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What is Strength in a Female Character?

NOTE: I enjoy reading how other people approach their female characters. Please note that the following is my own speculation. If you disagree, that is perfectly fine. I’d love to hear your opinions on the matter.

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Image: Morguefile

Recently, I saw an interview with a former female gang member from Chicago who went back to the streets as a “violence interrupter.” She intercepts gang fights — or the beginnings of gang fights — or when she believes things are about to turn ugly. Firstly, I asked myself, “Would the media have even covered this story if it were a male intercepting gang violence?” And then, secondly, I asked myself, “Why is she considered strong?” I think my assessment of her strength and that of the male interviewer probably diverged at the fact that she was a woman. While he saw her present courage as the core of her strength, I looked at her past and what drove her to that courage instead.

What drives a woman — anyone — to go back to a place of pain and violence? She stands among these guys and speaks to them, demands that they do better. And they listen to her. She isn’t strong because she has the guts to march into a crowd of delinquents and take them head on with words. It’s not because she’s fearlessly facing potentially dangerous situations. These factors demonstrate her courage and determination, yes, but they are only facets of her strength as a person. When we look beneath the present, external presentation of the character, we can see the truth of her strength: The fact that she overcame her past and returned to help those who are similarly bound.  The steps she took to overcome herself to get to the now of her life. That she gets up every day and works to change things, to help a bunch of kids that everyone else has given up on.

Her strength is her ability to lock eyes with them and understand their pain.

That, my fellow writers, is a character I want to read. This is a woman whose story I remember because the underneath is so beautifully written, so beautifully strong and moving. Not because of her situation, but because of what she has done. This is a person I’d want to meet. This is a person who is real.

I suppose my question for you guys is what do you think makes a strong female character? And why do we have to define strength according to gender?

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Image: Morguefile

In genre literature, there seems to be a shift in the perspective of how many writers view strength in their female leads. I’ve seen this from both men and women novelists in a range of genres: where they’ve written the heroine in such a way that belies her femininity, that tries to redefine her in a way that makes her (perhaps unintentionally) more masculine. In romance novels, for example, I’ve read several heroines that are defined by their attitudes. Sarcasm and wit are deemed “strength” — as if an intelligent, vocal woman is such an oddity that it automatically gives her the ‘strong’ quality. I see a lot of external expression: the woman’s refusal to bow to the will of the man she’s supposed to fall in love with, the woman’s refusal to bow to the will of the society that wishes to contain her. The flaunting of how she will not be conquered, beating me over the head with her independence etc, etc. And though these are properties of a strong personality, they are not necessarily properties of a strong character. The two do not necessarily equal one another.

The fantasy or sci-fi genres seem to have the same problem. Authors who claim to have written a strong female character have often fallen into the cliche of masculinizing their female leads without realizing it: by giving her excessive physical strength, a strong sexuality, swearing, etc. Sure, these qualities are not a bad thing. Sure, they sometimes lead to a deeper, core strength. But, again, how can a strong female character be so easily defined by surface structures? By attitudes? Authors who are afraid of being accused of writing a “weak” female character tend to move from one cliche to another, from the traditional feminine damsel and straight into the masculinized warrior-woman (which do have a purpose, but making one just for the sake of a “strong” female character is counterproductive), and they miss the point entirely.

Isn’t strength deeper than that? Deeper than the personality, than the outward appearance? Than the label? Subtler? Enduring? Strength is usually something a person finds within herself when she has no other choice. When the choices come to falling and failing or pushing forward despite the odds, despite the pain. I’d rather see a character that has to acquire her strength through action, through overcoming, through endurance, than have authors spoon-feed me their characters’ “strength” from the beginning, based on what they believe is a deviation from societal norms.

Strength is not necessarily brazen. It doesn’t need to hit the reader like a battering ram. Strength isn’t even strong, sometimes. External, outward strength is well and good, but that’s not what’s usually interesting. Sometimes strength is in what we don’t see. Sometimes it’s so simply complex that we almost miss it — or it overwhelms us. But without the how of strength, we’re left with a shell of a character. A hard exterior with nothing on the inside. This goes for both male and female characters in all genres. This goes for us as writers, too.

