Strong and compelling female characters are hard to write without getting stuck within the frames of stereotypical roles. Strong female characters don’t mean:
Women who dislike shopping or hates wearing dresses.
Women who dress like men and only have male friends.
Women who get into physical fights and curse until their mouths are pitch black.
Strong female characters don’t mean women who are masculine or emotionless, and it certainly doesn’t mean women who are flawless. It’s not that simple. It’s not that superficial. Writing a strong and compelling female character takes more effort than that.
Many times have I seen — in literature, on TV, in movies — female characters that are portrayed as either the angel or the whore: a female put up on a pedestal or treated as the lowest of the low in whatever fictional or real world where the story is set. Reality is a lot more faceted than that. Can you imagine what our world would look like if every woman was either an angel or a whore? What a boring world, right?
Common Mistakes in Storytelling
Many people argue that female characters in general are under-represented in fiction — no matter if it’s in literature or movies. To some extent that’s true even though we’ve come a long way since the nineteenth century average one-dimensional female characters. Two of the most common mistakes I’ve seen made in literature are, as follows:
The place of the female character in the story is not an important one. Many times I feel like the woman is just there to show that, whatever world this story is set in, the world isn’t just inhabited by male characters. Sure, if you want to write a dystopian story where humans are bred without the help of women, and bred in such a way that only men can be made, then go for it. But considering that most stories aren’t like that, female characters should be considered to be more involved in stories.
Too many times have I read books where the female character just sits around, being passive, does nothing but moan about her fate and waiting for the hero to come and rescue her. Honestly, this is quite boring. Why not show the woman’s intelligence by making her act and escape her fate, perhaps show her shrewdness in her way of tricking her captives so that she can escape. Just do something that makes her active in the plot instead of waiting for things to happen.
My Definition of Strong Female Characters with Examples From Literature and Movies
There is a test, called the Bechdel Test, which basically deal with movies but it can be used on literature as well. This test have three ”rules”: (1) The movie must have at least two woman in it (2) who talk to each other (3) about something besides a man. This highlights some interesting points to those who want to write literature or screenplays with strong female characters (of course, you don’t have to write strong female characters in your stories, but if you’ve read this far into this blogpost, I’m sure you do). The Bechdel Test doesn’t, however, pin out what makes a female character strong.
My definition of a strong and compelling female character is basically a female that acts instead of being passive as well as a character with realistic strengths and flaws in a way that makes them interesting, human, and complex. However, a character can be compelling in more ways than one. To show what I mean with compelling characters I will show some examples from fiction.
First up we have one of the best written female characters of all time: Hermione Granger from J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter-series. Hermione starts off as an intolerable know-it-all who declares her love for studying and reading. Throughout the series she blossoms into an intelligent woman who ends up being the glue that holds everything together in the end. Her sheer intelligence saves her two best friends several times and she doesn’t really crack under pressure. The strength and compelling nature of Hermione lies in her change throughout the series, and she doesn’t really fall into a stereotypical role.
Next is Éowyn from J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings-series where she appears in The Two Towers and The Return of the King. Tolkien’s novels aren’t known for their female characters, but at least there is one who would do anything to fight for and with her countrymen. Éowyn also proved to be able to do something men could not do. No living man could hinder the Witch-king of Angmar, nor would he fall by the hand of a man. Éowyn, however, as the woman she is, killed the Witch-king with her sword. Her complexity and strength lies in the fact that she has more that one side to her character: on one side she is the emotional and soft woman who falls in love with Aragorn, and on the other side she fights for what she loves and believes in a fictional world where war is fought by men.
Elizabeth Bennet from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is a smart woman who knows what she wants. Even though she lives in a world that isn’t particularly ”fair” to women — they had to marry, they could not inherit, they were often regarded as silly, etc. — she would never let that keep her from speaking her mind. That’s where her strength and compelling nature is show.
Advice on How to Create Strong and Compelling Female Characters
This will not be an exhaustive list because there is no way that I can list every course of action you can use to create a strong and compelling female character. I will, however, tell you some tips on ways that might give you inspiration and extended ideas on how to create a strong female character. My tips are:
Have enough women in the story that can talk to each other. Yes, this is basically what the Bechdel Test (as I mentioned above) is all about, but it’s needed if you want a somewhat realistic story. Women talk (which shouldn’t be a surprise, I hope) and they usually talk to each other. It’s rare for women to live in isolation from other women (even though anything is possible in fiction). Those times they do, though, they are often eager for a chance to interact with other women, even if it is for a short time.
Female characters that have unusual skills are always interesting. With this you can use skills that are ”traditionally” seen as connected with women, that’s fine, just use them in a way that makes her character compelling, perhaps that this skill gives her a certain power.
A female character that gains happiness in other ways than just marriage. Marriage isn’t the only way to happiness, but this is a plot often used in fiction (especially in the Romance genre, which isn’t a surprise). I’m not saying that a marriage makes a female character boring or weak, all I’m saying is that there are more ways to gain happiness considering marriage isn’t something for everyone. Perhaps happiness for your female character is gained when she finally wins over a vile bully, when she saves her friends from danger and realizes they will all be okay, when she gets some revelation about herself or the world and finally feels acceptance with her life, etc.
Female characters that think for themselves are always refreshing to read. Male characters often question and oppose authority, why shouldn’t female characters do the same? When male characters oppose the authority they are making a choice to, basically, move the plot forward. Again, why shouldn’t female characters do the same? Like I’ve mentioned above, too many times are female characters passive. Make them active and get them to move the plot forward.
Female characters that, in some way, can match the male characters are always fun to read (or so I believe). Sure, the women may not be as physically strong as men and there are certain things a woman can’t do that a man can. However, female characters that can out-think the male characters, use their cleverness, and stay composed under pressure can just as well bring the male characters down to size.
I’m not telling you what to do with your story. In the end it’s your story, your world, and yours alone. The question is what you want your world to look like. However, I do hope that this blogpost has given you some inspiration or ideas.
Can you think of any other common mistakes that authors do when creating female characters? Can you think of any more ways in which a female character can be strong and compelling? Are there any other female characters in fiction — literature, TV or movies — that are strong and compelling? If so, in which ways?
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