Today I’m discussing a phrase you see absolutely everywhere in the world of reading and writing: “strong female character.” When it really boils down to it, what the heck does that even mean? I’ve never in my life heard the phrase “strong male character.” So why is crafting a woman so different from crafting a man? Well, countless people have attempted to interpret this debacle. You know what I’m talking about it. Particularly in the movie world, we ended up with a slew black-haired, gun slinging females wearing tight leather clothing--even in Big Hero 6, for crying out loud. Or, on a much, much larger scale, all those countless female characters who throw out sassy one-liners, possess enviable fighting skills, and punch men in the face. Those three traits alone are supposed to qualify them as “strong.” Like, “Oh, look, we can beat up a man! Who needs men?” Okay, but tell me something else about them. That’s just the thing—there is nothing else about these characters. They exist to fight and, more often than not, fall in love—such as every woman in every single Marvel movie. And that’s all we ever know about them. If a male in a story acted like this, would we call him a strong character? No, we’d call him a plot device.
I don’t know if I am even qualified to write about this. I don’t know if I craft good characters or not. But I read and watch movies. A lot. And I encounter female characters. A lot. So without further ado, I present to you:
The Five Actual Rules of Writing a Female Character
(Hint: It’s not that hard)
Rule #1: Your Female Character Must Be Active
I hate passiveness. In characters, and in real life. Those people who sit by and just wish things would change. Your character should want something, and she should pursue it. Whether or not she gets what she wants is invalid. She has to try. Key word, she has to try. Minor characters doing all the dirty work or opportunities falling into the main character’s lap isn’t real life; that’s wish fulfillment. When a character wants something worthwhile, longs for it, and fights for it, that is compelling and dynamic. As a reader, watching this struggle bonds us to the character. If a character is passive, it needs to be presented as a weakness they overcome. Period.
On that note, a character needs to make her own story happen. Imagine The Hunger Games if Katniss entered the games because her name was drawn, not because she chose to volunteer for her sister. Or as a better example, Fin Button, who I love but hardly anyone else has heard of. At the start of Fin’s tale, her best friend is hanged as a direct result of her own mistake, she murders six Recoats to avenge his death and cover her sin, flees for her life, and disguises herself as a boy to get a job on a ship. All at her own will.
Rule #2: Your Female Character Must Have as Much Personality as Any Other Character
This one should be a no-brainer. But authors, even female authors, worry their female character’s personality won’t be “strong” enough, and they freeze up and create girls with barely a personality at all. This is just stupid. You can do practically whatever you want here. A well-rounded character is a good character. Your character can be shy. She can be outspoken. She can enjoy staying home to read and watch TV. She can prefer to be where other people are. She can be gentle or harsh, bossy or peacekeeping, open or reserved, accepting or wary. Just make her something. Make her lots of things, so long as these traits don’t clash—but also remember real people contradict themselves at times. See how her strengths and weaknesses play off of each other. And these strengths and weaknesses are what drives the character—who in turn drives the story. Show us her good side, her bad side, her fears, and—even if it is deep, deep, deep inside—show us her kindness. Kindness is a strength.
Rule #3: Your Female Character Must Have Interests
And I don’t mean fighting wars, spearing things, sports, hunting, punching men in the face, or otherwise partaking in anything that proves she is tough as nails.
There’s nothing wrong with any of these things to a degree. For example, I’ve read plenty of books with girls who hunt, particularly where it is the societal norm or when they must hunt to survive. But that can’t be the only thing they do. What about when it rains? Or when it’s cold? Or when it’s dark outside? What do they like to do then? What do they do with their friends? Everyone picks up a hobby or two. It doesn’t even have to be a “cool” hobby. Girls can like cooking. They can like knitting. You can even have a female character who likes to make jewelry and wear pink. Really. It’s okay. The world’s not going to end. Also, your character doesn’t have to be the absolute best of all time at whatever she does. Most of us are just pretty average at a few things.
The same rule applies if you have a female character in the workforce. You don't have to narrow her options to scientist or lawyer or professor or intelligence agent. She can work in a restaurant. She can take care of kids. In real life, we find strong, well-rounded people everywhere. You can even have a character who really likes a guy or who wants to get married—but don’t make it the only thing she thinks about. Make her carry on with her life in the process. Let her think and talk about her interests and her ideas and her worries and her dreams and the things she wants—not just this random guy she wishes would kiss her. Make her realize, somehow, that she really is okay standing on her own. Give her a support system of friends….WHO ARE OTHER GIRLS. (This is something rarely seen.)
Rule #4: Your Female Character Can Be Broken
This rule is most conflicting to the mainstream mindset. Through popular books and blockbuster movies, we’ve been gifted some rather calculating women who act cold and mean with no other revealing layers. There is no apparent reason for this meanness, but it makes them look tough, and you had better believe it’s their only emotion. No. Just no. That is not strength. Strength is when a character pulls herself off the floor and keeps going even through the brokenness and the weakness. That’s it. That’s the entire secret. That’s how you make you a strong character. They can have bad days. They can fall apart. They can make colossal mistakes. They can change—for better or for worse. But they keep going. Whether it’s stepping back out into the battlefield or just driving to work one more day. Show us their breaking point. Show us their darkest moment. And then show us how they ultimately pull through.
This is a point that the final Hunger Games movie nailed better than the book. Katniss screws up. More than once. But there’s a moment near the end where she lies to get people on her side (with good intentions), then screws up monumentally and gets some of these people killed. And it absolutely destroys her. When she gives her apology down in the bunker, she is devastated by guilt. I’m not calling Jennifer Lawrence the once-in-a-lifetime legend the world thinks she is, by any means, but she acted the heck out of this scene. You can see the desperation on her face and hear it in her voice. And did I think she was weak for falling apart in this moment of weakness? NO. If anything, it added another layer to her and strengthened my bond with her. And if you’ve seen the movie or even read the book, you know what happens next. When the sun rises, she has not amended her mistake. It’s too big to ever fix. She is still wracked by grief. But she gets up and goes out into the streets and continues her mission. She does what she needs to do.
Rule #5: Your Female Character Must Be an Interesting Human Being
Just make an interesting character.
Stop looking at your character as a female. Look at her as a person. You’re already halfway there.