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Certainly I cannot discuss the entirety of this subject in a 1000-word post, but this is a subject I’ve had on my mind for quite a while. How do you write strong characters? Strong women? Are there any particular female characters that stand out to you?

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11 thoughts on “What is Strength in a Female Character?

  1. An interesting and thought-provoking post, Michelle. I’ve noticed the shift you mention, above all in genre fiction, of suggesting to readers that a female character is strong simply by giving her certain mannerisms, or a certain appearance. I’m rather certain that strength is far more complex than that!

    For me, core strength is remarkably similar whether a character is male or female. For me, it’s about carrying on to the best of one’s ability, however many false starts and slip-ups one has to endure. It’s not about deliberately defying convention or being “perfect”, but about coming to terms with one’s own weaknesses and flaws. Often it’s something a character only finds within themselves when they’re tested. An example is the character of the timid second wife in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. At the outset she’s a meek and altogether rather conventional character; when she’s called upon to find an inner core of strength, she does so (admittedly not all readers approve of her choices!).

    • Exactly. Thanks for you thought-provoking comment. Carrying on is an important facet of strength. As humans, coming to terms with ourselves — with our weaknesses and our flaws — is oftentimes more difficult than it seems. A person who works to better himself/herself, who works toward something and endures internally whatever the external world throws at him/her is ultimately going to be much stronger than the person who defines his/her core strength according to outside mannerisms.

      I have not read that novel, but now I most definitely want to!

  2. Pingback: What is Strength in a Female Character? | Words and Wanderings

  3. It’s not about deliberately defying convention or being “perfect”, but about coming to terms with one’s own weaknesses and flaws. Often it’s something a character only finds within themselves when they’re tested.
    Mari, I love that. The women I know who are strong are the ones that have survived adversity and set backs, who understand something of themselves and the world they live in. Strong women in fiction should, I think, be more well-rounded. There is strength also in femininity and relationships, in peacemaking and in deciding to stand up for oneself or one’s family/people/friends.

    Great post, Michelle. I’m hoping good discussion happens here.

    • Yes, testing a character is essential to “proving” his/her strength. I find it particularly problematic when authors try to make their characters “tough” or “strong” from the very beginning but leave no room for growth. Weaknesses make for more interesting character fodder. Getting to watch characters overcome those weaknesses is often very rewarding for the attentive reader.

      You are absolutely right, though. The woman as peacemaker or wife or mother also requires a certain kind of strength. They too can be independent thinkers and deeply feeling human beings. Strength is in actions, not necessarily in words.

  4. I think that is why I stepped away from historical romance. In history, the reason the women who went against the norm stand out is because they are the exception to the rule. The large majority of women wanted to get married and have children.

    I’m personally tired of the Amazon heroine. There is more to being a strong character than acting like a man.

    • This is true. Historical does have a bit of that flavor. I particularly like historical (insert genre here) characters who manage to be subtle in how they handle other people. A woman could still be the dutiful mother and wife while still having a powerful ‘behind-the-scenes’ handle on the decisions of her husband (if she knew how to wield that power). Those types of characters fascinate me.

      You’re right! Amazon heroines have their time and place, but yes, I’m tired of them too!

      • Totally reminds me of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” the mom says, the husband is the head of the household but who is the neck.

        I remember reading this non-fiction about the women who went with their families to settle the American West. There was one woman in a wagon train whenever some calamity would befall the group. Say a broken leg, she would set the leg and put it on the start to mending. When it was all done and everything put away then she would fall into hysterics and pass out because she was raised to believe that is what women do in a crisis situation.

  5. I think the greatest strength of all in both men and women is recognising your weaknesses, being very self-aware and yet rising above them, and doing good for others, being able to forgive others.

    • Yes, exactly! I love that you pointed out forgiveness. Forgiveness, and also compassion for that matter, are excellent examples of strength. These are sometimes traits that are overlooked in favor of “stronger” personalities. Whenever I think of a strong character of the forgiving, compassionate ilk, I think of Melanie from Gone with the Wind. Scarlett was tough as nails, but Melanie was strong in the quiet way.

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