How to write strong female characters is a question that shouldn’t really exist, but it does. The simple answer is: if you can write strong male characters, you can write strong female characters because, ultimately, a character is a character regardless of their gender. Having said that, it is still apparently an issue, so I searched two different terms to see how many results I got. The first—“write strong female characters”—yielded nearly 34,000 results at the time of writing. The second—“write strong male characters”—only came out with 3800 results when checked immediately afterwards. For these searches I made it so that I was only searching for those exact phrases, so every web page it linked to didn’t just have those words in a random order. Clearly, people are talking about writing strong female characters ten times as often as writing strong male characters, and quite a lot of the male articles that I then read were mainly discussing female characters too.
The first thing to take note of is what is actually meant by a ‘strong female character.’ It means a well-defined, three-dimensional character. It doesn’t mean physically strong. This is something that trips up a lot of novices and is one of the reasons that I personally don’t like the word strong in the term because—to some—it implies physical strength. That’s not to say that a strong character can’t be physically strong, but that isn’t what makes a character strong. Buffy is a pretty good example of this. She’s a physically strong character but she is also a strongly-written and portrayed character.
Before we start looking at what writing strong female characters involves, there’s one final point that needs to be made about what not to do. Before writing this, I looked at a couple of articles on this topic to back up my own understanding of the subject—something I usually do—and came across an article on the subject. Of the five tips that it gave about writing strong female characters, it referenced the woman’s looks, as a predominant point, in two of the tips.
Much like physical strength, your female characters can be beautiful, attractive, pretty or whatever positive adjective you like to describe their looks and still be strong, but they don’t have to be, and more importantly it cannot be a main feature. Assigning forty percent of your tips to a character’s appearance is not helpful. How they look is not who they are.
Then what does make a strong female character? It all boils down to three things: a motivation, an arc, and a personality.
Your characters need to have a motivation; a goal or desire to strive for. The motivation to attain said goal is what drives the narrative forward. This can be anything—defeat the monster, find their way home, solve the mystery, escape the killer, become president, whatever the character wants—and this is the reason that the story is being told. There will usually be one or more obstacles in the way of this; hurdles that the character has to overcome in order to achieve their goal. These hurdles can be physical or emotional, real or perceived, but they should be there as a result of actions or decisions the character, or other characters, have made. They will help facilitate the character’s growth, but that is not their reason for existing.
Without a character arc—where the character grows and develops—the story becomes quite flat. The character starts in one position and they must grow naturally through the story, from their approach to obstacles, to their drive towards their goal, to where they end up. Much like strong, I’m not a fan of the word growth in this context because it implies a positive change. Your character doesn’t have to evolve into something better, they can devolve into something worse and that is still growth, but there needs to be a journey of development.
Much like real people, your characters need to have a realistic, fluid personality that is shaped and influenced by their history, their actions, and the world around them. It’s not enough to say that your character doesn’t like authority; there needs to be a reason for each personality trait. This is where you can introduce flaws. No one is without personality flaws, so your characters should follow suit. Again, though, these flaws need to have a reason behind them. The character can’t just have a crippling self-doubt. Why is that there? It is usually—at least in part—these flaws that your character has to overcome which develops their character, which allows them to overcome an obstacle, which allows them to achieve their goal. Or, if you’re looking to devolve a character, they don’t overcome the flaw so they can’t overcome the obstacle, so the goal remains unattained. This personality reacts and interacts with the world as it does in real life. A person who vehemently hates authority won’t start working with authority just because the plot demands it. If they do there will be a considerable amount of internal conflict and the narrative will reflect this appropriately.
If you notice, when I started going into more detail about how to write strong female characters, I stopped talking about females. Writing a strong female character is no different than writing strong characters and the advice is exactly the same regardless of the character’s gender. A well-written, three-dimensional character should more than just feel like a real person to you and to your readers, they should be a real person.
© 2019 David Chitty
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.