This photo, in my mind, sums up this post completely. Quoting the ever brilliant Joss Whedon when asked why he writes strong female characters answered ‘because you’re still asking me that question’. Having heard this notion of a ‘strong woman’ most of my life it has come to my attention that ‘strong’ doesn’t really cover it well enough. What does strong mean? Why do all women need to come across as strong all the time? They don’t. As much as I enjoy reading a novel focusing on a male protagonist, my own stories are always based on a female.
I think this is mainly done because I can relate to them, as a woman myself. But alongside this I am also a feminist. And no not the ‘man hating’ type who isn’t technically even a feminist; but the equality believing feminist. It has become apparent that a sensitive man, is quite attractive, or so it would seem in a lot of romance books and films (not that I read many). And yet, because of this idea of a ‘strong woman’, it seems that women cannot be portrayed as sensitive without looking weak and pathetic. On the contrary, being sensitive gives you strength. With an open heart, comes a strength many people lack.
WRITE INTERESTING WOMEN
Write women (and men) who are interesting. Give them an interesting hobby or quirk. As per the example of Willow in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Willow is a witch who over the course of the series develops her powers until she has a power to rival almost anyone. Give your female a talent that no one else has, something that makes her stand out from the crowd and shine. Willow goes through a huge amount of trials throughout the story of Buffy, including her climactic descent into black magic. The death of her girlfriend Tara threw Willow into despair resulting in her turning to the dark arts to exact revenge. Throughout this, no matter whether it was ‘Dark Willow’ or Willow crying into her friends’ arms – no one would say that she was not strong both emotionally and physically.
WRITE COMPLICATED WOMEN
Complicated women are something of a passion of mine when creating characters – as I mentioned in my post on developing character profiles briefly, good and bad is not true to real life and therefore should not be represented in literature or film. No person is either good or evil. Human nature itself is a complicated mass of emotions, survival instincts, and desires. I’m sure plenty of men would agree – women are hard to figure out and in that sense, are complicated. Elizabeth Swann from the ever incredible Pirates of the Caribbean films is an example of a complicated woman.
Right from the first sight of her as an eight year old girl, Elizabeth is presented as complicated and or different. As she sails for Port Royal she is seen singing a pirate shanty,a notion associated with bad luck. At the age of twenty it is clear she is in love with a blacksmith (despite the difference in both of their statuses) and is not afraid to show it, even in front of her father, she openly admits to dreaming about Will. It is clear from this Elizabeth is keen to take him for a husband. Yet later on in the film she is represented as a damsel in distress; a woman who is willing to challenge pirates to leaving her home alone; and then later on, walking the plank, which would most likely mean she would starve to death.
Throughout the films Elizabeth is somewhat shown with many characteristics of ‘strong women’ all rolled into one. She knowingly flirts with Captain Jack Sparrow in order to send him to his death with the Kraken in the second film and in the third after rescuing him, is shown to be struggling with her relationship with Will Turner. It is clear she is a good example of a complicated woman at best: she is wonderfully argumentative towards men she doesn’t agree with, and fearfully strong when faced with the threat of death, and finally alongside these two very ‘strong’ traits she is also hopelessly in love with a blacksmith and is desperate to be with him.
WRITE WOMEN WHO KICK ASS
Write women who kick ass (or arse as my very English accent is set on pronouncing it) – something that always pleases me when it is realistic. Women who can kick arse as well or better than men is always satisfying to watch and read (or even write!) Women do not necessarily need to be able to kick arse, but sometimes it’s the best thing to do. I feel like (this goes for men too) it is important to establish whether it is plausible if they can do all of these fight type scenes before including them in my writing as nothing pulls you out of a story more than thinking ‘Oh I’m not sure that could happen’. Once this has been established it is something that is very fun to include. Women who can kick arse are bad-ass and entrancing.
An excellent example of this (one you may not have heard of!) is Charlie in the TV series Revolution. Charlie is a 20 year old girl living in a dystopian America 15 years after a worldwide blackout sent the world into chaos. Militias have taken over and made living quite difficult in this setting. During the beginning of the series Charlie’s younger brother Danny is taken by the militia as leverage that plays out later on in the series. As he is taken, her father is shot and dies. Charlie then decides herself to go and rescue her little brother and throughout the series proves time and time again that she can kick arse with her cross bow and with her fists. If you haven’t seen it I recommend you check it out.
