I’m drawn to strong female characters in books. I find their stories more interesting and engaging. This is doubly so when it comes to writing strong women characters.
Having listened to and learned from many great female fantasy writers about their experiences of representing women in fiction, I understand the areas in which things can go wrong. One particular issue for some men when writing women characters lies in the descriptions of women’s bodies, with a salacious focus on a woman’s curves.
The ridiculousness of such writing really hit home when I listened to a panel of female fantasy writers sharing their own bawdy descriptions of women writing men. And just as men focus on breasts, women focus on testicles and how they “brush” against everything.
As writers, we create people. What matters is who they are, not how big their balls or boobs are. For more hilarious descriptions of this ilk, check out Reddit’s r/menwritingwomen.
To help us navigate our way through these issues, I’m delighted to present this guest article by USA Today bestselling author, Michelle Pennington, which you can find below.
Notwithstanding the great strides we’ve made in recent years to put an end to such nonsensical and offensive descriptions of women, there are still issues in how strong female characters are portrayed, and this can be particularly the case in the fantasy genre.
Strong Female Characters in Fantasy Fiction
The fantasy genre has a checkered past when it comes to the portrayal of strong female characters. The archetypal strong female protagonist may be scantily clad in fantasy armor that does more for their cleavage than offer protection.
So often, fantasy writers think that only women characters that can fight are deemed “strong”, disregarding any of the other variations of strength that we can show in our lives. For instance, a strong resolve against hardship or strength of will when faced with illness or insurmountable odds. Strength doesn’t always refer to physicality.
To delve deeper into the issues, I’m thrilled to hand the reins over to bestselling author, Michelle Pennington who’s very kindly penned an article brimming with insights.
Strong Female Characters In Literature
So often when I hear people discussing female characters, they always say that they want more strong heroines. Most writers, including me, want to write strong heroines. However, so many storytellers miss the mark.
I’m always hearing movies, books, and shows touted as having “strong heroines”. More often than not, I’m left supremely disappointed. Why is it that so many storytellers—in various mediums—fail at something that should be so easy?
My conclusion is that they failed to understand what makes a woman strong.
For example, is it having equal strength or physical prowess to their male counterparts? Is it being tough, cold-hearted, and independent? Well, they can certainly have and be all those things, but I would argue that those things don’t make male characters “strong characters” in the way people mean either.
Examples Of Strong Women Characters
When writing strong female characters, it helps to explore some examples. When Disney’s live-action “Mulan” came out, I was incensed that their idea of making the titular character “stronger” was giving her superpowers that made it unnecessary for her to work hard, grow, or overcome anything hard. She started out powerful and stayed that way.
If you’ll remember the animated movie, Mulan was physically weak, struggled with endurance, and had no fighting skills. The things that made her strong were her courage and willingness to sacrifice for her family. Those two qualities meant something because she had truly difficult circumstances and enemies to win against. And she did. In the end, we adored her because of how she earned the title of a kick-butt heroine.
Just recently, a new version of “Cinderella” came out on Netflix. I won’t go into a full review of the show or anything, but I want to point out that in this instance too, in trying to make Cinderella a more powerful, girl-boss kind of female character, they watered down almost everything from the original story that made her BECOME the strong character she was.
Poverty, bullying, social class, and being an orphan were the obstacles she had to climb over to get to her happily-ever-after. They focused mostly on gender inequality, and even that was done in a weaker way. Believe me, most of us would have been bitter, petty, greedy, and lazy if we’d had to live Cinderella’s life, but she wasn’t! Marrying the prince was NOT the victory in her story.
When watching “Sheng Chi” with my husband—which does have strong female characters by the way—he turned to me and murmured that he was frustrated that the big, bad monster was beaten so easily. I whispered back, “This movie wasn’t about slaying the dragon.”
“Oh, you mean it’s about the metaphorical dragons.”
Different Kinds Of Strong Female Characters In Books
Heroines don’t have to slay dragons to be strong, though of course, they might do that. Even if a prince comes in to protect and defend them, it doesn’t necessarily strip them of their power, courage, or resilience. In fact, there is nothing better than strong male and female characters working together and complementing each other.
Strong female characters begin with weaknesses, flaws, and obstacles that they have to overcome. It’s the internal journey of growth that makes characters resonate with us. It’s seeing them struggle, hurt, fail, fall down…and then pull themselves to their feet again that makes us cheer for them and love them.
It’s just like developing muscles, which you can only do by working them repeatedly and breaking them apart so they can come back stronger. Also, it’s important to note that there is no one, single way to be strong. Ways to be strong are as varied as the challenges that we face.
What we really want is for fiction to reflect what we see in the real world—because strong women are all around us.
I saw it in my mother as she worked so hard to raise her five kids on her husband’s teacher’s salary—canning, sewing, making everything from scratch, and counting her pennies to buy birthday and Christmas presents.
I’ve seen it in my mother-in-law when she battled with breast cancer and grieved the loss of her husband. I’ve seen it in my sister when she struggled with infertility—and in the resilience and courage of her daughters that she adopted through foster care. I’ve seen it in my own daughters as they’ve faced bullying, insecurities, and losing friends to suicide. And when I give myself credit, I even see it in myself.
Great Female Characters Are All Around Us
Strong heroines aren’t hard to find in real life. The reason so many stories fail to deliver them is that the writers failed in the most important step… recognizing what it is that makes women strong. Because of that, they usually make things easier for them.
This is why I’m not afraid to give my strong female characters weaknesses, flaws, and struggles. Making life hard for my female characters will make them as powerful and courageous as the women I love and treasure in my real life.
About Michelle Pennington
Michelle Pennington is a USA Today Bestselling author of clean romance across multiple genres: Romantic Comedy, Young Adult, Contemporary, Regency, and Fantasy. The genre might change, but her characters will always be falling in love.
Michelle spends her days quoting movies with her husband and making messes faster than her four kids. She used to have a lot of hobbies, but now she’s mostly just addicted to k-dramas.
Her mission is to help you escape from life for a while and slip into a world of laughter, romance, swoony kisses, interesting characters, and the promise of a happily-ever-after.
Michelle also teaches and mentors other authors as one of The Writing Gals.
Look for The Writing Gals on Facebook and YouTube
Other Resources On Writing Strong Female Characters
If you’d like to learn more about writing strong female leads in books, or you’re looking for examples of strong women characters, then these other resources may be of use:
Remember, if you need any help writing about strong female characters, you can contact me, join my online writing group where you can access our Discord server, or post a comment below.