Being a Better Writer: The Strong Female Protagonist

Welcome back readers, to another Monday edition of Being a Better Writer! Today is … well, I’m sure you can see from the title that it’s going to be an auspicious post. Today’s topic is a rather popular one right now. In fact, I could easily say that it’s a current issue in a lot of story circles. For varying reasons depending on how you talk to.

But thankfully, I don’t plan on getting into any of the more social-political angles of this topic, because I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in one thing only with these posts: how to write, and write well.

Which—okay,  maybe a tiny bit into social-politics—is why this post has been requested and hotly anticipated by a lot of readers. Because right now there’s a whole—well, I’d call it rediscovery, really—of the strong female protagonist. But with that rediscovery comes a whole new crowd trying to figure out what a strong female protagonist is for the first time. And with a lot of different voices out there, it can become very easy for their to come with a healthy dollop of “confusion” as people try to determine exactly what “strong,” “female,” and “protagonist” mean in the same sentence.

And, if I’m honest, some of this confusion comes from the very root of the sentence “strong female protagonist” and its particular phrasing.

I can hear some of you sparking torches from here. Relax. You’ll see what I mean in a moment. Hit the jump and let’s get started.

I’ll lead with a question: What makes a strong female protagonist?

Yes, I know, most of you are here to see that very question answered. But first, I want you to get your mind puzzling on it. When you hear the phrase “strong female protagonist” or  its cousin “strong female character,” what do you think of? What part of that sentence is the most important bit?

I’ll give you a hint. It’s not the gender. And that’s where a lot of writers—even professional ones—are going wrong. As well as why I said there’s some issue with the phrasing of the term.

See, while it’s laid out in a way that’s pleasing in the English language, flowing well and whatnot, it draws the focus in the wrong direction. That misguided focus then gives rise to all sorts of issues. Because the phrase makes the focus on the gender of the character and on that part of them being strong, not their actual character.

Which is where many writers, trying to create a “strong female protagonist,” make a mistake. Because they follow the phrasing and create “strong female” in one form or another while all but ignoring the latter part of the phrase. And once they’ve done that, they don’t have a “strong female character” because what they’ve created is a “strong female” in some form (usually by over-amplifying aspects of gender) … but not a character.

See, when I said above that the phrase is a poor one, I feel it’s because it causes a lot of creators to struggle. It shouldn’t be “strong female character” but “strong character, female.”

The original phrase has that as a goal, but because of the way it’s phrased, most tend to focus on the first part and forget the second. Which causes issues in two ways.

The first is that “strong female” can have a variety of meanings and interpretations. Does strong female mean reminding the audience of their gender every few seconds? Does it mean exaggerating certain “characteristics” of gender? Does it mean deliberately running counter to the “stereotypical gender traits” in order to show that the character’s gender isn’t that?

There isn’t a clear answer, and that’s a problem. You can literally see women’s advocate groups argue and fight over whether or not a character is a “strong female” because it’s such a nebulous term that it can mean any number of things. Strong physically. Never loses. Strong opinions on being female/feminism. Etc. Take your pick, and you can probably (and unfortunately) think of a “strong female character” that fits this issue.

Basically, it runs afoul of some of the same problems spoken of in the BaBW post on writing the opposite gender. Because the focus is on loudly proclaiming the gender and making that bit strong, you end up with an oddly pointed character that’s … very vocal or wrapped-up in a single, solitary aspect of themselves.

Which in turn, brings us to the second issue: because the gender is so heavily focused on, the “character” bit falls to the wayside. After all, it’s the gender that matters, and that’s supposed to be strong, so the character bit is … just there. It may be given some attention and focus, but it often is given only secondary concern.

The result is, quite frankly, a mess. At worst you end up with a protagonist with strong opinions or aspects, but a weak character, one that ultimately comes off as one-sided or antagonistic. At best, you end up with a lopsided presentation that focuses on the wrong aspect of character creation first and gives it importance over the others.

So … where does that leave the creators? Well, thankfully, still at square-one rather than somewhere further back. And the solution is simple. Don’t set out to create “strong, female characters” any more than you would set out to create “strong male characters” (yeah, you’ve never heard that phrase before today because it isn’t one for obvious reasons). Instead, set out to create “strong character, gender.”

See the difference right away? “Strong character, female” puts the focus on their character. It highlights that their character should be strong, not their gender. Yes, their gender is part of who they are, but that’s part of them. Not the main focus. Instead, their character can be the focus.

Okay, at this point some of you may be asking “What do you mean by character?” Thankfully, the answer is pretty straightforward: Who are they? What do they want? What are they like to talk to? What are their goals? Their ambitions? Desires? How do they act around friends? Family? What are their convictions? How beholden to them are they? Do they have dreams? Fears? What are they good at? What are their weaknesses?

