On The Subject Of The “Strong Female Character”

It’s International Women’s Day.





I’d like to say some things now from the perspective of a “writer with male parts,” and I’ll have you know that at first I hesitated to write this not because I was afraid of the response but because I am afraid I’d bungle it somehow. Sometimes people speak from a place of insensitivity without realizing it not because they are malicious but because they’re ignorant, and while I aim to dispel my ignorance at every given turn, sometimes we’re so damn deep in the mire of dumbshittery that it stops us from even seeing the ignorance in which we are trapped.

Just the same…

I figure to not say something because of fear is worse than saying something and accidentally coming across like a jackass. At least if I end up a jackass, I can be corrected, and we can all have a nice discussion. Ignorance sometimes must be dispelled by first putting it on display.


I’m a writer who, as noted, has dude parts.

I’m also a writer who writes a (here I’d like to add the description “fantabulous bestselling critically-acclaimed award-winning” but as yet I do not have the good fortune of such a language allowance) series of books about a character named Miriam Black.

Miriam is a character with lady parts.

As such, I get questions in interviews about me being a dude writing a lady and is that weird and what’s it like and so on and so forth. Further, I’ve read some criticism (sometimes reasonable, sometimes less so) that suggests that Miriam talks and acts like a man and so was clearly written by a man and a few have even gone on to suggest that men should not write women.

It’s surprising, in a sense, because to me Miriam was in some ways the embodiment of some of the tougher women I’ve met in my life and a refutation that female characters have to be particularly “feminine” — sure, Miriam has some aspects of me, though I don’t know they’re “male” aspects. She has some aspects of my wife, too, who is a foul-mouthed bad-ass who doesn’t put up with my shit or the shit of those around her.

Mockingbird carries the whole thing further, I think — most of the characters in that book are women, actually, as the book is predominantly set at a girl’s school.

Anyway, what happens then is I get that famous question:

What is a strong female character?

I never really know how to answer that question.

But, like I said, sometimes it’s worth talking and trying.

So, let me try.

A strong female character is a character who happens to be a woman or a girl.

“Strong” is not an adjective describing that character’s physical or emotional or intellectual strength. It is an adjective describing the potency and depth of the character — in the narrative, not moral sense. A strong character is complicated, flawed, compelling.

“Strong” is just a synonym here for “great.”

It’s tempting to say that the “female” part of that equation is incidental, and it is in the sense that it is not maleness or femaleness that creates this strength of character — or the “greatness,” if you dig that translation. But it’s also important to recognize that women have different experiences than men and to ignore those experiences is, I think, to do them a disservice by pretending those experiences don’t happen or don’t matter. The same difficulties women may have in the real world — the glass ceiling, the rape culture put forth by male oppression, a general lesser but no less significant culture of dismissal — can and sometimes should still be present in our fiction.

These female characters may be hampered and hamstrung not because they are women but because the society within the fiction treats women poorly — the “flaws” are external, not internal (though one presumes external pressure can eventually create internal flaws on the individual level, though when those flaws are translated to exist on the entire gender level we once more enter the realm of gender bias and, again, oppression).

Er, if that makes sense.

Sometimes in the discussion about strong female characters we hear those two words, “Bechdel Test,” which is a test to determine gender bias in a work of fiction by testing to see if the work has (a) more than two female characters who (b) have at least one conversation that (c) isn’t about men. It’s a rather incomplete way to check depth of character, however, not because the test is bad but because it’s far too limited and all too easy (checking those three boxes does little to create great female characters, in my opinion).

We must then ask, well, what? What do we do? As writers of any and all genital configurations?

Well, I dunno.

But I can hazard a guess.

I think you strive to write female characters as great as you would male characters. You make them as complex. As heroic. As flawed. As compelling. As powerful or as weak.

You do not ignore that they are girls or women.

Of course they can be flawed. They should be. Because great characters are.

But their flaws and complexities are not because they are women.

(Is “oh, it’s because she’s a woman” ever a good excuse to include any character aspect?)

