Creative Writing Tips: On Strong Female Characters

I just love this picture!

While I’d never claim other genres don’t have their share of strong, female characters, I think fantasy literature is unique in how strong women proliferate throughout. In fantasy, women are warriors, sorceresses, seers, and beloved leaders–queens and princesses–with spines of steel. Fantasy lit gives us Eowyn, and Hermione Granger. It gives us Molly Weasley (come on, who DIDN’T cheer when she burst out with “Not my daughter, you b#$#%!”)

While that is all well and good, the fantasy “strongwoman” can become bland, cliché, and one-dimensional if an author isn’t careful.  I figured for today’s post I would write some tips for crafting great female characters, in fantasy or any other genre of novel that you write.

  1. MAKE YOUR FEMALE CHARACTERS STRONG IN MORE THAN ONE WAY. There are many kinds of strength: there is sacrificial strength, being willing to suffer loss for the good of others; there is cunning, daring, and intelligence; there is perseverance, a strong-willed determination to overcome adversity no matter how bad things get; there is physical strength and adeptness at arms. And that list does not end there. A major way to avoid a one-dimensional character is to make her strong in multiple areas, which will flesh her out and make her more like a real person. (My protagonist, Kora Porteg, comes from humble roots, but she’s a sorceress who is also devoted wholeheartedly to her family and she definitely perseveres through some horrible stuff.)
  2. GIVE HER SOME WEAKNESSES. Those strengths above? Your awesome lady shouldn’t have them ALL. We all have flaws and things we’re just not good at. Maybe she worries too much; maybe she doubts her ability to complete her task and journey; maybe she’s not as schooled as would be useful, or has never picked up a sword in her life despite living in a world dominated by swords and sorcery. Maybe she thinks of herself a little bit too much…. You get the idea. Any character who isn’t human in some of these ways is completely unbelievable, in a bad way. (Kora, for instance, isn’t booksmart, and her phobia of heights becomes a REAL problem for her.)
  3. REDEMPTION NEVER GETS OLD. A character trying to overcome a past she’s not too proud of is always interesting, and something worth reading about, because we’ve all done things we’re not proud of.  Maybe she abandoned a friend, or spurned a lover, and feels guilty. Maybe she’s doing her part to save the world because she helped to screw it up in the first place!
  4. NO ONE VIEWS HERSELF AS A SIDEKICK/AS SECONDARY. This was a point I read in Stephen King’s “On Writing,” and it really stuck with me. Your protagonist is your protagonist, sure, but in real life, doesn’t EVERYONE consider herself the important person? The one who matters? Remembering this can go a long way to help create a strong, well-developed supporting cast for your hero or heroine. If a sidekick will sacrifice time, energy, and perhaps risk her life for someone else, then she has to have a reason and she’d probably not be too thrilled about the task at hand. That needs to come across.
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6 responses to “Creative Writing Tips: On Strong Female Characters

  1. Brilliant post! I loved every word. As a writer myself with not just one but 2 “strong female characters” I also personally had to learn these. But, I hope you won’t be offended if I make a couple of suggestions to add to this. Also don’t forget to be mindful of the character’s feminity as well. A lot of writers get the misconception that feminity is a bad thing and can only be shown by the way of cliche. You know, the being defined by having a relationship, the traditional mother, nurturing role which is conveyed by making the character loving and comforting all the time. They forget that in real life that a women can be feminine AND strong at the same time. She can take out a group of advisories in a fight and intimindate with the even most intimidating male imaginable yet be gentle, comforting, compassionate and empathic in another or even at the same time. Matter of fact, that can be said for any character, female or male. The other suggestion is to look at the people in your home, life and community for inspiration for character traits. Piece together traits, both strengths and weaknesses, from multiple people in real life into the character. That also helps with authenticity. It helps with coming up with the wording on how to show and describe a character trait by having personally witnessed it. Just don’t get all the traits of a single character from a single person.

  2. Brilliant post! I’m writing a sci-fi project right now and found every word helpful, especially as a bloke trying to develop some strong female characters. Thank you!

    • Glad I could help, Gerry! Best of luck: sci-fi is a lot of fun!!! If you want examples of strong female characters who are very human from SciFi try the Doctor Who reboot and his first three companions: Rose, Martha, and Donna.

      They are all strong in their way and yet also have realistic weaknesses.

  3. Amy Pond! Dr Who’s Amy Pond is AWESOME as a strong female character. My favourite of all so far.

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