What Makes a Strong Female Character?

What Makes a Strong Female Character?

In a recent article in Washington Monthly, Nancy LeTourneau wrote about how the web of ideas we have inherited from the patriarchy had distorted our idea of what it means to be a strong man.

What’s disturbing to me is that, in young adult fantasy fiction, the distorted notion of strength also warps how we imagine a strong woman. We have moved along from writing the female character as a damsel in distress, but instead we often borrow the limited notion of strength we impose on men and impose it on women too. For instance, when I searched on Amazon for “YA strong female character,” the first book that came up was one that promises the young woman character will engage in “a fight to the death.”

Ways to Be Strong

It isn’t that I think women should be physically weak or unable to defend themselves, but I object to that being the only measure of “strong.” I agree that we should see women soldiers mixed in with other characters. Why not? But there are other ways to be strong.

For instance, I can’t think of a time when a review used the word “strong” to refer to a female character taking care of children. My own experience says that’s a tough situation to be in. It takes a ton of strength! And in my most recent YA fantasy, The Wysman, two of the women characters are involved in child care.

Examining My Conscience

As I thought about this, I started examining my conscience about the female characters in The Wysman. The book has a male central character (should I feel guilty?), but three women play important roles: Adrya, Lineth, and Ellyn.

Adrya is the king’s Wyswoman, i.e, she’s his most important advisor. She’s teaching Jarka, the books main character, to succeed her. I must confess this character was originally male. But as I began revising the book, I realized I had too many powerful male characters and they were hard to tell apart. As I tried to figure out what to do about it, it occurred to me that there wasn’t a reason in the world that character had to be male. It’s just that, in our culture, the role is stereotypically filled by men. So Adrya came into being, and I like the character this way better. She’s a less generic advisor. And in her advisor position, she is plenty strong. She has influence and power by proxy.

Lineth is the prince’s love interest. Her father committed treason and for that reason, the romance between them has been made impossible. He’s out of town for most of the book, so she’s on her own. She takes the money she inherited from her mother and uses it to establish an orphanage for street children. She’s not someone who’d pick up a weapon unless she needed it for immediate defense, but I’d argue that she’s strong. Because of her father’s treason, she’s shunned. But rather than curl up and hide, she makes life better for children in need. The (male) central character thinks she’d be an ideal match for the prince, and she would.

Ellyn is a sixteen-year-old who works at the orphanage and is the love interest for the central character. Her father is a cutler and she carried a fine knife he made for her. The central character admires her ferocity. She’s not likely to ever become a soldier but why shouldn’t she be able to carry a knife anyway? No reason I can think of.

We Can Learn To Do Better

As my own doubts about my choices show, I know I’m influenced by the patriarchal culture I was raised in. But I hope I—we—are groping our way to doing better.

Women don’t have to be manly men. MEN don’t have to be manly men. What we should hope for is that all of us find ways to become fuller human beings.

4 thoughts on “What Makes a Strong Female Character?

  1. It amazes me how your stories always manage to connect with the deepest motives and the spirit of what it means being a good person at so many levels. I think that along the years your female characters were always strong ones so rethinking male characters into female ones comes naturally and perhaps adds a tad more nuance to them. Congrats!

  2. Great analysis, Dorothy. I was surprised when the king in The Wysman had a female advisor–just because it’s uncommon in real life, and probably shows my own cultural assumptions. But it played out quite naturally and did a lot to balance the male/female power structure of the society you were writing about.

    1. It was interesting to catch myself assuming the advisor had to be male. I don’t consciously think that, but there it was.

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