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Strong Female Characters in Fiction

This article originally appeared at the Author Chronicles.

I’m very excited to be guest posting here at The Author Chronicles! As some of you may know from my blabberings on Twitter or Facebook, I’m currently in editing hell. The plot issues I can handle––they’re a jigsaw puzzle, and it’s just a matter of putting them in their proper places.

My female heroine is giving me fits, however. Guys are easy. You know what I mean. For some reason, every male character I’ve created in my books basically writes himself. But writing a strong female character that isn’t whiney, needy, or just plain bitchy is a challenge for me.

In my debut novel, INTO THE DARK (releasing from MuseItUp Publishing in November), the heroine is stoic, used to taking care of herself, a master at keeping secrets and stubborn to a fault. It took me several rewrites to transform her. She went from a sniveling fraidy-cat to a distrustful snob and finally to someone I hope readers can root for.

So why is it so hard to write strong female characters? After spending way too many hours agonizing over this question, I think I have the answer. We’re focusing on the wrong things. Just as this great article by Annie Neugebaur states, singling out women as needing to be strong characters implies that we’re weak, and that women in fiction are weak. Wrong.

As women, we play many different roles: wife, mother, sexual goddess, career climber, etc. There is a fine line between creating a female lead who can take charge of her life without making her come across as dislikeable and masculine. Marcy Kennedy had a great post about strong female characters, and she said something that really resonated with me: what makes for a strong female character is exactly what makes a strong woman.

Strong is an ambiguous, misleading word. All characters need to be compelling and relatable. Think about the people in life you respect. What traits do you notice the most? For me, it’s intelligence, compassion, independence, self-awareness and resilience. Get the right combination of those and you’ve got unforgettable characters: Clarice Starling, Jane Rizzoli, Kay Scarpetta, Sookie Stackhouse––the list goes on.

Strong characters take action. They’re willing to take risks and make mistakes, but they also hold themselves accountable for those mistakes. Strength doesn’t mean a character can’t cry or show weakness–the ability to overcome vulnerability, even when all hope seems lost, makes for a compelling character.

Think about Éowyn from The Lord of The Rings (The Two Towers and Return of the King). She’s beautiful and classy, soft spoken and delicate. But she can also handle herself in battle and kills the Witch-king of Angmar. How’d she pull it off? Determination, resilience, and sheer love for her family.

And what about Hermoine Granger from the Harry Potter series? She grows from a know-it-all, pushy little girl to an intelligent, compassionate and loyal woman. Without Hermoine, Harry fails.

Neither of these great characters are memorable because they were women. We remember and love them because they stood up in the face adversity. In the final turning point, when all hope was lost, Hermoine and Éowyn stepped up and soldiered forward. The fact they were female is just icing on the cake.

How do you write strong characters? What female characters in fiction have had the biggest impact on you as writer and reader?




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