kid-matt
I’m thinking I was six. Yes, that’s me in the center. Those three are only a few (a FEW) of my sisters.

As I write this, I’m stricken by a loss the world suffered. I won’t discuss it other than to mention the role that women can play in stories. I was basically raised in a house full of women. I had a few brothers that stayed with me on occasion, but the ratio in my house was always at least 2:1.

My mom raised me by herself for five years, and during those five years, I wasn’t very helpful to her. Because I know how strong the women in my life are, I look for female characters who are strong. There are different types of strength, and I’ll get to those, but for me, I hate any story that portrays a woman as anything other than a character who happens to be female. (For the record, I feel this way about religion, color, and ethnicity as well. Stories about race issues or religious issues are important, I’ll even write a few.) There’s a difference between a book about (in this case) women’s issues and a book that simply thinks women need men to exist.

There’s the Bechdel Test. But this only ensures the women have something to talk about. It’s a good test to put your characters through to prevent the issue I’m discussing, but I have a different challenge.

Develop your character. Determine everything you want to determine, then flip a coin to determine gender. Gender has a role in character. Men react differently in certain situations than women, but I’ve found that some stereotypes are mitigated when gender was determined after archetype and function in a story.

There are some amazing female characters in the world.  Some that come to mind right away:

buffy-the-vampire-slayer-tv-series
This image is used for critique an analysis purposes as are other images featuring these characters.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Who I may want to argue is the greatest female character of all time).

Egwene al’Vere from The Wheel of Time

Vin from Mistborn (Who may give Buffy a run for her money, but I’d still argue Buffy would win…okay…I’ll have to post a blog about that in the future).
Lessa from Dragonriders of Pern.

I could go on, but I just wanted to throw out a few things to consider.

The Bechdel Test has its limits both good and bad. Imagine a book about a woman who’s an assassin. She goes through the whole book killing bad guys and just being awesome. I’d probably love this book, but it fails the Bechdel test. There’s not even a second woman for the first to talk to.

My adaptation to this is that if you have women (or a woman) in the story, make them characters. You’ll never make everyone happy, but the first thing to do to ensure you have (we’ll call them) non-weak women in your story is to give them a role in said story.

The Next step is then to give them strength.  Now, all of the above characters are extremes.  They’re LITERALLY strong women. They could kill people, but that’s not the only type of strength.  It is one way. And if you’re working on an action fantasy story, ask yourself, “Is the only reason this character isn’t a girl because I’m a guy?” But if you’re writing science fiction and there isn’t a “magic system” of sorts, don’t worry. Other ways to make those characters strong exist.

The Mentor Archetype:  I’ve recently given Supergirl a second chance. I’m glad I did. That show’s pilot was still one of the worst I’ve ever seen, and I have issues with some of the on-the-nose “cause” plots. But I submit to you this:

The strongest female character in that show is Cat Grant.

MyriadSupergirl (Kara) has all these powers, but notice how heavily she relies on every other character in the show (particularly Cat) to move forward in the plot. In fact, the only time she’s “strong” is when she’s fighting. (Yes, that’s a pretty mean thing to say, but I watched the first season, and that’s true).  Now, Kara has her moments. She finds out who’s responsible for a certain death, and that scene is amazingly strong. She’s not weak, I’m just saying Cat is far stronger as a character.

Cat is who the women on that show want to be. Cat is who everyone turns to for advice. Cat is the one who gets people moving. They still deal with a lot of issues, but they’re issues that are unique to her character, not her gender.

Writers, it’s fine to make women “super” but that doesn’t actually make them strong. Strength, in my opinion, isn’t a measure of power. Power, is a measurement of physical capability. It’s my opinion that strength is demonstrated when one’s power is lacking, but one finds a way to succeed regardless. So don’t think “give them superpowers” is the answer. Instead, give them a role in the plot that isn’t “love interest.”

Cat is the mentor in this scenario.

Other non-super, but still strong, female characters include:

Kay Scarpetta

Cindy Thomas (from The Women’s Murder Club series)

Karrin Murphy (A great character study in and of herself)

Stormy Llewellyn (from Odd Thomas)

executive-511708_960_720
Stock photos from Pixabay

My point is that character should be strong regardless of their attributes. I’ve posted blogs about developing characters and evaluating their progress. In light of recent events though I felt this post might be particularly effective. No, I didn’t mention that character or the woman who played her. She, quite frankly, requires no mention. She altered generations.

