What Constitutes A “Strong Female Character” and Why They Are Important

Obviously, I love to read — I mean, I wouldn’t be writing this blog if I didn’t have an obsession over glorious, glorious books! But, do you want to know one of the many elements that makes me fall so deeply in love with a book? When the book possesses strong female characters!

Though, lately, I have been thinking a lot about what constitutes a strong female character. And as a result, this post was born.

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SO, WHY ARE STRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS IMPORTANT TO ME?

Well, one of the most annoying character tropes (for me, anyway) is the cliched “damsel-in-distress”. I don’t enjoy reading about female characters that constantly need to be rescued by man or are passive characters in the story. Why is this? Well, because damsel-in-distress type characters are not relatable to me. And I love reading about characters that I am able to relate to.

I was raised by an extremely strong woman. My mother is my role model, a woman that I strive to emulate in some way, and the strongest woman that I know. She has raised me to be strong, to take control of my life, to work hard for what I want and love myself for all my imperfections. Because of her, I feel like I am a better person. And if I become as half as strong as she is, I will be incredibly lucky.

Because I have been raised this way, I have always endeavoured to look for strong women to be inspired by. Growing up, I watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed; I watched Battlestar Galactica in college; and now I religiously watch Orange is the New Black. Why do I watch Orange is the New Black? Well, because — in my honest opinion — it wonderfully represents the strength of real, life-like women. They are women that I would love to someday emulate, because they are self-confident, possess inner strength and strive to be fierce, whilst also being deeply flawed and human.

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So, this damsel in distress type characters go against everything that I have been raised to believe.

WHAT ISN’T A STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER?

In order to understand what a strong female character is, it is important to understand what a strong female character isn’t.

In my opinion, a strong female character is not the complete opposite of a damsel-in-distress. She doesn’t have to be fearless, unemotional or flawless. She doesn’t have to know how to be kick-ass and fight crime. She doesn’t have to wear leather, don a bunch of weapons or be a tough-chick stereotype. And being a strong female character doesn’t automatically make them a bitch.

And, perhaps most importantly, SHE SURE AS HELL DOESN’T HAVE TO REJECT HER FEMININE QUALITIES AND BE MASCULINE.

THAT MEANS, DON’T FOLLOW THIS AWFUL PIECE OF WRITING ADVICE!

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I’m always on the prowl for writing advice, especially when it comes to writing and developing characters. And some of the worst writing advice that I have ever seen was the following: to write strong female characters you must write them like men. Um, what the hell? This is not good advice. THIS IS UTTER CRAP.

Women do not need to be written like men to be strong. Everyone is strong in their own right. One gender isn’t stronger than the other.

SO, WHAT CONSTITUTES A STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER? WELL, A STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER IS A CATALYST!

In my opinion, there is one sure way to write a strong female character or to identify a strong female character: a strong female character is someone that is a catalyst. This means that she is an active agent in the development of the story, her actions influence the plot and her decisions contribute to moving the story forward. A strong female character is not a passive object.

I love reading about women in fiction, or watching women in television, who take control of their lives and their destinies. These women are catalysts. They don’t sit back and wait for somebody else to change their lives, THEY DO IT FOR THEMSELVES. (But that doesn’t mean they don’t ask for help. They aren’t afraid to admit when they need some assistance.)

BUT, IT IS IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER THAT STRONG DOESN’T EQUAL PERFECT!

Just because a female character is physically, mentally and emotionally strong, does not mean that they have to be perfect.

Characters that are interesting are three-dimensional, life-like and very relatable. They possess strengths and weaknesses, and flaws that make them seem more human. To be strong doesn’t mean to be god-like or put on a pedestal or free of flaws. In fact, to be strong means to keep fighting when the going gets tough.

Think Katniss from The Hunger Games. She is obviously strong physically and she kicked butt, however she was also a very flawed young woman. And those flaws never made her less of a strong female character. In fact, it made her relatable. It made her more realistic.

