Thursday, August 05, 2021

A Guide for Writing Strong Female Characters

By Bethany Henry

Part of The How They Do It Series


JH: Representation in fiction leads to a more inclusive society. Bethany Henry shares ways to write strong female characters, as well as harmful pitfalls to avoid
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Bethany Henry writes fantasy novels, and blogs about writing and wellness at bethany-henry.com. When not writing, she can often be found on the frisbee field, drinking tea, or reading picture books with her two little girls. Sign up for her email list for weekly posts on writing craft—along with fun extras like quotes and freebies.  

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Take it away Bethany...

There has been a rise of strong female characters and representation in recent years, which is super awesome. I love that there is more attention being given to this topic.

However, writing strong female characters is more complicated than simply giving our female character a sword. (Though for the record, I’ll pretty much read any book where there is a hero with a sword so don’t hold back on my account)

This post will walk us through why writing strong female characters matters, what a strong character looks like, and 14 common pitfalls we may encounter.

Note: Gender representation is complex and all identities matter. This post is focused on characters who identify as female but this is by no means saying other identities are less important. Feel free to chime in on the conversation below and share your own experiences in the comments!

Why Do Strong Female Characters Matter?


Sexism is still a problem today, no matter how modern or advanced we like to think we are as a society.

There are obvious examples of this, such as the ever-present pay-gap or the prevalence of violence against women. And there are other less obvious (yet very influential) examples as well, such as normalized harassment and double-standards.

And our stories are not exempt: for instance, studies looking at films have found women hold significantly fewer main roles, have less screen time, and are given fewer lines than men.

We may think that sexism has nothing to do with our stories (they’re just fiction, after all!) but how we represent the characters in our story matters. It matters a lot.

The stories we read (and that our children read!) shape our worldview, our view of ourselves, and our view of others. Books can open our eyes about people different from ourselves and they can show us what we ourselves can strive for.

This means the way we portray female characters in our stories then shapes how we think about and treat females in our lives and/or ourselves.

The Scully Effect


Did you know that there has been a statistically significant increase of women entering STEM field careers (science, technology, engineering, and math) based on their exposure to a character in a TV show?

This character was Dana Scully from The X-Files, and she is considered to be the first female lead-role character in a STEM field. Scully became a role model and changed perceptions of what women could do, inspiring many women to pursue careers in STEM fields themselves. This recognizable phenomenon has been called the Scully Effect.

Representation clearly can have a strong impact.

While all of our characters may not have movements named after them, our stories will have an effect as well. Let’s make it a good one.

What Does Strong Even Mean?


As we think about crafting our characters, it’s important to remember that not all strong characters look the same.

For instance, Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice is considered by many to be a strong character and yet so is Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games. From a glance the characters would seem to be completely different from one another.

Yet when we look closer, we notice some shared characteristics, such as their desire to fight against societal pressures and their sacrificial care for those they love.

Strong can mean physical strength. It can also refer to the ability to last under pressure, to have influence or make things happen, to have passion or spirit, to support others well, to be moral, and/or to have courage.

Strength can look like a lot of different things and strong characters won’t all look alike.

Components of a Strong Character


Essentially a strong character (regardless of gender) should have agency, strength, and motive.

Let’s break that down a bit.

Agency is the quality of making things happen. Even if our character isn’t the person in charge, we want our characters to be driving the story to some extent. They should be active in their own adventure. Even if our character is a captive or in a situation out of their control, there are ways they can control their own response and take action of some kind.

Strength is showing our character being good at something. It doesn’t need to be physical strength or even being talented in ways that are highly valued in our story- it could be that their strength is persistence, kindness, or the ability to learn from their mistakes. This strength gives us a chance to root for our character and see them eventually overcome trials.

Motive is what a character wants. Every character should have a goal, backstory, and reasons for getting involved in the story’s conflict. This depth helps create a complex, dynamic, and full character.