 

 

Thanks for reading,

V/R
Matt

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17 thoughts on “Strong Female Characters

  1. I love Vin. I think her character is wonderfully rich, especially how her strengths doesn’t negate or even reduce her weaknesses. As you say, for much of the story she’s a powerful fighter, and yet, she’s also so uncertain, so insecure. The second book, Well of Ascension, really brings that dynamic to the forefront, the way that Vin struggles with being more than a fighter and an assassin, and how, in spite of all the power she wields, she’s still shy, and nervous, and only beginning to really understand who she is.

    I thought it was a wonderful example of how many characters have strengths, which are usually very specific and very situational, and outside of those very specific situations, they are as anxious and “weak” as anyone else. Whether your character is an engineer, an artist, or a teacher, take the character out of their comfortable space, put them in a situation where their strengths are irrelevant, and show the audience that they still struggle with many things.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a STELLAR post, Matt. Stellar. I have to quote your own passage back to you because it struck me profoundly: “Writers, it’s fine to make women ‘super’ but that doesn’t actually make them strong. Strength, in my opinion, isn’t a measure of power. Power, is a measurement of physical capability. It’s my opinion that strength is demonstrated when one’s power is lacking, but one finds a way to succeed regardless. So don’t think ‘give them superpowers’ is the answer. Instead, give them a role in the plot that isn’t ‘love interest.'” Yes! Exactly! Exactly right! Female characters don’t have to be ruthless assassins to show empowerment.

    I remember reading a post of yours wayyyy back where you mentioned that you often flip a coin to determine a character’s gender (you reminded us of it here). Frankly, that struck me as mad. It still strikes me as mad. I couldn’t possibly operate that way. But the fact that you can do that is a superpower in itself, and I think it’s cool even more than I think it’s mad. Great post, man. Well written, great message.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Wow, that’s seriously high praise. I don’t honestly know what to say beyond thank you. I do try. I’ve actually been criticized by one review for that very wrong. It hit me hard because it’s not what I want to do. But I had to listen and try to identify why that opinion existed. So I learned from it. I’m getting better. Thanks again for the kind words.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Jordan did it right, I think, by giving strength to both genders yet providing a multitude perspectives on the nature of both men and women. This kind of commentary on men/women goes back centuries. Sophocles’ Antigone comes to mind. We’re attempting to navigate waters that have been explored for centuries. Be easy on yourself, it’s a vast thing.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. I don’t look for “strong” female characters as much as I look for full-blooded female characters. But I agree that you could pretty much make a character and then flip a coin as to their gender, because I want the same thing in all characters. It doesn’t matter if they’re male, female or gender fluid. I want them to be strong in some situations and vulnerable in others.

    Buffy shines in this. Buffy herself was dedicated to her mission and often selfless–she and Tara would have to duke it out for the most-selfless-character award–and always vulnerable when it came to family, friends and matters of the heart.

    Cordelia, Faith and Anya were all selfish and self-centered, leaving them with lots of room for growth. I crushed on Faith and smiled at Cordelia, but I took the most pleasure, I think, from Anya’s story arc. She was a powerful demon reduced to a tactless high school student trying to figure out life, death, love and everything in between. She was never really figured it all out, yet she found her peace.

    And then there’s Joyce, who sort of embraced the stereotypical mom role. But that worked; she owned it, earning even Spike’s affection and admiration. And Willow–so many changes! My head was spinning some seasons as she went from awkward high school student to powerful witch to full out villain . . . yeah, there was always something new and surprising with Willow, and yet she always seemed recognizably herself.

    Wow. I need to rewatch some Buffy now!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I was just thinking that! There’s a lot of good study in that show. So well done. Joyce was an intriguing study in that her strength was her compassion. No matter who did what to her, she was always willing g to be there to support them. Amazing. Thanks for stopping by. I think I’ll do a YouTube of my favorite Buffy episodes now.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I wouldn’t have said anything, but the resemblance between you as a child and the boy I played with made me think there could be a connection. and the lady I assume is your mother in the picture, looks like a grown up version of his little sister….

        Liked by 1 person

      2. No, actually, that’s one of my big sisters. My mom is very camera shy, so I didn’t post an image of her. Those are three of my sisters. No worries though. It’s nice to feel connected though. It’s cool to think little memories like that can last. I hope they were happy memories.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I was a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and watched the series faithfully from beginning to end. Today whenever I think about it, it reminds me a burning question I always had: How does Buffy’s house stay so clean? (especially when it was just Buffy and Tara living in it.)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Interesting post, as usual! I think the story comes first, the characters fit into that story and then their growth dictates how the plot moves. So yeah, gender is irrelevant to me most of the time and I just try to have an even gender mix so the species survives.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think believability matters. Whatever region or demographic your in should match with what’s out there. This is even more important when you’re doing urban fantasy. If you’re in Baltimore, the demographic is going to look WAY different than Yuma, Az.

      Liked by 1 person

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