A strong female character isn’t just a barbarian maiden in a chainmail bikini. No offense to her. She’s certainly very strong. She’s also a trope that’s tarnished into a cliché. As we leave her to rust in her impractical lingerie, we can explore the wider world of powerful characters who happen to be women.
Begin with Character
The greatest trap writers face as they create female characters is the trope trap. You probably have visions of “strong female characters” in your head already. They fight, often with outsized weaponry. Many have the emotional intelligence of a particularly awkward serial killer. More than likely, they fight in “armor” that protects very little.
To avoid the trope trap, boil things down to basics. Who is your character, and what do they want? The fact your character is a “she” really shouldn’t affect your planning until you move into the plot, where things like social norms, childbirth, and romance come into play. Here’s an article that takes a deeper dive into character development: Your Cast of Characters.
To ensure you’re writing a character and not a cliché, ask yourself these questions:
- What does my character want?
- Does she want these things because a man in her life actually wants them?
- How do her strengths support the narrative?
- If I took all the men out of her story, would she still be a functional character?
Figure Out What “Strong” Means
Sometimes, strong female characters physically lift heavy things. They swing big swords and wear heavy armor. Brienne of Tarth is an excellent example of a character who is physically strong without being a trope. She escapes that trap because there is so much more to her than mere muscle. Her strength exceeds the physical.
Not all powerful, fierce women need muscle. They may have political influence, wealth and business savvy, or amazing artistic skills.
Strong characters may be poor, weak in many ways. History is full of strong women who did not fit the traditional, masculine tropes. Look at civil rights leaders who stood their ground or volunteers who helped protect and rescue children from warzones. Strength includes determination, persistence, intelligence, resilience, entrepreneurship, and more.
Mothers and grandmothers make great strong female characters. They can be downright scary when they want to be. Maybe your strong female character is a villainous grandmother who’s hiding her past as a serial killer.
Look outside the war-maiden stereotype and you’ll find all kinds of great characters.
Strong Women Aren’t Rarities
If the whole premise of the story is “she’s not like other girls,” then something has gone wrong. Your strong woman needs other strong women in her life. Like attracts like, especially if you set your story in a world where women face heavy discrimination. This means the female knight in a patriarchal society will probably be friends with the aspiring female diplomat, the baker’s wife who organizes the night watch, etc.
Stories that pit one shining example of “strong” womanhood against a world of petty, jealous, weak women is unrealistic at best and dangerous at worst. Your heroine can have female enemies, of course, and she won’t get along with every woman she meets. But she won’t be seen as a unicorn or demon by the entirety of the village, either.
Who are your favorite strong female characters? Did they subvert tropes, like Brienne of Tarth? Maybe they’re so far outside of the cliché it’s hard to spot them.