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  1. #1
    There is no tomorrow RedMage's Avatar
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    "Strong" Female Characters---wha????

    I've been talking with one of our newest members looking4fantasy in the Fantasy/Horror forum and trying to find some fantasy for her to read. In defining what she wants and doesn't want, she wrote something that got me to thinking as a writer. It was:

    Quote Originally Posted by looking4fantasy View Post
    .....the "strong female character" thing. I personally hate this particular phrase and in my writing (not finished so therefore not published haha) I will NOT describe my female characters that way. Strong willed, certainly. Strong of heart, sure. Having physical strength to rival a lot of male characters in the same story, perhaps. But the phrase "strong female character" has come to mean a female character who gives up most - if not all - of her femininity in order to be seen as strong. I recently got a bunch of "starter collections" of fantasy for free from Amazon. Most of them have a female protagonist and she is described as a "strong female". I have read several of them and in all of them the first thing that is mentioned about her is that she doesn't care how she looks to others or her choice of weapon. This is lame to me. I personally think of myself as a strong person, but I still love to wear dresses and makeup. I can help my husband fix his truck in the morning and then go out to a nice dinner in a pretty dress in the evening. I would love female characters like that.......
    What do you think, as a writer, about "strong female characters"? Personally, I see "strong" in the writing sense as defining how well I've done in my characterization. I have 4 female characters I've written that come to mind from 2 series, 2 female characters in each (both unpublished). One was controlling, domineering, aggressive in achieving her goals. Another was quiet and shy, a good word for her would be timid, but she had her desires and needs and was a full character and not a cut out, if I do say so myself. Those were both from one series. The characters from the other series are more similar to each other, with both being extroverts and outgoing, but one especially being quite arrogant, decisive and driven to achieve her goals and having the possibility to be a Type A personality in many situations.

    I would call all of these strong characters, even the timid one. What about you?

  2. #2
    It could be worse. ~tmso Moderator N. E. White's Avatar
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    Oh, dear, get ready for the onslaught...

    I think, like anything, it can become a trope, either a well or badly done trope. And labels can be deceiving. Just because the marketing jacket says there's a "strong female character" (regardless if that is code for the author simply swapping out pronouns or not), doesn't necessarily mean there's a "strong female character" in the story - how ever you define that phrase.

    Regardless of all that, I am the type of woman who doesn't give a damn what I wear or look like (though I do care what sort of weapon I carry - katana or jo, please). It would be great to read a female character who goes about her business not caring what others think of her physical appearance. I have read very few stories where that has been the case.

  3. #3
    It could be worse. ~tmso Moderator N. E. White's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by RedMage View Post
    I would call all of these strong characters, even the timid one. What about you?
    Sorry, I forgot to answer your question.

    Yes, I do think your characters (regardless of gender) are strong characters, meaning they are fleshed out characters with goals they seek out to accomplish.

    However, most of the time when people think or talk of "strong female characters", they tend to mean either physically strong females or otherwise having a lot of power over others in their particular story. Did that make sense?

  4. #4
    There is no tomorrow RedMage's Avatar
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    Yes, that makes sense. And I agree, "strong" is often thought to be physical or political or social strength. When I talk to non-writers (such as my parents) and use the word to describe either my characters or those in a story I've read, female or male, I am always stopping to define what I mean by "strong character".

    I agree with your point too, Nila, that anything can become a trope if it is overdone. At the moment, my mind jumps immediately to Urban Fantasy as a genre that is filled with tropes. Protagonist in law enforcement (public or private), independent heroine who doesn't need anyone else.... Strong characters in their personalities but, strong characterization of them? Not always.

  5. #5
    Administrator Administrator Hobbit's Avatar
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    Must admit I'm probably as guilty as anyone in using that term - in fact I'm fairly sure I used it in a review last week!

    Tropes are not always bad, in my opinion - sometimes readers want something that's readily identifiable, although you're right - it can sometimes lead to lazy writing.

    Some readers just want 'the feel-good' factor - characters who, by strength of will and/or character, overcome adversity. It doesn't mean to say that every character should be the same, though, which is why I can understand a little the PoV of the original post. 'Being strong' does not necessarily equate with being nasty, manipulative or evil, or even having the personal strength to do your own thing, though I think sometimes some readers and writers would prefer it that way.

    M.
    Mark

  6. #6
    Registered User Facing's Avatar
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    Oh my, I think this could turn into a multipager.

