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Actually strong female character.

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Ban, Aug 11, 2016.

  1. Ban

    Ban Sir Laserface Article Team

    Hello everyone!
    This should be a more straightforward question then my previous one on the use of violence (great answers btw).

    I have decided that I want a female boxer as a main character in a futuristic american fifties world. She should be a strong lead. However I abhor the stereotypical "strong" female character. Often these characters seem to not be strong at all and I can't figure out exactly why I feel that way.

    I have already decided that she will not be an emotional wreck. She has a functioning family and loves her career. What are some other clichés I should pay attention to?
    DragonOfTheAerie likes this.
  2. I too hate the "strong female character" stereotype. You're right, often these characters aren't strong at all, and i think it's because the "strength" is superficial or downright illusory.

    A "strong female character" is typically one who can fight and 'doesn't need a man.' A character who doesn't fight is rarely considered a 'strong female character.' That's ridiculous on many levels, but insane, unrealistic fighting skill is typically used as a substitute for actual strength.

    This is a problem in YA, but i don't know about elsewhere--trying to make female characters strong and emotionless, and going too far and making them sociopaths. 'Strong female characters' that don't care about their families or anyone they love, are abusive to everyone around them, are ridiculously prideful and spiteful, and don't listen to anyone are far too common. I've read books and found myself thinking "where are her feelings?"

    Apparently having feelings and the capacity to love makes you weak.

    On the other hand, you have characters who can beat up 12 guys in 30 seconds, but are weak, whiny marshmallows constantly poised to melt onto the bronzed chest of the nearest sexy male whenever something doesn't go their way. There isn't much of an in between.

    Personally, i like

    -characters that are competent and have skills, but not necessarily fighting
    -characters that actually love and sacrifice for their significant other/love interest, but don't depend on him to solve all her problems
    -that make mistakes, but don't pitch a fit about it and take responsibility for the consequences
    -that have feelings and are affected by them, but are able to pick themselves up and make clearheaded decisions at the end of the day.
    Ban likes this.
  3. Alile

    Alile Scribe

    I shall keep my point short and sweet (I'm only trying to be ironic in a friendly way and there is some seriousness to this): Assume she is male. :)

    No, really. This question is not at all easier than your thread about violence. Please let me ramble on for a bit, because I feel like voicing my thoughts could paint a larger picture.

    The world is populated by people. People usually comes in two genders. Male and female. It's been that way since the dawn of human kind. Yet we are not equal (not in our modern world - the reality readers and writers live in; not in literature or other art). Obviously we are not the same, but we're not that different either? What happened to us as one species to provoke forth a need for an Actual strong female lead in literature? How do we view women in our society and our art and our fantasy stories since there is a need for this thread at all? I'm sensing you feel there is a lack of strong, believeable female leads, so why is that, if not a symptom of the very world view and gender view we live in and nurture forth? (Our world question): So what is bred into us from culture and religion; the enironment we live in, and what is biological differences?
    And thus, how is your world different from ours? (Fantasy writing questions to be aware of). You don't need to have our world's unbalanced ideas about the genders. Imagine say a world where everyone believed in a Goddess and her Son for 2000 years. How would things have been different? Then women would be created in the image of the Goddess, and so forth with all the implications of this other religion.

    Why even today is a strong female lead difficult, filled with cliches and stereotypes? Do we, when we write, often put limitations on female characters? Or is it a lack of real-life role models that make our heroines un-believeable? Is it rather that our readers can't accept them as genuine and true, because of our real world? Is it because a different view of women and men just seem alien to readers and when women step out of their traditional role, it's just really uncomfortable and weird and un-normal and why should women need to be strong when there are men out there to protect them?

    Obviously gender roles and their limitations can be reversed, where men are allowed to cry just to take one example. But I'm not going to bother discussing the imminent need for a strong male lead (barf, just saying this proves my point I hope). Yes, a man in my story may have a female gender role, a woman character can have a male gender role.

