Writing Strong Female Characters: Feminism in Fiction

I’m a feminist. This might be very obvious to the (few) people who follow me, but I’m a feminist. Yeah. I know someone somewhere will sigh when they read this and shake their head, so I’m going to start off by giving you a few definitions of feminism.

From the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

noun (fem·i·nism \ˈfe-mə-ˌni-zəm):

the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities

From Dictionary.com:

Feminism [fem-uh-niz-uh m]

noun: the doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men.

From the Oxford Dictionary:

feminism (fem¦in|ism / fɛmɪnɪz(ə)m):

noun: The advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.

What’s that, you say? Feminism is women wanting to be better than men/thinking they’re better than men? Think again, buddy. Yes, there are some women who call themselves “feminists” and think that men are the scum of the Earth, but a) they’re not true feminists, b) there’s always a smaller fringe group of any larger social change group, and c) I’m not one of those “feminists”. We call those people “Feminazis” (and yes, I know who coined the term and what its original use was, and I don’t like that, but the term has apparently stuck).

So for the last little while, there’s been a lot of talk on strong female characters in fiction. How to write them, why we need them, good examples of them, bad examples of them, etc. And I’m glad that it is being talked about. I think girls need to read books with characters who teach them to be themselves, to accept themselves and to live for themselves. Girls need to know that it’s okay to not be society’s idea of perfect, that it’s okay to have goals and to try to achieve them.

There’s a lot of pressure for girls these days to be pretty and skinny and lovely and feminine, and that’s a super toxic concept. I’ve talked about this before, but as someone who grew up going through books like underwear (and I was a fairly clean child) and is currently a writer, characters are very important to me. If I ever have a daughter in the way-distant future, I don’t want her to read books that teach girls that it’s not okay to put yourself first, to do things for yourself, or that if you don’t have a significant other, you’re nothing. Girls get enough of that crap from society; they don’t need it in books too.

But there’s also a discussion about what a strong female character is. Is it a girl who is independent and doesn’t need no man? Is it some gorgeous warrior princess who kicks ass in awesome clothes and doesn’t give a damn about anyone but herself? Is it the girl who accepts what life gives her stoically and without shedding a tear?

Answer: no, not at all. I might have a controversial view on what a strong female character is, but for me, the bottom line is this: female characters—and girls/women in general—don’t need to be emotionless or completely self-reliant in order to be strong.

I think that’s what gets people sometimes. Some of them think they need their Strong Female Character to be this gorgeous emotionless creature who can kick every guy’s ass, but that’s rarely how it works in real life. Everyone—unless they’re a psychopath—has emotions and feelings, and that is okay. That’s natural. It’s human. But there’s an unsaid connotation of femininity to emotions, because as Emma Watson said in her a-frickin’-mazing UN speech, many boys feel that they need to be emotionless in order to appear masculine. And I think that’s also true for female characters: some people believe that in order for them to be “strong”, they need to be almost masculine. They need to not cry or feel all the things. They need to be able to do everything by themselves without outside help. They need to show their anger by beating baddies up. Etcetera. Believe me, I’m all for girls (and people in general) who don’t need a significant other to feel complete—I’m a big proponent of that idea—but that doesn’t mean that your character can’t have a boyfriend or fall in love. Just because they don’t need a man doesn’t mean they can’t have one. They don’t have to live in solitude just because they can in order to qualify them as a Strong Independent Woman.

Another trope that I hate within the Strong Female Character circle is the one where if they’re strong, a female character cannot ever accept help. They are badass and awesome and An Inspiration to Us All, so therefore they must do everything for themselves and look pretty while doing it. But here’s the thing: no one—regardless of gender—can do everything by themselves. Imagine you have your character stuck in an enemy stronghold, and to escape, they have to fight their way through dozens of machine-gun armed foes. Oh no! Will they make it? (Spoiler alert: they usually do.) And that’s one of my pet peeves. It’s, like, literally impossible for anyone to be able to do that. They’d have to be invincible to survive that situation. I’m pretty sure even Chuck Norris couldn’t get himself out of that mess without help. I hate this when a male character does this and I hate it when a female character does this. Don’t get me wrong; I love female characters who can take out three bad guys with one kick just as much as the next person does—possibly even more—but I don’t want them to just be beautiful, badass fighting machines. I want them to be people, too. I want them to have fears and secrets and hopes and desires and feelings. I want them to have agency. I want them to make their own decisions and do things for themselves. I want them to screw up sometimes and live with the consequences. I want them to find love (if they’re looking for it), and to swallow their pride and ask for help when they need it.

