In an age of Women’s Marches and calls for equal pay for women, the question of femininity and what makes a strong woman is in the spotlight. Art reflects life, and the presence of strong female characters in fiction is in high demand, as girls and women alike look for characters to read about and emulate, from Elizabeth Bennet to Laura Ingalls Wilder to Hermione Granger.
So how can you ensure that your work includes strong female characters? For that matter, what is a strong female character?
Strong female characters are not perfect.
Strong characters, regardless of gender, have character flaws and make mistakes—just like real people do. No human is only good or only evil, and neither should your characters be. You want your readers to root for your protagonist to succeed, but we also need to see them mess up along their journey. This inclusion of trial and error, of obstacle and failure, is fertile ground for character development. It’s the screw-ups and missteps that will make your character relatable and, therefore, impactful for your reader.
Strong female characters are not stereotypes.
While your characters should be recognizable and relatable, they should also surprise us in some way, revealing an undercurrent of complexity that challenges the reader. To accomplish this, first challenge yourself to expand your definition of a “strong” woman. Could she be middle aged or elderly rather than a feisty young adult? Could she be a working mom or a single mom? Or could she find love later in life, or forgo romantic entanglements altogether? Take the time to formulate strong female characters that push the reader with their thoughts, speech, and actions while still being believable.
Strong female characters are surrounded by other strong women—and strong men.
Strong female characters are often portrayed as outcasts or loners. Challenge this status quo in your writing. What kinds of friends can you imagine your strong female character surrounding herself with? And could those friendships surpass the boundaries of age groups? Strong female characters often draw on the wisdom of older strong female characters.
Keep the Bechdel test in mind while writing, which analyzes films and TV shows to see how often two women or girls talk to one another about something other than men or boys. Be sure to include scenes with rich conversation between female characters about their struggles, studies, families, work, and dreams.
At the same time, don’t be afraid to surround strong women with equally strong men. However, resist the pull of the cliché love triangle as a plot device. Instead, push your characters to have relationships with strong men in the forms of friendship, mentorship, or even antagonism. Father-daughter relationships are also great ways to show emotional depth for strong female characters with strong male characters.
The root of their strength: Strong Christian women trust in the Lord.
In Christian writing, strong women trust in the Lord—even when their stories appear unconventional from the outside. Think of the strong women of the Bible like Sarah, Deborah, Ruth, Abigail, and Mary. Even though their stories were abnormal or even opposed societal norms, God used them in big ways to accomplish His work. Let your strong Christian female characters do the same.
Remember that strength is not synonymous with autonomy or physicality. Often times, strength is portrayed through perseverance, sacrifice, and vulnerability inspired by the redeeming work of the gospel.