Friday, March 17, 2017

The Do's and Don'ts of Writing Strong Female Characters

I wrote a guest post many moons ago, detailing the do's and don'ts of creating strong female characters. I wrote a companion piece to this post and published it on my own blog, linking over to the guest post on Rae Elliott's blog. Her blog has been redesigned since then (and it looks amazing...check it out), thus breaking the link. People were interested in reading the original guest post: The Do's and Don'ts of Strong Female Characters, so I'm posting it here. There is also a bonus point added in that wasn't in the original. You're welcome. 

Walk down the YA book aisle and you’ll see strong female protagonists littering the shelves. And why not? These characters are self-reliant. They are beautiful. They can beat up men twice their size! Dresses and femininity are the only thing they fear. Who needs the help of men? They’ll finish the job themselves. They are freedom-fighters, battling the demons of their pasts on their own or with the help of weaker supporting characters.

They are also very, very stereotyped.

Now I get it: writing believable, enjoyable, and realistic characters can be hard. Like, climbing Mount Doom hard. So it’s no wonder that a lot of writers get the ‘strong female character’ wrong.

As somebody who reads an insane amount of books and writes almost as many stories, I’ve seen a lot of interesting female characters. Some very well done and some not-so-well-done. The not-so-well-done characters are often a result of misconceived notions regarding what “strength” looks like in a girl. So if you’re looking to write yourself an awesome female character, here are a couple pointers you should keep in mind:
Hannah Heath: The Do's and Don'ts of Writing Strong Female Characters
Don’t think of her as a “strong female character.” Do think of her as a human being. I think this is probably where most writers slip up. The fact that you have to put the word “strong” in front of “female” shows that there is something seriously wrong with the way you view girl characters. Females are strong. You don’t have to add the word “strong” into your thinking because not only is it redundant and nonsensical, but it is degrading to your character. Are your other female characters so lame that you feel the need to add the word "strong" into the mix? Rather than calling her a strong female character, call her a person. Give her a personality, likes and dislikes, a backstory. Your creation process for a “strong” female character should be no different than any other character.

Don’t feel the need to make her masculine. Do allow her to be feminine. She is a female character. Giving a girl strength isn’t synonymous with putting her in a pair of pants, giving her a handgun, and letting her beat up a couple of dudes. What’s up with that? Why is it that "strong female characters" are often traditionally masculine? That can send the message that traditional femininity is somehow a weakness. That women can only be successful if they are like men. Besides, what’s wrong with a girl character that likes to wear skirts or is a fan of the color pink? A woman who can run in heels without ruining her makeup or breaking a leg is a woman to be feared and respected. And a girl who can push through a tough situation while still remaining a compassionate and understanding character is a character to look up to. There are many different kinds of strengths. Don’t mistake masculinity for the only kind out there. Yes, your female character can be more traditionally masculine, but that does not have to be your go-to.

Don’t make her out to be a jerk. Do give her a friend. I’m just going to go out on a limb here and say that many “strong” female characters are often distant and not super nice. You don’t have to make your character mean in order to make her appear strong. That’s not strength, that’s bullying. Never a good move. Unless you want people to dislike your character, you need to give her a nice side. Also, you don’t need to make her friendless in an attempt to show her independence. Everyone needs a friend, everyone needs someone to talk to. Girl characters are no exception to this rule. 

Don't sexualize her. Do think of her as a human being. I see this all of the time. The female character who is a massive flirt and dresses in skimpy clothing because she is Strong and In Charge and is Not Ashamed of Her Body. She is lusted after by all male characters, but she puts them in their place with a quippy line and sassy hair flip. 
This trope has a ton of things wrong with it, but I'll just focus on this one: Strength has nothing to do with the amount of skin a person shows. Confidence has nothing to do with sexual activity. Stop linking these things together. It makes no sense. Instead, write your character as a human with a personality and morals and real strengths. It's not a difficult concept.  

Don’t surround her with weak male characters to make her look strong. Do surround her with other strong personalities. This is an extremely common mistake. I feel like writers sit down to outline characters like this: “Two strong female characters co-existing? Yep, that’s good. Two strong male characters who are buddies? Great. A strong male and female character? In the same book? And they actually get along? Whoa, hold on, I can’t do that!” Uh. Yeah, you actually can, and it tends to help create rounded, interesting characters. You do not have to tear down males to make females look strong and it is possible to have two dominant personalities in the same book. You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.

