Strong female characters puzzle me. I’ve been planning to write this post for a long time– hopefully now I’ll be able to make it make sense. An early analysis suggested that scarcity was key– Tolkien wrote two of the strongest females I know among the least diverse cast he could manage. But that makes no sense. Tolkien also wrote countless interesting male characters. Characters are characters; their gender shouldn’t make a difference.
And that, I finally realized, is the first hurdle to clear when you try to write strong females: don’t try. That doesn’t mean don’t do it at all– just don’t concentrate on making a female interesting. Just make the character interesting and the rest will follow.
A brief note: this is not speaking only to male writers. Female writers seem to have the same problem– look at the Hunger Games, in which there are perhaps three strong females in the whole thing, depending on how you look at it. Those three are heavily outweighed by the strong males, and the author is a woman. Just something to think about.
When you try too hard to make female characters interesting, they begin to fall into stereotypes. The most prevalent is beauty– since beauty is interesting to many people, it seems okay to make a female character interesting by making her beautiful. Similarly, “strong” when it comes to characters is taken literally. We can all feel the absence of strong female characters as society changes, so we take strong to mean, well, strong. We combine beauty and strength and suddenly we have a leather-clad ninja beauty queen who pops up, fights awesomely in action scenes, and is lame through everything else. A perfect example of this is Arya, from the Inheritance Cycle.
This is the result of trying too hard. If that’s not the solution, what is? What I said before– make the character interesting and the rest will follow.
Let’s look at, again, Tolkien. He obviously does it right with two characters: Galadriel and Eowyn. With the other two (Rosie and Arwen, the love interests), he barely even tries. What’s the difference?
Well, Rosie and Arwen are obviously the beauty queens– made interesting only because the other characters think they are interesting. (That is a form of the Chewie Rule, which I have never really discussed, but you can find on my definitions page.) Galadriel and Eowyn, however, actually seem to have emotions, desires, besides simply being in love. Galadriel seems to have plans with Gandalf which were foiled when he fell into shadow. Eowyn actually has a character arc (gasp! shock!). That adds loads to her persona.
How do you make a character interesting? I’ve spoken about that before– I gave a few first-glance basics in this post, and developing the character definitely helps with that. You can’t divide that by gender– it always works. Honestly, the biggest stumbling block anyone will face when creating a strong female character is falling into stereotypes and treating them as alien.
I know this is a short post already, but I’ve already said what I need to say: treat female characters just the same as any of your other characters. (Incidentally, this also goes for alien characters.) Give them believable motives, believable emotions, and for goodness’ sake, give them a character arc. Make them as awesome as the rest of your characters. If you’re really worried about gender, I’ll just give you a piece of Writing Excuses advice on this same topic: give your story to a member of the gender you’re trying to write and ask them whether that character feels right. If so, excellent! If not, work on it a little more. But one thing holds true: just because females haven’t been represented that well in fiction doesn’t mean they aren’t human. Treat them as normal characters, make them interesting just as you would anyone else, and you’ll be fine.