“So, why do you write these strong female characters?
Because you’re still asking me that question.”
[Equality Now speech, May 15, 2006]”
― Joss Whedon
That quote from Joss Whedon has stood out in my mind for years, ever since I first heard it. The fact that it was a question being asked, not just once, but supposedly 48 times, shows that people can still struggle with the idea that women are just as capable of being awesome major characters in books, television shows, movies, etc. Granted, things have changed since that response by Whedon in 2006, but I am fully aware that I may encounter the same question when my own stories, which feature a strong female protagonist, get published. So I thought it fitting that, for my first writer’s toolbox post, I would share a few things that I have learned about writing strong female heroes, which can also be applied to writing female characters in general.
For the female perspective on how to write male characters, check out this great post by the writer who will be getting featured on this blog on Monday!
Tip#1 – Don’t place limits on what they can do simply because of gender.
This should be a no-brainer, and all the women reading this are probably already smiling and nodding enthusiastically because it is true. There are truly few things in the world that a man can do that a woman cannot, and vice versa. Yes, your character may have limitations based on your description of them (if they are a slender 90# wisp of a woman, they might not be able to swing a massive two-handed sword very effectively) but to disqualify them for something based on gender is dumb. If you are writing a story and get to a point where you would have the main character do X to solve it, don’t change that simply because your character is a woman.
Tip#2 – Your female characters should not be flawless physical specimens.
In fact, they should be as varied in size, strength, and appearance as your roster of male characters. Not every man you write is young, handsome, muscular, with perfect hair. They are not all suave or chivalric. They don’t all turn the heads of characters everywhere they go. Your female characters should be just as diverse as your male ones, both major and minor. They should not be perfect, nor believe that they are flawless in appearance. They should be just as flawed as a male protagonist. And no, having the one old crone does not count as varying your women.
Tip#3 – A strong heroine can like girly things.
This one came as a revelation when writing a scene for my book when Ava was younger. She had grown up idolizing her dad, having no real memories of her mother, and wanted to be a hunter of monsters just like him. Which meant her clothing of choice was geared toward travel and adventure rather than dresses. But there is a point where she is forced to dress like a noblewoman and gets her hair done and all those things that go with it. To my surprise as the writer, she loved getting to dress up. It didn’t make her a different character, but rather added another complex dimension to her. It makes the reader wonder if, under different circumstances, might she have grown into this other character who might attend balls and dance the night away.
But Ava draws the line with the shoes. She won’t wear those fancy shoes no matter what the circumstance. Because there are limits to how girly she’s willing to become.
So there are a few tips that I have for the men as they set out to write a strong heroic female character. She doesn’t have to be the main character, but your story can still have strong, supportive female characters. These tips should help you to avoid writing flat, one-dimensional women in your stories.
But the best thing to do in order to learn to write strong female characters is to read literature that has those strong female characters. Here are a few series recommendations:
Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas
Graceling series by Kristen Cashore
Alanna series by Tamora Pierce
Abhorsen series by Garth Nix
Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson
Green Rider series by Kristen Britain
Seraphina series by Rachel Hartman
Leviathan series by Scott Westerfeld
Eon duology by Alison Goodman
What are some of your favorite books or series with strong, complex female characters?