The Beautiful Scientist Problem, Pt II: Three Tips for Writing “Strong” Female Characters

In the first post in this series, we discussed subjectivity and objectification when describing female characters. But “beautiful” isn’t the only contentious adjective frequently applied to them. Lots of readers claim to love “strong” heroines; what does this actually mean? As a kid in the 90s, I caught the leading edge of the “more strong heroines!” wave. My childhood idols, like sword-wielding Alanna in Tamora Pierce’s Lioness series, led the charge into a brave new world of young adult fiction where girls took on roles traditionally reserved for males. Now, 20 years later, I’m witness to the inevitable reactionary backlash. Opinion pieces bemoan how the butt-kicking heroine archetype is just as limiting in its way as the “damsel in distress” trope it tried to subvert. Subscribers to this philosophy beg for fiction to showcase other types of female strength, arguing that traits like social smarts and empathy are just as powerful in their way as Alanna’s sword.

Between these two poles lies an obvious conclusion: female characters should not be reduced to binary behavioral blueprints any more than men and women should be. Instead of confining heroines to one extreme or the other, fiction should embrace the varied spectrum in between. Yes, Alanna is a strong heroine. So is Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. And Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series. There is no single template. Using these beloved literary ladies as exemplars, we can identify a trinity of key elements that demonstrate how to write “strong” female characters.

Gifts/Flaws

  • Dynamic characters possess potent mental or physical traits. We’re not talking arbitrary personality quirks, but deep, defining attributes that shape the story. Sometimes these traits act in opposition. Alanna possesses a powerful healing magic, but worries that using it will undermine her goal of becoming a knight. Elizabeth’s keen social insights elevate her from the petty dramas of her neighbors, but also lead her to misjudge others. Hermione’s brains and diligence earn her top grades (and frequently get Harry and Ron out of trouble), but at the price of toxic perfectionism. A strong character’s journey often involves achieving equilibrium between their gifts and flaws. Through their self-evolution, strong female characters drive their own destiny, exhibiting…

Agency

  • A well-crafted personality can’t simply exist on the page; strong female characters should further the plot with their actions. When Alanna gets bullied, she seeks out private training until she’s skilled enough to best her tormentor. Hermione convinces Harry to give secret lessons and organizes the rebellious “Dumbledore’s Army”. After Elizabeth compels Darcy to reveal Mr. Wickham’s history and decides to withholds the truth from her family, with devastating consequences. Good or bad, the heroine’s choices make the pages turn. At some point, she will almost inevitably challenge the rules of her environment. Alanna’s gender masquerade is a drastic example, but defiance can take subtler forms. Gown-and-bonnet-clad Elizabeth tests the rigid social mores of her Regency community with candid wit and refusal to compromise her personal integrity. Straight-A Hermione overrules her aversion to getting in trouble when the story calls her to break curfews or brew illegal potions. Pushing boundaries takes guts and initiative; more importantly, it risks failure. Thus one unifying trait of strong female characters is…

Resilience

  • A strong heroine doesn’t have to be invulnerable. On the contrary, she should fall sometimes…then muster the courage to get up, get better, and eventually overcome the obstacle. This cycle generates narrative tension—will she succeed?—and gets readers rooting for her. Besides, protagonists who quit don’t make much of a story. Imagine if Alanna had gone home wailing after her first sparring match; if Elizabeth gave in and married the obsequious Mr. Collins; if Hermione decided in her first year that the Hogwarts kids were too mean and transferred to a Muggle school. We’d have no character and no story. It’s not invincibility that makes a character strong, but persistence.

Does all this sound familiar? It should, because I’ve just described the foundational approach to any well-developed protagonist! Writing strong female characters entails no big mystery, no secrets closely guarded by some coven of haughty authoresses. It’s about applying fundamental story craft without gender bias. Write character, not chromosomes. Female characters are prone to some unique traps, however, which we’ll identify in the final post of this series.

Who are your favorite “strong” female characters, and what makes them so? Share in the comments!

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