How “Strong Female Characters” Still End Up Weak And Powerless (Or, “Do They Pass The Action Figure Test?”)

The idea of writing a “strong female character” isn’t enough.

As shorthand, it sounds noble. It seems spot on. But a lot of writers — and writing advice about the subject — seem to get it wrong. I get asked about this a lot, I guess because write women or girl characters like Miriam Black or Atlanta Burns who, on paper, kick a lot of ass.

And that is often the focus of the question — they’re characters who can fight, scrap, throw a punch, fire a gun, and that seems to end up the focus of the question. It’s where the buck stops. But for me, that’s never where it begins. It’s not even what makes them who they are.

Instead of writing “strong female characters,” try to aim for “women or girls that possess agency.” I’ve defined agency before and so I’ll repeat that definition here:

Character agency is… a demonstration of the character’s ability to make decisions and affect the story. This character has motivations all her own. She is active more than she is reactive. She pushes on the plot more than the plot pushes on her. Even better, the plot exists as a direct result of the character’s actions.

Strong is a word with an often male connotation — it carries with it a lot of baggage. And what we end up with are female characters who are physically strong and little else. Meaning, they can fight, scrap, throw punches, fire guns.

But their ability to fight isn’t what makes them interesting.

What makes them interesting is that they choose to fight.

And it’s that word — “choose” — that matters.

We focus so much on their Powers, we forget about empowering them with the ability to choose, to have wants and needs and to make decisions based on those things. (You know, like real people do.) We think of Abilities and Skills like they’re stats on a character sheet rather than thinking about what abilities women possess inside the story to affect that story. We think of Powers like She Can Fly or She Knows Kung Fu or She Has Mastered The Ancient Art Of Laser Kegels when we should be focusing on the character’s internal power, her narrative power to push on the story, to be a well-rounded human being, no matter how vulnerable, no matter how strong.

Look at it this way: video game characters are notoriously without agency largely by design. The technology of a game doesn’t allow for a great deal of free-range character choice — in Halo, I can’t take my character outside the mission boundaries. In Tomb Raider I can’t say, “I want Lara Croft to leave this life of horrific blood-soaked spelunking to become a well-paid, respected accountant,” because she’s not my character. I only inhabit her and can only inhabit that character insofar as the technology allows, but the illusion is enough inside a video game for the most part because it feels active — video games are very good at lending you the illusion of choice, making you feel like, because you can choose a bow or a gun or because you can go down the left passage instead of the right, you have agency in the world.

But you’re not writing a video game character.

The illusion of choice is not enough.

The physical, violent strength of the character is not a meaningful metric.

Many “strong female characters” feel like something ripped out of a video game. Or worse, they feel like toys — objects that look tough, hold guns, wield swords, have karate-chop arms, but are ultimately plastic, posable action figures. Empty and maneuverable, they go where you tell them to go because they’re just devices.

Alison Bechdel coined the Bechdel Test, which asks if the story (or an overall body of storytelling) features at least two women who talk about something other than a man.

Gail Simone talks about the “Women in Refrigerators” problem, where women and girls inside comic books are used as fodder — raped, killed, or otherwise excised of power through violence (and often to make a male character feel something). The only power these women have in the story is to be damaged enough to motivate the story or the male characters in it.

Kelly Sue DeConnick talks about the “Sexy Lamp” test, which says, if you can replace the woman in the story with a sexy lamp and it doesn’t affect the story outcome, well, fuck you, that’s what.

It’s no surprise that these three amazing writers come out of comic books, where women superheroes are often hyper-sexualized and contextualized as objects — and you’ll note that’s the theme that runs through these three tests, and what I’m getting at here. Women in fiction are often presented as objects. They’re pieces to move around a chess board. They’re toys and devices and objects of lust and precious treasures to save and mirrors to reflect ManPain and things to break so that ManTears happen. They’re sexy lamps, cold corpses, and singular creatures who only exist in relation to the male characters around them. And we need to test against this.

(This is ostensibly why we see a lot of pushback against a story like Twilight or its sexualized fan-fic reiteration, 50 Shades of Grey — it’s because of the toxicity that results when your women and girl protagonists are given almost no agency within the stories themselves. They’re just pretty dolls floating down river, picked up by men who find them fetching.)

Thing is, we often expect that we’re undercutting this objectification by making the characters “strong, kick-ass female characters,” but what happens is:

women-kick-ass

Forget about kicking ass.

That’s not the metric you need to worry about.

The only ass that your female character need to kick is the ass of the story — that’s the power you want to give them. The power of agency. They can be sexy and sexual without being sexualized or objectified. They can kick ass or not kick ass or have Power or Not Have Powers as long as you elevate them above mere action figures (“Look how poseable she is when she does her sexy high-kicks!”) They can be vulnerable or flawed or unlikeable as long as you treat them like real people, not like video game characters or a list of abilities or dolls or lamps or The Reason That Dude Does The Thing He’s Meant To Do. They’re not proxies, they’re not mannequins, they’re not mirrors, they’re not Walking Talking FleshLights, they’re not princesses in towers waiting to be saved, they’re not emotionless ass-kicking chicks who still don’t kick as much ass as the hero. I’d even argue that calling them “female characters” has its problems because it sounds clinical, distant, a characteristic, a check box, a footnote.

