strong female characters

Strong female characters are everywhere these days. Right?

Perhaps.

The Damsel in Distress has certainly screamed her last plea for help, and we hear a lot about Kick-Ass Females in both book and movie culture. But it seems to me that we all have a slightly different idea of what makes a woman ‘strong’.

I love a heroine who can fight her way through a room full of henchmen with nothing but a… nail file as much as the next person. (I’m kidding about the nail file. Totally kidding.) I also love a heroine who isn’t afraid to hold her own when faced with a douchey, retro-thinking side character or antagonist who hasn’t yet caught up with the rest of us.

But you know what I love more than that?

Inner strength.

I’m talking about a test of true character in the face of adversity. Or acknowledgement of a fatal flaw and the overcoming of it. Or belief in something no one else believes in and a willingness to stand up for the cause anyway—and triumphing. You get the picture right?

Let me preface what I’m about to say with this: there is nothing wrong with physical strength—hell, I want to be Wonder Woman when I grow up—and a female character who displays physical prowess is generally viewed as capable and fiercely independent. There are more and more women owning their physical capabilities as genderless and in their own right but for the longest time, this type of strength was measurable by comparing it to that of a man. Physical strength was (and sadly in some pockets of the world, still is) viewed as a primarily masculine trait or ability. And this type of strength is but one of many examples.

How many times have we seen (in all media) a woman portrayed/acknowledged as an equal based solely on her ability to fight or play sports or fix a car? That’s cool and all, but these are learnable skills for either sex; not a determining factor of a woman’s strength.

Female characters who demonstrate their ability to overcome the ‘Man’s World’ stigma are nothing short of empowering. But once again, it emphasises the divide between genders. I get that this is important for the sake of progress in equality but I still abhor the way we often use a previously ‘masculine’ skill or ability as a standard measure.

The strengths I appreciate and LOVE to see portrayed are those which are fundamentally HUMAN—without gender biases. For me, this type of strength, the kind which is definitive by character alone, is ten times more liberating.

 

Here are eight of my favourite strong female characters

 

Chiyo / Sayuri from Memoirs of a Geisha

Chiyo’s strength is in her ability to thrive under the crushing hardships; to endure the limitations of her culture even when it means burying her emotions and denying herself fleeting happiness in order to survive long-term. She pursues her goals with a steely yet poignant determination to the height of success then finally an arrangement with the man she loves. 

“Adversity is like a strong wind. I don’t mean just that it holds us back from places we might otherwise go. It also tears away from us all but the things that cannot be torn, so that afterward we see ourselves as we really are, and not merely as we might like to be.”
― Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha

strong female characters - memoirs of a geisha
Vintage / Columbia Pictures / Dreamworks

 

Celie from The Colour Purple

Celie’s strength is an admirable and often unbelievable force. She is resilient yet pure. Despite having every opportunity to turn a ruthless cheek to the world, she doesn’t. Time and time again, I expect her faith to waver but she thrives beneath her misfortunes and comes out the other side stronger than ever with a wider understanding and acceptance of herself and the world she lives in.

“I think us here to wonder, myself. To wonder. To ask. And that in wondering bout the big things and asking bout the big things, you learn about the little ones, almost by accident. But you never know nothing more about the big things than you start out with. The more I wonder, the more I love.”
― Alice Walker, The Colour Purple

strong female characters - the colour purple
Washington Square Press / Warner Bros.

 

Elizabeth from Pride and Prejudice

Elizabeth’s strength is in her very nature. She is self-assured and principled, and despite the inhibiting time in which she lived, she never swayed from her individuality. She was not afraid to be who she was even under the scathing eye of society. Then, when her prejudices came to light, she readily acknowledged them, admitted and owned her errors, and ultimately overcame them.

“There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.”
― Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

strong female characters - pride and prejudice
Penguin / Universal

 

Hermione from Harry Potter

Hermione’s strength is embedded in her fierce loyalty and friendship with Harry and Ron, and in her innate sense of what is good and right. She is not afraid to be the odd one out or stand for causes she deems worthy. By embracing and nurturing her smarts and ambition, she saves the day over and over.

“But from that moment on, Hermione Granger became their friend. Because there are somethings you can’t go through in life and become friends, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.”
― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

strong female characters - harry potter
Bloomsbury / Warner Bros.

