Thursday, March 10, 2011

LTUE: What Makes a Strong Female Character

Reading thuRsday

One of the panels I attended at the recent Life, the Universe, and Everything conference addressed the question, "What makes a strong female character?"

Here's what the panelists had to say:

Bree Despain
"Someone who makes their own decisions."
Clint Johnson
"All great characters are problem solvers: they do things. Women tend to solve problems differently than men. Where men often try to attack the problem head-on, women build teams and solve the problem socially."
Jaleta Clegg
"A strong character must have courage."
Sheila Nelson
"There are more kinds of strength than the 'kick butt' kind. The women who had the greatest influence on me all had a quiet, daily kind of strength."
Jessica Day George
"Strength doesn't mean they're never vulnerable. Perfect characters are dull. Characters whose strengths and weaknesses play off each other are much more interesting."
Clint Johnson
"In the best stories, the strongest characters are those that act with the greatest strength in spite of their weaknesses."
Echoing Clint's comments, the fundamental answer is that the things that make a strong female character are the same things that make a strong  male character: someone interesting who does something, and whose actions give us insight into who they are.

The  panel touched on the fact that, for reasons ranging from biology to culture, the ways in which men and women can or are expected to show strength differ. If you're not careful--if you work from stereotypes--you're likely to make mistakes like writing "men with boobs" in the name of "strong female characters." Instead, the best strategy is to approach each character, regardless of gender, as an individual with their own collections of strengths and weaknesses.

Clint Johnson also said, "Strength in narrative has to be proven." Again, regardless of gender, the best way to show strength in narrative is to give the character two real choices and show that they are able to choose either way (I call this my Second Rule of Two). If a character has consistently chosen safety over conflict during the course of a story, and if at the end they are offered a safe and honorable way out, the fact that they stay and fight says a great deal more than if they are simply cornered and have no choice but to fight.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /


  1. A strong female role to me?

    Women who see others clearly, and themselves honestly, then act on it.

    I don't mind if I watch them acquire this skill gradually. The ability to grow is a strength. The humility to improve and learn and actually *look* at others is a strength. So they don't have to be perfect in the beginning for me to view them as strong, but I do want to see them change--at least gain an awareness.

    I've read plenty of kick-butt female roles that couldn't see past their own sky-high nose to consider any other character for who they were, how much they were helping her, or how much they needed her compassion.

    And many more heroines who are so caught up in their own dark and traumatic orphaned past they think that's their identity, their justification, and their right to be "the good guy."

    Mercilessly kill guards and outwit charismatic men all you want. It takes more than that to be a strong woman.

  2. Christine,

    Thank you for highlighting clarity and growth as expressions of true strength.

    When we talk of strength, we tend to think of instantaneous strength--lifting a weight or kicking butt--and discount strength over time. My grandfather, a carpenter, would laugh at the athletes who could sprint but didn't have the stamina to put in a full day of manual labor.

    And at the root of it all, it take real strength to get beyond one's self and do what needs to be done.

    Again, thank you.

  3. Highly informative. I love the quotes you pulled in from the conference. You can tell that Sheila Nelsen adores the virtues of the strong Jane Austen women. And you know what, so do I. thanks for this.


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