Think of them as women or as girls.

Think of them as people.

Then give them agency within your story, within its world, and equal to the other characters.

So endeth my rant.

And now I ask you:

Who are some of your favorite women and girls in fiction (books, comics, film, TV, what-have-you) that possess agency? Drop in the comments and sound off. Offer your thoughts, too — am I getting this wrong? This feels right to me, but happy as always to discuss. Just be polite, because the SPAM OUBLIETTE awaits those who act as dire shitbirds.

364 comments

  • It seems to me that all good plots require protagonists to have agency, whether the story is violent or nonviolent, whether the lead character is male or female. I have no opinions on video games–never played one, never will–but I read a lot of mysteries and thrillers with female protagonists. I’ve actually never encountered a weak one in that genre. Martyn V. Halm’s Amsterdam Assassin series features a female professional assassin and in some books the antagonist is a female DEA agent. They are worthy opponents. My review of the first book in the series says a lot more about the strong female lead. https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/942033334

    Nevada Barr’s series featuring law enforcement ranger Anna Pigeon is another good example of the strong female protagonist.

    The only books in which I’ve encountered weak female leads were romances. It happened so much it made me give up on that genre.

  • My two favourite female characters with strength exist on opposite sides of the crime vortex.

    Emilia, of the Emilia Cruz Series by Carmen Amato, is the first detective in Acupulco. As such she contends with, not only criminals, but the disdain and interference from her co-workers. She has determination, intelligence and guts. Emilia’s characteristics also include compassion and a desire for love. She is both strength and vulnerable, making her a believable, powerful force in the stories.

    Katla Sieltjes lives on the flip side of the coin. As the protagonist in the Amsterdam Assassin Series by Martyn V. Halm, she exhibits the unfeeling heart of a cold-blooded killer. Katla is intelligent, calculating and well versed in many forms of combat, both with weaponry and hand-to-hand. However, her need for acceptance and love exposes the humanity that exists deep within her soul. Rather than create a lead character that is all-powerful and unrealistic, Halm gives us a glimpse into the very being of someone ensconced in a world that, while she rules it, she cannot escape.

    There are two main characteristics of an individual’s strength, whether male or female. They need the intestinal fortitude and ability to handle the situations they find themselves in, and they must have the courage to face life on life’s terms. That includes the loss of loved ones, broken hearts, illness and willingness to surrender to love. Simply writing an “action character” isn’t enough. The “strong” protagonist, or antagonist, must be human first.

    These features abound in both cases I’ve cited.

    • I haven’t read the Cruz series, but I’ve read some of the Amsterdam Assassin Series and LOVED the way Mr. Halm wrote Katla Sieltjes. Her mind works like no other, and I never got the idea that she was unbelievably written because it was a man writing a female protagonist. She’s addictive, and it’s all due to the fact that Martyn V. Halm is a stickler for all things real and factual, doing his research to the smallest detail.

  • If you want us to think of our female characters as women rather than sexy lamps, then I’m okay with that. But honestly, I rarely read an engaging, well-written novel whose female characters are … Sexy…lamps…*confused face*.

    My favorite female characters are widely varied; Katla, the Amsterdam Assassin, who is simply badass. She is not beefed up any more than a real woman *could choose to be*. (key words there) Katla reminds me that even in the land of the brave and whatnot, choices are tough but we as women can be tougher. She reminds me of my past, one that i managed to leave behind.
    Stephanie Plum, who, inexplicably, falls into these crazy messes and falls back out again. The situations are unrealistic, but the character is multi-dimensional. In short, she chooses to keep trying even though she’s not a badass. Katniss cannot be dis-included as a strong character even though the plotted circumstances dragged her along for a ride – she changed, learned, grew, and characters can’t do that unless they are “strong” in the sense we have been discussing.
    A character doesn’t have to be brash and dominant in order to be strong. I just prefer them that way.

    Side note: I am not overly impressed by G.R.R.Martin’s female characters. They are good but he is no better than the above authors whose characters i have mentioned. (heard some hype. Had to add my $0.02)

  • Jessica Lange’s characters in “American Horror Story.” These characters are flawed in many ways, but hoo-ee do they have agency. I also love the idea of the same actor playing separate characters in a show where each season is a different story. Jessica Lange is the shit, people.

  • My first favorite is Ripley. Always. I have written so many papers on how her femininity is an asset in the trials and tribulations. The fact that she chooses to fight for things like — going back for the frakkin cat — is what makes her a “strong” character, who happens to be a woman. I think you have it right for sure, Herr Wendig. But a little ass-kicking along the way isn’t bad, too. Certainly Miram and Atlanta do it as well, and I would classify them as strong female characters.

