Writing “Strong” Female Characters

Otoyomegatari

Yesterday afternoon, I received a brilliant comment on my post about “strong female characters” in the Final Fantasy series of video games. As the commenter says, “I would argue that strength for a female character is not necessarily limited to ‘becomes goddess, wields gunblade, kicks ass’ (no matter how gratifying), but may also include, ‘forms strong bonds with and serves as mentor / role model / leader for other female characters,’ without reference to the guys.” Since gender is an important component of any work of fiction, I feel that this is an excellent opportunity to clarify my own opinions about what makes a “strong” female character, with “strong” meaning “well developed” in a literary sense.

Here are some suggestions for writing a strong female character:

(1) Unless there is something seriously wrong with a female character, she should have interiority, which means that she should think things. If she’s not a point of view character, or if your third person narrator isn’t omniscient, or if you’d rather just show and not tell, then she should be shown taking actions that demonstrate independent thought.

(2) Is the character in question human within the context of the story? Does she dodge bullets that hit other people, and can she overcome obstacles that no one else can for no discernible reason? Does she always do the right thing; or, by her doing something, does that thing suddenly become the right thing? Does she exhibit mastery over skills with no prior training, qualification, or explanation? Flaws and challenges make characters interesting, and a character with no flaws who faces no challenges is not interesting.

(3) Pretend that emotions are a color palette. Female characters should exhibit emotions that fall outside of their primary color group.

(4) Different characters should hold different attitudes towards a female character. Not everyone needs to love or to hate her. In the same vein, not everyone needs to have an opinion about her or even be aware of her existence.

(5) If you have a choice between closing plot holes and making sure that a female character gets together with her love interest, close the plot holes.

(6) Sometimes people undergo severe changes in personality when they fall in love, have sex, get married, or have a child, but don’t take drastic personality change for granted when it happens to a female character. You don’t need to comment on it or have other characters comment on it if that’s not your style, but understand that it will be jarring and upsetting to the reader and should be treated accordingly.

(7) Is your character raped? Is it necessary that she’s raped? Is she constantly being threatened by rape? Are the male characters also raped? I do not subscribe to the school of thought that holds that rape is the worst thing that can happen to a human being, but it can have severe consequences for both the victim and the rapist and should not be treated lightly.

(8) If a female character is damaged in some way (physically, psychologically, or emotionally), is her damage treated with the proper respect (i.e., is it actually damaging), or is it just a fetish? Does the character exist on a level other than as a representation of her damage?

(9) If your story is a story in which food exists and people eat, female characters should eat food. If your story is a story in which people take showers and use the bathroom, female characters should take showers and use the bathroom.

(10) Just as some people don’t need an excuse to be good, not everyone needs an excuse to be evil; some people are just assholes. Still, if a character is evil just because she’s an older woman or more sexually mature than other female characters, that’s just as ridiculous as her being good just because she’s young and virginal. Remember that stereotypes are mocked because they’re stupid and boring. A character that exists solely for the purpose of overturning a stereotype is also stupid and boring.

(11) Unless it makes logical sense for it not to do so, your story should pass the Bechdel test. This means that female characters should have conversations with each other about things other than the male characters. If they have interior monologs, they should think about things other than the male characters. If there’s nothing else in your story for female characters to talk or think about, then your story probably sucks.

All of these suggestions also work for writing male characters!

In the above list, I deliberately avoided the term “empowerment,” just as I deliberately avoided the term “agency.” “Empowerment” is something that generally pertains to non-fictional people (for example, female readers can feel empowered by a character, or readers can interpret a character in ways that are empowering from a feminist perspective); and, in any case, empowerment is something that’s generally associated with emotional fortitude and some degree of ability to change the world. I want to avoid this latter connotation, because I don’t think a character needs to be powerful or exceptional in order to be well written and compelling.

Just for the record, it is absolutely not true that a writer has to be physically female (or identify as female) in order to write female characters who are interesting and engaging; that would just be silly.

