On The Subject Of The “Strong Female Character”

It’s International Women’s Day.

YAY WOMEN! WOO!

*applause*

*confetti*

*respect*

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.

Anyway.

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.

*high-five*

(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 comments

  • As a writer with lady parts who writes far more dudes than ladies (it’s about a 5:1 ratio), I’d just like to say that this helped me a lot. I was starting to feel insecure about it. Now I’m going to keep on keepin’ on.

  • As a fellow dude-parts carrier, I was glad to read this. I’ve heard so often in my academic career that men shouldn’t write woman. Anyone can write a good. strong character of any sex/race/etc, if they try. Just… you know, write a damn strong character!

  • As part of my “read a lot to learn something about writing” I’ve been re-reading some old Conan stories. Wow, was the sexism every front-and-center in those. All sorts of damsels swooning at Conan’s feet, trembling in fear, willing to give up even positions of royalty to be with him due to his strength, skill, and overall barbarian manliness.

    Some of it was the time, some of it was the market, some of it was probably wish-fulfillment by ol’ REH.

    None of it was necessary. None of it made the *story* any better. In other stories, men admired Conan, saw that his skills were greater than their own, wanted to be like him on some level but often saw that he had something they could not obtain. They remained, however, confident in their own persons and abilities. Inspired to heroic acts by Conan, sometimes to their doom, but never losing their sense of self to him.

    Makes me want to write women into those stories that are more like the non-Conan men.

  • I think I’d define a “strong female character” as a female character who acts, rather than one who exists to be acted upon. If she’s driving the action by exerting her will, she’s a strong female character.

  • Nice post. As another male who writes strong female characters, and romance, I completely concur. I tend to pass anything I write past my wife to make sure I didn’t do anything stupid. 😉 I’d post more, but this house husband has to get out to the bus stop. The little’n will be home soon. 😉

  • I’m so tired – especially in Steampunk – of seeing STRONG WOMEN CHARACTERS who are men with breasts. Women behave differently from men. We do things a woman’s way. Men hear a noise out in the yard – they stand in the doorway and fire at the fence. A woman positions herself with the gun between a possible intruder’s last point of diviation and her children. Men can sleep through the sound of a crying baby. Women less so. A strong female character may be many things – just don’t make her a man with a “girl bits”.

    • I would respectfully disagree with some of this. Mainly because this feels like major generalization. There are many men who cannot sleep through the sound of a crying baby and would put themselves between harm and their children. I also know a fair number of women who honestly, truthfully do not want children. I don’t believe their instincts would be driven by protecting children.

      I do agree that there are things that only certain people can experience while others can only speculate. But people are a lot more complex than “men do this” and “women do that,” and are becoming more so as society evolves.

    • I’m sorry – but this really pisses me off. I’m saying this as a father: your suggestions about how “men” (i.e. ALL men) behave regarding their children is incredibly offensive. When you choose to complain about the portrayal of women by reducing men to cliche and negative stereotypes you’ve done something just as bad as what you’re complaining about.

      Yes, on a macro level men don’t and haven’t suffered from unfair and unjust treatment, both in real life and in fiction, and I don’t want to come off as some whiny white male who doesn’t get it, but on an individual level your assumptions about mens’ behavior regarding their children are frankly hurtful and demeaning. My love, care and consideration for my child is no less than my wife’s just because I have man bits. When people say or write things like you did here you perpetuate the idea that it is. The myth that a mother’s love is somehow truer and stronger than a father’s is BS. In my opinion it’s as wrong as any negative stereotype perpetuated about women.

      • March 9, 2013 at 4:30 PM // Reply

        Jeff-
        You said that much better than I could have, and I applaud your ability to keep a cool head. I would only disagree with and say that I think men (especially fathers) are in fact treated unfairly by society as a whole and, for the most part, it goes on unnoticed. Mysandry is a huge problem right now, especially in the U.S. You need only look at epbush’s comment to see how accepted this type of bigotry is.
        Strong female characters aren’t just women who turn into mother bears when their children are in danger, or end world hunger through their overflowing breasts. Sometimes a strong female character does act like a man. Because having a vagina does not suddenly give a character nurturing-superpowers. I have female bits and my husband is much better with children than I am. Does that make me less of a woman?

