How do you write a strong female character?
Tamara: The way I see it, the best way to portray any character is to get a good solid idea of what they’re like on the inside and then demonstrate it via their responses to what the world throws at them. In other words, don’t worry about where the character fits on the gender spectrum. Step One is to figure out who they are. Step Two is to figure out what they’re up against. Maybe your heroine would face different challenges or be treated differently by other characters if she was a man, but that’s where the difference is. Gender is a social construct, so it actually comes from impinging external forces.
I’ve known a number of otherwise progressive writers who try to write a female character but fail rather severely. They can see through gender differences in real life but they can’t conjure up a decent female character from their own brains for some reason. They make her either Princess Kidnapped or the spellcaster who is docile and reserved but goes into Turbo-Destructo-Mode when she – sigh – breaks a nail. Those kinds of characters are created when the writer is informed by clichés and other external cultural assumptions. You can make a truer, more believable character if you start on the inside and work your way out, integrating them into the story world.
Serdar: This is timely, as in the book I’m writing now, a good two-thirds of the
main cast is either female or can identify biologically as female (it’s a
far-future SF story).
The way I thought about it was not “How do I make these female characters
strong?”, but “How do I make any of these characters *interesting*, and have
their strengths (whatever they are) manifest naturally and contextually?”
That’s the tougher question to ask, because it forces you to stop thinking
about them as females — especially in the sense of “females as opposed to
males doing the same thing”.
There’s also the problem of how you define strength. A physically unassuming
character may have strengths of intellect, spirit, resolve, discipline,
endurance even, and who knows what else. A character of great physical
ability may be easily broken because he has never really known failure until
someone came along and demonstrated it to him.
People respond most directly to characters who are fascinating, whatever
their gender, and whatever their capabilities. The question of strong female
characters is, ultimately, a red herring, if we can only see it as such.
The opposite of a strong character is not a weak one. The opposite of a
strong character is a dull one.
Scott: Me, I start with the idea that the female characters are *characters*, not just scenery. That is, they have motives, personalities, backgrounds, tastes, quirks, you name it that make them a person unto themselves. Gender comes into play as a world filter, but each character, male or female, is an individual. That’s the starting point.
From there, I inflict the plot on the characters and have them react. The reaction is more based on what I worked out above than “oh, she’s a woman”. I’ve worked with a number of female characters, each one different in her own way, each one a protagonist. They carry the story. Weak characters – male, female, or other – won’t survive the story.
So, in short, the key to writing strong female characters is to write a strong character and know women in reality.
Bonnie: This is a rather loaded question, because the first thing you need to ask yourself is – what is a strong female character? The first image that comes to mind when you use the term is, of course, an action heroine – Lara Croft taking on nature and bad guys in the jungle, Buffy staking the undead. But what about the woman who may not be able to beat up an alligator, but saves her family farm against impossible odds? Or the one who may not contribute brawn, but whose brains save the day?