Kushana

The character at the top is Amira Halgal from Mori Kaoru’s Otoyomegatari. The character at the bottom is Kushana from Miyazaki Hayao’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.

27 thoughts on “Writing “Strong” Female Characters

  1. Sisyphus47 says:

    To my mind the delicate treatment of Naoko in Norwegian Wood is exemplar… Following your work with fascination (from http://ofglassandpaper.com/)

    • Kathryn says:

      You know, I’m not sure how I feel about Naoko, who always struck me as an exemplar of Murakami’s “mysterious unobtainable woman” character who functions less as a real person than she does as an object for the male protagonist to pursue. That being said, the last time I read Norwegian Wood was five years ago, and I think it’s time for me to revisit the novel. Thank you for providing me with the inspiration to do so!

  2. Matthew Vett says:

    Excellent advice, and Otoyomegatari is an awesome manga! It’s gorgeous, and I absolutely love the characters, especially the women. For #8, I’d recommend Katawa Shoujo for some good examples of women with disabilities done well.

  3. Andrew C. says:

    This is a really wonderful post. In my mind, the parallel characters of Celes and Terra (also the closest thing there is to “protagonists” of FFVI) might be the best successful example for me of strong female characters in Final Fantasy. It’s true that Terra at first seems to fall too neatly into the silent mysterious mystical girl trope but progresses very well and sometimes unexpectedly; Celes is fascinating from the start.

    But key to me is the role “femininity” plays in their plot lines (homosocial female friendships or the lack thereof, Celes grappling with romance and being made to dress up to be in the Opera, Terra’s founding of an orphanage) that seems to me to be always evolving and processual; it’s not a simple acceptance or rejection of conventional gender roles, but an ongoing negotiation of the characters with their identity and modes of “femininity” in the context of their past, families, friendships, the party, and society. In other words, they’re more interesting to me than the “strong female characters” in the Kate Beaton sense that are barely humans with ludicrously sexy costumes and are only “empowered” in the very narrow sense of killing things with big weapons, but also more interesting than the idea that a strong female character is just a good character that happens to be a woman.

    I find that this latter type, even though it’s often held up as an ideal, tends to elide real issues of gender, identity and gender politics just as much as the former type, but Celes and Terra’s gendering is very much a part of their character in non-deterministic but complex and interesting ways. (This also applies very much to LGBTQ characters for me—I’m getting tired of characters that “just happen to be” gay, for example, which can all too often become just another kind of silencing of queerness. This is why Kenji from Persona 4 is probably still the only interesting gay character for me in video games.)

    • Andrew C. says:

      (Of course, it’s been something like 7 years since I’ve played this game, so I fully admit that there might be a lot of rose-coloured glasses happening right now.)

    • Lithp says:

      I am hesitant to condemn rejecting gender roles wholesale because, well, sometimes people do, but I personally find the most successful characters to be ones that maintain their gender, while reaching across to take some values from the other.

      So, yeah, Celes is a boss.

      However, I can’t perceive Terra as strong because it seems as though she is almost always in a position of vulnerability, & a need to be protected, stemming largely from her own indecisiveness. This is also not properly explained by her age or amnesia*, as most FF protagonists are relatively young, & several have large gaps in their knowledge–Cloud & Tidus come to mind. I view her almost as a helpless child, & it is for that reason that I think some element of cunning or confidence is indeed necessary for a character to be strong, & that it can be developed but still weak.

      *=I might even say that the amnesia is almost a fetish in her case, existing so that there’s a need to protect & take care of her. Though in my case, it was obviously more frustrating than endearing.

      As far as LGBTQ goes, I don’t see the point in making a character “just happen” to be gay, unless it’s to make a statement about stereotypes, & even then, it only works once. If the character is to be regularly appearing after the “reveal,” but we’re never going to mention this again, isn’t that sort of a cop out?

      • Kathryn says:

        I am hesitant to condemn rejecting gender roles wholesale because, well, sometimes people do, but I personally find the most successful characters to be ones that maintain their gender, while reaching across to take some values from the other.