Basically, think about all the wide array of BaBW posts made here on crafting solid characters, and that’s where you start. You make them a person, with goals, drive, desires, and objectives. Cares. Flaws.

Then their gender comes into the equation. Because while gender is a part of who we are, it isn’t everything. Again, as I said in the post on writing the opposite gender, someone who wakes up and thinks “Waking up … LIKE A MAN! Eating breakfast … LIKE A MAN! Showering … LIKE A MAN!” is certifiably insane. No one thinks like that. No one stable, anyway, or that isn’t having a jest at the overly exaggerated shouting.

Case in point how these two approaches differ, look at, if you have, how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films handled two of their prominent female characters, Black Widow and Captain Marvel.

Black Widow has always been about her character and role first and foremost. As a result, she had some of the best scenes in the first Avengers film, whether it was confiding in her past and her motivations, or showing her skills being the only member of the team to out-play Loki at his own game with her interrogation. As the MCU has moved on, her role has always grounded the team, and she’s never been shy to show off her skills or her bravery. I mean, she’s technically unpowered compared to the rest of them, but she’ll run in fighting killer death robots anyway because as she explained to the cast and audience she feels she has a lot she can do be a better version of herself.

Now compare that to Captain Marvel, the first character to be headlined with “strong female character.” Simply put … her character isn’t very strong. She doesn’t have flaws. She doesn’t lose. Crud, her crowning scene in her first film is effortlessly beating up a bunch of folks to the song “Girl Fight.” When you see the film, it’s very clear that when writing her character the focus was “strong female” rather than “strong character” (with a lot of literal emphasis given to the “strong” part, too).

The result is that of the entirety of the female cast of the MCU, Captain Marvel feels like the weakest member character-wise. Her goals and personality are given a backseat even in her own movie where she’s pulled along almost entirely by plot and other characters with clearer motivation who need her to punch things. Sands, Pepper Potts has at least an equally strong character arc, and she’s not even a protagonist!

Point being, the difference between how the two were approached, at least publicly, was that Black Widow was a strong character first, gender second. And the result was that the focus their development was given was on their character (for better or worse, depending on who you ask about their relationship with Bruce Banner), from goals to drive to strengths to weaknesses. Meanwhile, Captain Marvel was, straight up, gender first. The dialogue, the interactions … all of it has lines about her gender tied into it.

Like I said when I saw the movie, it suffers from bad character writing. Because they weren’t interested in approaching Captain Marvel’s character.

Okay then. So this said … how do you go about writing a “strong character, gender” in your own works without slipping up and making the mistake of letting an aspect like gender dominate over everything else?

Simple. Keep in mind what we’re supposed to be interested in the character for. Write the character for who they are, not what their gender is.

A good comparison would be the script for the first Alien film. That’s right, the one that gave Sci-Fi one of its favorite female protagonists: Ellen Ripley. Do you know how the script was written? With no genders for any of the characters. The writer wasn’t sure who would play the roles, so they didn’t give them gender at all. The result was that their portrayals were entirely focused on being strong characters, and then actors were chosen that portrayed those characters best.

The result was that Sigourney Weaver created one of the most memorable strong protagonists of an entire generation. The character was solid regardless of gender. And to this day is loved by many as an iconic piece of Sci-Fi.

I’d note too that another high figure on lists that feature Ripley is Sarah Connor from Terminator 2, another case of a character that’s very strong in goals, motivation, strengths, and yes, fears and weakness.

Set out to make a good character regardless of gender. I’m not saying gender cannot or shouldn’t be a part of a character—far from it—but that your focus shouldn’t be pitched entirely on it . A “strong” character is one whose goals, aspirations, personality, and other character aspects are strong to the reader and are well-thought out and explored. Gender comes after that fact.

Build a strong character. Personality. Goal. Etc. Make that the strength. Not the gender.

Now, a note on strength, since we don’t want this to be misconstrued. When we say “strong” we don’t mean that the character is the best at some aspect of themselves. What we mean is that the presentation is strong, that the audience can understand and relate to it. You can have a character that’s a coward, bad at almost everything they put their mind to, and still be a strong character because those aspects are well-presented and clear to the audience.

So, you want to write a “strong female character?” Write a “strong character, female.” You’ll find that as you work on giving them a solid character first and foremost, with traits, quirks, interests, goals, and all the other bits and pieces that make up what a character is, that readers associate with them. You’ll find that the other aspects fall into place.

Again, a word of caution. I’m not saying that gender won’t play a part in your character at all. Not what I’m saying, and not what I’m going for. Just that your focus on who they are as a character should come first. Once you have some of the specifics down, then you can tailor things to your (and the character’s) best interest insofar as their gender goes. Ripley, for example, is still named Ellen Ripley, a feminine name. And she and the other characters openly acknowledge that she is, in fact, a woman. It is part of her character.

