In literary circles, I often see people asking for advice on a wide variety of things- writing prose that isn’t purple, when to get started editing, who to contact for a cover (I recommend Book Covered), and sometimes, how to write strong female characters.
With regard to that last question, I’ll impart a bit of advice I learned long ago: write strong characters. Besides the little differences in dialect between men and women (or the way that they treat each other), a strong female character isn’t much different than writing a strong male character. That’s all, folks. Pack it up, party’s over.
Alright, I suspect you came in here looking for something more, didn’t you? Alright, here goes. To begin with, what’s needed to write a strong character? Weaknesses. Why does Batman seem to have so many more fans that Superman? Besides the fact that he’s Batman, he also has some serious personal issues. His strengths are also his weaknesses- he has rather serious personal struggles, makes mistakes and has an unusual method of grieving. He could be considered, on the whole, a “strong character”.
Now, consider Superman. He’s physically strong, but he’s also kind of perfect. Don’t get me wrong- I like him as a character- he has an interesting backstory, he does his utmost to remain morally upright, and he runs into daunting challenges. Trouble is, he lacks flaws. For much the same reason people with problems don’t often it when like other people give well-meaning advice that betrays how little they understand, so too people have trouble identifying with somebody like Superman. I don’t want to be misunderstood- it’s very possible to give a superhuman character relatable and human troubles. Superman’s not always perfect in all of his stories- in Man of Steel, he has to learn to control his abilities and hone his skills. This made him more relatable (who doesn’t need to work on self-control?), and it helped strengthen his character.
For the most part, though, people associate Superman with perfection and and will thus identify with the flawed Batman. How does this apply to writing strong characters?
Don’t be afraid to write a character with problems. By “problems”, I don’t mean cripple your protagonist and tell him to climb Mount Everest. Cripple your protagonist, force him to climb Mount Everest, and give him a serious attitude problem. Give him an inferiority complex. There should be something wrong with your character, because there’s an odd deficit of perfect people in the world. Not to point fingers, but when people write perfect characters, they tend to be writing what they perceive to be perfect versions of themselves- these characters are weakly written because they’re little more than wish fulfillment.
Of course, if you’re writing a story about a perfect woman who never errs and powers through all of her troubles, there are other ways to make her a strong character. While personality flaws and imperfections are usually an important part of a strong character, it’s also crucial that a character be given depth- there are many ways to do this. What motivates a character? Why does he get up in the morning? Why does she keep looking at her feet? When examining a character, look for character, personality– look at what makes the character unique. Here’s a fun thought experiment: take any book and replace the name of every character with “X”.
“I love X so very much!”
“X? That murdering villain isn’t half the man X used to be.”
“X! Don’t do it!”
“I loved X before she… Changed.”
After doing this, see if you can tell the characters apart. If you can’t, they’re likely lacking depth. Frankly, explaining how to give depth to any character- male or female- is a topic that can- and has- filled volumes. In general, however, the process is the same for both male and female characters. Depth isn’t something that writers do “on purpose”, any more than chewing before swallowing is a thing most eaters do “on purpose”- much like chewing properly, it’s more of a good habit.
With regard to female characters in particular, I’ve personally had no trouble writing them to have just as much depth as my male characters. I never really consider approaching my characters as male or female- I simply write them as I see fit. For instance, I was sick and tired of reading books in which mothers were just “there”- existing in the background, but having no bearing on the protagonist or his life. I decided that this was a pitfall to avoid, and when I wrote Me Squared, I made sure that both parents would play an important role. I didn’t write the book as part of a crusade or to incite a revolution- I just wanted to stay away from the same stupid mistake that I’ve seen repeated ad nauseum.
In conclusion, the trick to writing strong female characters is to write strong characters. The trick to writing strong characters? That’s.. Wait for it… Tricky! Forgive me, the real trick is to give one’s characters depth and character– that takes practice, but is ultimately worthwhile.
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