    Strength means different things to different people. To me, strong women (people) are those that pursue their goals despite obstacles. The problem is that sometimes the goals a woman choses are not deemed as being worthy of respect and so their pursuit is belittled.

    Strong individuals come in a variety of personality types and I think our writing should reflect that.

    I can't think of anything more tedious than a spa day but that doesn't make me stronger or weaker from a woman who tans, waxes and peels regularly. It just makes me different.

    I've been absolutely ga ga over the same man for 27 years now. I can't imagine my life without him but I don't view that as a sign of weakness though a great many fantasy works geared toward women begin with the assertion that a strong woman doesn't need a man in her life.

  7. #7
    Registered User StephenPorter's Avatar
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    This is one of those weird ones that has a bunch of different definitions and interpretations. I can't really say that any of them are wrong, but it does mean we aren't always on the same page when we talk about it.

    The first way to look at it is to take out the qualifying term. So, let's think about what a "strong character" is in general. Even in this case, I can see the two different views of either a well developed character, or a character who actively pursues his or her goals. These two meanings do not necessarily occur together. A timid character might not be a "strong" character in the sense of going out and making things happen, but might be a well thought out character with a lot of depth. Likewise an active leading character may not have a personality at all.

    Secondly, we can remove the other word from the phrase and look at what a "strong female" is. This phrase has no relevance to complexity of personality. It instead refers more to that whole "active pursuit of goals" definition, or at least wielding significant power.

    So when we combine the two phrases into a "strong female character" we get an awkward blend of the two meanings, and I think it leans more towards the active and powerful aspect rather than referring to depth of character.

    What this also becomes is a buzzword for feminist portrayals of women in fiction. As such it takes on all the added arguments over what makes the portrayal of a female character sexist or not. Does caring about appearances and fashion make the character a vehicle for sexism? Does making a woman strong enough to arm wrestle Superman mean she is liberating? It all depends on how it is done, but people will often fall into those simplistic forms of thinking, which leads to the character types that the original commenter was complaining about.

    Basically, this is all to say that the phrase's definition is so broad as to be unhelpful, though I am sure it has passed my lips often enough. Perhaps it would be best to simply avoid it, especially since the English language is rife with synonyms for practically anything we can think of. My characters are (I hope) nuanced and memorable regardless of whether they actively drive the plot forward. My female characters are (I hope) authentic and relatable, regardless of whether they preen themselves in front of a mirror.

  8. #8
    FallenAngel looking4fantasy's Avatar
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    Yes! Yes, yes, yes and yes!

    I do think that your characters are strongly written, and that's exactly what I was looking for. I am glad to see I'm not the only one who feels that this term has become a way for writers to use cut outs of other characters and mesh together a few other things to create a very flat and boring character.

    You see, I grew up in a single parent household. My mom could not hold down a guy or a job - not that the former is necessarily bad. My mother was also kind of a man hater, very independent and had the attitude of "anything a man can do I can do better." And no offense to my mom or anything, but if she was the main character in a story, she would be one dimensional. One and a half tops. That is what gets on my nerves so much about most of the "strong" female characters out there these days; they remind me utterly of my mom's personality and it falls flat.

    It would be a great compliment in my opinion to have someone say "Your female characters are so strongly written that they feel real." This is what I felt when reading certain characters growing up and I even once wrote to an author to tell them that. I didn't get a response, but that's not what's important here. I hate that I pick up a book, see the phrase "strong female protagonist/character", read the blurb about her and put it back because they do not mean strongly written. I want my daughter to grow up and enjoy reading but I don't want her to get the idea in her head that being a shallow, flat or vapid girl is okay and in my personal view, this is what a lot of books teach girls.

    For an example, Twilight (I know, I know, just bear with me here). I read all these books because my mom liked them; I read them to her on car rides. Bella is ranked in my top ten worst characters I've ever read. She's vapid, obsessive, boring, and in love with a pedophile who stalked her for several months before they began dating. Then he leaves in an attempt to keep her safe and she goes into a coma for literally three or four months. Then she decides that being an adrenaline junky is a good idea because she hallucinates that he's there when she does stupid, dangerous things. This is not the message I want my daughter to absorb while she's growing up. This is one of the reasons why I really want to find strongly written characters, of both genders, that are relatable, flawed, human.

