Muscular Isn't Strong
If I were to say "She Hulk is a strong female character," would you know why?
|Is the word "hulk" a clue?|
But you know what else? Jennifer is also a professional criminal defense attorney. She's a woman with great compassion, strength of purpose, and personal ethics. She is also not someone who, even stripped of her powers, will let you walk over her. While being a big green rage monster is certainly impressive, it's the latter characteristics that make her a strong female character. If you want a strong female character you need to examine who she is, what she wants, and how she handles both herself and the world around her. You don't have to be able to sword-fight a kraken or arm-wrestle a giant to be strong.
Aggressive Isn't Strong
There's a trend in fiction for women with attitude. It's not new, and in fact it's wormed it's way into quite a few sections of TV Tropes (stop in and take a look around if you have a few hours to kill). Strong female leads are snarky, rough, standoffish, crude, and more than a little harsh... or at least that's what you'll end up with if you're not careful.
The aggressive/bitch female character has been done to death, and she is roughly half the population of the paranormal romance genre. You've seen her, at least in passing. She's constantly talking down to people, cursing like a sailor doing a stint as an over-the-road trucker, and she's generally seen as rough-and-ready.
Ask yourself this question; if you made this character male, would he been seen as strong, or as just another posturing, preening dick wad? I'm not saying these characters don't have a right to exist. By all means, write as many socially aggressive and foul-mouthed characters as you want! Just don't delude yourself into thinking that a "take no shit" attitude translates instantly to a pillar of strength. Mostly it just makes the character bitchy, regardless of the gender.
Violent Isn't Strong
This is sort of a sub-section of the "many kinds of strength" mentioned above, but I felt it deserved its own slot. Let me be clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a female character who mixes it up with the bad guys. Machine-gun-toting G.I. Janes, mysterious snipers, magic-driven sorceresses, and mutant power-houses are all more than welcome. That said, having the ability to kick the shit out of someone doesn't make you strong.
|No, no, no, no... a thousand times no!|
The reason is that it isn't about her; it's about the male audience viewing her. All you need as proof of that is what she's wearing. If a woman was a dedicated vampire hunter she would, I guaran-goddamn-tee you, be wearing body armor. She wouldn't have a bare throat, much less a bare midriff. She would have sensible boots, probably with steel toes, and none of this stiletto-spike nonsense. Do you know why? Because if she were this kind of hardened warrior, even if she were indestructible for some reason or other, she would not go into the field in fetish gear. It's impractical, and it goes directly against the grain of the sort of character that's being portrayed.
There's a lot wrapped up in this, from endless arguments about boob armor (yes they exist), to why female superheroes dress so skimpily, to just how much attention should be paid to a female character's outfit during a fight scene. So, I'll cut through all of that and just say this instead. If you are writing a woman warrior, switch her gender. If she looks, sounds, or acts ridiculous, chances are it's because you tried to make her strong and sexy, but failed at both.
Sexy Isn't Strong
Feminine wiles have been used in stories ever since oral history. Whether it's the Black Widow seducing secrets out of world leaders, or the exotic dancer who dangles men like plot points from her fingers, sexuality and the embracing thereof is supposed to be a sign that a character is strong. It's not. It just means she's sexy.
|In all fairness, there are worse things to be.|
Masculine Isn't Strong
I'm not even going to grace this section with a picture. There's this idea that in order to be strong, a female character can't be feminine. This is hypocrisy at its finest. An author who falls into this trap strips away anything feminine from a character; she won't use makeup, she'll dress in masculine clothing, she'll use blunt language, and in many circumstances she'll even approach sex from a more traditional masculine perspective. Often the mysteries of the feminine confuse her, such as getting her hair cut at a stylist, wearing dresses, or the finer arts of seduction. This is not inherently wrong, as there are occasions where a woman might not have been exposed to these aspects of culture. It doesn't make a character strong, and if taken to extremes it can make your character seem outright ridiculous.
The Secret of Strength
Okay, so now we've covered what a strong female character isn't. So how do you do it? Start by listening to this man.
|Who were you expecting?|
There you go.
The idea of a strong female character is flawed premise; simply write a strong character. That character should not be wholly defined by gender anymore than he or she is defined by ethnicity, profession, familial upbringing, or anything else. These and a thousand other things will shape the character into who he or she is, but no one factor should be given the absolute power to define everything else.
Writing strong characters isn't easy; if it was then everyone would be doing it. But much like getting six-pack abs or winning a golden globe award, there are no short cuts. You have to practice, research, and constantly ask yourself who your characters really are. Only then will you be able to create real, believable characters regardless of their genders.
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