(Here’s more with 10 Signs Of A Great Protagonist)

So far, we’ve covered why having strong female characters is important and we’ve talked about the overall core components of strong characters. These components are not gender specific, though, so why is writing strong female characters worth focusing on?

It’s because the sexism that is present in our society today can (and often does) influence us and our writing if we are not careful. This is both the reason it is important to write strong female characters and it is the reason we need to be very intentional in our crafting of these characters.

Cultural bias can be hard to spot, especially in our own writing. It is sneaky and it creeps in if we aren’t paying attention—which is why we’re taking a few minutes to pay attention and think about the topic further today.

14 Common Pitfalls When Writing Strong Female Characters


These are common sexist messages that are found in our culture and, by extension, in our writing.

I’m not here to tell you what you can or can’t write. This list is simply a chance to think further about the messages we may be sending and the stereotypes that may be present in our own thought patterns and writing. Often these stereotypes are ingrained and we don’t even think twice about using them.

(Here’s more with The Difference Between Archetypes, Tropes, and Clich├ęs)

As you read through this list, think about whether you’ve seen these pop up in books you’ve read recently. And how many are present in our own writing?

We can make our own writing stronger by being aware of these common pitfalls and either addressing them, subverting them, or avoiding them altogether.

Pitfall 1: Infantilizing


There is a common practice of calling grown women “baby,” “young lady,” “girl,” or commenting on how cute or young she looks. Men may worry about women being scared of silly things or tell them not to “worry their pretty little heads” about adult topics.

This may seem like an innocent practice until we realize all of this is negating a woman’s maturity and actual age or experience. They aren’t children, they are adults.

Infantilizing likely stems from ageism and the double-standards related to women’s physical appearances. Treating women as children easily leads to dismissing a woman's credentials, thinking less of them, and treating them in condescending fashion. A dangerous side of infantilizing is when young girls—actual young girls—are seen as a physical and sexual ideal.

Treating women as their age is a simple way to show respect.
 

Pitfall 2: Slut Shaming


Women are often judged if they have multiple sexual partners or if they engage in certain sexual behaviors. This judgement can come from others or be internal, such as feeling like a “bad girl” for sleeping with someone. (Notice both slut shaming and infantilizing here!)

Now it may not always be a good decision to sleep with someone and not every sexual act needs to be engaged in. But we don’t need to be bringing double-standards or shame into it.
 

Pitfall 3: Over-focus On Virgin Status


The flip side of judging women for being sexually active is that sometimes there is an over-focus on whether or not someone is a virgin. There are two ways this is frequently shown.

Sometimes being a virgin is portrayed as bad, where the woman desperately wants to lose her virginity and feels ashamed or lesser because she’s never had sex. While this is a real experience for some, for others being a virgin is a personal choice or simply not a significant factor in their lives. By portraying being a virgin as shameful in our stories this can send the message that women are only valuable if they are sexually active.

Other times being a virgin is portrayed as an all-important factor almost to the level of a fetish. This is often played out when a sexually experienced man seduces a virgin woman. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this story it can sometimes send unfortunate messages about a woman’s value or desirability being closely tied to whether or not she is a virgin.
 

Pitfall 4: The Uber Badass


We’ve seen these characters—these women drive motorcycles, wear black, never cry, and they never ask anyone for help. They definitely don’t wear makeup and they wouldn’t be caught dead wearing pink or anything sparkly.

Sound familiar?

I love a tough character, don’t get me wrong.

But if we think a woman needs to act like a stereotypical man in order to be “strong” then we’re selling ourselves short. Because strong women can be anything they want. Sure, they can drive a motorcycle if they want. But they shouldn’t be limited by stereotypes. Being female shouldn’t be seen as an inherently bad thing.
 

Pitfall 5: Divided Gender Roles


There is a lot influenced by gender roles and the messages and stereotypes can be harmful for people of all gender identities.

This includes gender roles such as women always being in the kitchen (do the women do all the cooking in our stories?), doing the household cleaning, always acting in caregiving roles, taking care of any children even if they aren’t theirs, and generally being the social and empathetic characters.

