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? I mean, if you want a character that acts like a guy, then create a guy. Trying to make a female character appear male is not okay. It’s sends the message that being a girl isn’t good enough. That a female can only be "strong" if she acts like a dude. 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.

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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13 comments:

  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.

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    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.

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  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!

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    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.

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  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!

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    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

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  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.

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    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.

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  5. This is such an awesome and important post!

    Ellie | On the Other Side of Reality

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    1. Thank you, Ellie! I'm happy you enjoyed it!

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  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.

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  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.

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  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.

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