Avoiding the Strong Female Heroine Cliche
Readers love a strong female character. Just remember you can be vulnerable, unreliable, uncertain, or even physically weak and still be a strong character.
For decades, fans and publishers alike were eager for strong female characters. People were tired of damsels in physical or emotional distress. They wanted women who were smart, brave, capable, and who didn’t need men to solve their problems. Then we started getting them.
Hooray, right? Well, the problem is, we’ve mostly been getting one type of strong female character (SFC) — the ass-kicking kind — as opposed to women who are strong in other ways. This has led to a slew of characters who are often less interesting than their forebearers.
There’s no denying the empowering appeal of an ass-kicking SFC. The British TV show, The Avengers, featured a few of them, especially Dr. Cathy Gale and Emma Peel. These women were genius scientists, masters of martial arts, and fashion icons to boot (because why not). They inspired millions of girls, worldwide, and are considered iconic characters. No wonder. They were trailblazing characters … back in the 1960s. The problem is we haven’t really progressed beyond these women since then.
It’s not that fully developed, interesting strong female characters don’t exist in modern literature. They do. Esch in Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones and Ifemelu in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah come to mind. The problem is most pronounced in genre fiction — especially male-written genre fiction — where SFCs have become one-dimensional male-fantasy figures who don’t have nearly the emotional depth of their male peers.
Or, we get characters like Hermione Granger: amazing, capable characters with depth who get overshadowed by their male counterparts. (The “Simply Potter” Facebook group hilariously re-named the Potter books to fix this, e.g. Hermione Granger and that time I used the power of research and deductive reasoning to make sure Harry didn’t die; Hermione Granger and that time I was a Time Lord.)
Sometimes writers just can’t win when it comes to creating great SFCs. Female characters get criticized in ways that male characters don’t. Nancy Drew, who first appeared in 1930, has gone through several changes over the years (in an effort to keep up with the times) and each iteration has been equally praised and lambasted. She’s too bossy. She’s too outspoken. She’s too passive. She’s too submissive. The Hardy Boys have changed too, but they don’t receive the same criticisms as Nancy.
Of course, our idea of what a strong female is changes over time, too. Consider the case of two genre heroines: Ellen Ripley from Alien (1979) and Wendy Torrance from the film version of The Shining (1980).
Ripley was immediately hailed as a feminist role model. She wasn’t the typical “final girl” of slasher films. She was smart, outspoken, and, most of all, tough. She beat the alien, and she did it in a recognizably strong way — or, specifically, in a way that men recognized as strong. (It’s worth noting that the writers put a note in the Alien script that read: “The crew is unisex and all parts are interchangeable for men or women.”)
Wendy, on the other hand, was roundly criticized at the time. Stephen King led the charge of critics, calling Wendy a “screaming dishrag” and “one of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film.” Yes, she and Danny ultimately prevail, but she was terrified and crying half the time, and seemed totally unsure of what to do the rest. And the fact that Kubrick famously harangued actress Shelley Duvall during filming only added to the sense that Wendy was the opposite of an SFC. Wendy wasn’t just considered weak, she was hated.
But times have changed, and opinion is shifting on Wendy. Many are now considering her a real-world example of a strong female character; she just happens to be strong in ways that are different from the cliché. She’s a caring and attentive woman caught in an abusive relationship. She’s a loving mom to her troubled son. She’s terrified, yes (who wouldn’t be?), but she manages to overcome her fear and prevail over Jack. She resourceful. She’s even brave.
In short, Wendy is a woman. A strong woman. (I would even argue that The Shining, whether intended by Kubrick or not, is a feminist film that clearly satirizes the crumbling world of the patriarchy: e.g. Wendy does all the work Jack was hired to do, on top of making all the meals and raising their son; Jack is merely an abusive, alcoholic, whiny, loser; Dick Hallorann, the proverbial knight in shining armor, gets killed — foolishly — the minute he shows up; “Your wife appears to be stronger than we imagined, Mr. Torrance;” etc.)
Championing Wendy doesn’t mean dissing Ripley. Ripley is a great character. She’s much more interesting and three-dimensional than most of the characters she inspired. She is, as author John Scalzi puts it, “pushy, aggressive, rude, injured, suffering from post-traumatic syndrome … tired, smart, maternal, angry, empathetic, and determined to save others, even at great cost to herself. All without being a spinny killbot.”
In the ‘60s, or even as late as 1979, the notion that “women can be strong, too” may have been groundbreaking. But today, that sentiment is patronizing. Strength can be expressed in ways that don’t involve the physical. Your heroine can be scared, inept, sick, suffering, depressed, shattered, haunted, cocky, bipolar, unreliable, uncertain, selfish, and even physically weak and still be a strong character — just the way so many male characters have been. The world is ready to embrace the notion that a well-written, compelling female character does not have to mimic a male stereotype of strength.
One last comment: Many agents and publishers will claim they are searching for strong female characters — they will even use those exact words. I would urge you, however, to avoid using that term in any queries you write, as it has become somewhat toxic. (After all, people never seem to feel the need to include the word “strong” in any description for a male character.) Instead, show how strong your heroine is without actually using that word.
What female characters have inspired you?