 

Elinor from Sense and Sensibility

Elinor’s strength is quiet and understated but nevertheless rock-solid. Her sense of propriety and responsibility is both a blessing and a curse and the way in which she bears her family’s hardships is nothing short of admirable. She is the glue that holds the Dashwood family together and although her practical approach leaves her wanting when it comes to matters of the heart, eventually, she strikes a balance within herself and takes a risk. Though she does find happiness, her inner struggle to open up is long and achingly tender, made more poignant by the contrast of her strength and wisdom in all other matters.

“…After all that is bewitching in the idea of a single and constant attachment, and all that can be said of one’s happiness depending entirely on any particular person, it is not meant — it is not fit — it is not possible that it should be so.”
― Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility

strong female characters - sense and sensibility
Penguin / Columbia Pictures

 

Jo from Little Women

All the women in this book have strength in their own way. For me, Beth stood out for her unwavering compassion but Jo is my favourite. A little like Elizabeth Bennett, Jo is confident and candid and feisty; she is stubborn and leads with her passion—be that of heart or mind—and despite everything thrown at her, her strength is embedded in the fact that she remains true to who she is throughout.

“I’m glad you are poor. I couldn’t bear a rich husband,” said Jo decidedly, adding in a softer tone, “Don’t fear poverty. I’ve known it long enough to lose my dread and be happy working for those I love. . . .”
— Louisa May Alcott, Little Women

strong female characters - little women
Penguin / Columbia Pictures

 

Éowyn from Lord of the Rings

Her strength is in her determination. Éowyn plays her part in battle with admirable physical strength but her real strength though is the fierce motivation she possesses. She wants to give her all to her cause and she’s willing to die to do so.

“What do you fear, lady?” [Aragorn] asked.
“A cage,” [Éowyn] said. “To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

strong female characters - lord of the rings
Mariner Books / New Line Cinema

 

Melanie from The Girl with All the Gifts

Her strength is in defying and overcoming the base instincts of who she has become in the horrific dystopian world she lives in. Instead of succumbing to her natural urges, she embraces the humanity within her despite the extreme odds and in doing so, proved to both herself and those around her that strength of will can save us all if we have the nerve to risk everything.

“And then like Pandora, opening the great big box of the world and not being afraid, not even caring whether what’s inside is good or bad. Because it’s both. Everything is always both. But you have to open it to find that out.”
― M.R. Carey, The Girl with All the Gifts

 

strong female characters - the girl with all the gifts
Orbit / Poison Chef / BFI

 

Which strong female characters are on your favourites list? What strengths do you value?

Tell me in the comments.

inner critic - ignore it and stay true to your story's character

It’s something of a mystery how fictional characters are created. Sometimes they appear in fully fleshed-out scenes, doing ridiculous or unspeakable things. Other times, it begins with a stray thought or line of dialogue, revealing both character and story in serialised tidbits. 

Personally, I like to get to know my character before delving into their story. But often, I’ve found that regardless of how I envisioned his path, the character will go his own way, mapping out a story or subplot I never planned on.

When I started out, I was more of a pantser than a plotter anyway (which is writer’s lingo for ‘winging it’ vs. ‘getting your shit together’. No offence to the pantsers of the world.) My first book (a contemporary romantic suspense novel) changed as I wrote it, partly because I took sooooooo long to write it I actually grew up (debatable), and partly because I didn’t have the faintest idea of where I was going with the story.

The upside of this is that the story progressed organically. It became more focused on the underlying issues and emotions of its characters rather than the incredibly (read: embarrassingly) fluffy romance I’d initially started.

Of course, my main character changed too.

As I brought the two sisters of the book alive, the girl with the problems and the attitude (Brooke) became more interesting to me. I wanted to see where she’d take me, how she would deal with her inner turmoil, what made her the way she’d turned out to be when I saw her true colours in my mind’s eye. 

When I first got a glimpse of who she really was, I was intrigued and appalled. In that order. That all too familiar inner critic zeroed in on everything wrong with my creation and began hacking it to pieces. 

On the outside, Brooke is a beautiful young woman. Yet, underneath that, she is everything the human eye turns away from. She is a promiscuous, somewhat depressed, borderline alcoholic. Her introspective tendencies, the built-in need to suppress her emotions and shut out the world, is self-sabotaging, damaging herself and the relationships she has with those closest to her. 

