"Strong female character" is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot in how-tos, analyses, Tumblr-rant posts, and more. It's sometimes seen as positive (Lizzie Bennet, Juliette Cai), sometimes negative (Celaena Sardothien), and all-round a pretty hot topic. Which female characters are the type of "strong" we want to see? Which aren't? Which tried to be but failed miserably, giving female characters, or attempts at strong ones, a bad rep? How do we write one?
All it comes down to is wanting to see well fleshed-out, thoughtfully written female characters that are just as complex, flawed, interesting, and organic as their male counterparts in stories. And it's clear why we want it so badly — for centuries in mainstream fiction, we haven't been able to get that. Not consistently, and often not in otherwise-masterful narratives.
So why is it that "strong female characters" are still so often terribly written, one dimensional, and, well — given the sort of standard male characters never would be? Is there a problem with the concept of creating a "strong female character"?
I think there is. Not specifically in the intent of creating a well-thought-out, human (or not, but you get what I'm saying), flawed yet understandable female character. I think the problem lies in us not saying that.
The adjective "strong" would (ironically) be called weak in a lot of prose writing. That's because it's vague; it doesn't give a clear picture of what the author wants to convey. Strong can be a myriad of things: physically or mentally strong, competent, willful, nonconforming, brave, resilient, or all the other things I'm missing. And that's simply within one context of the word "strong". The word could also be used to mean distinct, or bold, conflict-creating characters that jump right off the page.
So fine, the word "strong" is vague and doesn't do much as a jumping-off point for creating a character. Why's it so bad, though?
It's in the way we think about the word itself. The default idea most people get when hearing it is probably physical strength or competence at chopping off heads, or maybe physical intimidation and even brooding (often used as a sign of trauma, therefore trying to signal mental strength). Often the default for "strong" is generally disagreeable as well.
This is otherwise known as the "badass female character". It's the default filler when we think of a strong one, and it's also heavily masculine.
Writing heavily masculine, strong female characters isn't wrong. However, I do challenge you to question if a lot of the strengths you've seen in strong female characters — or the strengths maybe even you've given to your female characters — are predominantly masculine, while the "quirks" are the feminine part of them. And if so, why?
When we get vague at character creation, we often default, we use what we can grab at a moment's notice from our heads.
When setting out to create "strong female characters", the default isn't enough. Your female character deserves better than "strong" as an adjective (and honestly, most characters probably deserve better than strong as an adjective).
We're writers. We use our words to convey what we truly mean. Our characters could use stronger, more specific, adjectives to create them beyond "strong".
Janelle Yapp is a writer and self-dubbed professional daydreamer. Her work has appeared in Unpublished Magazine and Paper Crane Journal, among others. She is also a staff writer at Outlander Magazine.