        • I understand both points made here. The original commenter, I think, was saying that she’s tired of a “strong female character” simply being a sexualized man, the boob-man. Ex., Lara Croft. If we get a heroine that is THIS masculine, we want an explanation, a purpose, the environmental psychology—not just a storyteller trying to demonstrate equal rights by slapping breasts on a guy. It’s not equal; it’s offensive in an entirely different way.

          But at the same time, this doesn’t mean a hero is any less of a nurturer than a heroine. Both hero and heroine get their chance at machine guns AND cradling their children. They can be a Byronic hero, a badass hero, a community hero—it’s an open field to explore.

          It’s all about the protagonist as an individual, not the protagonist as a symbol of his or her sex. …I think. I don’t know, these are sensitive things!

    • You’re trying to make a good point here and clotting it up with a lot of really cringeworthy things that are part of the problem.

      In most places and times, men and women are treated differently from birth and may very well react to that in different ways. It’s tedious to see a character who acts like a stereotype of any sort, and putting a skirt on that stereotype doesn’t improve things. But neither do sexist tautologies.

  • Well written post. And a topic that receives too much assholery is always begging for a well written post.
    Miriam Black is quite strong in both books. I think simply being identified as a female is what makes us remember that she is one, more so than her girlishness or lack thereof. She’s a person first.

  • Another writer with lady bits, here. Thanks for such a well thought-out post.

    I have to say, this really got to me:
    “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.”

    I mean…what is wrong with a woman acting like a man? Some women DO “act like men”. That doesn’t make those women–or those book characters–any less valid. It means we’re creating a more well-rounded assortment of strong female characters for people to read about.

    I personally LOVE the Miriam Black character. I love that she’s crude, she swears, she’s ready for a fight. It’s refreshing.

    (I say this as a woman who’s been told she “writes like a man”–whatever that means–so I may be a little more sensitive to these types of topics.)

    • When I write anonymously online, people assume I’m a 25 year old man, not a 50 year old woman. It’s funny. People also assume I’m a lesbian in person…apparently I’m not “twirly” enough. Hopefully the culture will trend toward allowing everyone, male or female or in between, to express the full range of who we are, rather than conform to gender-specific expectations.

      • Jesus, I love this “twirly” description. It’s perfect. As a lady who occasionally likes to twirl but also likes to trudge (through the woods, wearing boots), and is also raising up 3 young ladies who excel in math and like legos and robots, I get so damn sick of gender specific expectations.

  • As a newbie-writer, I was some worried about “voice appropriation” because I have a transgendered character (M to F); a Native Canadian (M, from a family that suffered the whole gawdawful residential school system, which, thank the Poweres That Be, no longer exists, although prejudice against Native Canadians, shamefully, still exists in this country); an ex JTF2 member who had to deal with PTSD after countless covert and risky assignments); and, oh yeah, one antisocial personality disorder/psychopath. But, as you said, if one creates characters with depth, the ability to feel, and have flaws because we’re all flawed, then you’ll be okay. I remember reading something actress and screen writer Emma Thompson said. She was uncomfortable to admit that she found that people who had suffered seemed to have more tolerance, patience, and compassion for others. She was uncomfortable about their having to go through gawd knows what to emerge as stronger deeper folk.
    Thanks for this post.

  • Great post Chuck. And by the way, your wife sounds awesome! (high five to her)
    I had a discussion with three young men that I met at the London Premier of Deathly Hallows II about JK Rowlings representation of men, since a lot of her best characters are male. Mostly because I am a little nervous about writing male characters – about falling into the same traps you speak of when male authors write female characters. They all felt that she created AWESOME male characters, and one said he didn;t even realise Ms Rowling WAS a woman when he read the first book. I hope I can do my male characters the same justice.

    • I’ve heard quite frequently from published authors that a lot of times, this is why women are asked by publishers to take an initial-based pseudonym when writing men and why men are asked to do the same when writing about women. Easier to sell to the opposite sex when the writer name is more gender neutral, whether they did a great job or not. I fully expect that I’ll have to take a pseudonym for my romance novels, which I already have planned, just in case. I’ve actually heard that this happens in Urban Fantasy as well because men are not as prolific in the genre, though I think that’s changing.

