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.

368 comments

  • 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.

  • Danaerys, Sansa, Arya, and Brienne in “Game of Thrones.”
    Rey in “The Force Awakens.”
    All the girls in the Percy Jackson series, but especially Annabeth.

    Excellent article! I’m building up my own website (disregard the link below; that’s an old one that I had to put on hiatus because of school), and this is definitely getting a link. 🙂

  • One of my favorite girls with agency is actually Bella Swan from Twilight. Every time she wants something, she tries her best to get it, even when everyone else – including Edward – is telling her she can’t have it. She chooses to pursue the mystery of Edward despite everyone telling her not to and to save her mom in the first book. She chooses to save Edward in book two and demands she be given what she wants – to be a vampire. She refuses to let her loved ones limit who she’s allowed to love in book 3 – she refuses to cut Jacob or Edward (and the people who come with them) out of her life at the behest of the other, or at the behest of her friends like Emily or Alice. And in the fourth book she chooses to get married despite people giving her grief about it, chooses to keep her baby when people try to tell her not to…I mean, I could go on, but basically everything Bella wants in the series, she takes, despite outside pressure).

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