    But what I like to think about is what unites humans of any gender, what makes us the same. Any human trait, action, speech, feeling, motive, beliefs, opinions, our building blocks and functioning... take any character and apply that to the character regardeless of sex. And also just take it for granted that this is the way it's supposed to be. Men and women might be strong in different ways, but they can be strong independant of their sex and also because of their sex.

    Look at your stereoptypes and how you really feel about them yourself. Ask why, and what makes them stereotypes? Then look at your cliche strong female leads. Again scrutinize yourself. I encourage everyone to question your own views of women, or in the broader sense, of genders and gender roles. And also be aware of how you write and how often you come across this. If you have a human being or a person in your book, you are already in this zone.

    Honestly, from the bottom of my heart, I do not think strong female leads are cliche yet.
    Carolyn and Ban like this.
  4. Ban

    Ban Sir Laserface Article Team

    Thank you for the suggestions DragonOfTheAerie, I fully agree with what you wrote.

    Interesting analysis Alile. I agree that it is important to remember how gender roles within the ficitional world are. The world in question is largely the way people from the fifties would assume the far future would be. Big machines, space travel, hovering vehicles, lots and lots of chrome, but with societal stasis. The nuclear family would still be the expected way to live. Husband goes to work, wife stays at home. So I wonder how I can write a strong female character with a good career in a stereotypically male profession in such a world. I am wondering how she can do her thing without the character turning into a walking social commentary on injustice.

    Oh and I definetely don't think strong female leads are or could ever be cliché, I just don't think they are done well in mainstream fiction. Great characters like Ripley exist ofcourse, but they are not the norm at all.
  5. Ireth

    Ireth Myth Weaver

    I'm not sure what to think about the title of this thread. Physical strength is not the be-all and end-all of "actual" strength. There's mental strength and emotional strength as well. A "strong female character" need not be an unbeatable warrior, but she should (imo) have perseverance and conviction at the very least.
    Ban likes this.
  6. Ban

    Ban Sir Laserface Article Team

    I hope the title isn't misleading.
    Just to clear things up. When I say "actually" I mean as opposed to stereotypical "strong" characters in alot of mainstream fiction. I was not at all referring to physical strength as "being be-all and end-all" (hope you don't mind me quoting you Ireth :) ). Personally I think emotional and mental strength is THE determining factor in how strong a character comes across, so thanks for the suggestions Ireth.
    Ireth likes this.
  7. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    I'll agree with Ireth here on physical strength does not a strong character make.

    IMHO, if you want to avoid cliche, stop thinking of your character as a the strong female character, and just think of them as a character. Think of them as a person first not a type.

    And remember, the image sold to us by movies and film about what the fifties, what any period in time, were like is not actually how the fifties were in reality. It's an exaggeration, a distilling of the essence into a more potent taste. So there are many directions you can take this.

    If you don't want it to be a walking talking political commentary, then don't make it one. Don't make gender the issue. Don't make all males chauvinists. Maybe make them the minority, but the minority that's accepted as OK. A vocal minority of opinion drowns out the majority if they remain silent, so don't give them a voice, or at least a loud one, or don't make the majority silent.
    Ban likes this.
  8. If you want to write about the 50's talk to someone who was alive during that time. They might be able to help.
    Trick likes this.
  9. Alile

    Alile Scribe

    I would read about the 50's and social life back then, maybe watch a few old movies to check out how they dressed and danced, make-up and hair styles, this was after all the early days of rock and roll and women were beginning to change the female role forever. The clash between the parent generation and the youths would likely be big. But read up on the history, mechanics, rules of boxing, anything to do with the sport, especially in the country your story is set.

    Quoting what I needed from Wikipedia here, this is the link. Women's boxing - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    In 1980, only 30 years ago, females went to hunger strikes to get noticed. Horrifying, isn't it? Equal rights did not come easy, right, if they are even there today, especially in sports. We still name it "women's football", "women's soccer", "women's tennis". I can't imagine what it would have been like in 1950 when those terms just didn't exist.