  • One small thing:

    The Bechdel Test isn’t so much about the strength f female characters. It’s about female representation in movies. All too often there is only one meaningful female character or none at all or the women never interact (period or outside the context of a man). Also, you forgot a requirement: the two women having a conversation have to have names that are known to the audience. Else wise, any female character saying hello to an extra would count.

    It’s an unfortunately easy bar to pass, and yet many films still don’t.

    • Mm, yes, indeed. Sorry if I didn’t make that clear — my point was that the Bechdel test is often conflated with a test for that “strong female character” that exists as the subject of the post. At least, in my experience.

      — c.

      • Exactly. It’s a real and depressing thing just how many stories (especially movies) fail it, yet if you reverse the test, how rare it is to have a movie without men who talk to each other about things other than women. In an equal world, those numbers would be similar.

        Which is also not saying that stories should never, ever fail that “test” — it just shouldn’t be common, because women are a very prevalent subset of people; their lack of presence except as decoration in a story goes against common experience unless there’s good reason for it.

        Doesn’t mean that passing that test means your treatment of women in your story is all that good, either. The “test” is a better experiment across a body of work than on a particular one.

    • The original Bechdel Test didn’t actually say anything about named female characters; it is, as you note, about female representation in movies, and the bar is so low that a film does “pass” if two female extras talk about the weather for thirty seconds. That Hollywood can’t even manage that is quite telling.

    • It’s also worth noting that it originate not as a seriously proposed test, but as a line in a comic strip: Alison Bechdel’s “Dykes To Watch Out For”. It was how one character in the comic decided what films she was interested in seeing. It just gained popularity after that because a lot of people realized how few Hollywood films actually met those criteria, and at some point, someone coined the name “Bechdel test” for it, after the name of the comic writer. The original comic strip appeared in print rather than online (since it came out in 1985), but scanned versions can be found in various places online, including here: http://linneam.tumblr.com/post/43142139348/from-dykes-to-watch-out-for-by-alison-bechdel

  • Miriam Black is all kinds of fabulousness (me want more). If it makes you feel any better (not that you shouldn’t already feel great) I’m a woman writer who’s been criticized for writing woman that act like men. There are those who have specific, widely divergent ideas of the roles expected of both male and female characters. Personally, I give a high-five to those writers (of either gender) who write strong female characters. You, my friend, are one of them. Props.

  • *applause* Whoo! Etcetera. You make awesome solid points.

    I am a little uncomfortable at the use of “person-with-dude-parts” to mean “dude” and “person-with-lady-parts” to mean “lady”, unless what you mean is that anyone who identifies as a dude or lady has dude- or lady-parts simply through that identification, in which case rock on! If, however, what you mean by dude-parts is wang and by lady-parts is vulva, then we have a problem, because not all people with dongs are dudes and not all people with vulvas are ladies.

  • Awesome post – as yet another writer with ‘lady parts’ I applaud your both your post and your definition of ‘strong’ female character. I find it frustrating to see gender expectations and assumptions. For example, if a female character is ‘too’ strong (and just who in the hell makes these determinations, anyway?) she is considered poorly-written – a man with lipstick. Same goes for a sensitive male. Yet, we encounter such people daily and believe their existence. In a story – give us comfortable predictability.

    Twain was more right than he’ll ever know.

    At any rate – I’m picking the Miriam Black series. If she’s half as refreshing of a character as your descriptions, I think I’m in for a real treat.

  • March 8, 2013 at 5:07 PM // Reply

    *long, powerful, applause* Beautiful, Chuck. As a woman who loves your fiction, I love reading your strong female characters. I never saw Miriam as a male character with female parts. I’ve known women with aspects of her. That kind of foul-mouthed bad-assery isn’t something that applies to only men.

    But it’s not just Miriam. Atlanta is a tough character, too. She takes action. And I can’t remember the girl’s name in Double Dead, but she was a different type of tough.

    Here’s the thing that I believe: women are trying to redefine what it means to be a woman. I’ve got boobs. I prefer wearing skirts to pants. But I also enjoy shooting a gun, and fuck is one of the greatest and most versatile words ever invented.

    I don’t mean this to be a discussion of anything against men. I can’t speak for the male experience because I’m not a man. But yeah. Hooray for strong characters first.