Don’t make her flawless. Do give her a weakness. Nobody likes a perfect character. I don’t know about you, but every time I read a flawless character, I respond in one of two ways: 1) Okay, that’s boring. 2) Wow, now I feel like a really horrible person. Giving your character a weakness makes her human, relatable, and it also gives her something to fight against. And no, not being able to pick between two guys does not count as a weakness. Ever. Just…just no.

There are lots of other do’s and don’ts out there when it comes to writing female characters, but those are the most common slip ups. Feel free to add to the list in the comment section below!

What about you? Have you ever struggled with any of these? We’d love to hear about how you deal with writing female characters in your writing!

Related articles: 
Writing Strong Female Characters: What You're Doing Wrong
Writing Awesome Male Characters: What You're Doing WrongSaveSave

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  1. Hi, I'm a new subscriber. I really liked your points here. I think the worst thing about 2 is that it stereotypes men at the same time, implying that they can't be compassionate or understanding and normally go around beating people up. It makes traits like compassion purely feminine and a weakness, so something for both sexes to try to eliminate. It's worrying to think just how many of these characters are presented as role models in YA fiction.

    1. Hi Kikyo! Welcome to the blog. I'm so excited to meet you!

      You make an excellent point about #2. I completely agree! Some behaviors are just mean and shouldn't be connected with masculinity. It is very alarming to see the types of characters in YA fiction (or any type of fiction, really) that are being normalized. There are so many mess up behaviors being popularized.

      Thank you so much for the thoughtful comments! I hope to hear more from you in the future! Happy writing.

  2. Hi Hannah!!! :D It's so nice to be back reading your blog posts again!! In case you didn't notice, I sorta took an unannounced hiatus for a month or two due to starting college. I'm glad to be back!

    What a fantastic blog post!! I see so many books with many of these mistakes. Since the fantasy novel I'm currently revising has a female main protagonist, I find these tips really helpful. I'm pretty sure the main thing I need to work on is making sure Sacora isn't too much of a jerk, or at least not simply for the reason of trying to make her look "stronger". Thank you so much for this great advice!

    1. I did notice, and I'm so happy to have you back!

      I like your focus of not making your female character mean in an attempt to make her appear strong. If you're conscious of that, I'm sure it won't happen. Sounds like you have a great character on your hands! Go you!

      Thanks for the comment! Excited to hear from you again.

  3. I love you! This post helps me out so much! I'm creating a story with 3 Female leads and 1 Male and I don't want the ladies to appear to masculine and the book to appear feminist or anything but this helps me out and gives me a good base for me characters. Thank you so much!

    1. Aw. Love you, too! =D I'm so glad this helped you. Three females and a male is a unique ratio. Usually it's 2 males and one female, or two on two. Go you, breaking out of the usual character pairings! =D

  4. Yes, I think we'd all be happier if they were just honest and described them as Aggressive Female Character.

    I do think it is interesting and worthwhile to explore female characters who are not traditionally feminine. But just because they are not traditionally feminine does not mean they are masculine. And they definitely should have strengths, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities.

    1. Lol! YES. That is the truest title.

      I really like your point about exploring all different types of female characters. Not all need to be feminine. Not all need to be masculine or traditional or really anything else. Just make them interesting, well-defined characters. Then make that character female.

      Thanks for the comment, Beth! You certainly know a think or two about writing fascinating female characters. Jack from The Creation of Jack is a favorite of mine.

  5. This is such an awesome and important post!

    Ellie | On the Other Side of Reality

  6. Ah yes, the strong female character. This kind of character, especially the ones that are done horribly wrong, seems to be practically a staple of the Young Adult genre by this point. And I think that it does a lot of harm to the girls and young women reading those stories and having those types of women, who are complete jerks to everyone around them because they are "strong female characters", as role models.

    It sends the wrong message and implies that being kind is synonymous with being weak, which makes me kinda annoyed. It's okay to have a female character be a jerk to people, but make sure to show that as negative behavior.

    In my opinion, a strong character is not one with power but one that feels real. They are characters with strengths, weaknesses, hopes, dreams, and fears. Sure, a female character can shoot a dragon out of the sky with a single arrow, but if her only personality trait is that she hates anything "girly", then that isn't a strong character. I don't care if a character doesn't like sewing, skirts, or dresses. Just make them good characters. Give them a reason why they don't like those kind of things.

    And the thing about these "strong" female characters is that if the gender was changed to a male, people would start shouting "sexism!" even though nothing has changed except the gender.