        I agree with you. It’s important to be aware of the roles that gender and gender performance play in the identity formation of characters.

        As far as LGBTQ goes, I don’t see the point in making a character “just happen” to be gay, unless it’s to make a statement about stereotypes, & even then, it only works once. If the character is to be regularly appearing after the “reveal,” but we’re never going to mention this again, isn’t that sort of a cop out?

        I totally see your point! Tokenism is more than a little sad, and it’s not like readers and audiences don’t understand it for what it is. Silencing or otherwise marginalizing queer characters is also sad.

        That being said, sometimes someone just happens to be gay, and it doesn’t have to be a political statement 24/7. For some queer people (and for most straight people, I would imagine), sexuality doesn’t feel like a huge secret or a huge reveal, and if they’re not dating anyone or encountering any societal resistance at that point in the story, then their sexuality doesn’t really come into play.

        Since I’m writing my dissertation about Kirino Natsuo, I’ve been reading my way through a mountain of scholarship about feminist crime fiction, and a lot of people have a lot of thoughts about the prominence of a queer character’s sexuality in any given story. Phyllis Betz’s work is a good place to start reading, if you’re interested.

        • Lithp says:

          I just meant that it seems strange if it never comes up ever, with the possible exception of one-liners or stereotypes. My “straightness,” for instance, manifests in the fact that most of my friends are straight, & conversations with them occasionally work their way around to women & sexual attractiveness. But I would be glad to check that out.

      • Kathryn says:

        However, I can’t perceive Terra as strong because it seems as though she is almost always in a position of vulnerability, & a need to be protected, stemming largely from her own indecisiveness.

        I try to avoid talking about FFVI, as it’s one of my primary fandoms and I have STRONG OPINIONS, but I will try to summarize my thoughts about Terra.

        I think the view you’ve expressed here reflects an exaggeration of certain aspects of Terra’s character that has been presented in certain properties based on the original game. (The same thing happens to Cloud, whose personality ranges from stand-offish and angsty to self-confident and good-natured in FFVII but undergoes significant reductions in spin-off properties, so it’s not just Terra.)

        I think the idea that Terra is indecisive is based primarily on the Returner’s Hideout scenario early in the game, which most players manipulate to get the Genji Glove (even though it’s possible for Terra to approach to Banon and be very decisive if the player so wishes). That scenario aside, I always found Terra to be fairly assertive, whether she’s calling Edgar out on his nonsense at the beginning of the game, calling Kefka out on his nonsense at the end of the game, poking fun at Sabin after he just killed Vargas with his bare hands, teasing Setzer while he’s repairing the Blackjack, telling Locke that she’s totally fine with accompanying Leo to Thamasa, flat out refusing to leave Mobliz with Celes, or ignoring everyone’s distress at the end of the game in order to guide the Falcon away from the destruction of Kefka’s Tower.

        In the first half of the game, Terra actually gets a lot of really good lines, and she has a surprising (and surprisingly snarky) sense of humor that gets translated well in the Woolsey script but gets edited out of the ellipses-ridden translation Squeenix commissioned for the GBA re-release. She tends to be more emotional with people from the Empire (like Celes and Leo); but, with the exception of Arvis and Locke at the very beginning of the game, she’s actually not that vulnerable – at least not in the original Japanese version.

        In terms of gameplay, Terra is actually kind of a badass. Most of the characters in the game have well balanced stats, and Terra is the same in terms of Strength and HP gain, but she breaks the game in that, in addition to her solid physical stats, she has high Magic and MP gain – not to mention the ability to use magic (and Trance!). She can also equip all the best swords and armor, which is always convenient. When I play the game without level grinding, it’s always Terra who has to resurrect the weaker party members (like Locke).

        What I like about Terra (and this also applies to Celes) is that, not only does she have a good balance of personality traits, but multiple aspects of her story are integral to the central themes of the game. Although she follows her own path, she never gets killed off or permanently leaves the party, and she’s a valuable asset (and not a “support role” viability) to the player in terms of both random encounters and boss battles.