  • Female parts speaker here: nicely said!

    When it comes to writing characters, I don’t think the differences between men and women are all that easy to nail down. Presuming good faith on the part of the writer, I think the challenge isn’t really about the differences between men and women so much as what any given reader or writer thinks those differences are. Our perceptions of that keep morphing. Culture impacts this. (Whenever I teach the Odyssey, my students are always amazed at just how often those manly heroes sit around weeping and wailing).

    That said, I rarely spend much time with a book if I begin to think the writer is an idiot or a jerk about women. If I think I’m in the presence of real misogyny, I’m gone.

  • Yep. CONCUR’D. I think it’s tough sometimes, as writers, to lose sight of the fact that it’s our responsibility as good storytellers to tell a good story, and a requirement for good storytelling is populating the story with whole people, regardless of their genders, sexes, appearances, etc. It’s easy to take lazy shortcuts, but it’s also easy to mean well and to trip over yourself in the urge to do better.

    But I read an article recently that made similar points about writing stories which reflect the diverse multicultural spectrum of a society, and the result there was largely the same; write whole people. Not a black one. Not a woman. Not a poor person. Not…whatever. Not something essentialised and boiled down to a few facets and nothing else. The best way to write a character is to write a person. How convenient, then, that it’s also a recipe for good storytelling.

  • Thanks for writing that, Chuck. I like that you acknowledged that women are women and men are men, and just because we are different, doesn’t mean we should be treated differently. We all have the right to feel like we belong and are equal, to have a voice and be heard, to speak our minds, change our minds and question the world around us, to feel and be safe, to be independent and to follow our dreams, just because we are people. Your post heartens me…

  • As a writer with woman parts, I think you covered this really well. I think great authors can write great characters of either sex.

    For the record, I loved Miriam and could relate to her and really, that’s what you want isn’t it?

  • Geesh. What a nice send-up to womanhood in all its glory (because it is that: glory). Props to you for aiming to instill that knowledge in his cranium. 🙂

    To quote from Hello Dolly!‘s “It Takes a Woman”: “Three cheers for femininity!”

    And for you, Chuck, from Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore: “Leeeet’s give three cheers and one cheer more foooor” [the penmonkey whose hardly a bore]. (Doubtful Gilbert would have used “penmonkey” in his lyrics, but he most certainly would have used the rest in those brackets.)

    Now, I must locate my G&S mp3 albums and give them a listen. 😉

  • Nice post. I think when you write opposite sex characters, some people will hone in on that if they just don’t happen to relate to some aspect of your character. If a woman writes a female character who isn’t traditionally feminine in her mannerisms and interests, some women may cheer the character and some not relate to her, but the latter group won’t automatically assume the “defect” is because the writer is the wrong sex. Fact is, individual men and women don’t fit neatly into all those “Mars and Venus” boxes that pop psychology has been trying to shove them into since gender roles got more fluid in our society. I think the thing to look out for is to have every character of the opposite sex coming out the same. But that’s an issue to avoid when you write your own sex too.

  • I’m slightly concerned that you felt the need to premise an appreciation of a strong female character with so many disclaimers about being male. Especially since, as you rightly point out, it’s character uber alles. I don’t care if you’re a guy writing a girl if you write a good character. To me, it’s an issue if a guy writes consistently abused or degraded female characters, or a girl writes consistently abusive male characters, but quite frankly if they write a plausible abusive character and have a good story…I’ll read it. I watch Tarantino for this reason and enjoy his stuff even when it’s sexploitative, hyper violent and misogynistic. I’m not reading or writing to preach or to be preached at about morals and values and gender stereotypes. Well, not often anyways. I’m reading because I like a good story. I want to know about these people and the world they live in. I distrust that world, and I distrust those characters, if they are perfect, because I don’t know anyone who is. Perhaps I appreciate a good asshole more because I know I wouldn’t want to write one myself. I’m too much of a wuss in that it’d hurt to have to get into the head of someone like that. Still, one day I may give it a shot. Now why am I thinking it might be more interesting to write them as a female…

    • @smithster —

      That was kind of an essential part of the post, though — part of the impetus to write it is I am indeed a dude who indeed gets questions because I sometimes write female characters. So, it’s been bubbling around my head cauldron for a while.

      — c.

