I am not the end-all, be-all authority on writing.
I’d say I’m pretty dang far away from being that. Heck, I have yet to publish anything.
But I do know stories, and I do know characters I enjoy. Characters I remember. Characters I even look up to.
This post is the beginning of a discussion. I’m going to present what I think makes a strong female character. If you disagree (or agree!), let’s talk about it in the comments. We can debate the what’s and why’s together!
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve talked about ten characters I relate to. They’re characters I love, characters I see little pieces of myself in. Each one of them, I would argue, was strong in some way.
So how do I characterize a strong female character?
First, I’m going to differentiate between a strong character and a strong female, because I think people use those terms differently.
A “strong character” is a well-written character: they’re relatable, they’re interesting, they’re funny, they’re entertaining to watch, their dialogue is good, their personality is believable, or any combination of those elements. See my post on writing good characters I made during my “Six Aspects of a Story” series.
A “strong female” is a female character who has some traits that make people perceive her as strong–or not weak.
I think my definition of a strong female is different from most people’s, because it seems that when people complain a female character “isn’t strong,” it’s because that character gets into trouble and needs someone to help her. People tend to see this and complain that she’s not a strong character because she can’t get herself out of these circumstances. Princess Peach from the Super Mario series is a pretty common victim of this complaint.
Now sometimes, I might agree. But what’s far more important to me–what defines a strong female in my mind–is whether she’s a strong character who is also comfortable in her femininity (more on that in a minute).
Because I’ve already outlined some marks of a strong character, I’ll focus on the latter issue today: what I think makes a “strong female”–which to me, means a woman who is comfortable in her femininity. That means a character who’s okay being herself, or who exhibits some of the best qualities of femininity. That doesn’t mean she fully understands it; in fact, many young girl characters can be just as comfortable in their femininity–if not moreso–than adults.
I’ve actually touched on some of these qualities in my previous posts on princesses and my idea of the Romantic Princess, so my apologies if a lot of this feels familiar. Still, I think it bears repeating. It’s been a while, after all. 😉
Also, I can’t emphasize enough that this is a list ONLY for discussing fictional female characters. This is NOT a list saying any of my lady readers should be these things. Far be it from me to load you with expectations (I hate societal expectations more than public speaking, death, or diets). This is also not a checklist; good female characters will not have all these aspects nor every element of one of these aspects.
Any woman who is pure is absolutely a strong woman.
Virgins seem to be a smaller and smaller minority these days. It’s almost impossible to remain sexually pure when society outright mocks virginity. So if someone actually has the fortitude to do exactly that? I would definitely say they’re strong! It takes strength to go against the flow like that.
However, as I said in my Romantic Princesses post, purity doesn’t always mean sexual purity. Remaining morally pure takes the same kind of strength. It takes a powerful person to stand against society and human nature. Those are tides that constantly pull toward what is wrong and self-serving. When society says there is no right or wrong, a pure woman knows there is a right way to live. It’s never the easy way, which makes their choice so remarkable. Anyone who can do that is certainly a strong female character.
Akane Tsunemori from Psycho-Pass is a fantastic example. Her entire society is built around the principal that people should be judged without question by a mechanism known as the Sibyl System. Her coworker believes that he must kill their enemy at all costs. Akane stands between both, willing to defy them all in order to uphold true justice.
Another element of feminine purity is authenticity. Her beliefs aren’t a cardboard display for the world to see; they are cast-iron actions. She behaves in keeping with her beliefs both when she’s with others and when no one else would know. Hypocrisy is easy, but putting your money where your mouth is takes strength.
Healing and Listening
There is something profoundly inspiring about a character who heals.
I thought it very telling that in The Hunger Games, one of Katniss’s insecurities–one of the many ways she sees herself as inferior to others–involves healing. She laments that she’s not nearly as good at bandaging up the injured as her mother and even her young sister, Prim. She gets queasy and can’t handle the stress. One of my favorite moments highlighting Katniss’s strength is when she fights through her squeamishness to nurse Peeta back to health when he’d been left for dead.
Although caring for physical wounds can definitely be an indicator of strength, there’s also much more to healing.
A strong female character may take care of emotional wounds. They may be the kind of person who actually looks beyond someone’s mask of complacency. They’re the ones who ask, “How are you feeling, really?” and actually be ready to deal with the aftermath of that question. Asking that question is basically inviting an emotional avalanche and being willing to deal with the aftermath. A character who asks that is a character who is willing to listen. They’re someone who is willing to put in the energy to discover more about who someone else is. And offering that listening ear or that shoulder to cry on is therapy for any broken heart. It brings healing, however small.
A character who listens and heals is someone who pours themselves out to serve others. This kind of selflessness can’t go without notice; it’s why we celebrate acts of service as acts of heroism.
It takes pouring yourself out in order to serve others and to see people for who they are.
I almost put this under “Healing,” because the two are so interconnected. You have to love someone in order to heal them. And in order to do either, you have to be able to stop your own agenda–even for a second–to see someone for who they really are, deep inside.
There’s a profound sense of giving of oneself in this aspect of feminine strength. It’s what we see moms doing all the time: pouring out their time, attention, energy, and love to improve or help or heal their children.
The picture of a loving mother and child is beautiful, but it’s just as beautiful and certainly more shocking to see a woman do this for someone she isn’t even related to.
