The Challenges of Writing Strong Female Characters

The Challenges of Writing Strong Female Characters

People have been talking about strong female characters for a long time. It’s become something of a buzzword since I started reading as a teenager.

But what does it mean?

In the beginning, I believe the idea of a strong female character was any woman who wasn’t a damsel in distress, a character granted their own agency who didn’t need to be rescued in order to further a male character’s plot.

Which sounds silly, I know. But when I look back at my original stories, I realize that pretty much all of my female characters ended up kidnapped at some point in time. Because this was how all the stories I was familiar with went. If a lady was important enough to be in the narrative, at some point the mail lead was going to have to rescue her from the bad guys. It felt revolutionary to write a story in which the captive damsel saved herself.

Anyone familiar with my work knows that I always try to write badass ladies. In fact, I tag all of my novels with strong female character. But when I stop to think about it, I’m pretty sure that phrase means different things to different people. And in some cases it’s clear people really struggle with how to execute this particular reader desire.

Like all character types, the strong female character has a lot of stereotypes that tend to be run into the ground by those who don’t really understand what fans of badass ladies are looking for. So how do we avoid falling into one of these obvious pit traps?

Muscle-bound Beauties

The most important distinction when it comes to the subject of strong female characters is that no one was ever referring specifically to physical strength.

Which is not to say there’s something wrong with muscle-bound ladies. I love me a lady that can seriously kick some ass. The wife in the first season of Vikings instantly springs to mind. When a man tries to have his way with her, she takes care of him right quick. And she isn’t afraid to take ownership of her deeds.

When I think of physically strong female characters, I think of characters like She-ra and Xena – characters that flitted across my TV screen in my youth. As an adult, I think of characters like Samantha Carter and Teyla from the Stargate TV series. Characters who held their own alongside male characters whenever the action scenes started. In fact, the Stargate series was well known for featuring physically strong women. They even created a group of all-female Jaffa reminiscent of mythological Amazons.

But when I think of strength, I don’t always think about people getting punched in the face. I also think of another strong female character from my youth – Sailor Moon. And while it’s true that Sailor Moon and the rest of her pretty soldier guardians often get involved in physical confrontations, at the end of the day most of their problems are not solved with brute force strength. They’re solved with love and compassion.

So here we have the first pitfall of writing strong female characters: the belief that strength is all in the muscles. That in order to be strong, a female character must abandon all of the attributes traditionally assigned to women and, instead, display more masculine attributes.

Women can be strong and still be feminine.

Strong has Other Definitions

I’m not really surprised that people interpreted the cry for stronger female characters as literally as possible. That tends to be how these trends go. As time passes, the idea of strong female characters evolves and diversifies, offering us new incarnations that are closer to the essence of the original request.

What most of us want are women who are confident and can handle things on their own. Whether the situation is physical or emotional, wherever the threat might be coming from, we just want to see female characters given an equal footing with men rather than having to be saved from trouble at every turn. People essentially want women to have their own story arcs and character development, rather than being the accessories that build up and advance the male character’s stories.

But apparently that isn’t as straight-forward as it seems. Because as I watch more shows with women stepping into the roles traditionally considered to be the realm of men (such as soldiers and police officers), I notice that writers are still struggling to write emotionally strong women without misinterpreting what makes people strong.

I’ll  use Kate Becket from Castle as an example. It’s clear from the start of the show that Kate is the kind of person who is happy alone. (She doesn’t need a man.) But the writers also want us to believe that Kate and Castle are star-crossed lovers. So the show reaches a point where Kate clearly does want to have a relationship with Castle. But instead of expressing this like a reasonable person, she hides it. Which would be fine, except that she becomes extremely jealous of the time Castle spends with other women. While she actively pushes him away and tells him she has no interest in him.

Misplaced Strength Becomes Manipulation

We’re clearly supposed to interpret this as strength. (She doesn’t need a man after all.) But it comes off as petty and manipulative. It gets so bad, Kate spends a significant amount of time lying to Castle about her awareness of his feelings. And when he gets angry at waiting for her while she flat out lied to his face, the show paints him as the unreasonable party.

There’s an episode where Kate gets upset at Castle for something that happens in a dream, and the show spends the entire episode validating that emotion. (I wish I was kidding.)

I saw similar behavioral patterns in Lucifer. For all that I loved that show, it had its issues. Chloe comes off at various points as manipulative, coldly dismissive and desperate. Which would all be fine, except that it seems extremely unintentional. The writers are clearly trying to show us that she has it all together. She doesn’t need Lucifer in her life.

Yet she clearly wants a relationship with Lucifer from early in the show. And instead of expressing it like a reasonable person, she does things like criticize him for having a relationship with one of their co-workers. Even though the “romantic” actions in question are whispering in each other’s ears and hugging once – in a very plutonic way.

Chloe also does things like dismiss valid concerns Lucifer has over a troubling experience because she has trouble taking his words at face value. Date another guy because she wants that relationship to turn her into a different person. (Again, I wish I was making this up.) Once she even offers support to Lucifer and when he tells her he doesn’t need to talk, she stops everything else to demand he accept her emotional support on the spot. (Yikes!)

Where Do We Go From Here?

Hollywood clearly struggles to write healthy relationships. (Which is a whole other blog post.) And don’t get me wrong, I’m glad we’re at least getting some badass ladies, even if their execution is horribly flawed.

Still, I hope writers will iron out these odd interpretations of female “strength.” No one expects a character to have their entire life together at the start of a story. That wouldn’t be an interesting story. Characters, female or otherwise, can fall apart without being perceived as weak.

There’s a difference between failing to overcome a challenge because they need a man’s help and struggling to find one’s own solution to a problem. (One of these things is a regular part of the hero’s journey!) As the popular saying goes: it isn’t whether or not you get knocked down, it’s the fact that you get back up.

Having characters misstep during interactions or occasionally misinterpret what they see is fine. But you don’t want those actions to feel unintentional, neurotic or manipulative. (This is how women get labeled irrational.)

How do we avoid these pitfalls?

First, ask if your character is acting in a reasonable way given their established personality traits. If their actions feel unreasonable in some way, are you going to allow them to take the misstep? Said misstep should have consequences in the story.

If your betas interpret a character’s reaction differently than you anticipated, that’s a red flag that the execution might need a few tweaks. Usually those disconnects happen when you allow a character to get away with something that should probably have negative consequences or assign the blame to someone other than the bad actor.

These types of conflicts don’t have to be resolved right away. But you do at least want the emotions going to the right places.

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