Strong Female Characters in Fiction: A Craft Guide

Disclaimer: As Kipling said, “There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays/ And every single one of them is right.” You may well have a better way of creating a strong female character. Go for it!

Last week, Wolfwalker asked about writing a strong female character who isn’t just a guy with a second X chromosome. He was more making an observation than asking a question, but as Dorothy Grant pointed out in a later comment, there’s a problem with “strong women” in fiction today. All too often, they are nasty harridans who show strength by abusing the people around them, or they are simply declared to be a “strong women” by the author. A few authors give the woman a “man’s job,” like oilfield geologist or forensic investigator, but never show the character using those skills. The “Strong Woman” then falls head over—ahem—in lust with the male protagonist who happens to be a not-a-vampire, or a were-creature, or a dybbuk [eeeeewww], or a djin, or whatever is trendy.

Having suffered through a few “strong women” from an earlier generation of writers that were, to use the memorable phrase, “Beowulf wearing a wig,” I have a bit of an idea what to avoid. You want a character who is believably female, with no waif-fu unless there are good in-story reasons for her super-strength or super-speed. James Bond in a cocktail dress is not a strong female character, even if she does grumble about trying to find her favorite brand of feminine hygiene products while on a mission. Nor is she a vicious shrew (unless this is a change-grow-improve sort of story, or she’s the baddie.)

In some ways, you have to get down to what makes a woman in a certain culture a woman, beyond genetics. But don’t discount genetics. Relatively low upper body strength compared to males, generally shorter (but not always), having to be concerned about pregnancy or lack thereof, dealing with sex-specific effects of certain activities (a woman who spends a great deal of time on horseback is somewhat more prone to endometriosis, for example. See Elizabeth von Sarmas for what that means for the character.) You, the author, will want your character to be aware of her physical strengths and weaknesses, if she is in a setting where that matters. Even in a high-tech, armored-suit-boosted world, I suspect differences will appear. Pregnancy affects hormones which affect mood and temper. The first trimester tends to have mood swings, then the “happy baby brain” starts with the second trimester, more or less. But not always.

Most women tend to be more sensitive to emotion in others than are men, and more likely to try to mediate and please. So a female character may ignore someone’s emotional distress because she has to, but she’s probably aware of it. She will be less confrontational, at least in public, unless she has to be. Depending on her personality, she may well have to nerve herself up for a public or even private confrontation, telling herself why this is so important, and getting ready for trouble.

Since most women are more sensitive to others’ opinions, a female character will control her behavior and environment differently. Physical displays, physical aggression and bravado, joking about bodily functions? Much, much less common. She may give as good as she gets, if she has to in order to prove or maintain rank in an otherwise all-male environment. Or she might not, relying on skill to prove her status.

For example, the lady engineer who endeared herself to the Special Forces guys when they returned to the Forward Operating Base (FOB) and discovered her up to her thighs in sewage under the toilet hut, fixing a leak. She’d already repaired the hot-water system for the showers. She did her job, didn’t make a fuss, answered the radio when needed, and left the place neater, cleaner, and more comfortable than when she arrived. In a way, she was doing woman’s work – just not in what most think of when we hear that phrase.

I would write her as being taller than average, possibly a former volleyball player in High School (good shoulders and upper body strength). She’ll be mellow about messes, unless they are caused by carelessness or malice. She’ll probably not worry too much about looking feminine, since this is the military, but she might act more feminine when she’s not working. She won’t joke around and give the guys hell like other guys do, but she’ll tease them gently when appropriate. She’s going to look for small things that make a big difference, like hot water when they come back from a mission, fixing that stove vent so the dining tent doesn’t always smell like grease, and take care of those once she finishes the big thing. She won’t be shy about asking for a strong back when it really is needed, but she’ll be very polite, and appreciative, especially if someone volunteers. If she can get away with it, she might wear lipstick at meals, just so she remembers that she’s a lady.

A good female character is interesting to read and fun to cheer for, even if it is only as monumental as “she got five kids to and from the grocery store without them eating the candy aisle, and she got everything on her list, too!” Or perhaps she gets her team at work all aimed in the same direction, working on the same project, reminds them to eat, has their favorite pop and coffee when needed, and is willing to order people to sleep and/or shower when needed. She’s not the hero of the techno-thriller, but he wouldn’t get the data/piece of code/remedy for the terrible bio-terror thing without her contribution.

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21 thoughts on “Strong Female Characters in Fiction: A Craft Guide

    • Because she is portrayed as aggressive. Some men have difficulty with women who show the same aggressiveness as a man. That’s why women can’t be…oh, say, fighter pilots. or play first-person shooter games.

            • Can you give examples? I might (or might not) agree with you. (And keep in mind, there are male jerks out there, as well.)

            • Stuff like abandoning a husband and children because she wasn’t happy– which is an obvious jerk move.
              Using sex to manipulate people.
              Being physically violent to allies or loved ones– Buffy did that a lot, at least in world it didn’t usually get praised.
              Dating someone that works for them….