    • Oh, GOD yes! Top of my list of female movie characters! I also love Alice from the Resident Evil movies. One quote says it all for me: Red Queen: “You’re all going to die down here.” Alice: “No, we’re not. We’re getting out. All of us.” She is focused, and intense, but also compassionate. And yes, awesomely kick-ass!

  • One of my favorites is the “Angelina” character in the Stainless Steel Rat books. In the first book she appears in, she’s definitely driving the plot. She’s been secretly building a powerful battleship. She’s done it by taking advantage of the weaknesses of all the male characters near her. She even manages to exploit the Rat’s own chauvinism to her advantage.

    In the later books, she loses much of that agency, though she’s never just window dressing. She often takes actions that save her (now) husband, protect her children, etc.

    As soon as I read the definition of agency above, it was a revelation. I wish I’d heard this years ago.

    I’ve written six (practice) novels now. All of them suck in different ways and for different reasons. The first honestly had NO plot. The rest had plots, but had other problems. Almost all of those, I see now, trace back to a lack of agency.

    In one novel, a character broke the fourth wall and chewed me out for putting him in such a crappy story. Then he shot himself. The other character in the room launched into a discussion with me about my white room problem and my poor plotting skills. I walked away from that 13,000 words later wondering what the hell had just happened. Looking back, the characters were understandably upset. They had no agency. They were puppets.

    I manipulated one character into a situation where I expected him to kill a roomful of people to disrupt their plans (they could resurrect, so it’s not as bloodthirsty as it sounds). He entered the room, broke the fourth wall, and said “No. I don’t kill these people. Think about it. I’ve spent this whole book helping people and trying to make the world a better place. I’d never kill anyone.” I thought, “Damn, he’s right.” So I asked him what DOES happen, then? He said, “this” and stepped back. In came a minor character, one who WOULD kill people (and had already in the story). He stepped into the room, shot the guy in charge, and my other character then helped the others (who had been intimidated by the now-dead guy) to re-shape the organization into something positive. That was his only moment of agency in that story.

    Thank you for this post. You’ve helped me with more than just writing female characters.

  • Agatha Heterodyne, main character of the web/print comic “Girl Genius”. At first, Agatha has no agency; she is hobbled by her apparent lack of “Spark” and is protected or put upon by those around her-partially because of her power/heritage and partly because of her gender. But when her Spark is freed, she begins to gain that agency she’d been denied for so long and refuses to be used by anyone.

  • Just wanted to comment on Lady Mary of Downton Abbey mentioned up the page. After watching her treatment of her younger sister I realized Julian Fellowes, the Downton Abbey creator, had no sisters. Looked it up and its true. I’d like Lady Mary a lot more if she were a little less cruel to Edith. Sisters, (generally speaking of course, I’m sure there have been some exceptions) aren’t as directly cruel to each other as brothers tend to be. Women, it seems to me, find other ways to compete with each other.

    I’m a historical lover. Try “The Memoirs of Cleopatra” by Margaret George for a lead character with agency.(An an evil sister to boot, come to think of it!) Loved the post, btw. Hope the guys will pick up on it. In my mid 50s, I’m very tired of watching and seeing flat female characters. Although women authors, myself included are guilty of creating them too.

    I must say though, of late, I’m seeing more male authors creating interesting female characters, even writing first person as a woman successfully. There is hope! Such a great discussion here.

  • Greatest frickin’ post I’ve read in I don’t know how long. Comment-wise, lots of fodder for thought and awesome mentions: Linden Avery from Thomas Covenant! Lisbeth Salandar! Buffy and Ripley and Arya, oh my!

    I was especially happy to read in comments another heroine of noted agency: Katla Sieltjes of the Amsterdam Assassin series. I had the good fortune to trip over her last year when I was missing and desperately seeking Lisbeth – they are both savvy, no-nonsense women who have extraordinary smarts and can think on their feet. Katla can kick ass, but as a sociopathic freelance assassin, it’s kinda necessary. She’s attractive, but the author has deliberately constructed her as nondescript because it’s necessary that she not stand out during covert assignments. Yes, she’s got a man, and they do get naked [or nekkid, if you prefer], but their relationship is balanced, and she makes her own decisions. Her intelligence drives the plot; the choices she makes when zeroing in on her target or wriggling out of tight spots all serve to make Katla one of the most intriguing characters, male or female, I’ve ever read.

    I think we get tangled up in what “strong” is, and it isn’t going to mean exactly the same thing to all people. For me, strength is in intelligence and character – where “character” is knowing where one’s line in the sand is drawn and sticking to it. Jane Eyre, for instance, though a pious and plain woman living at a time when women were essentially powerless, is one of the strongest literary characters of all time.

    In any event, there’s nothing wrong with understanding one’s assets, and if beauty is one of those, then a strong character should have the wit to use it to effect. For me, I don’t mind a sexy heroine – even when she’s using the power of her sex – so long as her intelligence matches or supersedes her physical assets. Hey, a woman who doesn’t know and take advantage of when a man is thinking with his little brain isn’t too bright, is she?