        TL;DR: DON’T HATE ON TERRA. SHE IS AWESOME.

        • Lithp says:

          I consciously ignored gameplay because it often has very little to do with the characterization presently going on. For instance, even if you somehow defeat the Black Knights at the beginning of FFII, you still drop dead after the battle so that you can be rescued.

          I don’t remember any of that at all. I remember being frustrated at things like “derp, what is love” & “I can’t come with you to defeat the omnipotent supergod who could destroy my orphanage with a thought, because I need to take care of my orphanage.” So, yeah, I don’t really like Terra, or most things about VI for that matter, but that’s really incidental to the point, which was “it’s odd to label a helpless, immature character as ‘strong’ just because they are arguably developed.” Terra was just the character I chose to illustrate that point.

  4. Leah says:

    Kushana! One of the things that struck me the most about Nausicaa the first time I read it and Mononoke the first time (and 100th time) I watched it was that the depth and moral relativism of Kushana and Eboshi, respectively. They’re both (along with Nausicaa, Selm, Ashitaka, and San) some of my very favorite characters.

    • Kathryn says:

      I love Eboshi! And I love San as well! I have so many thoughts and feelings about that movie.

      I recently watched it again, and I was immediately moved to start writing a syllabus for a course that I’m calling “Nature and Animals in Japanese Culture.” At the beginning of the course we would watch Princess Mononoke, and hopefully, after fourteen weeks of hardcore natural history and philosophical ecocriticism (and ecofeminism), we might be able to begin to understand where Eboshi is coming from.

      I think this is what is great about any strong character, regardless of gender or sexuality. Being inspired by a character, or attempting to understand a character, can be a gateway into adventures that would never would have undertaken on your own.

      • Leah says:

        I would have died of happiness to take that class in uni!

        I love great characters, but I love, too, when authors actually write great characters who aren’t men or straight or in the majority somehow. Part of the reason I loved Nausicaa so much when I was 16 was that here was someone sort of like me (in so much as we were about the same age, female, green behind the ears, sort of on the outside of normal) being a badass, but being a badass wasn’t just about fighting–it was about learning, challenging oneself, solving problems, thinking about things from a different angle, making friends, overcoming loss, and making that final decision. She reminded me of Marlow from Heart of Darkness, but whereas I couldn’t identify with his character–not just because he was a man and older, but because of his experiences–I could with her. And, like you said, she and Kushana made me want to consider the world differently and to BE and DO something.

        Unfortunately, I think she might have set me off on enjoying media with tragic heroes (in the Greek sense) who break my heart…

  5. Reblogged this on Discovering Anime — アニメ入門 and commented:
    Excellent post about strong female characters in manga. I’ve always preferred the word empowered, myself, but I think I’m splitting hairs ;-)

    • Kathryn says:

      I’m not sure how I feel about the use of the term “empowered” here, so I’m going to edit the entry to include my thoughts on empowerment and fictional characters. Thanks for bringing this up!

  6. I love this post! Lots of great advice and excellent observations :)

  7. I love what you said about empowerment and how it shouldn’t totally define a character. The best example would be Clementine from Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead series. She’s one of the best female characters in games ever….and she isn’t super-powerful or emotionally vulnerable.

  8. Headpiece Filled With Straw says:

    I find it pretty easy to write strong female characters since I’m female and all. But I have a problem when it comes to writing strong males I always end up pushing them into the role of The Everyman or The Foil or The Heart Or The Kidnapped Or The Nurturer when ever I write male characters I always seem to think about them in relation to what they are to the female characters instead of who they are as characters. It troubles me a lot because I hate it when writers do that to female characters and I don’t want to feel like a hypocrite. But I can’t help it everytime I plan out a story the protagonist always ends up being female. I know that gender is superficial and that I shouldn’t be so picky about the exterior of a character when I should be focusing on their interior but for some reason my mind just won’t delve as deeply when I start imagining a character as male. And people say that it’s bad to write a character as one gender and then search replace that gender so I can’t do that to solve my problem.