      • Oh I know, my frustration is with those who question it. The people who ask a question like that need to qualify it. What expectations/assumptions/values are they’re bringing into the room with them? I don’t think you can adequately answer a question about why you write a strong female character if you don’t know why someone is asking you that question. Ask any little girl if she cares if that strong female character she loves on telly is being written by a man or a woman – trust me, she doesn’t. I don’t. We just like the idea that we could be that person.

  • I think as a writer, we HAVE to write people we aren’t – people with different plumbing, ages, skin color, height, weight, and food preferences – among the many, many ways we humans differ from each other. Sometimes a man may write a butch woman, other times a girly girl – as long as it isn’t a caricature, as long as the character is real and has depth (and ALL his females aren’t one or the other, please!) it’s all good.

    Frankly, I think in the romance genre some female writers make the opposite mistake – the heroes are impossibly good looking, smart, brave, in touch with their feelings but still bold and manly… They can’t ALL be Chuck Wendigs.

    • They can’t all have my glorious flowing beard is what you’re saying.

      *light shines from beard*

      Ahem.

      No, no, I hear you — making a character TOO GOOD, TOO NOBLE, can be problematic in other ways.

      — c.

  • Look at the fathers. The best women are those with strong, indulgent dads. They’re like their fathers, but still women with a woman’s tastes and desires; I cannot imagine a strong woman issuing from a weaseling male.
    They’ll certainly have enemies among the sniveling men and women, but they won’t break their stride over it.
    To understand the girl, analyze the dad.

    aka Darlene Underdahl
    http://www.VermillionRoadPress.com

  • All of my lady parts are still there and they’ve all been abused in the manner biology intended.

    When I read this I kept thinking about another author, a female, whose protaganist happens to be a woman who kicks a lot of ass and has a lot of sex. But the sex isn’t her fault,so…

    Which is how I identify strength in a female character. She may have suffered victimization, but is she a victim? Or does she own her brand of bullshit?

    My main characters tend to have dominant personalities. I’m not certain (since I’m not done with the book- and see how hard I’m focusing on it *this very second*) that dominance and strength will always be synonymous.

    We– the royal we– can identify and argue about gender stereotypes until someone comes home with the bacon, I don’t spend a lot of time disseminating how well Male Author wrote Female Character unless he did a shitty job. And vice versa. How many romance novels star pale little twiggy men?

    I prefer sarcastic ass-kicking characters regardless of gender or genre. Add some tattoos to my ass-kicking male characters and leave me while I curl up in my reader-happy-place.

  • I liked your clarification of the fact that “great” female characters do not necessarily have to be strong, they just have to posses the same kind of greatness that embodies every other memorable character. As a writer with lady-parts, I sometimes find it annoying when writers portray every girl as a hardcore warrior of some sort. When did normality come to be seen as sexist? Everyone should just relax, and be themselves.

  • saying you (as a man) can’t write a woman is the equivalent to saying only murderers can write serial killers or only aliens can write sci-fi – OR that women can’t write strong men characters… it’s bunk. A good writer should be able to write anything.
    I often fail the bechdel test, but then I usually write romance, and they are talking about guys… but at least I am more aware of it.

  • Way to go Chuck! A bit of courage and great words flow. I recently wrote a book with the main character a man. Funny how no one thinks to complain about Elizabeth George writing Inspector Lynley, P. D. James writes Commander Dalgleish. But when a man writes a woman as a main character, criticism!! That’s gender bias right there.

  • Nice post. Spot on regarding character flaws. I write far more male characters than female and I’ve got the lady bits…or I’m fascinated by cock. Not sure which. Either way, a good writer can write anything without ‘dumbing down’ because they have a slot instead of a tab.

  • Indeed everyone should just relax and be themselves! People shouldn’t worry about what makes a man and what makes a woman. In real life, we have women who act like “men” and men who act like “women” – both sexes run the spectrum with characteristics and personalities. Every woman should not be a warrior and neither should every one be a quivering mass cowering in the corner. I have strong women that could easily kick a man’s ass both mentally and physically. I also have weak women who are dependent on others. And still others who fall in between those two. I think they all bring interesting aspects to the table.