  • I like Anya Blanchine by Gabrielle Zevin in All These Things I’ve Done and Jane Yellowrock in the Jane Yellowrock series by Faith Hunter. I dont know if anyone mentioned the Ghost Whisperer Melinda from the tv show or Sanae Lathan in AVP (love that movie!). These women are not only strong but show that they have emotional capabilities that don’t necessarily take away them moving forward and doing what needs to be done. Human…

  • You’ve given me an ah-ha moment. And my current WIP is going to change dramatically. Thanks for that. Well not the re-writing, that’s a pain in the butt, but it’s going to be a kick-ass story. (and I liked it before!)

  • IMHO two male writers who create believable strong women characters are Martyn Van Halm with his Amsterdam Assassin series and John Irving generally. The Amsterdam Assassin is an intriguing woman who is quite literally a corporate troubleshooter,though her weapons are varied. She makes problems go away and look accidental. She’s an interesting character who rides around on motorcycles and has a blind lover who is a martial arts master.

    John Irving has always written strong and believable women. A Widow for a Year, which incidentally has a large part set in Amsterdam, is a really good example.

    The worst famous writer of women characters has got to be Saul Bellow. Although the man wrote beautifully, his women are all shallow and one dimensional.

  • February 20, 2015 at 11:24 AM // Reply

    Any number of female characters written by the inimitable Mary Gentle. If you want badass, just read ‘Ash: A Secret History’. And they don’t all have to wield swords and wear armour to represent!

  • I don’t write or read many books of the sort talked about here, but I do love detective stories and have written a book about them. I was referred here because I reviewed a book by Martyn Halm which has a character, a female assassin named Katla, who I had said was unusual for her superior control of the tools of her trade. The concept of agency, new to me, (and the Bechdel test) would have been useful to me in explaining a troublesome feature of the book I reviewed. Katla takes on a blind assistant who is moreover morally apposed to what she does for a living — two strikes against his utility. And on top, she finds him physically attractive. The classic scenario — woman hobbled by superior pheromones. “Agency” helps to clear this up — Katla sees that she has a choice, shows a willingness to reject it out of sound practical sense, but takes it anyway because she sees (dimly) that blind man can be useful to her. And so it proves. The man’s scruples and disability in this case guarantee that he is not be one being exploited or objectified. Under this umbrella of agency we can find (or reject) a number of Victorian characters often said, limply, to be strong because they are assertive — the Victorian equivalent of kick-ass — but who cave in the end. Conversely Hemingway, who is maligned for being unable to draw strong women, has a number of characters who pass this test — Lady Brett in The Sun Also Rises for example. And I’m not sure Jane Austen, another shibboleth, passes the Bechdel test.

  • Maybe she’s already mentioned here, but Kameron Hurley’s women are amazing people. I love all of them, but specifically Zezili from the Mirror Empire. I also really love Jacqueline Carey’s women, in all of her books, both the high fantasy Kushieline series (though I like some more than others) and Lupe in the Santa Olivia books. Carey’s Phedre from the fist three Kusheline books showed me just what women in fiction can do and be. Cat and Bee from Kate Elliott’s Cold Magic series are also pretty cool – I think Elliott places them in narratives that traditionally don’t given women agency specifically so she can subvert it.

  • Gosh – surprised no one’s mentioned ‘Zena – Warrior Princess’ She must be the archetype of all ‘kick-ass’ strong female characters! (Wonder whatever happened to Lucy Lawless who played her incidentally?) Apparently she did all the stunts required, and subsequently landed up in hospital a number of times because of this.

      • Well Thera, I got my info from ‘Xena: Warrior Princess’ by Robert Weisbrot – which got the imprimitor of Universal Studios Licensing Inc. as ‘The Official Guide to the Xenaverse’ (sic) It was published in the UK by Bantam Books in 1998, but in the flyleaf it indicates it was also published in N.Z, & Australia by Transworld Publishers Ltd. It’s quite a mine of info., not only about the Lady herself, but all the main characters of the series – along of course with lots of ‘action; pics. Weisbrot in his introduction gives a whole host of people he interviewed and acknowledges their assistance in it’s compilation – from Lawless herself of course, together with Executive Producer Rob Tapert and right down to the crew members. He was allowed full access to the set during the filming in N.Z. and the special effects studios etc. so all in all I have no doubts bout the authenticity of the source of my information. That said, as with any film production, by sheer necessity from time to time there will have to be ‘stand-ins’ for characters (including Lucy, when she was quite seriously injured during one sequence), so possibly this is where the confusion lies? Where did you get your info?

  • A large number of interesting points have been made in this blog post some of which I agree with some I don’t. I spend a great deal of my free time reading and would not say I have a particular favourite genre but overall I think I deviate more to crime/thriller type books.

    I think it is unfair to state that strong female characters cannot be written by a male as I have come across both poor male and female characters written by both. Until I read this blog i was unaware of the term “agency” but I fully understand the concept having read the definition.