    • Lithp says:

      Do you have someone to compare ideas with? Someone who can tell you if X is believable for a man, or seems to be motivated by shallow personality traits?

      On occasion, I’ll ask one of the female members on my site of a certain character is believable, or just stereotypical.

      It doesn’t really ever help. But, you know, it could.

    • Kathryn says:

      That is a silly argument, Strawman, but I will respond anyway, since people actually say stuff like this. Here we go:

      (1) Gender is not superficial. Oh man I wish it were.

      (2) Tropes are not bad in and of themselves; they are a necessary part of narrative architecture.

      (3) I hesitate to say that the gender of the author doesn’t matter, but I also hesitate to say that the gender of an author makes it easier to write characters of the same gender and harder to write characters of other genders.

      (4) The issue I am trying to address in this post is something that I’ve seen again and again in book reviews and academic essays on literature, wherein male characters will be praised for their complexity while female characters are either ignored or taken for granted as the object of male desire/repulsion. If the male characters are flat, people will complain, but no one says anything if the female characters are only one- or two-dimensional. In a relatively recent response to this, feminist onlookers have started demanding “strong female characters,” a formulation that can be just as restrictive as it is nebulous. What I want is for female characters to be judged in the same way as male characters. Formal academic feminist scholarship sets a good precedent for this, so it is definitely possible.

      (5) If a writer really has trouble writing characters of a certain gender (or race, or what have you), it’s better to be aware of the problem than to deny it exists. The writer can then either try to work on the issues underlying the problem or own up to the problem and hope that other aspects of his or her writing make up for it in some way.

      Reversing or alternating gendered nouns and pronouns can be awesome and empowering (or at least less sexist) in certain cases, but in other cases it’s a derailing tactic so overused that it results in your comment being sent straight to the trash on most feminist blogs. Just, you know, fyi.

      • Headpiece Filled With Straw says:

        1. It totally is though. What I mean by that is that I believe gender to be an almost completely social construct and therefore I believe it should be ignored by any truly free thinking individual something which I aspire to be hence my desire to rid myself of my draconian attachment to an artificial concept.

        2. I know that but tropes still shouldn’t be the whole of a character Heck they shouldn’t even be the sum. My female characters have back stories and psychological profiles my male characters have archetypal roles and look where that’s gotten them their as shallow as a kiddy pool.

        3. But it totally does at least for me I find it easier to write female characters and harder to write male characters because of my gender I automatically make all the cool or interesting or complex characters female. I think this may be due mostly to narcissism.

        4. I know that but I have the opposite problem in my writing. Something I thought was nicely ironic and therefore deserved mention.

        5. I am aware that the problem exists…I’ve already “owned up to it” to use your words but I don’t want it to continue being like that…that’s a crap solution to the problem if I’m a shitty writer in an aspect of writing I can’t make up for that in anyway except by stopping being crap in that aspect. You can’t just run away from your problems after all.

        I don’t really understand what your talking about in the last paragraph.
        I’m just describing my related problem that’s sort of opposite but in reality pretty much the same.

        …Why would honesty get me sent to the trash? Seems a little extreme don’t you think?

        • Kathryn says:

          I believe gender to be an almost completely social construct and therefore I believe it should be ignored by any truly free thinking individual something which I aspire to be hence my desire to rid myself of my draconian attachment to an artificial concept.

          Wait, wait. Really? You mean that, if I can somehow free myself from the results of almost thirty years of living in multiple societies that have firmly categorized me as female, and if I can achieve gender-free enlightenment, then I don’t have to have that time of the month anymore? I won’t have to go through menopause, and I don’t have to worry about getting breast cancer? I can sing in a baritone register and have as much upper body strength as my little brother? Because man, it would totally be a relief if I could just check the “male” box on my daily gender form and not have to worry about getting pregnant if I were to have sex with a fertile male partner. That is awesome! Why did no one ever tell me these things?! Seriously! Is there, like, a secret password that I can tell the Pennsylvania state government that will allow me to marry a female partner? Is there a secret club I can join that will allow me to make the same salary as my male colleagues while paying the same rates for health (and car, and home owner) insurance? Is there a secret handshake that I can use in Macy’s to get them to bring out men’s shoes in sizes small enough to fit my feet? What about my local dry cleaning service, which charges me five times as much to clean my shirts as it would if I were male – how do I tell them to cut that shit out?

