responses to “What makes a ‘strong’ female character?”

  1. Melissa @ Quill Pen Writer

    *applauds* These are such amazing examples, and I whole hardheartedly agree with you that strength in women, or anyone for that matter, doesn’t rely solely on physical strength. To me strong women are those who stand up for what they believe in, whether through verbalizing their beliefs, peacefully or not-so-peacefully protesting, and so on. Characters who are intelligent and use their brain power are also so strong to me. I love this post! <3

    • Laura

      I totally agree – women who stand up for their beliefs are the most powerful, even if they aren’t physically the strongest or toughest. And I definitely love characters who are intelligent! 🙂

  2. Michael Tyne

    Great post, and I’m applauding too. I think part of the problem is that nowadays – in Society as well as in fiction – people confuse aggression with strength. To me aggression is more often a sign of weakness! I’m afraid a lot of the problem in fiction has to be down to (ahem) male authors, who seem to struggle to see beyond “traditional male” values. So I agree with your comment that it is disappointing that the phrase “strong female character” is even a thing. Personally, I would like to read about more MALE characters exhibiting the values you espouse as well…

    • Laura

      I totally agree with you! It does seem to be a common thing in general for people to mistake aggression for strength, when actually I’d say the opposite is true – if you’re aggressive I’d say you’re weaker, because clearly you don’t have much control over your emotions or impulses. I would definitely love to read more about male characters with these values as well – no character has to be physically the toughest to be strong in my opinion! 🙂

  3. Karolina

    I like Penryn from the Penryn and the end of Days trilogy. To be honest she is a fighting badass but she’s also a girl and that shows in the story.

    • Laura

      She sounds like an awesome character! I’ll have to give those books a try, because I haven’t read them 🙂

  4. Victoria

    I definitely agree that the idea of the ‘strong’ female should not necessarily relate to male attributes, such as physical strength. I think that my favourite female characters tend to be those who have endured hardships which have made them stronger, and like you said, are unashamedly themselves. In terms of more modern heroines, I love Claire from Outlander, but I absolutely adore Jane Eyre. She is so resilient and dignified.

    • Laura

      I definitely like to see that in female characters too, where they have been through tough times, but it has made them stronger. And Claire and Jane Eyre are great examples! I’m sure Claire came into my mind when I was planning out this post, but then I’d forgotten about her by the time I got to writing it! 🙂
      Jane Eyre has definitely always been a favourite of mine though, because she’s quietly strong. I like how for most of the novel she is very reserved and unassuming, but then she always sticks to her beliefs no matter what, and refuses to stay as Rochester mistress, or go to India with John Rivers because that’s not what’s right for her. I especially see that bit where she confronts Mr Rochester as her showing her inner strength! 🙂

  5. Michelle @ FaerieFits

    Yay! I LOVE this post, even though I can’t relate to most of your examples. I personally think that when I say “strong” when describing a character, I’m typically referring to how well they’re written / how alive they are. So I guess I have said “strong female character” but I mean more that there’s a good character who happens to be female. But you’re right, that’s not the typical use case.

    That said, in fiction AND in reality, I think strength often ends up (how I think about it, at least) referring as much to mental strength / resilience as it does to physical strength. And then there’s things like maternal strength.

    I’m reading Etched in Bone by Anne Bishop right now, and there is a mother / grandmother in there who is probably the “strongest” character in there — even the alpha of the pack is afraid to argue with her! And that’s certainly not an example of physical strength, more sheer strength of will! (Also, I want to be her when(if) I’m a grandma!)

    • Laura

      Yeah, I definitely think ‘strong character’ can be used in a different way to refer to how well they’re written, so it is kind of a weird phrase like that. It can have so many interpretations and meanings! 🙂
      I definitely agree that the word ‘strength’ actually refers to a combination of different types of strength, so it sucks that it often gets associated with one type – physical strength. Mental strength and things like resilience definitely make up a big part of the definition for me too when I think about whether or not a character is strong. And ultimately I think that with real people and characters alike, we all have our strengths and weaknesses, so we’re all strong in our own way 🙂
      And I love the sound of that character! 🙂

  6. Jen @ Books That Hook

    I definitely agree that there is more to a strong character than just physical strength. I like a character who is willing to fight for what she believes is right, whether her fight is physical or verbal. I think a strong female character is one who is not afraid to take action, to do what needs to be done to reach her goal, whatever that may be. Also, I don’t want her to have to be rescued all the time. So, for me, it’s more about will and independence than physical strength. Although I have to admit that I do enjoy reading books with women who can kick butt. They just can’t be too cold or cocky about it.

    • Laura

      Will and independence is definitely way more important to me than physical strength too! I definitely want a strong character to take action and fight for what they believe in, whether that’s fighting physically, or fighting mentally to achieve their goal. And I know what you mean – I really hate it when characters have to be rescued all the time! Especially if it’s because they’re really cocky and headstrong and so are always purposefully running into danger and then having to be bailed out by someone else.