              I can’t think of any examples of “strong women” by name, because I dislike those kinds of shows or books. That’s why something talking about “strong women” and not being in the Mrs. Weasley mode tend to make me run away very, very fast.

            • Yes, I agree that those would be a total misuse of the adjective “strong” Now, calling them jerks? Much better fit for anyone who manipulates others that way (male or female).

    • I think it’s mainly that for most of the series, the character of Honor Harrington could be written as a man with very few changes required to the narrative.

      I’ve seen the same thing happen in a few other stories by authors who were trying extremely hard to show their open-mindedness by creating a major character who was not-their-own-sex: they tried so hard to make the character “a character like any other character I’ve created” that they forgot that men and women really are different in some significant ways. As Douglas Adams said once, the most difficult assumptions to overcome are the ones you don’t realize you’re making.

  1. . If she can get away with it, she might wear lipstick at meals, just so she remembers that she’s a lady.

    Stink-pretties* and fun under-things are a good route, too– it’s amazing how much of a boost catching a faint scent off your own shirt that is feminine can be, or how much it can mean to pull on a bright, fuzzy sock before you put on your boots.

    Nobody’s going to know what your soap smells like unless you loan it to them, or they are WAY close. A less physically intimate version is you don’t usually take your boots off. 😀

    *a nice bar of soap, deodorant that actually smells nice, a scented candle to keep in your shirt drawer– anything that has a nice scent not required for function

    • A little extra enjoyment when you put them on. A little lift at the beginning of the day.

    • You underestimate the male olfactory ability as pertaining to females.
      (You learn to mostly tune it out, but if you haven’t been around women for a couple of months, it’s pretty overwhelming.)

  2. Also – having your private life (and romantic interests) be somewhat opaque and slightly mysterious to the guys you work with. Generally a woman in the military wants to seem like more of a sister-aunt-pal-friend than an object of romantic interest. With a bit of art and determination you can keep it that way.
    Personal experience – I worked in a public affairs office as a young NCO, and in getting ready for a big event, we were assigned a threesome of young junior lieutenants (recent graduates of the nav school) to help out. Worked with the guys for weeks on a perfectly professional basis.
    Then one afternoon at about quitting time when I had an early evening date, I went into the ladies and changed out of uniform into a pretty dress. fresh makeup, etc. Their faces when I came out of the ladies … it was like “OMG! Sgt. Hayes … She’s a real datable female!!”
    Fortunately, I think they had forgotten all that, once I appeared the next day in uniform. I was very careful, after that – not to ever mix the professional with the personal.

  3. I love the “Beowulf in a wig” analogy – so many times strong women are written as men in disguise. It’s far more fun to write a real female character who just happens to be strong and let her deal with all the challenges that come her way!

  4. Too many men, like Freud, don’t bother to try to understand women. Fortunately I had one who was the perfect model. She was never a tomboy, but was the only woman in her high school electronics club with about 40 guys. When the tour guide on the technical, behind-the-scenes, tour of Magic Mountain offered, “Lady’s first,” for climbing a ladder, she gently reminded him, “I’m wearing a skirt.” As a Chemist, she learned to deal with male ball-busting, but, unlike her female colleagues, was never considered the outsider. Although she rarely wore makeup or perfume (mostly because I couldn’t handle the latter, and preferred access over packaging IYKWIM. She was, however a real jewelry maven, and nobody except the ridiculous boob David Brin, ever questioned her femininity. (Some idiotic panel discussion about what an island of all women would do when confronted with some grave problem. Sharon said, “Obviously, they’d just do xxx.” Brin exclaimed, “No woman would ever think of that!” She wanted to challenge him to take it outside, but the point was obvious to all but Brin.) She was the electronics expert who instructed me in how to wire our ceiling fans. I was just the tall guy who could stand there a long time. She never tried to out-masculine me, but never let silly sex barriers get in the way either. We once played Scrabble against each other and the score ended up being 266-265. Neither of us could remember who won. We just both laughed.

    If you’re male and want to write a strong woman character, you could do no better than, read her novel, China Harbor: Out of Time. Some of her short stories are a little righteously angry about how women can be treated, but her novel is absolutely pitch perfect without the slightest piece of resentment. Depending on the situation the heroine is forced to rely on various male characters with differing senses of ethics, She doesn’t shoot her way through a gunfight, but at the denouement, ends up being lowered from a helicopter in a small raft into a building whirlpool, with only a compass and a caged cricket to use to calibrate her time machine while nursing a patched up bullet wound in her ribs. (As preposterous as that sounds, it makes perfect sense). I dare Rambo to try that!

    • Cricket? I hope she had a thermometer, as well. The rate at which crickets chirp varies with temperature. 😉

      • It was a sentient cricket, or so contended a mysterious Chinese man who didn’t seem normal.

        “Are you telling me you’re 800 years old?”
        “No Dr. Sheila, not 800 years old. That would be impossible! Born 800 years ago.”

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