One of the best transformations on television is the development of Laurel Lance on the show, Arrow. I understand that there is an argument about whether or not the character was treated unfairly by the writing staff — but that’s not what I want to talk about. Instead, let’s think about Laurel in an entirely new light. Let’s consider her as the strong female character that I believe that she is.

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Laurel begins Arrow as nothing more than Oliver Queen’s love interest. But she develops into a surprisingly interesting, intriguing character. She loses her sister, she watches her family fall apart and she struggles with alcoholism. Her life seems to be spiraling out of control… and then she decides to take control of her life and honour her sister’s memory by becoming the Black Canary. It is through adopting the persona of the Black Canary that Laurel really begins to take control of her life.

The point that I am trying to make is that whilst Laurel doesn’t start out the series as a leather-clad superhero doesn’t mean that she isn’t a strong female character. And just because she went through a difficult period in her life doesn’t make her a weak character. She doesn’t sit back and wait for somebody to change her life for her, she fights for herself (not listening to Oliver’s objections). This is one of my all time favourite character transformations, and if you would like to see a video of Laurel’s development, definitely check out this video:

WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO HAVE STRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS IN LITERATURE?

As a book community, we all know how influential literature is. Not only does literature entertain us, but it teaches us. And it presents a representation of the world around us. It has an important role to play.

Firstly, having strong female characters are important for young female readers. This is because strong female characters demonstrate that you should feel comfortable in your own skin, feel secure in your identity and fight for your happiness. Nobody else is going to make these things happen for you. Through creating active agents in stories, authors can demonstrate to a young female audience that you must fight for yourself and your happiness.

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Some of my most favourite characters are ones that I aspire to be like, or ones that I can relate to. Characters that I can form a special connection with are ones that always stay in my heart. Strong female characters that are comfortable in their sexuality and ethnicity, that love themselves despite their flaws, that have a healthy relationship with themselves, and aren’t afraid to ask for help, provide wonderful role models to young female readers.

And secondly, they teach young men to respect and appreciate everything that a woman has to offer. Like I stated above, whilst literature entertains us, it also teaches us. We either consciously or unconsciously incorporate what we read/watch/hear. That means that it is important to portray women are three-dimensional and life-like, because it demonstrates to young men that a woman’s actions are influential and that they have a lot to offer.

WHO ARE MY FAVOURITE STRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS IN YOUNG ADULT BOOKS?

throneofglass1Celaena Sardothian in Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas

If you follow this blog regularly, you probably already know my infinite love for the beautiful, strong and capable Celaena Sardothian. Sarah J. Maas has done an incredible job at portraying Celaena in a totally relatable light (she may not be from the same world that we are, but it is possible to relate to her despite that). Yes, she is an assassin and does kind of fit into that “tough-chick stereotype” I mentioned above, but she is a character that has grown and developed realistically throughout the entire series so far. She is emotional, she is passionate and she is, without a doubt, a catalyst in this story. She moves the story forward, her actions have consequences that change and move the story forward. She isn’t a passive object, but rather an active agent.

markofathenaAnnabeth Chase in The Mark of Athena (or any Percy Jackson book) by Rick Riordan

I absolutely love the characterisation and development of Annabeth Chase. She is a wonderful example of a strong female character, especially one that appreciates brains over beauty. Without question, Annabeth is a catalyst in this story. Yes, the gods seemed to have her destiny known, but Annabeth doesn’t let that decide her fate. She goes on a mission by herself, uses her intelligence to solve the many mysteries of this book, and is beyond courageous. I don’t think that anyone could argue that Annabeth is a passive character. Without her actions in this book, the overall storyline really couldn’t have moved forward, thus demonstrating that Annabeth is definitely a catalyst.