I loved her damaged soul immediately but ultimately, I was worried that the story was too bleak, the topic too sensitive.

Then I wrote it anyway.

And I’m glad I did.

The work of the Inner Critic

Too often, writers censor themselves; paranoid, self-conscious, crippled by self-doubt and the reaction of the reader. If I’d paid too much attention to my inner critic or the presumed criticisms of an easily offended would-be reader, Brooke might never have been brought to life. 

‘… if it were not written rather faster than the fastest typewriting, if I had stopped and took thought, it would never have been written at all.’ — Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary

Imagine a world of literature written by self-censoring writers too afraid to write the stories that matter. There would be no books about illness and death, or crime, or war, or *gasp* all-out taboo. More to the point, the memorable and often treasured characters of these books would cease to exist. Every flawed or troubled character would have been wiped from the page or never written at all. There would be no Esther Greenwood (The Bell Jar), Holden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye), Hazel Grace Lancaster (The Fault In Our Stars) or Scarlett O’Hara (Gone with the Wind). OR, there might have been a happier, unburdened, 2D version of them. 

This thought doesn’t warm the cockles of my heart. Far from it. It reeks of false hope and lacks all truth because the real world is not all beauty. Side by side with the wonder that is our existence lies a very real cruelty. A cruelty that breaks our fragile human bodies and spirits, while never quite extinguishing our innate sense of persistence and survival. This journey is a story in the making, and each of us, fictional or otherwise deal with strife in different ways. Not all characters are born to be Pollyanna.

As strange as it might seem to the non-writer folk, characters—on the whole—write themselves. I didn’t exactly plan to write a book with a central focus on the aftermath of abuse—but Brooke became so real to me that, at times, it was like she was whispering her story in my ear. For me, that is the magical part of writing.

So, if your current project demands a character whose story isn’t pretty, or easy to swallow, or whose actions or morals are a little (or a lot) askew—

Roll with it.

Embrace it. Enjoy it. Write the crap out of it. 

Don’t let your inner critic determine what you write. Stay true to your story’s characters.

Back in September, I spent three solid days shamelessly glued to the PlayStation with Uncharted 4. For those of you who aren’t gamers, Uncharted is a series of role-play action-adventure games featuring Nathan Drake—a wisecracking hunk of beefcake with a penchant for treasure hunting and getting himself into gun-fighting pickles. One could argue that video games can hardly be counted as ‘Book Chat’ material but the Uncharted franchise is so beautifully story-oriented that I’m letting this one slide.

The latest instalment ( Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End) has the main protagonist, Nate, following the trail of real-life pirate Henry Avery, and his colony, in search of a ‘treasure of a lifetime’, all in the name of saving his long-lost brother, Sam. It’s a mashup (as always) of Indiana Jones and Die Hard (but with an even better storyline) and Nate is ridiculously easy on the eye—not to mention a stickler for an impossible mission.

Which got me thinking (not as rare an occurrence as you’d think): Nate’s flaws are plenty but they make him doubly attractive—and relatable—particularly handy, since we can’t possibly relate to his knack for hurling himself willy-nilly off cliffs and the like.

So I decided to make a list. (I love a good list.)

Here are five of Nathan Drake’s character flaws commonly found in a host of other fictional characters from books, TV, and film.

1. OBSESSION

Number one on a LOT of lists, the flaw of obsession is hardly uncommon. Whether it’s a thirst for revenge or a fool’s errand in pursuit of riches or power, characters whose obsessions take command of their lives are aplenty. Nathan Drake is no exception. In earlier games, his reckless need to beat his opponents and uncover the mystery of whatever lost treasure he’s tracking, drove him to extremes. In Uncharted 4, he’s finally out of the thief game, living a normal and oh-so-mundane life. This time, the lure of the treasure is second in line to the need to play hero—and bail out his brother. Nonetheless, the obsession fogs his view, clouding his judgment in more than one instance, and leading him to do things he shouldn’t. Like lie. And steal. And murder people left, right, and centre…

“Let’s see… I ruined my marriage. Drove my best friend away. And now my brother’s gone missing. On the bright side: at least there’s no one around to call me an idiot.” — Nathan Drake, A Thief’s End (Naughty Dog)

Oh, Nate… You idiot.

