Strong female characters don’t have to be literal ass-kickers—quiet strength is just as powerful—but establishing your heroine’s strength is an an ongoing process through the story arc. How do we establish a female character as strong within her context?
5 Ways to Establish Strong Female Characters
There are several ways, whether your heroine is the bad-ass or bookworm, to write strong female characters. Let’s check out a few.
Push your heroine outside the box.
Have her own her strengths.
Use flaws and mistakes as strengths.
Display true courage.
Move the plot forward.
Ready to write strong female characters? Then keep reading.
1. Push Your Heroine Outside the Box
One way to establish strength in a character is to push your heroine outside of the box. Make her the heroine that pushes through boundaries to get what she wants.
Perhaps she is the literal ass-kicker, or the rock band’s roadie instead of a groupie. The debutante breaking free of society’s expectations, or the Jewish commoner trying to break into social circles. The defining characteristic is that she’s a nonconformist in direct relation to her surroundings. She likes to push the envelope of what’s expected.
2. Have Her Own Her Strengths
I’m not referring to puffed-up chests and man sprawl (though, if that’s your heroine, I like her already). Instead, this is the heroine who owns who she is from beginning to end. The characters often grow to own who they are through their character arc (see “True Courage” below).
Whether she’s shy, girly, transgendered, non-confrontational, introverted, etc.—allow her to express those attributes. As the writer, we establish strength by having her recognize her own strengths and weaknesses, and make conscious decisions to use strengths to their advantage, and/or improve upon their weaknesses.
3. Use Flaws and Mistakes as Strength
A heroine doesn’t have to be a perfectly proportioned beacon of shining hope and personal growth to be strong—and I find that totally relatable, by the way. We’ve heard the saying you live and learn.
It’s perfectly acceptable for your heroine to take two steps forward and one step back. She finds her strength through that process. In fact, it’s relatable, for the reader. However, forward progress is key, as is learning from the mistakes she makes.
Flaws are a little different, thought it shows great strength to acknowledge your flaws and commit to working on or around them. It takes even more strength to embrace them as part of what makes the character unique. For example, in my first book, the heroine is plus-sized, something she thinks others see as a flaw early on in her character arc, but in learning to embrace her curves, she discovers that people who perceive her curves as a flaw is much more a reflection of them than it is of her. She embraces her curves and finds her strength as a result.
4. Display True Courage
What is your heroine most afraid of? Is she deathly afraid of heights? Developing romantic relationships? Failing at work? Disappointing her parents?
True strength is born of courage, and the best way to establish courage is to make your heroine face her fears. Often, this kind of strength is the basis for character arc (i.e., when does your heroine face her fear of relationships?). When she realizes that if she doesn’t, she’ll lose the hero.
5. Move the Plot Forward
Finally, it’s imperative above all else that a heroine shows personal growth in her character arc that runs concurrently with the story arc. A strong heroine must move the plot forward. In fact, in character-driven storylines, the heroine’s internal conflict is tantamount to showing her strength, whether established or developing, through the story arc.
However, in cases of developing strength through the story arc, getting our readers emotionally invested in the heroine’s growth and character arc requires a frame of reference. We have to show the reader where she starts on her journey, and how she progress to become who she’s meant to be. That growth is what establishes strength.
Writer Beware—My Final Thoughts
Writing strong female characters is important to many of us in the current climate, but it’s important to prepare yourself for the possibility readers may be critical of her. Everyone has different ideas of “how strong is too strong.” Often, strong female characters push readers out of their own comfort zone, and the term unlikeable heroine follows.
Now, I’m going to get on my soapbox, and please forgive the sociologist in me for stirring the pot: Strong doesn’t always equal likable.
This construct of the likable heroine, in my opinion, is somewhat subservient—women can’t be too strong or they become unlikeable by men and, oftentimes, other women. She’s not feminine enough, she’s mouthy, she acts like a man, she’s too physically strong, she shouldn’t be a warrior, etc. Yet, if we never write the unlikeable heroine for fear of those reactions, how do we expose readers to a normative culture where strong women are regarded as highly as strong men?
Particularly in romance, we don’t discount all alpha males as assholes (excluding the alphaholes), so why should we see alpha females as bitches? We need strong female voices as part of the societal desensitization in order to level the patriarchal playing field.
Taking Gender Out of the Equation—A Litmus Test
Finally, and I’m well aware this may spark debate and dissenting opinions, I’d like to look at this statement closer: I write strong female characters.
The problem I see is the word female. I would propose that we remove the restraints we place on female characters by removing gender from the equation.
I’m not suggesting your strong female leads shouldn’t be girly, sexy, or feminine. That she shouldn’t wear lipstick and love shoes or wear corsets and love broadswords.
I’m simply suggesting you ask this question.
Besides peeing standing up—and given the story’s setting, time period, the heroine’s location in her journey, and her characterization constraints—is there anything I’m holding this female character back from solely because she’s a woman?
Food for thought, yeah?