    I would think a lot of young girls hearing about your main character's profession would secretly admire it, or find it positively outrageous!, but from such a world I would expect a lot of negative reactions. From men giggling and ridiculing her "work", to those scorning her for it, to sexist remarks and leering. Women might think it very unappropriate, both because women aren't supposed to fight and be violent, the boxing clothes (she's not wearing a skirt), she's got to work for a living poor thing, who does she think she is, she should settle down... limitless possibilies. She would be the talk and the age of the women talking might dictate what's being said.
    I think how she copes with this would be important and possibly part of her strength.
    Who's your character boxing against? Men, women, both? In a lot of countries it was apparantly forbidden for women to do boxing at all.
    Ban likes this.
  10. Ban

    Ban Sir Laserface Article Team

    It seems like I gained better advice than I initially asked for. Nooo problemo

    Penpilot thank you for that comment. I really hadn't thought about it, that most people might simply be subjected to the whims of the vocal minority. When I envision previous generations I often end up viewing an era as if it was a monolith. One single entity, which ofcourse is a completely wrong way of reading history.

    Alile I am way ahead on you on the boxing research :0 used to do it myself. Write about what you know right :D . I really like your ideas here :) . Especially how in an age of oppression (of any kind) there will be people who agree with the status quo and people who disagree, even within the margenalized group. I like the idea of a growing fanbase of young people secretely admiring the character and her peers, while the older generations shake their head and reminisce on traditional values.

    I think I will combine your ideas. A traditional society in which most people don't really mind proffessional women's sports, but a vocal minority does. This should provide enough struggle to make the setting the way I want, while still allowing my character to be... well a character.
  11. La Volpe

    La Volpe Sage

    I think the best 'strong' characters aren't marked by their ability to behead orcs or any other specific skill, but rather by their ability and willingness to go after what they want.

    Proactivity, for me, is what makes a strong character, and that's pretty independent of gender.
  12. Russ

    Russ Istar

    For me strength is the ability to endure suffering and deprivation in pursuit of one's goals. Perhaps I am biased but I think women tend to be better at that then men.
  13. Holoman

    Holoman Troubadour

    I'm struggling with this myself. I have a big character who is a strong woman. She comes across initially as sociopathic, and emotionless, and generally kicks ass, but underneath she is very hurt and she just doesn't let out her emotions to anyone. Over the course of the story the MC gets an insight into her, and she shows some emotion but is very resistant to it. We learn why she is the way she is and hopefully the reader can empathise with her.

    I'm really hoping it doesn't come across as cliché, because she is one of my favourite characters.
  14. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    The trope about men don't cry irks me every time. It's not a gender attribute. There are plenty of cultures in which men cry freely. Even in European society, if you go back a few centuries, you can find strong knights weeping on every street corner. Okay, not literally because not many street corners, but it's there in the literature and it's represented as nothing shameful or even unusual. I view men-don't-cry as a peculiar modern aberration.

    As for having a strong female lead, you can't just decide that. She has to be strong *in the story*. It's all about what challenges you will throw at her, and how she responds. Real strength does not lie in never getting knocked down; real strength lies in how you get back up.
    Ban likes this.
  15. If she starts to open up to someone and heal, great. If the reader understands why she is the way she is, also great.

    But if her emotionlessness and sociopathic-ness is supposed to be what makes her strong or special, then that would be a red flag. Or, if she just is that way for no reason other than she's "stronger and better than those other girls that are controlled by their emotions." That's what i was talking about.

    My MC is very shy and doesn't open up to people easily, but she is also a dragon rider with terrifying powers. I wouldn't call her emotionless, though, she just doesn't like people very much, and prefers to keep to herself. Her powers and her position are rather contradictory to who she is as a person. She doesn't want to be important or feared.

    it's all in the way you do it, really.
  16. Holoman

    Holoman Troubadour

    Well when I say she's strong what I think I mean is that she's physically strong and can kick ass. She does have the emotional strength to keep on going after a lot of tragedies have befallen her. She's also very scared, but too proud to admit it to herself.

    A lot of people love her because she protects their towns. But she hates all the attention and generally shuns them all.

