In a world where a woman showing her breasts is somehow pro-feminist and anti-feminist at the same time, it’s easy to see why any writer would stress over their female characters.
Chances are, if you know anything about writing, your fictitious females are fine, even if they are fine. But if you’re still worried, I have two good examples from Disney coming up. (Hint: They’re sisters.)
Any advice given is based on observations from works I enjoy and is not intended to be taken as the end-all-be-all solution to everyone’s writing woes. I do not give advice that I myself don’t follow or haven’t found useful at some point. Please remember that writing is an ongoing learning experience and I’m not flawless.
Now, let’s get to the nitty-gritty of it: The phrase ‘strong female character’ is ludicrous and makes writing worse.
There’s more scrutiny and expectation placed on female characters than male characters, and at a risk of digressing into a twenty-paragraph essay about who is to blame for that, let’s just say I think the term ‘strong female character’ is part of the problem. It isn’t just a case of high expectations that are impossible to meet, but also about the stress it puts on the author that halts the creative process.
So again, relax.
Stress aside, it can also lead to this:
“I want to write a strong female character. Someone inspiring. Someone every little girl can look up to. Someone…”
No. Stop right there, Idealist. This is why there are so many more Mary Sues than Gary Stus.
You didn’t even know Gary Stu was a thing, did you?
Let go of the idea of representation. You don’t represent anyone. Your character doesn’t represent anyone. You are you, and they are them. Write people.
What does ‘strong’ even mean?
Mentally strong? Physically strong? It can mean just about anything.
The vagueness of the term hasn’t helped.
A lot of people have taken it to mean – and stop me if you’ve heard this before – a fiery, no-nonsense woman, who don’t need no man.
That was good for the first, what, twelve times? Heck, I take that back. It’s still a good archetype, when done correctly. Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley are beloved examples of this. Iconic, even.
But since then, it’s been turned into a formula by people who don’t understand why those characters are liked to begin with, and repeated to the point of yawn-inducing parody.
A character who makes you yawn is not a strong character.
Remember: In writing terms, strong = well-written.
So what makes a well written character?
Let’s look at that example now.
The eldest sings a famous song…
I’m sure you already know. It is of course…
…What? Who else did you think it was going to be?
Lilo and Nani are, hands-down, two of the best characters Disney has ever made. They have interests, hobbies, and jobs. They love each other, make each other laugh, but also get on each other’s nerves.
They have good qualities and they have bad qualities – and not bad as in Elsa’s ‘oh, I’m so insecure’ or Mulan’s ‘gosh, I’m so clumsy.’ They are flawed. Nani is short-tempered and irresponsible. Lilo is stubborn and violent. Yet, they’re still likeable because their situation makes it clear why they are the way they are. We can relate to them.
In short: They feel like real people.
And possibly the most important thing for any character: They drive the plot forward.
“But, wait!” those of you who have seen the movie cry out, “What about Stitch? He’s the main character. He’s the one who drives the plot forward, surely.”
Stitch is the catalyst. He’s the point of attack or inciting incident. At the start, its Stitch’s escape from the prison ship and crash landing on Hawaii that causes the plot. After that, it’s largely Lilo and Nani who control the story and the tension.
Speaking of tension…
Good characters have stakes. Raw bloody stakes!
Lilo and Nani have the most to lose. If Nani doesn’t get a job and Lilo doesn’t train the born-to-be-wild Stitch, they lose their home and each other.
To sum it up…
- Relatable emotions
- High stakes and the ability to overcome them