mirrorempireThe Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

This book is full of strong female characters that take their destinies and fates into their own hands, they fight for their futures, and they don’t let other people decide the outcome of their lives. They are, in my opinion, very strong female characters because they are true catalysts. In fact, her story totally turns female and male stereotypes on their heads — with females in the roles of males, and males in the roles typically given to females. This means that males are often depicted in the roles of “damsels in distress”. If you are looking for female characters that really take their lives into their hands, then Kameron Hurley is a wonderful author that manages to capture strong female characters in a beautiful way.

harrypotter1Hermione Granger in The Harry Potter Series by J. K. Rowling

Hermione Granger is perhaps the best role model that any young female reader could possibly have. Hermione began as an intelligent and know-it-all young girl who, whilst struggling to find her place in the world, always stayed true to herself. Throughout the series, she grew and developed into a beautiful, compassionate and determined young woman who continued to value her intelligence and loved herself. Additionally, what else remained was Hermione’s strong convictions and powerful beliefs. Hermione is a wonderful example of how a strong female character does have to wield a sword to be strong. Instead, she values intelligence, and she doesn’t allow herself to change in order to please other individuals.

gameofthronesThe Women of A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

I am positive that any other Game of Thrones fan would agree with me when I state that this book series has a number of strong female characters. This is in a world where men rule and are considered to be superior compared to women. But there are so many wonderful female characters in this series that are just as, if not more so, strong as the men. They are, once again, another wonderful example of women being strong without having to wield a sword or be a tough-chick stereotype. A lot of these female characters are mentally strong, very strategic and they know how to manipulate others in order to get what they want. They are not passive characters, but rather active agents whose actions move the story forward.

WHAT ARE YOUR OPINIONS? WHAT DO YOU THINK CONSTITUTES A STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER? WHO ARE YOUR FAVOURITE STRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS? TELL ME IN THE COMMENTS BELOW!

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31 thoughts on “What Constitutes A “Strong Female Character” and Why They Are Important

    1. Yes, that is definitely my biggest pet peeve. I cannot relate to or enjoy a character that is passive or simply lets others decide their fate. I love reading about characters that take action and make their own destinies, where their actions have consequences and influence the movement of the plot. Thank-you so much for reading and commenting! 🙂

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  1. A lovely post, your message about your mum is also beautiful. I love strong female characters, my favourites are: 1) Hermione Granger for the same reasons you mention in your post, she values intelligence. I love J.K Rowlings message that you can be as strong as someone with a sword if you use your mind. It’s also a great message for young girls, when society is telling us that its ‘nerdy’ and ‘uncool’ to want to learn they can see Hermione as a role model.
    2) Katniss Everdeen, I love Katniss for numerous reasons mainly because she protects her family from her instincts, she’s smart and also isn’t the character type to reject her feminine traits. She is determined to do what’s right and whether that means her death then so be it.

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    1. I agree with you 100%. Hermione and Katniss are excellent role models and their authors did a fantastic job at portraying two completely different characters as both strong females. This further demonstrates how writing a strong female character can be really complex — they don’t need to be wielding a weapon to be strong. 🙂

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  2. UGH I AGREE WITH THIS SO MUCH. I hate when people think a female character isn’t strong because she’s not beating people up and being snarky and wearing leather. Diverse women characters are what we’re after, we just want female characters in all different forms!

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    1. Exactly! I think a lot of people fail to see that a woman can be strong without being sarcastic, unemotional and flawless whilst dressed in leather and throwing punches. I like to see female characters that are strong for different reasons. Thank-you so much for your comment! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post, Madeline! I agree completely with your point that strong female characters don’t have to be fearless or unemotional – I think there’s a tendency to equate emotions = weakness, but it really isn’t. And that’s a good point too about them not needing to be a bitch!