    I'm one of those people that one day will not brush my hair and proceed to wander around in my pajamas all day. On these days I do not care what people think of what I'm wearing. The next day, I might decide to dress in a ball gown, spend a couple hours on my hair and make up and pretend I'm a princess. I may be an adult, but I still like to play dress up ! I want to see more characters like this. I like reading things set in Medieval like eras and I would like to see a woman from that time who loves to dress nice, but sneaks out to go make mud pies with the local street urchins because she thinks it's fun. I would like to see a man from a similar time period who hates dressing nicely, but does it for his parents. He would then go work in disguise mucking out stalls at the local stable to earn riding time on one of their horses. Flawed characters feel more like real people than characters who do things too easily.

    Just my two cents...well, I guess this would be an additional two cents!

    ~L4F

  9. #9
    Man of Ways and Means kennychaffin's Avatar
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    Maybe not exactly on topic but ....

    There ain't no sin and there ain't no virtue. There's just stuff people do.
    - John Steinbeck

    In a way the term 'strong' female character is something of a damning with faint praise. It more or less points out the fainting/falling away etc of how female characters have been typically portrayed through the ages....it's just more of the same-ol-same ol stuff.....we need more women in science and technology, Mars needs women, not enough women presidents, etc. etc. etc.

    People is people. Write the story. Tell the story well. We are more alike than we are different.

  10. #10
    I write stuff J.D. Carelli's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by kennychaffin View Post
    People is people. Write the story. Tell the story well. We are more alike than we are different.
    Yup. I see 'strong' as any character who has their proactivity bar set to high. Green, from the book Green, is a good example. She wants something (to get home) and is determined to get there at all costs. That's not something she can do on day 1, competency bar is too low, but she's 'strong' the entire time.

  11. #11
    Man of Ways and Means kennychaffin's Avatar
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    And now this has made me think of "A Worn Path" by Eudora Welty

    Phoenix Jackson is a strong character despite her aged frailness and mental infirmity.

  12. #12
    Just Another Philistine Hereford Eye's Avatar
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    Get the impression that strong equals goal-oriented. For as long as I can remember, leadership has been defined as (1) accomplish the task and (2) look out for the welfare of the people you're leading. The literature on the balance of those two priorities fills at least a couple of terabytes on Google.

    Are most people's lives dedicated to accomplishing a single task? That's what happens in most stories because there isn't time to cover multiple, competing tasks. So, a goal-driven character is monomaniacal and therefore, to me, not particularly strong... like most villains. A goal-driven character that cares about the people affected by her actions rounds the character out. For example, raising children to adulthood is a task but one that evolves over time with teaching necessarily balanced by caring. It takes a strong character.

    Are people devoted to caring for people strong? If you're running an orphanage, do you need to be focused on administration or caring? If you want to represent people in the halls of government, do you need to be focused on an agenda or the people you represent? If you want to deal with a people problem, e.g., welfare, immigration, education, et al, do you want to tackle it from only one side? Good luck with that!

    Applying the twin requirements to people probably explains why there are so few heroes running around today.

  13. #13
    KMTolan kmtolan's Avatar
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    A strong female character is, to me, someone who isn't playing the victim or is proactive rather than reactive. They set the pace. They get things done. They make mistakes. Their way.

    I snort at the idea that the term itself is in any way to be avoided. It sets the expectation for the reader, just as "immersive world" does. Folks will try and tack drama on to anything these days, sigh.

    My opinion.

    Kerry

  14. #14
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    Quote Originally Posted by kmtolan View Post
    I snort at the idea that the term itself is in any way to be avoided. It sets the expectation for the reader, just as "immersive world" does. Folks will try and tack drama on to anything these days, sigh.
    I disagree to some extent. 'Strong female character' was cool when Ripley did it in Alien, but, today, it's as tired a trope as the female character of the 50s who was just there to make tea, scream, and get kidnapped so the hero could save her. If I pick up a book that makes a big deal of the 'strong female character', I'll probably put it down and move onto the next. I'd rather have real characters, be they male, female, alien or transgendered human/squid hybrid.

  15. #15
    Edward has it in a nutshell - it originates as a phrase with good intentions - highlighting work that deviated from the (then) norm in mainstream media. It gradually became used to allow lazy writers and tv and moviemakers to describe sexy kick-ass "babes" fighting demons (or whatever) in a miniskirt - Buffy without the nuance. Well-meaning, but tired.

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