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?