    I actually don’t like Celaena at all but I agree that she was an active agent. 😛

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    1. Thank-you so much! I definitely agree with you that some people seem to think that when a character, or a person, shows emotion they are weak. So, I think it is important to be writing characters that are strong and whose actions influence the plot that are emotional in order to challenge that idea.
      And yeah, I know a lot of people that don’t like Celaena and I understand why. I wouldn’t say that she is the most likeable character, but I absolutely love how she isn’t a passive character. Thanks so much commenting! 🙂

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  4. Oh em, I loved this post very much. YOU COMPLETELY SLAYED THE TOPIC! I don’t even know what to say because you adequately summed up my feelings regarding strong female characters. I particularly liked how you acknowledged the false dichotomy between femininity and masculinity because you are absolutely right. No gender is stronger than the other! And to write about feminine strength does not mean trying to be more like men. That’s ridiculous.

    Also, I loved that you included A Game of Thrones! I’ve yet to read the book. It’s waiting on my desk. But I am obsessed with the series! Daenerys and Arya are my all-time favorite characters!

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    1. Wow, thank-you so much, hun! I am so happy that you loved this post.
      I don’t know how many times I have come across writing advice that tells aspiring writers to write their women characters like male characters. And it just makes me so angry! Any writer that comes across that kind of advice needs to ignore it completely.
      And yes, Daenerys and Arya are two of my favourites as well. Despite how awful she can be, I also love Cersei. She is written incredibly well. And they all are catalysts — they make things happen, and don’t wait for somebody else to do so.
      Thanks so much for commenting! 🙂

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  5. I like this particular take on ‘strong’ female characters because so many people who want this don’t talk about 3-dimensional, realistic characters. They just want a female who is physically strong, learns to fight at the drop of the hat, and doesn’t need a man (ever), which is actually one of the biggest problems I think with the ‘strong’ female character persona we’re bringing to women nowadays.

    So many of the books I’ve read with ‘strong’ female characters have made the female characters literally oblivious to men (or women or anything in a sexual reference). Most of these characters in their teens, meaning they have raging hormones and yet they don’t recognize the attractive characters around them. I’m not saying they need to fall all over the characters, but acknowledging that they can be attracted to someone is just as important as being ‘strong’. After all, they’re only human.

    Humans don’t learn to fight in a week. They don’t bounce back from traumatic events like a freakin’ super ball. They need time, they need help, they need something to fight for and these are the things that make them strong, but in becoming strong, they shouldn’t lose their realism. They can’t be oblivious to everything that isn’t their cause because that’s unrealistic. Even heroes, executives, world leaders, are always thinking about other things besides the most important thing.

    So why can’t our ‘strong’ females do the same? Why can’t they be willing to risk their lives for the ones they love and flirt with the attractive guy (without being all instalovey because that’s the extreme too many authors take. ugh). I think we are still working on finding a happy medium for ‘strong’ female characters, but in the meantime, I think we need to start focusing on our titles of them. They should no longer be ‘strong’ female characters, but ‘realistic’ female characters. That should be what we’re striving for.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your comment is absolutely beautiful and wonderful and just… wow. I agree with everything you have said. I definitely agree with the fact that we need to change how we title these characters — instead of strong, think more realistic. That is perfect.

      Thank-you so, so, so much for your comment. You have definitely given me, and everyone else, something to think about 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Aw! I’m happy you like and understand my point of view. ^.^ I hope we can pass ‘realistic’ females onto other readers and make it what writers strive for. Thank you for hosting this discussion. I just started hosting discussions on my blog and I love it. They’re so much fun! ^.^

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I love the point you made about strong females being catalysts (and Annabeth is definitely one). That is something that all characters an author wants to be likeable should have – in my opinion, it is an important trait in all strong characters. And no, strong females are not males, should not be written like males, and are not automatically mean or cold. Annabeth Chase and Hermione Granger are both awesome examples!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank-you so much hun! (And sorry about replying so late!) I absolutely hate when people give the advice to write strong female characters like male characters. Like, seriously? How is this even good advice? If authors want to write realistic female characters they should definitely not be following this kind of advice 🙂

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