Image Source

Other obsessive fools we (kind of) relate to:

Regina Mills (Evil Queen) from Once Upon a Time

Source

Captain Ahab from Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Source

Lady Macbeth from Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Source

 

2. ARROGANCE

So, obviously Nate is a… superfly guy. I know it, you know it, he knows it—and boy, does he milk it. His arrogance gets him into bigger trouble fifty percent of the time but more often than not, it’s his arrogance that gets him out of it in the end. Also, it’s charming as all hell.

Other arrogant bastards we love:

CAPTAIN Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean

Source

Vlad Tepesh from The Night Prince by Jeaniene Frost

Source

 

Damon Salvatore from The Vampire Diaries

Source

 

3. OVER-PROTECTIVENESS

Of course we all want someone in our lives willing to go the extra mile to protect us and make us feel all warm and cosy and secure at night. But when said person begins omitting truths (blatantly lying) and manipulating events to try to protect us, it can be, quite frankly, annoying. I’m more than capable of deciding whether to risk getting myself killed or not, thank you very much, Nate. I don’t need you to decide for me just to play the big hero… Oh wait, that wouldn’t be ALL bad, I guess… (well, there goes my girl power.)

Other over-protective control freaks we secretly want to hug:

Stefan Salvatore from The Vampire Diaries

Source

Edward Cullen from Twilight (I’m sensing a theme here…)

Source

(Young) Charles Xavier from X-Men: First Class

Source

 

4. SMART ASS-ery

The line is: ‘No one likes a smart ass,’ but I beg to differ. I LOVE a smart ass, but I should point out that this pertains only to the fictional world. Nathan Drake is a one-liner genius, resorting to quick wit and one-uppers against his foes even in the face of mortal peril. 

Flynn: “Found the ships though, didn’t I?”

Nate: “You couldn’t find your ass with both hands.”

— Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (Naughty Dog)

Other smart-asses we find hilarious:

Doctor Cox from Scrubs

Source

 

Chandler Bing from Friends

Source

 

Damon Salvatore from TVD

Source

I know! I listed him twice. Sorry. (Not sorry.)

 

5. GREY MORALITY

This is by far one of my favourite character flaws, whether it’s in a book, film or any other media. It’s so deliciously complex, and builds intrigue and excitement around the character. When it comes to morally grey characters, we find ourselves succumbing to their plea, empathising with their cause no matter how ludicrous, and no matter the cost. We tend to overlook their (often) criminal or unjust behaviour, making up ridiculous excuses: ‘I know he just killed nearly an entire army, but he HAS to save his brother, dammit!’ (Me, on Nate.) These folk really know how to spin our moral compasses.

Other morally grey souls we make excuses for:

Thorin Oakenshield from Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien

Source

 

Rumpelstiltskin (Mr Gold) from Once Upon a Time

Source

 

Damon Salvatore from The Vampire Diaries 

Source

Last time, I swear.

And there you have it. My list of character flaw observations to justify the hours spent lost in the world of Uncharted when I should have been writing.

It was completely worth it. 🙂

What are your favourite flaws? Who are your favourite flawed characters? Who did I leave off the list? We all know who I didn’t leave off the list. (Still not sorry.) Let me know below in the comments.

Characters are important, if not the most important aspect of a good story; great characters have to be fully developed with appealing qualities, true to life flaws, and a host of inner desires, conflicts, motivations and goals. Just like all real life folk. Recently though, a statement from another writer brought up the question of judgment of character. Stupid characters in particular.

So. Many. Stupid Characters.

He claims that ‘so many books are filled with stupid characters making stupid choices’, and I can see the point of his statement. On some level, I’m inclined to almost agree—almost. What stops me agreeing is this:

What exactly, in the eyes of the reader, makes for a good character?

Is it strength, and integrity, and intelligence? Quick wit, feistiness, charm? Does physical appearance play a part, if at all? And to what extent? Does the rise-of-the-underdog score more points with you, or do you prefer to witness the shallow-but-popular ass evolving into a relatable 3-D hero? Does a heroine have to be the typical Mary Jane with an unknown destiny awaiting her, and lots of obstacles to rise above?

These are all common themes/tropes within stories (if a little limited).

