Five Myths about Writing Strong Female Characters

Of all the overdone stereotypes currently at loose in literature and on the screen, the Strong Female Character annoys me the most. Strong Females have infested filmmaking to the degree that directors seem to think it’s no longer optional to include one. In hand-to-hand combat, a female warrior is often portrayed as equal, if not superior, to a male triple her size. Yet, despite the innumerable Strong Females marketed to us (Katniss, Jyn, Triss, Rey), I find myself struggling to relate to any of them.5_Myths_about_Writing_Strong_Female_Characters

I am aware that as a female I tend to be more critical of my own sex. I also acknowledge that although I am not capable of singlehandedly thwarting three armed assailants trying to steal my BB-8 droid, that does not necessarily imply no woman can. But in a culture proclaiming that gender is an arbitrary social construct while simultaneously bewailing a lack of female presidents, it is important that Christian authors reaffirm what it means to be a woman. Here is an opportunity for us to stand out from the empty noise by avoiding five common mistakes when writing Strong Female Characters.

1. All Females Must Be Physically Strong.

Strength has many forms. Both men and women can be mentally, physically, or emotionally strong. But rarely does someone possess all three traits. We prefer our heroes to be strapping and stoic, but there are also characters we admire just for their mental aptitude.

Regardless of Hollywood’s distortion, it remains an undisputed biological fact that men are stronger than women. Males have an average of twenty-six pounds (twelve kilograms) more skeletal muscle mass and sixty percent more upper body strength than the average female. Which is why scenes such as the one in Star Trek Beyond drives me crazy: when I see women like Officer Uhura take on more aliens at once than Captain Kirk and win using only her martial arts skills, I can’t help but sigh.

There are some logical exceptions to this. Female dragons (Saphira in the Inheritance Cycle) and elves (Tauriel or Galadriel from the movie adaption of The Hobbit) have no reason to be less deadly than their male counterparts. Even Black Widow in the Marvel movies has some justification for her fighting prowess given her upbringing with the Red Room and the KGB. But I think most can agree that magical beings and reformed Russian assassins comprise a relatively small proportion of the female population.

Furthermore, physical strength is not limited to fighting abilities. Guinevere, the servant girl from the BBC series Merlin, is not gifted with a sword or her fists. But slaving away as a drudge in the castle kitchens is certainly physically demanding, and this strength combined with her loyalty and endurance earns her a place as one of my favorite female characters.

2. Women Never Talk to Each Other.

You may have heard of the Bechdel test, a simple experiment mandating that a film contain at least two named female characters who have a conversation that isn’t about a man. This may not seem unreasonable, until you realize that only about half of films pass the test. Now try to think of a movie that wouldn’t pass an identical test for male characters.

Although I am not advocating the feminist movement by angrily demanding that all films be required to have equal gender representation, the fact is that many films and books are portraying an erroneous reality. As a woman, I can confirm that we talk to each other. A lot. And if you want to make your female characters three-dimensional, dialogue between them can be an excellent way to flesh them out.

3. Women Must Be Aggressively Dominant to Prove Their Leadership Skills.

Peggy Carter is celebrated by the Marvel fandom for being a feisty Strong Female Character in an otherwise all-male movie. But from her first moments onscreen her authority is questioned, and she is subject to several impertinent remarks from a newly recruited soldier. Her logical, clear-headed response is to punch him in the face.

Wait, what? When was respect ever earned by lashing out at someone under your authority? Writers usually reserve that behavior for villains.

Part of this problem is our culture’s misperception of manliness and the definition of a leader. First Timothy 3:1–7 shows that the qualifications for a godly authority figure is often a far cry from the conduct of leaders today.

“The overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.”

The most authoritative female leader I personally know is a five-foot-nothing former music teacher in her sixties, who now runs a tea room, loudly challenges the local government, and swears like a trooper (honestly, she’s terrifying). Writers can find better ways for their female characters to gain respect and loyalty than brute violence, but it takes creativity.

4. Strong Females Must Be Able to Do Everything a Guy Can.

Women in the west today supposedly have it better than any previous time in history. After all, a hundred years ago women still couldn’t vote, have credit cards in their own names, or attend prestigious institutions such as Harvard University. Women were even told not to ride steam trains when they were first invented since “women’s bodies were not designed to go at 50 miles an hour.”

With this increase in freedom has come an increase in pressure and expectations. It is no longer enough for women to be good mothers and housewives; now they are “wasting” their talents if they don’t pursue a career outside the home. This mindset has filtered into our fiction. Female characters must excel at their traditional feminine roles and put the boys to shame at masculine tasks such as hunting or fighting on the battlefield.

When have we ever expected a male hero to, in addition to saving the kingdom, practice needlepoint, enjoy ballroom dancing, and be able to sing Christine’s part in The Phantom of the Opera?