Loving others is risky. Opening your heart to someone might mean you get hurt. If you expend your resources for someone else, your generosity might get abused.
Loving people is scary. So any character who chooses to love anyway is strong in my book.
But strong female characters don’t concern themselves so much with whether they’re strong… unless they’re wondering if they’re strong enough to protect the ones they love.
Strong, loving female characters often become consumed with the desire to help and protect those they love. They will do whatever it takes to keep their loved ones safe. And it’s this very love that drives them to become a better person.
Princess Yona (Yona of the Dawn) spends night and day practicing archery. She stays up late into the night, releasing arrow after arrow long after her friends have gone to bed. She’s bruised and filthy and exhausted every day. Why does she torture herself?
Because she wants to be able to protect Hak, her childhood friend and bodyguard. She thinks she’s a burden on him and hates herself for it. She’s horrified when she realizes she’s helpless to protect herself–not because she hates how weak she is, but because Hak could die while trying to protect her. She works to improve herself out of love, not out of pride or a concern for how others perceive her.
Vulnerability and Honesty
Nobody likes prim and polished princesses: the ones who have it all together, who never have faults, who never have struggles. I think it’s these kinds of women people hate if they say they can’t stand Disney princesses. And no wonder! These kinds of women are perfect.
How much more attractive is a female character who is strong enough to be real about her flaws? Who is vulnerable enough to share her insecurities?
A female character who is emotionally vulnerable is immediately more attractive than any “hear-me-roar” powerhouse character. Why? Because emotional vulnerability takes incredible strength; in some cases, even more than the powerhouse character needs to look and act “strong”!
Take Mikasa from Attack on Titan. Despite being only fifteen, her fighting prowess is renowned among her peers and adults alike. She is a terrifyingly cold and cool-headed force of nature. Her fight scenes are always memorable.
This is the Mikasa that the rest of the world knows.
But she’s so much more than that.
The moments that truly mark Mikasa as a powerful and unforgettable character are those that occur after she receives word that Eren, her only family, has died in combat.
Mikasa’s spark immediately dies. Her fighting prowess turns into an almost bestial lashing-out against the world. She loses everything that made her seem strong to begin with and nearly gives up hope. This girl, who had already undergone so much loss and pain, is at her lowest point.
Mikasa’s very real despair is vulnerable enough, but look at how she responds when she discovers that Eren is, miraculously, still alive:
In front of a crowd of people, the ordinarily stoic Mikasa rushes to Eren’s side and cradles him in her arms. She weeps openly. It’s an incredible scene and one that has stuck in my mind years after I watched the episode.
Vulnerability is, by definition, a willing act of honesty. No one can make you act vulnerable. They can put you in danger. They can hurt you. But no one can force a person to bar their emotions, their hearts. Willingly opening up to others? How much strength does that take?
I think vulnerability is one of the greatest strengths any character can possess.
Vulnerability–being completely open and honest with someone–requires you to shed all pretenses and all defenses. It leaves you wide open for injury. It requires incredible strength. It requires you not only to be honest with another person… but also with yourself. Sometimes that takes even more courage and strength!
And this is the core of understanding femininity; it’s a matter of acknowledging who you are–strengths and weaknesses alike–and being okay with that. It’s accepting who you are rather than trying to become something you’re not. That doesn’t mean never to improve yourself in places you can; but it does include knowing the difference between a trait you could improve and who you are, at the core. Any character who knows who they are and is okay with that is an incredibly strong character.
I think this is the quality that most people are really looking for when they demand “strong” female characters.
Tenacity is the willingness to fight. Or, sometimes much more importantly, the will not to give up.
Any female character can have tenacity, whether they know how to fight or defend themselves or not. That’s because tenacity doesn’t indicate who can punch harder or keep swinging; it’s about who will endure and how much they’ll take.
Again, Mikasa from Attack on Titan is an obvious example: even when she thinks she’s given up when she believes Eren is dead, she simply cannot stop fighting. Her very body refuses to sit down and die despite how awful life can be, because, as she herself points out, “it is also very beautiful.” In yet another poignant scene of Mikasa’s vulnerability, the memory of Eren makes a vow that she will never give up again.
For a less overt example (and one that doesn’t involve combat), take your pick of Studio Ghibli female protagonists. Sophie refuses to abandon Howl despite how unappreciative he can be and despite believing she’s unworthy of any love or attention. Chihiro outright challenges death on a regular basis while working at the bathhouse because she refuses to give up on rescuing her parents. Even Satsuki refuses to give up on helping her family–especially in the end of the movie when she’s searching tirelessly for her lost little sister, Mei.
They might have enough strength of heart to push through hard times to get a relationship healthy again. They might have strength of spirit to keep on hoping even in an impossible situation; they hope when no one else can.
Female characters don’t need to be warriors to be strong. They need to be tenacious.
These are the kinds of qualities I see in female characters that I consider “strong.” Their strength has nothing to do with how powerful they are, and it certainly has nothing to do with them feeling so insecure that they feel the need to remind everybody that “I am woman, hear me roar!”
It reminds me of a quote I found through Pinterest: “Watch out for people who are always bragging about who they are, [sic] a lion will never have to tell me it’s a lion.”
What are some qualities that you think mark a strong character?
Photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws.
Screenshot from Yona of the Dawn taken from Funimation’s official YouTube, Episode 09: Wavering Determination.