  7. Greg

    I like the Hermione example, because even though I’ve probably been as guilty as anyone talking about “strong female characters” in the vein of a tough person, I really think a strong female character is just the character being themself. Kinda like you say in that example. Whether it’s swordfighting or knitting, if the character is true to themself (whatever that is) then I think that’s it. Because sometimes being YOURSELF in a world that demands certain expectations is about as strong as it gets.

    I remember Chris Claremont was lauded for writing “strong female characters” in the X-Men and I think that was not only because they could be tough, but he realized they were more than that, and he wrote them as people, not cardboard cut outs. Characters like Kitty Pryde who were tough internally and fought for what they believed in.

    Love the Cath example, she’s awesome. And I always say this when I talk about Fangirl but I loved Regan too. She lived how she want, didn’t take any crap and immediately had her (Cath’s) back when something went wrong. I could read a book about Regan! 🙂

    I think maybe it is time to retire the phrase but don’t see it happening soon, for good or bad.

    • Anitya @Hooked To Books

      I’m of the idea that a strong female character is someone who is authentic and honest about who she really is. A girl doesn’t need to be a fighter to feel strong, but I like it when they have a life goal to pursue. It grinds my gears when I read a book and the woman character has her world revolving around a man 🙁

    • Laura

      That’s so true – one of the toughest things to do is be yourself, so that demands way more strength that anything else! 🙂
      And I totally get what you mean – even if a character is physically strong, to actually be a ‘strong character’ they need to seem like real people, not cardboard cut outs.
      And yes, I’d love a Reagan book too! She is just one of those characters who’s unapologetically herself, and doesn’t care what anyone thinks, and I love the way she always has Cath’s back 🙂

  8. Blaise

    Thank you for this post, Laura. I really appreciate the discussion and I certainly have a few more books on my TBR as a result. It really bothers me that male characters who are good at everything are considered talented heroes, but if a woman can do everything, suddenly she’s a Mary Sue. I think we need to encourage depth in female characters and male characters alike — and to be more critical of the latter.

    • Laura

      I totally agree – we really need to encourage depths in both male and female characters, and definitely look more critically at male characters, as so often it’s the female ones that receive all the scrutiny, or are described as ‘annoying’, or ‘whiney’ etc.

  9. Becky @ A Fool's Ingenuity

    Love this post. Enough with strong female characters. Give me well-rounded female characters who feel like fully developed people any day. I love a well written snarky character who can fight like a badass, don’t get me wrong, but I like a girl who can’t fight worth a damn but who is smart or caring or basically a badass in her own way too. I just want to see female characters holding their own in a story.

    For me, a good female character can feel like they can walk off a page. They aren’t always sure of themselves or anything but they keep going. I think for me strong female characters will always be the strong of personality rather than physically strong. They can be physically strong too but unless you’ve got someone who is going to stick in your mind they aren’t the greatest character to me.

    • Laura

      I totally agree with you – all I want is fully-developed female characters, who hold their own, whether that’s physically, or mentally! A strong personality is much more important than physical prowess, and I think a lot of authors need to realise this! I’ve seen a lot of characters who are tough, and therefore lauded by the other characters in the book as some kind of big personality, when actually when you really look, there isn’t much else to them other than their physical strength. And those characters really aren’t going to stick in your mind!

  10. Cait @ Paper Fury

    I’ve NEVER seen anyone ever reference a “strong male character”. Ughhh. *rolls eyes at the term* I really hate it actually. I think “strong” is being put in place of the word we actually need which is: complex! Female characters and heroines need to have hopes and dreams, ambitions and thoughts, and that’s what makes them strong. I love badass heroines so so much and some of my favourites are the ones that snark and stab. But I also love quiet girls in books?? And imaginative girls?? And artistic girls?? Like ALL TYPES OF GIRLS ARE GREAT AND I WANT TO READ ABOUT THEM!! I love particularly how Kestrel using wit and cunning to get through her trilogy. And Cath is so relatable omg. <3

    • Laura

      You are so right! ‘Strong’ is definitely used in place of ‘complex’, which is what we really need in female characters. And we definitely need representations of all types of girls in books! I think everyone can be strong in their own way, so I guess as long as a character is fully-developed and complex, they could be classed as strong 🙂

  11. Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

    You make some fantastic points here—especially about why we even need to mention that a female character is “strong.” I love your examples of Hermione and Cath—especially Cath because I hadn’t really thought about her strength before, but you’re absolutely right about her!

  12. JW

    Lily Evans is my role model as “strong woman” (from the octology: Lily Evans Diary) weak, unsure she grows up, scared of the power and daunting task later in life assigned to her. Maturing at unnatural speed, observing childish contemporaries, fearing left-out of a normal life, strugling with her own relationship, helping friends beyond saving (euthenasia), and after facing hell, having lost parents and her best friend, she denounce her power. Instead of taking revenge, she makes the ultimate sacrifice

    • Laura

      She certainly sounds like an interesting character! I’ve never read those books, but I’ll definitely have to check them out 🙂

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