    One of the best examples of a strong female character is Katla Sieltjes in the Amsterdam Assassin series written by Martin V Halm as the title suggests she is an Assassin who is available for hire but so much the main character has so much more to her than being a woman of limited detail. The full package is put into the plot line and you can see the thought processes that go into developing the scenarios and as a result she becomes the story rather than being part of the story. There are other strong female lead characters in the stories such as a female DEA agen which along with a Katlas boyfriend Bram (who is blind) offer a great reading experience.

    As for the point that women write about women better a recent read being the Miniaturist with a lead protagonist being a woman and the book was written by a woman I thought that it was a good story but sadly the lead character being Nella Oortman lacked serious depth and was in all honesty very difficult to believe she could behave in such a strong manner.

  • I’m surprised no one seems to have mentioned ‘Zena – Warrior Princess’ (aka Lucy Lawless in the series) O.K. that was a T.V programme – but somebody WROTE the script, so I reckon that counts, and surely she is the archetypical ‘kick-ass’ female character? Incidentally, I wonder whatever happened to L.L.? Anybody out there know?

    • Did you not see Lucy Lawless in Spartacus? On the Starz network here in the states. That ended a couple of years ago. Talk about a female character with agency! She was delicious. Alack, the title character in the show died, in real life. They hired a new guy, but he didn’t last long, as Spartacus dies in history, too.

      • Alas, no – maybe it didn’t get across the pond? Wonder what sort of a character L.L played – maybe a female gladiator? (The mind doth boggleth!) I don’t think they had female Glads. in Ancient Rome – but that doesn’t say they can’t have ‘em in fiction! (Actually in ‘real life’ too) – there’s a group of women in London doing Gladiator enactments – and OMG do those ‘ladies’ have Agency? – you betcha!) Anyway…good to hear that L.L. is still with us, and apparently still playing similar characters as Zena

        • Spartacus was shown in Britain,too, but all four seasons are available on Amazon. You should really check it out. Lucy played the wife of the lanista (the guy who runs the gladiator school) in the show. It’s a great program and worth the investment. It was quite popular from like 2009 to 2012.

          • Gosh May Anne – how on earth did I miss out on that? It obviously didn’t get much publicity here (I subscribe to the two major TV mags. published here) Anyway.. thanks a lot for the info and I’ll chase it up on Amazon UK. Sounds fascinating – I bet she’s ‘the power behind the throne’ in that glads. Academy!

  • I’m surprised nobody mentioned Hermione Granger. She furthers the plot more productively than most of the other characters, especially Harry and Ron. In my opinion, she’s the true hero of the Harry Potter series. She puts blood, sweat, and tears into her work and makes sure shit gets done. She’s tactical, kind, and determined, deeply directing how the story goes. Without Hermione’s problem solving abilities and will to help others, the series would have ended in Philosopher’s Stone, as Harry and Ron are left in the puzzle staring blankly and possibly dying from drinking the wrong potion. Even if they got through that, Hermione saved everyone in Chamber of Secrets through her research. Hermione has so much agency it’s nuts.

  • I *Hate* The Princess Bride. Im the only one of my generation, it seems. No one ever talks about how Buttercup, the woman the whole fucking story is named after, is the sexiest lamp that ever was lit. Once you are done with the “hahah what clever dialogue for the men!”, a girl is left with “…. Wait, the only character I can relate to is the pretty lamp?”

    • Well, in its defense (a weak defense, I do admit), Princess Bride IS written to be the “Good Parts” version as directed toward a pre-adolescent boy.
      Buttercup aside (Puhleeze – a princess named Buttercup?), I have to say that I enjoyed the movie as a wonderful romp. But yes, you’re right. I have to admit, I was having too much fun with the Brute Squad and Inigo Montoya to notice that the princess was limp.

  • You know, Chuck, you are spot on with regards to the majority of female characters I can think of in most forms of media…they may have physical strength but often lack intention and authenticity, as compared to truly powerful women ‘in real life’ (I never really thought about the issue so much from your angle because even thought I’m just a recreational novelist, the stuff I write goes for genuineness rather than glam).

    That said, I really enjoy the character played Harmony Faith Lane in the film Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. Opposite Val Kilmer/Robert Downey, Jr. she is excellently scripted, directly impacts the plot through her manipulation of Downey and delivers repeated sharp-witted dialogue…in brief, she is smart, funny, relatively normal (i.e. physically weak and not a cliched Xena/Laura Croft type) but quietly powerful while remaining feminine. Although it may not be a movie that every would enjoy, I think she plays a great character.

