Strong Female Characters

by jeanineoloughlin

Thinking Through My Fingers

“Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers.” – Issac Asimov

Last week I talked about how gender roles can sometimes affect our male leads. Now let’s flip the table and look at female characters. You have your “Damsels,” your “Childless Career Woman,” and your “Bad ass superhero” which you’ll find in just about every YA novel in the last decade.

The Damsel is your wilting flower, your delicate female waiting for her hero to arrive and save her. She’s just a fainting couch away from a Jane Austen novel. This is a generally outdated view of the female lead in a world that has experienced the feminist movement. It’s difficult for me to read through some of these classic tales of Victorian or Civil-War era women without wanting to throttle them. However, to play devil’s advocate this could be a great starting point for a female heroine who must overcome her Damsel-ways in order to grow into the woman she needs to be in the story. Consider Buffy from the TV Show & Comic Book series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In the movie that prequeled the show we see Buffy as a highly stereotyped high school cheerleader who cares more about what shoes she’s going to wear tomorrow than the world buzzing around her. However, throughout the show she has to overcome her acrylic nail and designer purse ways to become the front line against all that is evil.

Another trope you’ll find in female characters is the childless Career Woman. She’s abandoned relationships and the prospect of motherhood to pursue her profession. She’s often portrayed as cold, lacking empathy and emotionally distant from everyone around her. As the recent movie Jurassic World was famously criticized for her arc is one of accepting her “role” as a future mother and partner to some strong male character. I think you can have a cold and distant female lead who learns to express herself to those close to her, it’s a character arc that can fit for any gender, the workaholic man can be equally subject to this as well. I think what’s important here is to ensure that your female character can be strong on her own while still overcoming her flaws and challenges without requiring the assistance of a man to face them. In Kim Harrison’s Hollows novels the main character Rachel Morgan is fraught with her inability to connect with others and focused on her career (as a paranormal bounty hunter). However throughout the series of 13 books she builds relationships with her friends and lovers while still maintaining her independence and competency.

A character we have seen littering YA fiction and subsequent movie releases is the bad ass heroine. A girl with extraordinary abilities faced with world-changing problems. The challenge with this character is the same as our Superhero male. You need to give her depth. What effect do these extreme situations have on them and to let the heroine fail. Make her human as well as extraordinary. Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games books is a great example. In the second and third book we see the psychological effects that these traumatic games and the events around it have had on this sixteen year old girl. Reading through how she handles, and in some cases doesn’t handle, the storm of emotions that she’s put through makes her feel like that person could be real. So you can have that badass woman with the leather pants and a katana at her side, but what really is going on inside?

This may sound repetitive but make sure your characters have depth. People change, and your characters should evolve as they continue through the story. You don’t have to know exactly how they change, but just let it happen. Give the reader a glimpse into what the events of the plot are doing to the character they’re on this journey with.