Whether the book focuses on the main characters themselves, or whether it is driven by plot, every story will have a protagonist with at least one goal, and, as far as the author is concerned, a vast number of motivations and means by which to meet this goal. Authors are human too though, and they write the story they want to write, and read, (which is exactly as it should be.)

In doing this, they can often, unfortunately, piss off the reader. Getting from point A to point B can be done in so many ways that it is impossible to please every single reader; a character choice may seem poor or even dumb to one reader, yet may appear perfectly reasonable to another.

Let me give you a (ridiculously basic) example:

stupid characters snow white
Stupid characters and their stupid fruit.

Snow White in Walt Disney’s animated film
Source

Snow White

The princess has fled for her life knowing someone wants her dead. She then sets up home with seven little men, and when a scary old lady offers her an apple, she accepts it and immediately takes a bite, no questions asked despite the fact that she is on the lam, and the woman is hideous beyond belief.

Some would call her stupid, and naive; a little clueless. On the other hand, Snow is an innocent fourteen-year-old girl, with (apparently) a heart as pure as her namesake, thus she trusts easily, and wants to see the good in everyone. She doesn’t for a second believe that this little old lady would want to harm her.

stupid characters bella swan twilight
Stupid characters and their stupid hiking trips

Kristen Stewart as Bella Swan in
The Twilight Saga: New Moon Source

A more recent example is… (dare I?)

Bella Swan

Bella is an (apparently) average teenager whose love for Edward is all-consuming, and upon his leaving in New Moon, she all but gives up on normal life for several months at a time.

Some would call this stupid, and weak; a little melodramatic. On the other hand, Bella is a teenager, and we all know that fully grown adults are capable of drama, much less a seventeen-year-old. A breakup is tough on any one of us, and Bella is no exception. Her love for Edward was written to be of such an epic scale that losing it would be like losing a part of herself; anything less than that would make the reader doubt the scale of their love in the first place.

If you’re thinking: ‘What a lame bunch of lame examples!’, first: get yourself a thesaurus; and second: let me offer up a third and final example—one who is not a teenage girl, nor a central character of a fairy tale / young adult romance saga: 

Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus

stupid characters doctor faustus
Stupid characters and their stupid inability to read the small-print

Illustration from the 1620 edition of The Tragical History
of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus Source

Doctor Faustus is smart; he is highly accomplished in the arts and sciences to the point of feeling dissatisfied with the mediocrity of what little there is left to learn. He is a fully-grown man, a well-established social figure in his time—yet what does he do? He makes a deal with the devil! Pretty stupid, yes? Or no? It could easily be assumed that voluntarily signing a blood-contract with a messenger from the depths of hell pretty much ‘puts the stu in stupid’ (technical term). Yet, whilst there is no question that his choices leading up to—and during—his deal did indeed lack judgment, Faustus was, on the whole, not stupid; self-centred, frivolous, arrogant to the point of self-destruction, and clearly prone to ‘silly’ decisions—but not stupid. His discontentment with life, his initial search for greater meaning—even power—are all too common in the real world, in some form or another; it may not justify his decisions but it does shed light on the reasoning behind it.

Snow White, Bella, and Faustus (jeez, weirdest dinner party ever!) demonstrate that regardless of character traits, flaws, and intentions, every reader is likely to interpret a character in a different way. What is dumb and weak to one person is to another, completely understandable, even to an extent, realistic. We all appreciate and admire smart people and smart choices, fictional or otherwise, but how drab would it be to always be faced with these know-it-all smart-asses, with their excellent lives, rubbing our Average-Joe noses in their success?

Certainly, despite good decisions, a smart character can have things in life go wrong for them as a result of an external source, but can you honestly say you’d enjoy reading the riveting account of how easy it was for them to overcome the obstacle thanks to yet another predictably smart choice? Shortest book ever—and not particularly entertaining; entertainment being the whole point of writing and reading in the first place.

My point is this: despite what appeals to us on a personal level when it comes to our preferences in the characters we write or read about, one thing we all are likely to have in common is that we want our characters to be as real and relatable as possible.

AND HERE’S THE THING…

Real people, smart or otherwise, sometimes make stupid choices, and despite judgment, whether from other writers, readers, or haters, books with outwardly stupid characters making stupid choices will continue to sell, because if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find a reason for a character’s moment of idiocy; and more notably, this moment of idiocy amidst the chaos of life is real and relatable.