  • I’d be surprised if nobody else mentioned her, but I also didn’t read far in the comments. But Peggy Carter, of Marvel’s Agent Carter (and Captain America before that) definitely has agency, more so in her series than in the movie. She specifically pushes the story forward in more ways than one, although sometimes Jarvis getting her out of a jam feels a little contrived. But SHE takes the initiative in the Stark case; SHE gets the artifact with Steve’s blood; SHE leads the team in Russia; SHE notices Dr. Ivchenko’s treachery; etc. (I apologize if I spoiled anyone with my comment, but all the events mentioned happen in episodes prior to the series finale, so you’ve had time to watch them. ;p)

    I would also argue that Vin from Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy carries agency. Mostly because she’s told by those around her to do things THIS way, but more often than not she does things her own way or no way. It helps to a significant degree that, unlike a lot of female protagonists, she’s not exactly described as an object of desire except in certain situations and by certain characters.

  • Tami Taylor, from “Friday Night Lights”.
    Strong and charismatic and completely in charge, while still being a mother and a wife and a teacher, and sympathetic and emotional. She is everything I have ever wanted to be, and Connie Britton played her to perfection.

  • I love Lauren Olamina in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. Even though she has a “disability”, she is strong, brave and resourceful. She is wise beyond her years and the men, woman and children in her circle depend on her for leadership.

  • Bulls-eye, Chuck. I think a lot of the things in your post are what writers/creators are missing in the “Strong Female Character,” so although these SFCs exist, they come off as just another bimbo to be used for a larger story. I have to admit, some of my favorite SFCs have been exploited in some of these ways.

    For example, look at Kara ‘Starbuck’ Thrace from BSG. That girl was tough. She had goals. She had ambition. She pushed, kicked, and spit in the face of the story, and she’s one of my all-time favorite fictional people. That being said, in a lot of the series, she is blinded by her lust for/love of ManPeople, which cheapened her character for me.

  • As a woman, teacher, writer, I am distressed at the continued propaganda influencing most girls to want to be Disney princesses. I see small steps in children’s literature and media, but not the leaps necessary. My favorite female characters are Carolina Slade from C. Hope Clark’s Carolina Slade mysteries and Tris from Veronica Roth’s Divergent series. I hope to see, or soon write, stories for young children with girls who have agency. Thank you for this article.

  • Just finished watching Madam Secretary, a Sunday night prime time tv show. I would posit that the main character is a strong female character in the best sense of the concept. This show even passes the Bechdel Test.

  • Interestingly, few fairy tales actually have “princesses in towers waiting to be saved.” Rapunzel came up with the clever idea for him to bring silk every time he visited so they could create a ladder for her. She had the agency to decide she’d rather spend her life with him than the witch. He’s actually more of a passive figure in the fairy tale than she is.

    I’ve been exploring this fairy tale legacy on my own blog (http://anniejacksonbooks.com/tag/the-fairy-tale-legacy/) as a counterpoint to the idea that fairy tales are about weak and passive heroines or damsels in distress. These girls actually had a quite a bit of agency and character.

  • ‘Agency’ as a kind of freedom to act, was a commonly used term in the political and social sciences, as well as the Lit courses I studied at uni. But the sound and notion of it were alien in my turbulent childhood. Violence, hunger, and humiliation were persistent themes, instead. But they had no power over me, and I still have so many wondrous and warm memories of childhood.

    The reason for this is that the idea of freedom seeped in slowly, through locked doors, and out of the words that other people had crafted for me. Because agency was an idea that was implicitly taught in every story I read, and it made me feel free, and brave, and persevering when it was most important. I first saw the rough idea of the person I might be, and the places I might see, in stories; in my imagination.

    So if you need to ask what sort of female characters are worth writing about or writing for, think about the sometimes dark places that children find themselves in through no fault of their own, where one is simply waiting for the plot twist and and the inevitable moment to be. Write to show people all the different ways they can be free.

  • I find my idea of strong female characters to be so incredibly niche that I don’t even know where the audience would be for them. My idea of a strong woman someone who gives birth. Ever given birth? That’s intense!! Strong women could have a high tolerance for liquor and beating up bad guys without smudging their lipstick. but a strong woman can in real life they have jobs, look after her family plant vegetable gardens and save the world and their money by cloth diapering. no one freaks about how awesome that is. That’s probably girls have to be either void of personality and get sucked into some crazy vampiric whirl pool or become super masculine and run with the big boys in order to be noticed. nobody cares about what women do for society any more, they just care about their ability to keep up with the boys, if they can.