For fantasy stories this may also include gendered magic, where men and women have different abilities or types of magic. This can have some messy implications at times if you think too hard about it.

There is absolutely nothing, nothing, wrong with a woman who cooks or is a caregiver in real life or in our stories. Characters should be making their own choices, finding what works for their situation, and being themselves. We just don’t want to be accidentally sending the message that these traditional roles are the expectation that always needs to be adhered to.
 

Pitfall 6: The Token Female


Women represent approximately half of the world’s population. Yet they represent a far lower number of characters in fiction. Why is this?

Male characters should not be the default.

We not only want to make sure we have women represented among our main characters (unless there is a clear reason why that is unreasonable), but there should be women cast as secondary and background characters as well in a range of roles and authority positions.

We don’t want to be satisfied with a token female character or females only playing supporting roles. Not only is it simply not reflective of the world’s population, it can also make it harder to represent female characters in a holistic manner. For instance, if the token female in our story is a barmaid, suddenly we may be sending the message that being a barmaid is the only avenue open for females. If the only female character is weak or a villain this can send the message that all females are weak or evil. This problem can be overcome by increasing the representation of female characters in a variety of roles.
 

Pitfall 7: She “Isn’t Like Other Girls”


The statement that a particular woman is special and not “like other girls” may come from a desire to pay her a compliment but it has a less-than-positive message attached to it. (Also, infantilization. Again.)

By stating that a woman is special and “not like other girls” you are then logically inferring that all other women are not valuable or special. This may be intended to be a compliment and to point out how a particular woman is special… but if that’s the case, then find the words to identify what ways she is special and say that instead. There’s no need to be putting down others in the process.

Pitfall 8: The Helpless Female


The princess that needs rescuing is a tale that has been told again and again and has made its way into our culture’s subconsciousness. It therefore not at all a surprise to see stories in which an otherwise competent woman suddenly can’t do things on her own and becomes helpless.

Now, it’s not bad for a character to need, ask for, or receive help. Those are very important aspects of life and a story.

The pitfall is when a woman is passive or unable to act in their own story, turning over the spotlight to someone else. This is especially an issue when a man comes in to save the day, often by being better than the woman at solving problems for no apparent reason.

Pitfall 9: Avoidance or Misrepresentation of Women’s Issues


Fiction is often a source of education on these topics, since they don’t get talked about in many circles. So let’s talk about them. By normalizing women’s issues, we can promote better education as well as validation for people’s experiences.

Some topics that are frequently avoided in fiction are birth control and periods, both of which are extremely important and relevant to people’s lives. They don’t need to be scary topics; we can just talk about them like we would anything else.

Beauty standards and routines are yet another area that is often unrealistic and/or misrepresented in fiction, for instance with many characters shunning makeup yet always having naturally flawless skin and red lips. Female appearance is often focused on non-inclusive standards of attractiveness and is based on the male gaze which primarily sees women as an object of desire. Just by acknowledging that not all people look the same or have the same routines or standards of beauty can be important.

One of the most sensitive issues for women in both fiction and real life is often the choice and/or ability to have or not have children. There can be a lot of cultural messages, expectations, and judgements here. As we craft our stories and characters it is essential that we treat all people with the same gentleness and respect that we would like to be treated with. Not everyone’s life will look the same as ours and that’s okay.

Pitfall 10: Weak Female Villains


There is an overabundance of weak female villains in fiction. This is especially a problem if they are the token female of the story.

We don’t want female villains who are just written off as being over-emotional and then are easily defeated (often by a male character). A strong female villain can be a great choice for a story, it just needs to be done with care.

For further reading check out 7 Possibly Motives For Villains and 10 Traits Of A Strong Antagonist.

Pitfall 11: Anger Dismissed as Cute


This goes back to the infantilization point we started with. When women are considered “cute” for being angry they are essentially being dismissed and their opinions and actions are considered less meaningful. Do we really want that?