    I don’t think I’ve come across a character yet where I’ve thought “She wouldn’t do that because she’s a woman” or “He wouldn’t do that because he’s a man”. The fact of the matter is, any aspect you write for a female or male can be true, what’s important is that you’re consistent with the character.

  • Some of my favorite female characters have been written by men and that goes the same for my favorite male characters. Anyone can write a believable character. Whether they own male or female parts.

  • What is a strong female character?

    A female human being written as a character and not as a prop.

    The male writers I boycott write women as props (Yes, dudes, write women as props and once I’ve sampled your stinko half-assed work, I ignore it). And the female writers likewise. (Romance Genre Fascists with a rape-as-romance hard-on, I’m looking at YOU.)

    As for ‘talking like a man’, jeezus effin christ, I read your blog, my man, because you talk like ME. The Profanity Plug-in (or Add-on) to the English Language, Standard Edition is a damned useful thing for certain rhetorical purposes, plus it makes me laugh when done well.

  • As Rob Thurman (an author with the parts of a lady and the name of a dude [on purpose] who writes mostly characters with dude-parts) has mentioned, “You don’t need a dick to write a man. You just need a brain.”

    And vice versa. Thanks for this.

  • I would like to get to that point where we don’t have to ask that question… What is a strong female character? and where wonderful authors like Chuck have to mind how he answers that question. No one has every asked me what is a strong male character?

  • Couple things about that:

    1) What pisses me off is when women are viewed as secondary or extraneous in popular culture, including but not limited to TV, movies, and novels. The prevailing attitude has changed significantly since I was a kid, but the assumption is still that men (especially white men) are the REAL people whose stories are worthy of being told. Everyone else is treated as a prop, backdrop, facilitator, sidekick, afterthought, or disposable. Women are not portrayed as real people with real lives, experiences, perceptions…or worthy of notice. Like the feminist contingent says, history is spell His Story. It’s not Her Story, because she’s not significant enough to be viewed as HAVING a story. That’s the problem.

    2) Having a va-jay-jay doesn’t mean women are not capable of thought. It sure as hell doesn’t mean we define OURSELVES in terms of men, or in terms of the stuff male culture values. The assumption so often is that women LIVE to attract men and be important to men, hence are portrayed as obsessed with clothes, hair, body image, weight, and all manner of being twirly that has nothing to do with anything that matters. Even lesbians are portrayed as all twirly and girly (probably to make them more attractive to a male audience).

    3) Sometimes men who write female characters just get it wrong. One prominent example that comes to mind is “Memoirs of a Geisha,” written in the first person. It’s a good book, but for some reason the guy who wrote it really doesn’t understand female anatomy. It’s kind of a glaring mistake. Oops. He did a good job of getting into the mind of the character, if not the body of the character.

    4) We grow up with different cultural expectations and ways of relating to one another. My sons resolve their differences by beating on each other. Men may diss each other as a means of expressing affection, but women…not so much. Men may try to determine in a group who gets to be top dog. I may be wrong, but I don’t think that’s usually on a woman’s agenda. Boys play by running around chasing things, while girls sit in circles and make craft projects. Women abuse each other psychologically, more often than physically. A woman might extract herself from a conversation by pantomiming holding a phone to her ear, smiling, waving, and mouthing the words, “I’ll call you,” while walking a way. A man could just way, “I gotta get going.” We live in a culture that shows men killing things and women nurturing things. As that changes, the assumption SEEMS to be that women are or should become more like men…which means that men are still considered the Gold Standard of what it means to be a person. It’s lame.

    In conclusion to my rant…I think we’re all pretty much the same on the inside.

  • I like the cut of your jib and intend to pay actual cash money for at least one of your books. Allowing “strong” female characters to be “plausible” human beings (or elves or witches or whatever) is the first step, I think.

  • This post was a true joy! When you wrote, “A strong female character is a character who happens to be a woman or a girl,” that took an enormous literary debate and ripped it to its core. Thank you. It’s so well said.

  • Loved this post, and the comments are fantastic. I am a writer who writes “strong female characters” – or so say those who discuss these topics in the writing world, and I couldn’t agree with Chuck more about ‘strong’ being another word for ‘great’:)…thank you!

  • Absolutely fantastic article! I won’t say any more because I’m pretty sure everyone else already has, but still wanted to give the compliment.

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