You needn’t elevate them onto a pedestal.

You needn’t drop them into the pit.

You just need to make sure they and their experiences are represented. And fully-formed — not some caricature, not some cardboard cut-out, not some sex object or silly goose.

Women in this world, the real one, can do anything.

Make sure the women who populate your fictional worlds have that same opportunity.

Oh, and by the way, the same goes with writing any character of any persuasion: man, woman, gay, straight, black, white, Muslim, Christian, Republican, Democrat, transgender, fat, anorexic, and so on and so forth. Everybody has experiences bound to their culture (and where applicable, their choices) but their strengths and flaws needn’t be bound to who they are at the core.

Or something.

I’ve gone on too long, probably.

Anyway, Happy International Women’s Day.

Don’t let anyone marginalize you. I aim to teach my son of your awesomeness.


(For a far more powerful and eloquent look at this subject, please click forth and behold Greg Rucka’s post about “Why I Write Strong Female Characters.”)


103 responses to “On The Subject Of The “Strong Female Character””

  1. I agree wholeheartedly! I great character is a great character, no matter what gender that character is! And I don’t really care about the writer’s gender either, as long as I’m drawn into the story, connect to the characters and feel like I’m living in a new world, I’ll be a happy reader!

  2. This article has been an interesting read, not only for the subject itself, but for the debate it has spawned amongst your followers. Every comment has been a fascinating insight into the human mind, and shows how very differently we all perceive the world. Some people pigeon-hole groups based on their gender, or their skin colour, or sexual orientation, or any other trait you can care to mention.

    As a biker, I often meet other bikers, some of them men, some of them women, all of them doing what they do for the love the open road and two-wheeled freedom. Regardless of their gender, they are having fun and being themselves, but as soon as they roll into a town for a coffee break, you can almost see the unspoken accusations in the eyes of the townies; The men are undoubtedly leather-clad hooligans and miscreants, whilst the women are probably all lesbians (but only if they’re riding their own bike — if they’re riding pillion behind a guy, then they’re obviously not lesbians).

    It’s such a shame that society propagates these kind of stereotypes, and an even bigger shame that so many people buy into them. We’ve spent so long hearing stories about how women are delicate princesses who exist for the sole purpose of being rescued by dashing and handsome princes, that the moment a strong female character comes along (one who, as you say, is flawed and imperfect and yet human and believable) there is a tendency for her to be labelled simply as a feminine man, a character with a too-powerful animus which causes her to behave in what we perceive to be ‘manly’ ways.

    And you can’t please everyone, either. Make a woman who needs to be saved, and the feminists object. But make her a foul-mouthed, gun-toting anti-hero with Xena-style fighting skills and suddenly she’s clearly just some guy’s wet-dream invention, created to satisfy the need to have a dominating woman to be won over by said guy (and therefore justify his own prowess and stroke his ego).

    As human beings, we (and by we I mean you guys, because I am an extraterrestrial visitor to your planet) tend to look for qualities we can identify with in a character; gender being the biggest one. We assume that men can’t sympathise with ‘womanly’ concerns such as painful menstruation, just as women can’t sympathise with ‘manly’ concerns, such as how to fix that broken window latch without demonstrating his complete lack of DIY skills thereby embarrassing himself in front of not only his wife, but the repair man who will eventually be called out to rescue the poor, butchered window latch. Because we tend to look for these things in an attempt to identify ourselves with a certain character, we don’t realise that we’re simply restricting our own ways of thinking. We shouldn’t look for strong women or sensitive men, we should look for intriguing characters and only after we have grasped their strengths and weaknesses should we look at what the plumbing is like downstairs.

    Maybe one day I’ll write a book in which the protagonist’s gender is only revealed at the end of the story. Maybe that’s the only way we can lift the wool from over our eyes and pierce the veil of stereotypes we try so desperately to ignore.

    Thanks for the read, sorry about the ramble.