  • YESSSSS. Thanks for the definition. .You’re right that too many people define strong in male-stereotype-terms. My female character at 15 is about to quit school to support her family (1930s no jobs) by singing in nightclubs and she’s thinking a lot about women’s agency. Here’s part of a conversation with her boyfriend:
    “Huh,” Maggie says, lying back down on the sand with her hands behind her head. She studies the clouds for a while. “I wonder why men and women have to be on this,” she takes a moment searching for a word, “seesaw all the time.”
    “Seesaw!”
    “Well yeah, like always strugglin’ to run things.”
    “But men run things.”
    “Mostly, yeah. But women have their ways of resisting.”
    “Like what?”
    She laughs. “And give up our trade secrets?”
    They’re silent for a while, as she gathers loose thoughts jumping around in her head like they have for a while.
    “I mean, why can’t men and women be partners? Why can’t they share the responsibilities and make decisions together?” She lapses into silence, staring at the clouds. “Look at that one,” she says, pointing. “It looks like a rabbit.” She glances at Jack. “Why can’t men and women be equals?”
    “But they’re not!” Jack says. “Men are stronger.”
    “Physically yes. So if a woman gets uppity, he can smack her around and get his way, but women have to take it and go on.” She hesitates. “We bear the children and take care of the children an’ do what’s best for the children even when it means getting smacked down for it.”
    She pauses, gathering her thoughts. “An’ they go on, even when the man decides he don’t want to be a husband an’ providin’ for his kids is just too much trouble— an’ he leaves it all to the woman. So she picks it up and makes do.” She stops again, glancing over at Jack, who says nothing. “How much courage and strength do you think that takes? How much courage do you think it takes to risk a beating to keep insisting your daughter needs new shoes when your husband wants to spend the same money for beer?”

    Choices? Yeah, women make choices every day. But sometimes those choices are within parameters set for them by custom and by law and women haven’t always had the freedom to make the choices they do today. The situation Maggie’s (the character above) talking about involves the choice of taking care of the kids when hubby runs off or dumping them on the county. then there’s the choice of getting some kind of job if any are available and hoping you can support yourself and the kids–and still let the young’uns know somehow that they’re loved in the moments you have left. Or, if you’re pretty and able to poke your way into the right circles, maybe you can marry somebody with lots of money. (Maggie considers that–she doesn’t have any kids, so it’s an option. Most of the rich dudes don’t want to take on somebody else’s brats.)

  • I loved your article and I totally agree with you, so I made a list that fits your description of strong women in YA novels nowadays (which seem to be lack of them lately, with few exceptions).

    I have a list:
    Hermione Granger (Harry Potter).
    Clarke (The 100).
    Kira Abrams (Hunters -mine-).
    Kira Walker (Partials).
    Six (Lorien Legacies).
    Arya Stark (Game of Thrones).
    Penryn (Angelfall).

    And I’m pretty sure I can find others.

  • The first character to come to mind is Pyanfar Chanur, from C. J. Cherryh’s Chanur series. She is the primary starship captain of her House’s merchant fleet. She uses her wits, her claws (a leonine race), her ship and her weapons to protect her crew, her planet and eventually her entire species, as well as the alien (human male) who has sought sanctuary on her ship This series is the only other set of books beside Tolkien where I have worn out MULTIPLE COPIES of the entire series. I even laid down real money for a signed and numbered print of the cover by Michael Whelan, that’s how much I see her as the ideal protagonist. Not ideal *female* protagonist–my ideal PROTAGONIST. IMNSHO she is the best of the best.

    As usual, Chuck, you have shone a light on an area I didn’t notice. I am happy to say that on double checking my WIP I pass the Bechdel test, and I *think* I’m doing okay with my female protagonist. And I WILL be going back to check on that!

    Other than that, Chuck–“Ancient Art of Laser Kegels” made me nearly pop my eyeballs. I’m a night owl, and started this at 6:00 this morning, so I couldn’t snark out loud because I’d’ve woken up the roommate. To say you have a way with words does not say enough. You are the awesomest wordslinger in the ‘verse!

  • Dang, almost forgot! The other character I want to recommend is Lilith Saintcrow’s Emma Bannon, from her Steampunk series Bannon & Clare. This is a woman who fought her way up from the streets to learn magic and become a sorceress and agent for the Queen. As such she uses her magic, her strength (both moral and physical) and her indomitable will to fight and prevail against all comers.
    On another note, I was truly amazed to see so many negative reviews of this series on Amazon; most of them complaining about the period-style language she uses. Perhaps I am more used to that because I read everything from Chaucer and Shakespeare to Austin, or maybe I have a greater vocabulary than most, but her use of language is one of the many things I loved about this series.
    If you have an education and you’re not afraid to use it, I highly recommend that you check this out!

  • Most girls and women I know are not crime solvers or ass kickers. Most do spend A LOT of time thinking about boys and men. Women are more relational–it’s biology. I still think we can have great female fiction characters who act, think and dream like real women. All of the women in Middlemarch have agency but in ways tied to their relationships with others. The problem is that we don’t find female qualities admirable in Western society. We seem to prefer our women to be lesser copies of men. (of course male and female qualities do overlap)

  • Clementine from Telltale’s The Walking Dead is my favorite hands down. She’s seen and done so many gruesome and heartbreaking things yet she still holds her head high and keeps moving forward. Clem is the heart of the series. She’s the force that keeps us invested in the story. We see her grow as a person and (stepping into her shoes) make tough decisions. While she was dependent on Lee in the first season, her presence influenced our choices most of the time. Clemmy isn’t clueless about the crapsack world she’s in. She may look like an innocent, but she’s far from ignorant. I just adore the girl and would probably name a daughter after her. She’s a true inspiration and I look forward to seeing her in season 3.