          While you’re at it, maybe you could also tell the teenage me how to stop falling in love with other girls, because I get the feeling that being straight would have saved me a lot of trouble.

          Oh man am I ever bitter about how completely not superficial gender is.

          Anyway, if you truly did believe that gender is superficial, then I might wonder why you feel that you’re having problems with gender characterization; but, then again, the structure of your earlier comment so closely resembles the type of “but if discrimination is bad, doesn’t affirmative action discriminate against men?!?!?” derailing comment that regularly appears on feminist blogs that I’m not going to think about it too deeply.

          “Honesty” gets you sent to the trash because comments like this turn the conversation away from its focus (in this case, how to write female characters, examples of well-written female characters, why writing complex female characters is important) and turn it back towards men, and why aren’t we talking about men, and won’t someone think of the poor men, and let’s stop talking about women even though most general conversations on this topic take male subjects for granted. Feminist blogs tend to delete comments like this because (1) there is a time and a place for Feminism 101, but they feel that that time and place is not right now and right here, and (2) they so often lead to accusations of feminism being harmful to men (or radical feminism being harmful to women, or other ridiculous yet never-ending battles that the conversation was never supposed to be about).

          • Hi there. Just wanted to point out that your argument about gender not being superficial sounds pretty cissexist.
            There are biological differences between men and women, but that has nothing to do with gender. Since you mentioned transgender men on your post “In Defense of Fujoshi” I thought it was weird for you to put biological sex and gender in the same box.
            I don’t want to sound like I’m neat-picking or anything like that. Sorry if my comment bothers you in some way, but I had to say this.

            Oh, and your blog is awesome.

            • Kathryn says:

              Hey! Thank you for your comment!

              This is important, and I’m glad you mentioned it.

              For what it’s worth, please know that it was not my intention to say that sex and gender are the same thing. Because that is so obviously not true!

              As I outlined in above, when I say that gender is not superficial, what I mean is that there are all sorts of physical and social and legal and political and religious weights tied to both genders (which are often so closely conflated with sex as to be almost identical in practice) in the binary model, and so “switching” genders, whether in real life or on paper, is not something that is as effortless and unproblematic as many people (including myself) believe it should be.

              In any case, treating both sex and gender as binary is convenient but misleading. This post and the above comment were conceived as more of a sledgehammer job than an icepick job, and I apologize for coming off as cissexist. Thanks for calling me out.

              I will do my best to seek out more resources on how to talk about transgender and genderqueer issues in a more sensitive and nuanced manner. If you have any suggestions on hand, please consider sending them my way, because I would love to read them!

        • Kathryn says:

          If you really are a female writer who really does have trouble writing male characters, you have my apologies for the snark; fending off trolls is frustrating. In any case, in terms of writing crappy male characters, I wouldn’t worry too much, as you’re in good company. (For example, every time someone mentions Wizard’s First Rule as an inspiration, I die a little inside.) The best advice I can give you is to keep writing. Also, join a writing group if you can – there are tons of active groups for fledgling writers on sites like Livejournal and Dreamwidth, not to mention all manner of local community groups that meet offline.

          I personally wrote some truly terrible male characters in college, but I would like to think that I improved after enough practice, feedback, and life experience. Then again, who knows – maybe I didn’t improve so much after all. I’m still learning every day, and God only knows how my betas put up with me. After all, fiction is hard work, and no one produces a flawless masterpiece every time she sits down to write.

          Finally, there’s no need to feel guilty about not looking out for male interests in your work. If you’re writing, it’s your story, and you can tell it however it feels natural to tell it. If all of your main characters are female and male characters only play a secondary role, the world is not going to end. There are enough stories out there in which all the main characters are male to balance things out.

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