What makes a strong female character?
Many people hear the words “strong female character” and think of a woman who is snarky and beats up bad guys. And, most of those same people think if a female character cries, or if *she shows strong emotions (other than anger, but even sometimes anger), then she is weak.
But is that really true?
In my opinion? Absolutely not. Being able to beat people up only makes her physically strong. What makes a female character (any character, regardless of any gender,) strong isn’t only their physical abilities. And strength—true strength—is so much more than that.
Masculine does not equal strength, nor does femininity equal weak.
According to positivepsychology.com, “… personal strengths are defined as our built-in capacities for particular ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving (Linley, 2008). We all possess distinct character strengths that are associated with the six virtues of positive psychology theory (Seligman, 2002).”
3. Love of learning
3. Social intelligence
1. Appreciation of beauty and excellence
(You can read the full article here.)
Nowhere on that list is physical strength. Take Frodo and Samwise. I think we can all agree that they are both strong characters. But when fighting breaks out, they are rarely part of it—unless it can’t be helped.
They break down.
They want to give up.
They have their moments—several of them—of weakness, but they are never weak.
Those moments make them relatable. They have their weak moments. That is a strength. The ability to allow yourself to be vulnerable with others. Then they keep going. That, too, is a strength.
Of course, that's not to say she has to sit back and be helpless while waiting to be rescued. There's nothing wrong with any character whether they be female or male or nonbinary, needing help at any point.
That doesn't make her helpless. She can use her wits and cunning to get out of situations. Or, if she's unable to escape on her own, she can use her mind to stay alive. Female characters do not have to be polar opposites to the old stereotype of being a damsel in distress.
I did a five-second google search of "Strong female character" and the top result was Wikipedia:
"The strong female character is a stock character, the opposite of the damsel in distress."
According to Carina Chocano, the strong female character has become a "cinematic cliché", resulting in character archetypes like the "alpha professional" whose laser-like focus on career advancement has caused her to become a "grim, celibate automaton", and the "gloomy ninja with commitment issues".
By this metric, the strong female character is a woman with the gendered behavior taken out.
Another way this is shown is that the strong female character is sometimes distanced from femininity by subverting the physical characteristics audiences have come to expect from female characters.
—wikipedia, Strong Female Character
A woman shouldn't have to reject feminity and embrace typically male traits such as dominance, aggression, emotionless, violence, etc. That isn't to say a woman can't have any of these typically male-gendered traits. She absolutely can, but she can have feminine traits as well. They are not mutually exclusive.
She doesn't have to be perfect, she can make mistakes, many of them, and she learns from those mistakes. She has opinions, makes decisions, and has ambitions and goals. What will make your character strong is how she deals with them. She can have a vulnerable moment, then pick herself back up and move forward. She can be afraid and still do what needs to be done.
Personally, if a female character goes around beating up bad guys, crapping on all things feminine ("i'M nOt LiKe OtHeR gIrLs"), and is a non-stop snark-fest... it will bore me to tears and I will DNF that book fast. I like my characters with flaws. I want to see them grow out of the defenses they've built up to protect themselves before the start of a book, and find their true strength through their weaknesses.
There are so many ways to portray strength. I'm not saying female characters can't or shouldn't be physically strong. But Why stop there? Give her other personality traits besides being rude and snarky all the time. Let her be vulnerable, protective, kind, enjoy being feminine, or the countless other personality traits a real, living person can have.
The Heroine's Journey by Gail Carriger.
*Note: use of "she/her" and "he/him" is referring to typically gendered traits and who they have historically been assigned to, but can and should, apply to any character regardless of biological gender including nonbinary genders.