    I think she's based on me to be honest (except the strong warrior part lol). People generally think I'm cold and unresponsive, because I don't show emotions really, including positive like interest and happiness. I keep it all inside except for with people I'm very close to.
  17. same here. As much attention is drawn to our society's damaging ideas of femininity, i think our ideas of masculinity are just as ridiculous and damaging.
    Ireth likes this.
  18. Alile

    Alile Scribe

    Skip.knox said;
    To clarify, I wrote;
    Yes, the idea that men shouldn't cry is a thing in itself, but it is also an limitation in our society; gender roles, views of them and expectations within them. I'm aware. It's an example, I chose it to get a point through, but perhaps my wording wasn't careful enough.
    'To be honest, I only hope that in time you can get to be who you are, and realize yourself fully, no matter what gender you are. But I don't think we are there yet. However, in your own fantasy world, you get to decide this.
  19. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

    @ Dragon YES! I agree that's how I see a lot of "strong female characters" come off. They're better than "the other girls" because they're something special. It's so hard to differentiate how that impacts different female readers, but I wholeheartedly agree that execution is key, once again.

    I am busy writing a strong woman who is rather calculating and cold, but inside, she's very emotional. I perhaps based that off myself a little, because in my professional life, I'm unfazed and generally unable to be hurt by anything that happens or is said. The most I come to "being emotional" as a professional person, is that I sometimes get angry at times when personalities clash and perhaps when my expectations weren't met.

    But in my personal life...whole different story. I'm riddled with guilt and worried so deeply by some nonsense or the other (changes on any given day, but there are the oldies but goodies I lug around for months or years), and generally am squishy as a rotten plum. A single word of discouragement from someone I love can cripple me emotionally for weeks. Make me question whether I'm worth anything at all, and cause me to withdraw.

    I think when we show any character, it's important to give them hopes, fears, needs, and weaknesses. We all have them. I pasted an enneagram chart into my blank character sheet, to use as a reference any time I create a character and they don't feel really complete. It helps give me a cheat sheet where I can reference a personality type to which I don't belong.

    As far as writing strong women (I'm going by what agents have said on their blogs and sites), we shouldn't be aiming at how emotional a character is, but rather how much they are prepared to act. Plainly put, I see strength as determination, mettle, audacity, intelligence, competency, and so much more. Is a "weak" woman one that weeps uncontrollably, or marries the first man who offers to put her up comfortably in a house? I mean, what really defines strong and weak? I know plenty of real life men who do not choose to change their situations, but rather, settle and choose to not take a risk. That, to me, is a weak character in fiction. Whether your character is a woman warrior, or a woman baker, the thing that defines her as strong is how much she's willing to DO to get what she wants/ protect the things she holds dear/ attain the thing she wants to be/ etc..

    A character, man or woman, is a complex being with a full history and both short-term and long-term goals. In my book, opposite my calculating but emotional woman, is a man who comes off as sort of gruff, but inside, he mourns the loss of his wife and son, and desperately longs to be a father again. Maybe I'd have never come up with that on my own. It was my husband who taught me how softly a man's heart can beat when he yearns to love a child.

    A character should have something that makes them soft, and something that makes them strong. I feel like there are times I defer to others, and times I stand up and speak. Not all characters will react to the same things, and sometimes as the writer, it's really hard to write a character who's really different from you. I find that most of my male characters are perhaps more outwardly sensitive than most men would claim to be, but not necessarily more so than the wonderful male friends I have in my own life, who have shared honestly with me their feelings. And some of my women are more driven by their feelings (perhaps even compared to a sense of "normal"), while others lock that stuff up and throw away the key because it's a dog-eat-dog world for them, and weakness is a death sentence.

    What a great conversation.
    imagine123 and Ban like this.
  20. What I hate about the concept of "strong female characters" is that it implies that females aren't, generally, strong, and thus need an added qualifier. As if strength isn't typical of women, and whenever one is we have to specify that she's "strong." You'll notice that "strong male characters" aren't a thing, as if men are always or usually strong...?

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