Four Ways To Avoid The Trope Of The ‘Strong Female Character’

There’s been a lot of buzz lately about the role of women in literature and film from an article called “We’re Losing All Our Strong Female Characters To Trinity Syndrome”. Published last week by Tasha Robinson, the article primarily argues that screenwriters are providing cop-out “strong female characters” who appear at first glance to be empowered leading (or at least secondary) ladies, but who ultimately turn out to be mostly helpless, passive characters without much to do but offer the occasional word of advice as the protagonist (male) achieves his goals (and wins the girl).

“Strong Female Character” is just as often used derisively as descriptively, because it’s such a simplistic, low bar to vault, and it’s more a marketing term than a meaningful goal.

As Robinson very effectively argues, the trope of the Strong Female Character has become more an avoidance tactic than anything else. It’s a clever way to sidestep the problem (I’m still not sure why it’s a problem in the first place) of having to write female characters who do more than just beat up would-be rapists and bat their eyelashes at their love interest hero-figure. By creating Strong Female Characters, screenwriters can appeal to a broader population base while claiming they’re supporting gender equality.

As a writer myself, and particularly a writer with what might be called a Strong Female Character as one of the protagonists in my first novel, this article alerted me to some potential problems with my own character development that I want to try to avoid. In THE SOWING, Remy Alexander is a gun-slinging, take-no-shit female character with a hearty thirst for revenge. Like so many Strong Female Characters, she has something to prove: that she’s totally over Valerian Orlean, that she can and will avenge the death of her sister, that she can run as fast and shoot as straight as any of the boys on her team in the Resistance.

But in THE REAPING, the second book in the series, Remy’s character arc deepens. She’s proved she’s tough enough, now, and can handle the physical trauma of what’s been thrown at her in life. Her story must become more emotional. Yes, she thirsts for revenge, but can she learn to see beyond that? Yes, she’s proved herself to be strong, but what does that mean for her? What will define her once her goals have been achieved? It’s important to us that Remy be shown as more than just a killing machine, a gunslinger with a jaded heart, because no one can be that way for long – and besides, it’s just not that interesting. Keira Knightley’s DOMINO proved that once and for all.

One of my favorite examples of a Strong Female Character who is both strong AND many other things is the character Pearl in THE WIDOW’S WORK, J. Edward Paul’s short story contribution to the Whiskey & Wheelguns world. Although Pearl takes shit from the Sheriff and his band of outlaws for being a woman, she not only holds her own in their midst but also takes action in pursuit of her own goals despite their attempts to prevent exactly that. Similarly, Charlie Nobunaga in ZERO ECHO SHADOW PRIME by Peter Samet is as un-cliched as they come: even in four different incarnations, Charlie is a driving force behind the action in almost every scene of the book. She is at times hesitant, weak, unsure, confused, and demure, and at others intelligent, cunning, noble, and, defiant.

So with all that in mind, here are some questions I’m asking myself as we edit THE REAPING, and these are things that I think will be generally helpful in avoiding the trope of the Strong Female Character.

1. Does your Strong Female Character take meaningful action beyond violence?

It’s easy for me to fall into the trap of thinking of Remy as a hero simply because she’s good at hurting people. In the Resistance, she’s trained as a military-style fighter, complete with sharpshooting skills, extensive fitness training, and lessons in how to use sonar and explosive grenades. But that’s not enough to make her interesting. In THE REAPING, we’re expanding Remy’s role out of military acts and into a more communicative role. My model for this type of character arc is Hermione from Harry Potter – Hermione is not only excellent at cursing her enemies, she’s also a negotiator: in THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX, she unifies a group of friends and acquaintances as Dumbledore’s Army, and in THE GOBLET OF FIRE, she acts as a go-between for Harry and Ron when they’re fighting, and for the different schools who are taking place in the Triwizard Tournament.

2. Does your Strong Female Character exist as more than a foil for a more prominent male character? 

Remy and Vale have competing and contrasting storylines, and in the first book it would have been possible to make the argument that Remy’s storyline existed for the sole purpose of forcing Vale to challenge his assumptions. She’s also not a particularly ‘active’ character – a lot happens to her, but very little of it is of her own initiative. In THE REAPING, Remy will take her own initiative, strike out on her own, and, for better or for worse, learn to take charge of her own destiny and identity.

3. Does your Strong Female Character have more attributes than just ‘strong’? 

A lot of people seem to think that the way to make female characters more generally appealing is to make them more like men. This tends to mean ‘more like men’ in the most superficial way possible: giving them the ability to physically dominate other men. It’s a reduction to the most Neanderthal of human relationships, and it doesn’t do female characters justice. It strips them of complexity. As Sophia Mcdougall points out in an article for the New Statesman, when you think about Sherlock Holmes or Hamlet, two of the most interesting and frequently-reproduced characters in literature, the first thing you think about isn’t strength. In Holmes’ case, it’s intelligence, or his attachment to drugs, or his astonishing ability to alienate almost everyone around him. In Hamlet’s case, you think about his manic self-doubt, his indecisiveness, the wild ups and downs that drive him nearly to the brink of insanity. With THE REAPING, I’m using Katniss Everdeen as my model for embodying complex traits, both feminine and masculine: while Katniss struggles to show her emotions and worries about being seen as ‘weak’, she also cries when Rue dies, protects Peeta at the potential cost of her own life, and displays a compassion towards her younger sister Prim that can only be described as motherly.

4. Does your Strong Female Character take action of her own in pursuit of her own goals? 

A lot of female characters in literature and film fall into the trap of being Strong without any particular reason beyond simply looking good in a skimpy outfit or proving to the world that the filmmakers really do respect women, we promise! Carol’s character in Star Trek: Into Darkness is a perfect example of this, as is Arwen in the movie adaptation of the Lord of the Rings. Neither characters have goals of their own beyond their respective love interests; neither provide the story with much other than more weaponry and svelte good looks. Neither character has any development arc to speak of. In THE SOWING, Remy definitely has goals of her own, but she doesn’t really take many steps to pursue them. (In her defense, we didn’t give her too much opportunity, at least not in the first book.) In the sequel, Remy will step out of the passive role as a person-to-whom-shit-happens and become a person-who-makes-shit-happen.

Answering these four questions affirmatively is probably a pretty good way to confirm that your Strong Female Character is doing more than perpetuating the cliche. But it’s important to remember, too, that ‘strength’ isn’t the only way to bring female characters into your story. Women and men both can be weak and vulnerable without either falling into the trope of the Damsel In Distress. And in many cases, weakness, not strength, is what makes a character sympathetic and powerful.