5 Guidelines for Writing a Strong Female Character
[Banner image courtesy of flickr by Blue Stahli Luân]
People talk a lot about writing strong female characters. Writers and readers everywhere always seem excited when a story features a female as the main protagonist. This is likely because of the seeming rarity of such stories. We could cite examples to the contrary all day, but that doesn’t change the fact that the stereotypical storybook “hero” throughout literary history has been a man. In this light, it could be a relatively new thing, this female hero. It’s becoming more prevalent, but is still rare enough that the gaming distribution platform Steam has a specific tag for “female protagonist.”
But what does it take for a female character to be “strong”? Well, here’s some tips to help examine your literary laudable lady.
1. Badass characters are not necessarily strong characters.
The difference here might be a bit self-explanatory, but it’s also an important one to understand. One might watch a movie and see a female character who makes a habit of making incredible acrobatic stunts whilst simultaneously beating up dozens of bad guys. They’ll see this character and say that she’s a “strong” female character. But what they really mean is that she’s a badass.
Contrary to common belief, this doesn’t make a character “strong.” A strong character is a well-written character; a character with depth, personality, flaws, strengths, and attachments. A strong character is one that makes mistakes and learns from them. A character’s worth is not defined by the number of enemy grunts they can dispatch in a single scene.
This is not to say that a well-written character cannot also be a badass. A good example is the animated cartoon series The Legend of Korra, which features a female as both heroine and protagonist. She has a very strong character arc, beginning as an ambitious, arrogant, headstrong warrior and eventually developing into a spiritual leader and peacekeeper. She has very real struggles along the way, including both internal and external conflicts. She suffers from her own faults and benefits from her own strengths. Plus, she’s also pretty good at beating up the bad guys.
2. Strong female characters should have lives outside of romance.
Screenwriters and authors frequently make the critical error of writing a female character—often the only female character—into a story for the major purpose of creating romantic tension for the male characters. There are far too many examples of this oversight to count. Some writers make a minimal effort to provide the female character with some helpful traits, but all too often it is only to help progress the male protagonist’s story arc. Female characters often aren’t allowed to have their own story arc.
Even the classic fantasy film series Lord of the Rings is guilty of this. The character of Arwen has little relevance to the overall story, and merely acts as a romantic foil for Aragorn. She exists within the narrative to add depth to Aragorn.
3. Use the Bechdel Test.
The Bechdel Test can be useful when determining whether a story supports two or more strong, active female characters. It specifically refers to films, but is easily applied to other forms of storytelling. A film passes the Bechdel Test if it has:
- two named female characters
- who talk to each other
- about something other than a man.
It’s a simple enough method, and certainly not definitive, though it is useful as a general tool. This hearkens back to the previous point that female characters have lives outside of romance. In a realistic story, women’s lives don’t revolve around a man’s. Female characters can be integral to the plot of the story without necessitating a sudden romance.
4. Use the Mako Mori Test.
The Mako Mori Test evolved from discussions following the sci-fi action film Pacific Rim. Interestingly, the film failed the Bechdel Test dismally. In spite of this, viewers found the female lead to be highly compelling. They discussed her character with fondness and respect. Thus, the Mako Mori Test was born as an alternative to the Bechdel. A film passes the Mako Mori Test if it has:
- at least one female character
- who gets her own narrative arc
- that is not about supporting a man’s story.
This helps determine many of the same things that the Bechdel Test does, though from a different angle. Each has their own merits, but all that really matters is taking these lessons into consideration when writing.
5. Write her like she’s a human.
This is very succinct way of explaining that female characters ought to be written like any other character. Many quickly forgotten Hollywood films portray a cast of male characters with a single female character thrown into the mix. Each character has their own quirk that defines their personality. The quirk of the female character is that she is female. She has no particularly outstanding qualities. She might be competent and savvy, but has about as much depth as Smurfette.
Female characters should be allowed to have their own quirky personalities. Pretty much any character archetype we see among male characters could easily be used for a female as well. In fact, an interesting exercise is to take an existing story and imagine it with all character genders reversed. Oftentimes, it works just as well.
For example, a beautiful article by Michelle Nihjuis explores the idea that Tolkein’s The Hobbit reads spectacularly with Bilbo Baggins being a woman. There are no annoying gender conflicts, no awkward romances, and no female stereotyping. The story remains exactly the same—apart from pronouns—except that it now features a very refreshing tale about a female Bilbo Baggins who goes on a grand adventure.
Women are awesome, and they ought to be adequately represented in fiction. All too often we have female characters who could not exist in the story without the quirky men who drive the narrative. A female character need not only be there to support the male protagonist’s story arc. With luck we’ll soon move past this concept as a society, allowing women equal representation in the stories we tell—not as sideline characters or devices of romantic tension, but as compelling individuals who help drive the story forward.
Note: This post was originally published in September of 2015.