    And perhaps that's part of the problem. Maybe some authors are so afraid of being called out for being sexist that they create these cardboard caricatures to placate those people.

    Sorry for the mini-rant. This subject is one that just tends to push all my buttons in the wrong ways. I think it's because I have a little sister and would hate to see her have a bad role model in the shows she's watching and books she's reading.

    Anyways, as a writer I tend to decide gender and race last for a character, and then tweak their personality and backstory to fit. I love connecting with my characters, and so I try my hardest to make them as real as possible.

    As a guy, writing female characters can be a little strange, but I don't really find it that difficult. Maybe it's because I don't see a girl when I write those characters, but instead see a personality. Sure, that personality belongs to a girl, but ultimately that has little effect on how that personality reacts to this situation or how they solve that problem.

    1. This was a great comment! Thank you. I especially liked this point:

      "It sends the wrong message and implies that being kind is synonymous with being weak, which makes me kinda annoyed. It's okay to have a female character be a jerk to people, but make sure to show that as negative behavior."

      Kindness does take a lot of strength, and it is sadly underrated. Being mean is a negative behavior and takes much less energy and work than being kind.

      You're so right: A strong character is a real character.

      I love your outlook on writing a personality that belongs to a girl. I do the same thing. It never really occurred to me to try and do it another way. When a writer looks at a character as their label rather than their personality, you know something has gone wrong.

      Thank you so much for the epic comment! I really enjoyed reading it. It sounds like you must write some great characters, and I love that you're thinking about how these characters can be either helpful or damaging to your sister (and, thus, other readers). That is awesome.

  7. Great pointers! I try to think of "strong female characters" as complex. Do they do more for the plot than just act as a love interest? Can she save herself or others, and if she's saved from someone else, how does that change her? If they have interests, goals, and a personality beyond centering on the protagonist (usually male), like a normal person, she can be layered and strong.

    1. True. You don't want your character centered around another character. Their personalities tend to blend, and that takes away from their depth. And, like you mentioned, you certainly don't want a character just hanging around as a love interest with no other point to her.

      That being said, I don't think that a girl being saved by another character makes her not strong. Which is why I liked your question about "If she's saved from someone else, how will she grow?" That's a great question to ask of all characters.

  8. This is a subject I've been giving a lot of thuoght to lately. Great timing for this post! I especially love your tip on putting a strong female character amongst other strong personalities. I might need to reassess the complexity to some of my side characters in my current WIP.

    1. So pleased to hear this, Elza! It seems like side characters always need some touching up. It can be hard to keep track of so many different people. =)

  9. Since my new film has a female lead and a bunch of female side characters I needed to read this as I finished the script. Thank you again Hannah! I completely and wholeheartedly agree with this list. Especially the ones about masculine females and weak male characters. A lot of people I know feel that the male characters in the movie "Frozen" were too weak. And I see this unfortunate habit writers have of making female characters into masculine brutes and as a woman I don't relate to those kind of characters much at all. I think strength can come from femininity!

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  11. Thank you for this post. It's nice to read over posts like this and reaffirm the dos and don'ts of writing a female character. As a guy I'm always worried if I'm writing my female characters wrong. Something I read a while back said (and I can't for the life of me remember who said this) "If you want to write a strong female character just write a strong character and then make her female. It's that simple." I might be misquoting that but I think that's the gist of what they were saying.

  12. I have been struggling to think of a female lead character for a story I want to rite. The only problem is that I am a guy and I don't see things as a woman might. Men are so trained not only by men or culture but by some women(Not all mind you) to think a certain way by either direct telling or subtle actions. Most male writers that I have read clearly show their victimization of such opinions. Thinking about this long and hard I have come to realize something.
    The female protagonist should not exist at all. Now let me explain. Gender should not influence or affect the story at all! (some instances is allowable as when dealing with such topics as abortion or other subjects that affect women and not men.) The main character is the heart of your story. The main characters choices options actions and reactions are not dictated by extra or lack of certain chromosomes. Therefore forego the male or female and write your character. For example in the story I want to write the main character is Danny, name could be short for Danielle or just Danny. The only physical traits I am willing to write down is eye color. But i'm wandering from my main point. The point is Danny, may be male or female it should not matter. I should love Danny. Despite mistakes or flaws real(authors mistakes.) or imagined it should not detract but add. When it comes to love and romance it should enhance the flavor not be the flavor. I'm unsure of everyones personal beliefs but God loves us despite our mistakes and he is the author of life itself so should we not take that to heart and not only love each other as he loved us but our characters as well?

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