The 2010s have seen a huge influx of so-called strong female characters: teenage girls who can kick any man’s ass on the battlefield and who are emotionally invulnerable. Perhaps this because they often have a Tragic Backstory, the ashes of which they have risen from like a glorious phoenix. As an extra unnecessary touch, a form of pushback against the irritating “girls must always be nice” notion proliferated in our society through generations, these “strong female characters” are often rude to almost everyone for no reason. All in all, these girls are basically Clint Eastwood characters in bodies that some handsome, brooding male character must always find attractive. Because of course, let’s not forget that even though the strong female character in question clearly doesn’t need to be physically attractive, what with all the other traits she has going for her, the most important quality for a woman will always be beauty. And no matter how strong or independent she is, she will always need a man.
Does this mess of contradictions sound familiar? If so, it’s probably because characters like this are everywhere, especially in fantasy and science fiction.
Here’s the thing. Or things.
Contrary to the stereotypical definition of a strong female character, in reality, a girl or woman does not have to be a world-class soldier/assassin/whatever in order to be a strong female character. She can be athletic or out of shape or paralyzed from the neck down and still be a strong female character.
She does not need to be incredibly conventionally intelligent to be a strong female character. She does not need to have straight-As or mafia-esque street smarts. She can be a D student or a klutz for whom hindsight is 20/20, and she can still be a strong female character.
She does not have to have feels-of-steel to be a strong female character. She can be an overly sensitive crybaby and still be a strong female character.
She does not need to have the admiration of a man or of multiple men, but if she does, that’s just as well. The entirety of a woman’s worth should not come down to her relationship with men, whether they’re family, lovers, friends, colleagues, teammates, or anything else, and whether or not these relationships are positive.
Most women, just like most men, are not Super-Ultra-Badasses. Sure, there are plenty of real women out there who never let any person or situation drag them down, as well as women who are amazing fighters and/or geniuses. These people are inspirational, it’s true. But does that mean that that they’re actually every bit as perfect as they seem? Or that all the other women in the world who aren’t just like them aren’t as strong? Of course not!
Ordinary, everyday women and girls have plenty of strength, too. Imagine how much strength it takes a clinically depressed woman to get out of bed in the morning. How much strength does it take for a young woman to put aside her own desires and needs so that she can help take care of her family when a parent dies? Can most people fathom the strength it takes for someone who was assigned male at birth to declare herself female and transition, in the face of hate and intolerance? The girl who wants to play a musical instrument and keeps practicing no matter how many awful noises she makes as she learns is also very strong, simple as her journey might seem. And even on days when the depressed woman won’t get out of bed, or the young woman says angry things to her family because she wants to rejoin her activities, the trans woman breaks down because someone says something cruel to her, or the girl throws her instrument across the room in frustration — they are all still strong.
Shortcomings, vulnerability, negative emotions, and actions and words that result from them are NOT the opposite of strength. In fact, they are a huge part of it. Because being a real person, not a perfect one, is what it means to be strong. Perfection never had a need to be strong.
Strong female characters should be just like women who exist — they should have insecurities, fears, faults, desires, tastes, aspirations, ideas, motivations, and relationships with other people. Characters who don’t have these things are just caricatures and stereotypes.
This isn’t solely my feminist agenda talking. Crafting well-developed characters is the right thing to do for your story because well-developed characters will always be easier for readers of any background to connect with, since they catch glimpses of themselves, or someone they know, in these characters. It’s common sense.
You want to write a strong female character? Make her a person. Make her real.