  3. Late to the party, as usual. After 70 comments I normally would’ve abstained from adding #71, but I had to say you nailed it. Indeed, generalizations–whether positive or negative–breed stereotyping, and thus bias. “All women are wonderful” is as false as “All women are terrible”–and the same applies for any other group of living beings: men, Muslims, Catholics, Jews, blacks, whites, Indians, Mexicans, French. Even dogs. Huge opponent of breed-specific legislation here. Everyone and everything is individual, and should be assessed as such. Fiction that promotes stereotypes is fiction that is weak at its core. Fiction that seeks to highlight the individuality of its characters is fiction that will outlast its author. Thanks for the post, Chuck!

  4. It’s nice to read this discussion. Why is it a surprise to some that a decent writer can write decent characters? Too many people just waiting for the opportunity to be offended, like it’s their daily bus ride and they can’t get to where they want to go without it. Like, can a Missouri-American white male write a convincing (whatever that means) polynesian-American female? Not just female, but polynesian female? Or can a polynesian-American woman write a convincing Missouri-American male character? There’s a group for both cases who will come out with not only claims of sexism, but also racism. We’re complex creatures. Most readers understand that. Or what about old Tolkien? How in the world did he manage to create half-way decent hobbits? I’m sure some in the hobbit community had a thing to say about the stereotypes, but the story worked anyways.

  5. Great post Chuck. I’m a chick writer, my current baby is a strong female lead. I’ve been told, weirdly, that my female leads sound like they were written by men and my male leads sound like they’re written by women. Don’t even know what that means. Guess I’m into gender-bending?
    And also, so long as the characters themselves are strong, who the hell cares? Using gender as a marker of strength just seems…kinda cheap.

    • Yep, would be one of the reasons why I started doing it, to try and figure out what was going on in people’s heads.

  6. Yay for grrls!

    I love the notion of characters being dumped into situations where they are entirely out of their element (and in my current project, that’s literal). I have a lady privateer who HAS to be able to go toe-to-toe with the guys because life on the sea doesn’t allow for female participation outside of the stereotypical wench role.

    Loved all these comments; thanks for the discussion!

  7. Hi, Chuck.

    I enjoyed the post and appreciate that you are keeping dialogue open about the topic. I’m a female writer who creates a lot of female characters. In fact, the majority of my characters are females. That said, I have to also say that some of them aren’t strong at all, and some aren’t strong sometimes. (There are those flaws you talked about.) Not all women are strong in “the real world” either. But then, neither are all men strong. It’s the “all” part of those sentences that underscores the problem with cookie-cutter characters. They invoke the same stereotypes that have oppressed human beings in the name of one -ism or another for much longer than recorded history. That one little word “all” is a strong contender for the role of biggest trouble-maker of ALL words. (Couldn’t resist.) So, thank you for using your mighty media voice to remind people that what makes a strong female character is the acceptance that her “lady bits” don’t define ALL that she is, just as “gent bits” don’t make men ALL that they are either. You are living proof that beyond the gent bits lies a brain and a will to put it to use to do right by women AND by men. After all, you’re not just doing society a favor by educating your son. You’re doing him a favor, too, in exposing him to realities, not socially constructed fictions. Think of how much wider the world will be for him. Good luck! 😀

  8. To me a strong female (or male) character (person) is an individual who remains true to themselves regardless of difficult situation/surrounding…they have courage and emotional strength (and may or may not be physically strong). They are always a unique individual who are revealed as the story (or series) unfolds.