Think about some of the most popular strong female characters in fiction today: Hermione Granger of the HARRY POTTER series, who, regardless of being everything book-obsessed eleven-year-old me ever wanted in a character, put a Memory Charm on her parents in DEATHLY HALLOWS to make them forget they had a kid because she knew she had to leave them to go help Harry get rid of Voldemort (and also, let’s face it: the entire series is basically Hermione saving Ron’s and Harry’s asses/arses.). Annabeth Chase from the PERCY JACKSON AND THE OLMPIANS and THE HEROES OF OLYMPUS series(es?), the badass daughter of Athena who goes through hell (literally) to save the world again, and pretty much sums up my love for her in MARK OF ATHENA when she says, “I’m nobody’s sidekick.” Basically every other female character in the PERCY JACKSON books, too: Hazel Levesque, who died in the 1940s after sacrificing herself to stop Gaea from re-awakening, and then after coming back to life, immediately threw herself into helping her friends save the world, despite dealing with major blackout-flashbacks about her previous life; Piper McLean, the least-Aphrodite daughter of Aphrodite ever, who learns to accept her feelings and use them to her advantage; Percy’s mother, Sally Jackson, who spent years with an abusive, chauvinistic husband because his mortal-y stench obscured Percy from monsters; and Thalia Grace, who joins the Hunters of Artemis and finds a family in them after her ex-sorta-boyfriend becomes the host of a Titan lord. And let’s not forget Peggy Carter from MARVEL’S AGENT CARTER, who is my favourite TV character ever for many reasons and can be badass and awesome and still feel emotions (e.g. finding the vial of Steve’s blood, crying about Krzeminski’s death even though he was a total assbutt, and oh, telling the S.S.R. everything and giving them Steve’s blood because she knows she has to in order to regain their trust and stop Leviathan.)

There are so many other characters I could mention, too. Tris Prior of the DIVERGENT series. Katniss Everdeen (and Johanna Mason) from the HUNGER GAMES trilogy. Clary Fray, Jocelyn Fray, Isabelle Lightwood and Maia Roberts of the MORTAL INSTRUMENTS series. And Fantasy and Sci-Fi aren’t the only genres where strong women can be found: there’s Hazel Grace Lancaster of THE FAULT IN OUR STARS; Eleanor Douglas from ELEANOR & PARK; Melinda Sordino from SPEAK; and Wren Gray of THE INFINITE MOMENT OF US. Not all of them might start off “strong”, but by the end of the book, all of them end up being stronger than they thought they could be.

And, as always with characters, if you want them to seem believable, you have to make them human. Give them flaws and weaknesses. Give them emotions. Make them real.

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5 thoughts on “Writing Strong Female Characters: Feminism in Fiction

  1. I agree with your thoughts about how the “strong female character” needs to above all be real. Writing characters that are real will resonate with audiences and reveal truths about our society.
    I also think that one important measure that needs to be taken be media creators is to write more female characters. If there are a variety of female characters, then it allows for the variety of character that you typically find in real life. The problem I have with the “strong female character” is that she is almost always the lone woman, and thus all our expectations and hopes are placed on her. When you only have one woman it’s difficult to tell a cohesive story while trying to display all the emotions and reactions that women are capable of. Writing more women characters allows for more variety, which will allow more “real” women to be shown.

    Like

    1. I completely agree with you. Diversity in general needs to be more represented in mainstream media, but women in particular. The media is starting to get better at this, but it’s still got a long ways to go. And also, a lot about a character can be shown through how they react to and interact with others, especially their friends, so that’s another reason to include more female characters. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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