Pitfall 12: Dismissal of Sexual Assault


Sexual assault is never okay. Consent is always important and required.

It doesn’t matter how aroused the characters are. It doesn’t matter how much they look like they “want it” or “are into it.” And it isn’t really consent if there are drugs or alcohol (or any magical equivalents such as spells or fated mates) involved.

(For the record, this applies to all genders as well as to all people in real life.)

Having sex (or any type of intimacy) without proper consent should not be glossed over or treated as okay in our stories, no matter how attractive the characters are portrayed to be.

Pitfall 13: Stereotypes


There are too many stereotypes to count and we’ve touched on several already, but it is important to be familiar with them so we don’t accidentally include them in our work.

A few female stereotypes to be aware of are: the nagging wife, the blonde bimbo, the ice queen, and the conniving manipulator.

A Word on Intersectionality


Intersectionality is when there is an overlapping of social categorizations of disadvantage being used to identify someone. For instance, a character may be female and they may also be Black.

This is important to recognize because there are even more stereotypes and biases with these additional identities. It is critical that we include characters with diverse experiences and identities (representation matters!), and also that we do it well and with respect.
 

Pitfall 14: Stereotypes Part 2


A few more stereotypes to be aware of are: the angry Black woman, the welfare queen, the studious Asian, the oversexualized Asian, the cheating lesbian, the “crazy” bipolar, the helpless paraplegic, and the “just tired” mother with postpartum depression.

For further reading check out 7 Tips for Writing Across Culture and Token or Broken? Writing LGBT*.

A Word on Accuracy


You may be wondering, well, what about being accurate? What about historical fiction? How do we tell a story set in a time period or situation where women are being actively oppressed?

The short answer is that we are the ones writing this story. We get to pick and choose which aspects of our story to focus on.

Even if we are writing a world where women have less freedom or equality, we can still create strong females and show their agency and power in the face of a deck stacked against them. We can still show them being courageous and powerful despite oppression.

By showing sexism and gender discrimination as a problem instead of an accepted normal way of life we can challenge patriarchal norms and promote equality in our world today.

3 Ways to Test Yourself


It’s good to evaluate our writing to see how we’re doing with all of this!

1. Gender Swap

We can switch up the genders of our characters as we review our story. This can help us identify if there are areas where characters may be stereotyped or if sexism is creeping in.

2. Bechdel Test

The Bechdel Test, written in 1985 by Alison Bechdel, has been used as a benchmark for female representation in stories. It states that a story must include at least two women and that the women must talk to each other about something other than a man.

It’s a simple test that helps evaluate whether there are women who are central and active in our stories instead of just playing supporting roles.

3. Beta readers!

Getting feedback is always a great idea! Having other people read our work can be incredibly helpful in identifying areas that could use improvement. And it can also be very valuable in pinpointing areas of cultural bias or stereotypes that we may not be aware have crept into our work.

(Here’s more with So What Do You Think? Asking For Feedback.)

Writing Strong Stories Is for All of Us


Stereotypes and misrepresentation hurts all of us no matter how we identify. By writing strong characters of all genders and identities we can create better stories and we can be helping to essentially be creating a better world. And that’s really pretty cool.

6 comments:

  1. A solid discussion and a strong checklist.

    I've always thought the definitive statement on this is Sophia MacDougall, https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2013/08/i-hate-strong-female-characters. Basically, think of all the hundreds of non-fighting, organic ways a male character can be "strong," and don't assume "strong woman" starts and ends with throwing a punch.

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    Replies
    1. Ahh...Ken, thank you for this link! I Hate Strong Female Characters!

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    2. Thanks for sharing MacDougall's post on the subject- great read!

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  2. THANK YOU for this post. It supercharged my day, every one of my female characters reading over my shoulder.

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  3. A terrific and timely post. I'm sharing it with my critique group and back to a rewrite of two scenes where she's defamed as being "cute" when she's angry.

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  4. Thank you very much. I'm writing a book with many female leads, nice reminder here on the what's and what-nots. Appreciated.

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