It’s just not the sum totality. She’s Ripley. She’s not “all women” or “the women.” She’s Ripley! She is a woman: Herself. Likewise, your characters will be whatever gender they end up being, but that will not and should never be the sum total of who they are. Merely a part.

Go out and create strong characters. Make them women, make them men, make them whatever you choose.

But make them strong. Give the reader depth and vibrancy. Give them character. Then watch as those characters become real to your audience.

Good luck. Now get writing.

And as always, if you’ve enjoyed this post or many of the others like it on this site, please consider buying one of my many books or supporting via Patreon. Your support helps keep this site ad-free and allows me to continue to produce content each week!

6 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: The Strong Female Protagonist

  1. “And once they’ve done that, they don’t have a “strong female character” because what they’ve created is a “strong female” in some form (usually by over-amplifying aspects of gender) … See, when I said above that the phrase is a poor one, I feel it’s because it causes a lot of creators to struggle. It shouldn’t be “strong female character” but “strong character, female.” … Because the focus is on loudly proclaiming the gender and making that bit strong,”

    Apparently you live in some alternate universe, where writers make strong female characters by emphasizing their feminine qualities. In my universe, where I’ve attended many panels and read many blogs about, and seen many movies with, allegedly strong female characters, literally every character flaunted as a “strong female” is one with /no/ feminine traits.

    And this does EXACTLY THE OPPOSITE of what the people advocating strong female characters pretend they’re doing. Instead of providing female role models, they’re trying to eliminate femininity. What’s actually being promoted is the idea that women ARE IN FACT BAD AND INFERIOR and should act like men.

    This is a long tradition, going back to Plato, who is today lauded as a feminist for proposing that women could also be brainwashed and trained to fight just like men. We also saw it in China’s cultural revolution, when Mao said that women are just as physically strong as men, and forced them to stop wearing makeup, stop wearing dresses, to abstain from sex, and to try /not to be women/ anymore, but instead to act like men.

    News flash: Strong female characters have been common throughout history (with the exception of the Middle Ages), UNTIL NOW. The more misogynist someone was, the stronger their female characters were. The brutally patriarchal ancient Greeks wrote about Hera, Medea, Antigone, Lysistrata, and many more frighteningly strong women, because they were AFRAID of strong women. Same thing with Strindberg’s character Laura Adolph in /The Father/.

    But now, strong female characters have been eliminated by the “strong female character” movement. Characters like Rarity, who have distinctly feminine interests and feminine ways of getting what they want, are verboten. The idea isn’t to provide female role models and legitimize femininity; it’s to provide MASCULINE role models for women, and ELIMINATE femininity, and all distinctions between men and women, as an oppressive tool of patriarchy.

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    • I hope that my post didn’t come off as discouraging of characters embracing of femininity, as that wasn’t my intention. But yes, I have seen and heard people bring this up, which was another reason I went with my point of “strong character, of gender.” My thought was that it lets the character be who they want or need to be without the baggage of the term “strong” (which, yes, has led to a lot of characters not being feminine at all). Focus on who they want to be and what they’re going to accomplish without freaking out over gender first (which comes with many problems of its own).

      If my post did come off in a manner that made it sound as though there couldn’t be feminine qualities in a female character, then I definitely need to issue a follow-up.

      But actually, at the latest LTUE, the panel on Female Heroine’s talked quite a bit about allowing them to be women and have feminine interests. One of my favorite comments from the panel was one author who loudly declared ‘I’m a woman and that means I’m allowed to enjoy fluffy pink dresses, darn it!’ So yeah, the panels and reading sources I keep in touch with are okay with letting characters be their genre. It’s when it goes way too far or gets twisted to some definition of “strong” that the problems arise, in my experience.

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  2. Another thing people tend to do with female characters is that most of the time they don’t seem to give them
    as much of a character arc as your standard guy (when they get a character arc at all). Maybe it’s just the books I’ve read, but the gals don’t seem to get character arcs that make you cheer, while the guys get a deep workout of their character as it’s broken down and then built up again.
    Surely it’s possible to do that even with a super girly girl? But it doesn’t seem to be as much of a thing…. I guess maybe people just aren’t comfortable doing that to a female character, maybe because as you noted above, they must be STRONG, and STRONG gals can’t get beaten into the dirt by failure after failure because that would be just plain sexist or something. Or maybe it’s the opposite, and they don’t think ‘soft girls’ can take the punishment?
    Again, it could just be the books I’ve read, or my memory isn’t working quite right, but it does seem like they don’t get quite as impactful character arcs as they could….

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