I’m all for bending clichés and ditching stereotypes. But when every female character despises sewing and longs to escape the confines of her patriarchal society, you’re not breaking gender stereotypes. You’re reinforcing them.

5. Strong Female Characters Need to Be Written.

If you read this article because your story is suffering from a dearth of females or because the Strong Female Character is currently selling well, you’re missing the point. We shouldn’t even be attempting to write strong female characters, we should be writing real ones. The thought process that you use to create a unique male character should be no different for a female one. What sets your characters apart? Is their point of view compelling? How do their beliefs affect their behavior?

Don’t fall into our culture’s lie that a woman’s value is determined by how rebellious she is or the number of evil minions she conquers. Men and women may not be identical in design and abilities, but we are of equal value in the one area that matters most.

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

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Sierra Ret — homeschool grad, camping fanatic, and amateur adventurer — joined the KP team as an intern a year ago and has since been promoted to Writing Team Captain, an honor equally thrilling and humbling. She enjoys both swinging in a hammock in the woods and hermiting behind a laptop screen with a mug of tea in one hand and a bar of dark chocolate in the other (something that tends to make typing difficult).
While the most recent plot in her long string of fantasies involves making a living as a travel blogger in New Zealand, she currently makes her home in Peterborough, Canada, a pleasant land that bears an uncanny resemblance to the Shire. But regardless of whether she eventually settles at home, abroad, or at the seat of government power in Ottawa, her chief aim is to live a passionate and meaningful life for the glory of God.
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  1. Mm. That point 5. That sums it up perfectly.

  2. This is really good and I so totally agree!

  3. Bravo, Sierra! This article is right on target.

  4. I agree with each point so much it’s hard to choose a favorite! But I’ll just chime in on how much the Bechdel test has been helpful for me in recognizing my own blind spots in writing. Keeping that in mind has helped me a lot in crafting better female characters.

  5. The last conversation I had with a woman was about Richard Dawkins. So it is possible for two women to talk “about a man” without it being what you first think of. As a matter of fact this particular conversation was mostly my frustration with his rudeness in one of his articles. He has no idea of chivalry.
    In one of my stories the MC, a woman, doesn’t do a whole lot of talking, and she does talk about men an awful lot, but in the context of apologetics (putting discussions of the Hypostatic Union under “men”), why she isn’t getting married, and about a certain married character’s apathy toward having children. Would this fail the Bechdel test?

    • @northerner Of course it’s possible for women to discuss men in a more impersonal way. It’s just that often the only conversation between women in a movie is about a male that one of them is likely in a relationship with. I’d have to read it to give you a proper answer about your story, but to me it sounds like discussing apologetics (mankind in general) would pass the Bechdel test. I should point out that the test is by no means a fail-proof method of testing a movie’s attitude towards women; it’s just an interesting trick that gets people thinking,

  6. Great article Sierra, as usual. I especially liked the ‘women never talk to each other’ point. So true. 😛
    And I actually really liked Jyn, personally. And Peggy, though she has her moments. *rolls eyes*
    With Jyn though, I felt that it was more a desperate sort of loneliness and a cynical view of the world based on the way the world had ruined her life. I actually related to her very well as someone who sometimes just wants to run— ‘It’s not a problem if you don’t look up’— but found something worth fighting for because of someone she loved. (Her father). She’s hard and she’s a loner, but she didn’t strike me as rebellious or pushy or even much of a leader, which I really liked.

    • I liked Peggy as well, aside for her aforementioned moments. Jyn didn’t personally speak to me, but I’ve only seen the movie once. I will be sure to analyse her more thoroughly next time 🙂

  7. Bethany Hope says:

    Awesome article! I love this line:
    ” When every female character despises sewing and longs to escape the confines of her patriarchal society, you’re not breaking gender stereotypes. You’re reinforcing them.”

  8. Thank you!! I have been feeling this in various forms for years but haven’t able to put it on paper well! The closest I’ve managed was making a list of my favorite, well-done female characters from the books I read, in the hopes that analyzing the list would give me something to go on 😉 This is much faster!
    I’d also like to add something else that infuriates me: when storytellers (writers and/or filmmakers) try to make a female look strong by making the guys around her pathetic. That really bugs me.
    Thanks so much for this post!

    • You’re more than welcome! This article is actually the result of several years’ worth of analysing female characters and it’s something I’ve struggled with a lot myself. Also, excellent point. That’s just another form of cheap storytelling.

  9. “We shouldn’t even be attempting to write strong female characters, we should be writing real ones.” Amen, sister. Amen. Loved this article; thanks so much for sharing it with us!

  10. This is so great. All of my current MCs’ being female, and expected to be ‘strong’, this is really useful for me to write realistic characters. It is also useful when I feel that I have to live up to unrealistic expectations from those around me. Thank you so much for writing this! It will help me both in my writing and in my personal life! <3

  11. this is great! I write with female heros almost all the time so i needed this 😺

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