By now a lot of you have probably heard about “strong female characters.” They’re the amazing women across all types of media, seeking out gender roles and smashing them to pieces. They can be found in books and movies and TV shows to the extent that they have a genre all their own. After all, when is the last time you heard of a strong male character, right? They’ve taken fiction by storm, showing that women too can be just as cool as men.
But is that really how it works? As a writer myself I can’t claim to speak for everyone, but I can say what I deeply believe to be true.
The character “category” of strong female character has been growing in popularity, and it has generally been met with positive feedback. But the reason they’re lauded is not because they are so populous — rather, it’s quite the opposite. It’s still a man’s world, and each gender has their assigned roles. The men do this, the women do that, and this often resulted in women being used as support characters or being used as a plot device of sorts. The knight in shining armor is typically a heroic man and the one needing rescuing is a woman.
On its own, of course, there’s nothing wrong with this. The issue arises when it is done so frequently that a) people generally act as though this is all female characters can accomplish, and b) female characters who break this mold are often given strange looks for doing what is typically a man’s job.
The reason “strong female characters” came about was to combat the assertion that women could not be strong. People started writing women who were forward, heroic, witty, independent and assertive, because these traits were often seen as masculine, or in other words, the opposite of weak. Strong females stand out from the others because these traits in women are seen as uncommon or unusual, and as such, they are lauded for standing out and showing everyone that, hey, women can kick butt too.
But even though creators of these characters had their hearts in the right place, it still wasn’t quite the right way to go about combating these stereotypes. When someone writes a female character, they typically do so by taking away traits that are seen as feminine and replacing them with traits that are seen as masculine. While this does show that women can also be independent, fantastic warriors and heroes, it doesn’t look at the root of the problem: that some traits are considered masculine and feminine to begin with.
Many efforts to make strong female characters are done by putting emphasis on characteristics that are seen as typically belonging to males, like assertiveness and emotional strength. This is taking the meaning a little too literally. By denying characters the ability to have weaknesses, to cry or to break down, it is implied that there is a difference between femininity and strength. It presumes that if characters exhibit traits generally seen as feminine, they cannot also be strong, making the point that there is “strong” or “feminine.” It also makes the strong female character rather one-dimensional as they are created to make a point rather than to exist as a person.
The assumption that certain traits belong to certain genders is not because this is actually true, but because of how we think men and women should act. And of course we’ve learned this by being exposed to so many stories where every character fit into their respective roles.
So when writing “strong” characters, don’t give them traits generally seen as the opposite of the norm to prove that they too can exhibit those traits. Don’t look at “strong” to mean physical strength or ability, but rather the strength of your writing and depth of character. Strong characters can be introverted or extroverted, they can ask for help and they can cry. They can be tough, they can be scared, they can be saved or do the saving. A strong character is well-rounded, and above all, they are a person.
Need an example? Take a look at Hermione from Harry Potter. She is a girl who likes many girly things, she cries and she has weaknesses. But she’s also intelligent and skilled, brave and creative, and above all she is her own character, not needing any other character to make her complete. She is not a [insert character type here], she is a person with a wide range of emotions and traits, and this is what makes her a strong character.
I do have to admit that I have considered writing characters to make a statement and to combat certain beliefs about those types of characters, my intent of course being to directly go against what everyone would believe my characters should be. But in the end this only pushes things back in the other direction without looking at the real issues. Being “strong” is not just available to those who meet certain, narrow qualifications and are devoid of certain traits. You don’t have to meet a checklist of characteristics to be considered strong or weak.
By all means, set out with strong characters in mind. Just remember what strength really is and you’ll have deeper, more amazing characters than any who are created to make a statement.