NOTE: I enjoy reading how other people approach their female characters. I’d love to hear your opinions on the matter.
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 boys 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 is what do you think makes a strong female character? And why do we have to define strength according to gender?
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, 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.
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?