  • I realize this might sound weird, but one of my favorite agency-oriented characters is Bella Swan. The girl who saved her dad’s life, tried to save her mom’s life, put herself outside of her comfort zone as a gift to someone, made a point to research a situation before jumping into it, refused to risk ruining an entire family’s lives by being reckless w/ her knowledge. Saved two other people’s lives in book 2. Saved hundreds of people’s lives in book 3 using information she gained by paying attention, listening, learning, and being brave. Also managed to almost end a war. Actually ended the war in book 4, managed to stand up for her right to do what she wanted with her body twice when almost no one was on her side both times, demanded to be treated like a woman instead of a child regarding her body and her pregnancy, managed to set it up so that her child and her child’s guardian would be protected if things went south during the final battle, was willing to fight for like 50 people during the confrontation with the bad guys, and all before she was even 20.

    I suppose it depends on how you look at the series, but that’s what I got out of it. Does Bella have her flaws? Sure. But you can’t compare her to the girl in 50 Shades (esp. considering the age gap and life events that should mature the 50SoG girl) even though that girl is based on Bella. And Bella has her agency. She doesn’t always use it in the best way.

    Other strong girls: Cassia Reyes, September from the Fairyland books by Ms. Valente, Tate from The Replacement, Liraz from Daughter of Smoke & Bone.

  • July 3, 2015 at 9:39 AM // Reply

    I’ve just been ‘introduced’ to the writing of SARAH HALL – initially via her latest novel ‘The Wolf Border’, and thence to ‘The Carhullan Army’ which features the largest bunch of kick-ass female characters I’ve met for many a year! There’s also a rather chilling element of prophesy in the plot in view of current events in Syria who are enlisting females to fight for what this group believes is ‘freedom’ – or as the U.K.’s ‘Sunday Telegraph’ apparently put it in their review: ‘A serious novel that convincingly explores the mindset of fanaticism’. It’s certainly not for the fainthearted, but Sarah pulls out all the stops to demonstrate the sheer mental as well as the physical power of the female persona. My only negative criticism of both novels is their rather defeatist conclusion, which left me a bit ‘deflated’. ( Maybe that says more about me than this champion of feminism!) – but she’s also given me lots of ‘food for thought’ about the development of a strong female character.

  • “video games are very good at lending you the illusion of choice, making you feel like, because you can choose a bow or a gun or because you can go down the left passage instead of the right, you have agency in the world”
    You talk about female characters, however, male characters in videogames have the same characteristics. So, why talking lik if is a female characters only issue?

  • The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea has a great female leading character. She cannot be replaced by a “sexy lamp” (great tip, that!) She has the power to heal, but it’s secondary to her choices and actions. I also remember reading Julie of the Wolves in elementary school and thinking she was a really great character to emulate.

  • All of the girls of Sailor Moon. One of the things I adored about this series is that it refused to go the way of “this is how the perfect woman should be like” by having all of the members with different likes and personalities and life goals (among their civilian identities) and different flaws that complement each other. They were heroes and characters first and foremost. I also like the characters of Ranma 1/2, even the ones that drive me up the wall like Akane, because regardless they all have flaws and strengths and they’re all colorful characters. Heck, some of my favorite among them, Xian Pu for example, is a very flawed individual but I love her because of her choices and hijinks and how she never wavers from her goal in spite of setbacks.

    Even relatively static characters like Rincewind have agency since the beginning. All Rincewind wants is to be safe and free of danger. Granted, because this is a parody series of the fantasy genre, that means that the world conspires to put him in dangerous situations. In spite of this and his very proudly professed cowardice, Rincewind is a “strong” character in that he never gives up on his agency. He doesn’t give up and die nor does he give in to the whims of fate and become the hero who sacrifices himself or does the noble thing, he continues on being himself and running away from danger regardless. He remains himself, flaws and all, and he retains his agency through and through, even if said agency is not heroic in nature at all.

    I would dearly love it if someday someone could make a character like Rincewind in their own novel and that character just happens to be female. Even without knowing kung fu or being the best ever at magic, I guarantee that character would be strong narratively.

  • An article about the women in Star Wars caught my eye the other day. It’s not new and maybe even mentioned up the stack in these comments. Rey is the character. Consider: Old Star Wars – Princess Leia has power but still needs rescuing right? She’s in big chunks of the movie but it’s till Luke and Hands that take the main roles. Not quite full blown agency for Princess Leia.

    Compared to Rey in the New movie we have a main character followed by the cameras, that is a woman. There is no next act that goes over to a male character, although Leia and Hans do figure in. Rey is featured throughout the movie. No need of rescue. She figures out how to fight and do what needs doing. She goes head to head against the other characters not as a sidekick or co-star but as the MAIN figure. Interesting example of agency, but for me even more interesting comparing a version 1 woman with agency (Leia) against a version 2 woman with agency (Rey).

    It occurs to me that this might be one of the closest characters to the ideal: an interesting character that carries a movie – that is a woman.

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