    Speaking of strong female characters…I’ve been reading Women and Writing in Medieval Europe by C. Larrington. In the chapter Women and Power she has a section titled, Sigrid the Strong-minded (Sigrid lived circa 993-1000AD). Sigrid, a widow, was a queen over a territory in Sweden. When the married Harald Grenland, her foster brother, arrived for a visit he decided that he rather fancied Sigrid (or her land) and offered to marry her. She pointed out that he already had a wife (a good and talented woman – who was also pregnant). She rebuffed his advances and sent him away with gifts. On parting she said, “It may well be that you are better born than she is. But I think rather that the luck of both of you depends on you staying with her.” And Sigrid rode away leaving Harald “gloomy”. Perhaps he’d never had a woman tell him to get on his horse. Against the advice of his men, he decided to return to visit Sigrid (even though she’d made her feelings clear). So he and some of his men returned to Sigrid’s farmstead. That evening another King also arrived to woo the lady. All the men were accommodated in the hall with drink. After they were all drunk, Sigrid had the hall set on fire and then had anyone who stumbled out of the flames hacked to death.
    She explained afterwards that this carnage was designed to discourage petty kings from coming from other countries to woo her. Amazingly, this didn’t discourage kings closer to home from wanting to marry her. King Olaf wooed her and sent her a “magnificent treasure” which turned out to be only brass. She wasn’t happy, but when they next met the wedding negotiations continued until Olaf demanded that she become a Christian. She politely responded she would remain a pagan, but that he could worship whoever he pleased. Olaf (another Viking clearly unused to the word no from a woman) freaked out and slapped her with his glove and called her a heathen dog. My eyes nearly popped out when I read that. He slapped and insulted a woman who’d butchered two kings and their men just to discourage others? He didn’t think his insult might have some negative consequences? Well…Sigrid married someone else…and she persuaded him to go to war against Olaf (who was eventually killed in battle). I find it fascinating how Sigrid was labelled strong-minded, not Sigrid the king-killer or Sigrid the psycho! A different age…a different viewpoint.

  9. Thanks chuck, been looking into improving my women in my wip kickstarter crying girl science fiction Psychological thriller ok that a mouth full. Since im a man writing the hero was not as hard but he has female aka strong female character that play major parts in 80% of story.

  10. This post makes me think about a quote I saw on Tumblr a couple weeks ago, where an interviewer asked Joss Whedon “why do you write strong female characters” and Whedon replied, “Because you’re still asking that question.” He’s right. Chuck’s nailed it as well. It’s an inaccurate term. I’ve always interpreted the phrase to mean an independent character with distinct personality traits. It shouldn’t be gender-specific. A well written character is a well written character regardless of gender. I think somehow it got mistranslated so that some people think it means a tomboyish or masculine female character. I really think the important thing is just write women well and represent all facets of them, from the tomboys to the girly girls to everything in between, mostly because that’s what we are. No woman is all of one or the other. We’re a blend. And that’s really all we want to come across in writing.

    Though, to be fair, I am a black female nerd, and my second novel has two POVS, the latter of which being a white male with a military background, so I totally understand being nervous about writing a character who isn’t you. But hey, that’s what reading novels/comic books and watching TV/movies/anime are for.

    Thanks for the post, Chuck. You do me and others with lady parts proud.

  11. […] unable to demonstrate her uniqueness as a flawed and human character. She has to be the strong character who takes shit from no one. That isn’t a realistic human; it’s an archetype —and a boring one […]

  12. […] unable to demonstrate her uniqueness as a flawed and human character. She has to be the strong character who takes shit from no one. That isn’t a realistic human; it’s an archetype — and a boring […]

  13. I completely agree with you. There was all this talk about Furiosa being a strong female character, and after talking to people about their understanding of this term, I realized that people still think that strong simply means “strong”, whether physically, mentally, or both.

    They don’t think beyond that single adjective.

    While we, as the people who write stories and analyze TV shows/films, may have a better understanding of what this term actually conveys, most people still associate a strong female character with an Action Girl. The other traits—like complexity, having agency, vulnerability, and so much more—are lost.

    I no longer support the term for the very reason that it is inadequate in conveying the wide breadth of qualities that make up a great (female or male) character: http://millieho.net/2015/07/11/the-strong-female-character-term-should-change/

    There has to be a revision of this term for the mainstream crowd, and calling strong female characters “great characters” instead is a first step. This is how we take these female characters out of a narrow category.

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