Calling a popular female character “strong” is almost redundant, and yet when we think of fictional role-models that are girls, that’s often the term we use. If, however, someone was talking about a “strong male character”, more than likely our thoughts would go straight to someone like Captain America or Superman; someone who is not only perceived as purely good, but as physically capable. A male character who is not physically strong but intellectual, compassionate or tactical, they’re often only perceived as just smart or just kind, like we forget those are their own strengths.
While there are plenty of examples of physically strong women, the term is no longer a requirement. Perceptions hold a huge place in society, and as societal roles can change throughout thousands of years, so too can our perceptions. Although we’re not at a perfect place, hell, not even a good place, in terms of equality, there are strides we can make towards change. Something as simple as creating a strong woman role-model can affect not only how young boys perceive women, but how girls can see themselves.
As a disclaimer, although writing this mostly from a man’s perspective, I have been talking to members of my family and my friends about what strength in fictional representatives means to them in order to view things from both sides.
Writing like a man
One of the original purpose’s for this article was simply to help diminish the sheer quantity of bad writing from men trying to write women. The most common fault here is also the most egregious, and it’s that most male writers have a tendency to (occasionally unintentionally) oversexualise their main characters for seemingly no purpose. Every avid reader has had a point where they’ve began reading a story from a female’s perspective for it to jump to her talking about her breasts, figure and legs, only for us to whip the cover round and see it was written by a 40-year old man. It’s absolutely okay to state your character is beautiful, but giving excruciating detail about her breasts and hips serves nothing but to live out your own seedy fantasies. We should be drawn to a character for their voice and the decisions they make, not for a vaguely ‘sexy’ description.
In cases where the main character is male, it’s a frankly astoundingly common trope that is prevalent in huge amounts of media to introduce a beautiful woman and have her serve only as a love-interest. No arc, no distinct character trait other than being in love with our dashing hero and being very beautiful, and often only their for the hero to bounce off of before the third arc and help him shape his decision as to whether or not he should go fight the big bad or not. A common trope of this that gained popularity since the early 00’s is that of a ‘Manic-Pixie-Dream-Girl’, a quirky-girl-next-door type who rebels against the ideals of our protagonist and teaches him that the ideals he initially held were wrong. This character-trope quite rightly earned a lot of criticism when coined, as it is the idea of a woman who exists only to make a man appear as a hero, leading to real-world consequences that a man could only be happy and become who he is destined to be once he finds his MPDG, which can alter how young-men perceive women int he real life, suddenly seeing them as ‘supporting’actresses’ to their story, and that they will just ‘appear’ and make life better for them with no minimal effort from their part.
‘If we take a step back for a second and say that a female character has been written, and for all purposes she is smart, witty and likeable, but she needs an arc, some adversary to go through to show change and show that inner-strength we are searching for; but how do I go about it? For many male writers there is only one answer to that, and that answer is sexual assault. Of course, writing about sexual assault can be an extremely important thing. Writing about it can greatly educate a multitude of people, in the many forms it can appear and the devastating effects it can have on a person, but as with all things, it should be done with extreme care and for the right reasons. Using it solely as a plot device to throw at the character to deal with can be an appalling thing to do, and potentially very insulting to every survivor out there. Wanting your character to undergo adversity is important when writing, but wanting to throw sexual violence at them because it’s simply the worst thing you can think of is not the way to go. If we as writer’s feel the need to write about something as serious as rape and sexual abuse, it should be to open discussions about how we let something so abhorrent run through our society, with he focus being on the victim, not the act.
It can seem silly that a fictional character can inspire and shape the future generations of our world, but it’s an obvious truth in this day and age. We’re saturated with media of all kinds that acts as a shelter and escape from the constant doom&gloom broadcast from the media. The outside world can be a scary place, full of misery and strife, and when you’re younger you look to people who can weather that for inspiration, and sometimes they tend to be superheroes or a Disney princess.
Our minds are so easily swayed by this kind of thing in fact, it’s important to have characters that people can aspire to be. This is why the MPDG trope is so problematic, as it can send a message to girls that they are only there to support and save a man, when really we should be showing them they can be heroes and they are the stars of their own stories. This might all sound obvious to some of you, yet we’re still in a world where I can count the number of Female-led superhero films on one hand.
This is why i think Disney films have been so popular since their Renaissance after The Little Mermaid. They had girls as the main characters before, but they had just the minimum of personality. While most subsequent films in their library since then did still have to revolve around a romance with a man they had only known for a short while, they slowly started to break from that tradition, showing instead that relationships with family, friends and their true-selves are much more important, which in a lot of ways, they are.
We all like to see a sexy bad-ass action star I’m sure, for some people this might be equally inspiring, teaching people that martial-arts and physicality aren’t gender exclusive, however this lacks a certain broad appeal. Many people who need to escape from reality aren’t reliant on their physicality, and find themselves in situations where they have to be resilient and tenacious just to get by. It’s situations like these, where we can’t just karate-chop an obnoxious customer or misogynistic boss in the throat, that are more common in our day-to-day lives, and teaching people how to be strong in times like that are the most important.
From a writers perspective, it’s admirable to aim for something so influential, but having someone so perfect and idealistic just isn’t good writing. Their true potential should be part of their arc, regardless of gender. They need flaws, adversity, but it’s how they overcome these and change over the story is how they become what we are aiming for; strong.
Having a character overcome the same insecurities and problems that everyone has, and indeed the ones that only women experience, is how we grant them strength. Showing a young girl that it’s important to have confidence in yourself, and yet accept help from those who truly love you, and how to cut ties with people who only want to use and manipulate you, can change everything.
Sometimes strength is presented in a young woman character by having them act headstrong, stubborn and rash is very common. This can be seen as an effort to make them appear ‘tomboy-ish’, almost like some people are subconsciously developing gender-neutral characters in their head, or just thinking of them as anatomically different male characters. Finding a way to embrace the traits and quirks of your character is important, and embracing the fact some people lean towards things that are known in our society as distinctly belonging to one gender of the other is too, however it doesn’t have to be presented as a defining trait. Humans are complex, multi-layered creatures. A girl can and should enjoy things that are known as solely-feminine, but also enjoy things we tend to label as masculine, like sports, video-games and beer.
Sometimes strength can be presented in the wrong way. It’s not a plot-point and it shouldn’t be conceived as purely a selling-point for people to read your stories, it should be because you want your character to become strong, and you want everyone else in your life to be too. Men and women will always have different struggles throughout life, and while we can’t always relate to eachother, empathy is an important part of making strong women characters who we not only want to journey with and read, but who we want our next generation of daughters to as well. We want to write characters who tell them;
“Yeah, life sucks sometimes. Sometimes it’s downright horrible, but if I trust in myself and the people who love me for me, I’ll get through it. I can get through anything.”
And that’s very important.
This article wasn’t written for the sake of social-politic argument, but rather how we can make efforts to create more realistic and inspiring characters for the sake of escape. As a man, do you think I’ve missed the mark here? Do you disagree with any points? Who is the most inspiring female character to you? Let’s talk about it!