WRITE A WOMAN WHO’S DESPERATE FOR A HUSBAND
There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting a relationship or husband. As I have noticed recently there is a sort of stigma aimed at women (or men) who are instead of branching out into the ideas of ‘strong independent women who don’t need a man’, are still wanting a partner. This I think also applies to people who are straight, white and or what was previously considered ‘normal’ simply because these ‘labels’ are not new. It seems that because wanting a husband and being straight has been around for a few hundred years, it now sometimes is looked down upon. There is no more wrong with this kind of lifestyle than a lifestyle for someone who is gay or transgender. So include women who are desperate for partners and children in your writing! Goodness knows I am one of them.
A timeless example of this is Jane Bennet. As the eldest and prettiest sister of the outlandish protagonist Elizabeth, Jane is extremely keen to gain herself a husband, especially once she has laid eyes on the charming Mr Bingley.
WRITE A WOMAN WHO DOESN’T NEED A MAN
In contrast to the last type, some women don’t need or want men in the slightest. This is one of the easiest ways to present a women in a story as ‘strong’ it seems to be the automatic solution to how to make a woman come across as capable and independent. Whilst this is not always necessary for demonstrating strong women, it does give a ‘strong’ (there that word is again!) impressionable character to work with. Some characteristics are immediately attached to idea of an independent woman such as bold, successful, intimidating, sexy, and a woman who fits into the man’s world.
Demonstrating this is the wonderful Megara in the Disney film Hercules. Meg is a woman who is completely capable of handling herself and any problems that come her way. Being a servant to Hades has given Meg a sassy attitude and a short tolerance for men fawning over her.
WRITE WOMEN WHO CRY
Women (and men) who show their deep emotions are some of the strongest people you can ever come into contact with. Wearing your heart on your sleeve requires a strength that many don’t have. Your characters should show their emotions and feelings regardless of gender, social class, personality etc. Showing emotion is human nature, the only thing to consider with this is how your characters go about expressing it. Do they hide away where no one can see them cry? Do they try to push it deep down and keep themselves busy? Or do they let it all poor out on a stranger they met at the bus stop? It all comes down to what your character is like as a person. I do believe firmly though that no matter how the emotion is expressed, it needs to be shown in order to connect the reader with your characters.
A favourite character of mine that shows her emotion whilst also being a strong warrior is Eowyn from The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Eowyn cries for her uncle’s death on the battlefield and also shows her devotion for Aragorn time and again.
WRITE WOMEN WHO DON’T TAKE ‘NO SHIT’
This really is the ultimate ‘strong woman’ portrayal. Women who can handle themselves much like women who don’t need men in their lives, come across as independent, capable and most of the time bad-ass and hardcore. Giving a woman this role as a character puts her in league with the big powers, regardless of her status, as the reader straight from the off expects more from a character like this. They are expecting a woman who will fight (no matter if she is good at it or not), a woman with attitude, someone who doesn’t take rudeness from anyone. A character who can defy their beginning situation to make it whatever they want it to be. A woman with this kind of power is never doubted by the reader at what they are capable of. Most of the time this is pulled off well but it may not always be the best fit for your novel. Sometimes it is better to consider a shy, quiet woman who no one expects anything from (even herself) who can then come forth and push the limitations they may appear to have.
One of my favourite examples of a woman like this is Lagertha in the TV series Vikings on the History Channel. Lagertha is a mother, warrior & shield maiden, farmer, devoted wife and all together well-rounded character. A character who can be loved by the audience but feared by other characters at the same time.
Furthermore there are plenty of other characteristics in a woman that can be portrayed within your characters such as shy, quiet, angry, argumentative, strong believer, faithful, bookish, not academically smart, kind and broken. And always remember that these characteristics can all fit into the one woman.
How do female characters fit into your stories and what are they usually like? I’d love to know!