Tag Archives: strong female characters

Is it possible to make a strong female protagonist but still make her mega insecure?

Yes.

You also never need to ask permission. You want to do something? Just go.

I’m tempted to just leave it there, but we should probably talk about character traits, flaws, and development. The issue with the term “Strong Female Character” is that it’s misleading and often misinterpreted. Very often, in certain circles, it’s presented that strong = flawless. Combined with the whole pressure cabin of worries surrounding the “Mary Sue”, it can lead to some interesting places. Usually into either too much or not enough territory.

When someone says “Strong Female Character” what they usually mean is “Well-written Female Character” which is, I admit, almost as intimidating. However, it’s not just that the well-written female character has flaws, it’s a matter of how those flaws interact with their narrative.

You want to write a female protagonist with insecurities? That’s great! There’s plenty in this world for a woman to be insecure about. However, the development doesn’t stop there.

The next questions are the most important ones when working with any flaw and all flaws. Ask yourself:

What is my character insecure about? How does that affect how they view and interact with the world around them?

One of the biggest issues with the ways that flaws get handled in some fiction, especially with younger writers, is that they assume the key way to escape the dreaded Mary Sue moniker is to  give a character flaws. The problem often being that those flaws often don’t affect anything. The difference between a well-written character and one that isn’t (but may still be compelling to some like wish fulfillment characters) is that their flaws directly affect how they engage with other characters and the surrounding story. They influence their judgement, cause them to make choices which may be dubious, build tension, and are often a direct source of character conflict.

The flaws serve a purpose rather than just existing in an effort to deflect criticism or to make the character seem more human. It’s important to remember though that the more deep seated the insecurity then the more difficult it will be to overcome. The same is true of any other kind of flaw and, really, any other kind of story. The bigger it is then the bigger the impact will be. The more powerful the characters then the bigger the narrative must be to accommodate them. (Or we go in the reverse and have human drama be the focus as it often is with characters like Superman.)

So, the deeper seated the flaw then the less easy a fix will be. They are the only one who can really decide whether or not their insecurities matter and no matter how many times someone else tells them that they’re amazing, confident, powerful, or strong, it might not take until they start to believe it themselves.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:

Sara has been training at the military academy since her parents sent her when she was six, she’s now 17 and approaching graduation. Though she ranks in the top or near the top of her class, and is constantly complimented on her fighting prowess, she worries about how well her skills will translate into the field. Being near the top, she’s been trained to take charge of other cadets but the thought of possibly having to decide about her friends makes her feel a little sick. She works hard and doesn’t have time a for relationship with boys or girls, but every so often she stops and stares in the mirror as she’s getting ready. The face staring back at her looks nothing like the girls she’s seen crossing the street from the Prepatory, the ones all the boys and some of the girls sigh over, or the ones on the movie posters. The clothes at the mall never fit quite right.

Whenever she looks at herself a nagging feeling slips underneath the surface, is this a face anyone could love?

Jenna’s been scraping the bottom of the barrel since her parents pulled strings with the General to get her in. She never wanted a military life and she’s tried her best to washout. Blew off her training sessions. Skipped class. Flunked gym. Maybe she can put together her rifle in a few minutes, but it’s not the rigid coordinated thirty seconds of her classmates. Still, graduation’s approaching and the bottom is still a direct line straight into the army. She doesn’t want to be a jarhead, shaved is just not a good look for her. Maybe her family’s from a long line of career military, but she never wanted this. Sure, knocking a few good looking guys and girls around the training floor is fun but put a gun in her hands and ask her to shoot? That’s another question entirely.

The question here is how these insecurities present themselves and often our fears lead to deeper seated fears at the bottom of that deep, dark internal well. Then, there’s the question of how they deal with those insecurities in their day to day existence. Do they avoid them? Do they ignore them? Do they repress them? Do they try to find some other way out of these entanglements? A character labeled as lazy might be actually be trying to find a way out that doesn’t involve admitting they’ve quit.

However, the passage of thought often leads to more questions which allow you to explore the character and those surrounding them more fully.

If Jenna is so determined to drop out then why doesn’t the Academy let her quit or toss her out?

Are Sara’s insecurities a result of the fact she’s dedicated herself to an ideal and cause but never really stopped to evaluate herself and what she wants? Or is she just insecure about her looks? Either way, it’s lonely at the top.

Whatever you do, try to think about how it affects their personality, their interactions, and the way they behave in the world around them. Character flaws inform a lot about a person and their journey in overcoming those fears and adversity is what defines a character as “strong”.

That said, there’s nothing wrong with a character being weak, either.

It’s mostly just a question of the kind of story that you want to tell.

-Michi

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So I’m writing a book with a lot of fight scenes, and my main character starts out untrained. I don’t want to make her try to fight when she doesn’t know how, but I don’t want to make her a “damsel in distress”. Got any tips for that?

The only thing a character has to do to avoid becoming a damsel in distress is not sit and wait for rescue. Seriously, that’s it. They don’t have to succeed, they just have to try and keep trying. (Though… preferably not against characters who are willing to kill them for trying.)

The biggest issue with writing inexperienced female action characters (or any female action characters) is that there’s a tendency to overcompensate. From what I’ve actually seen in literature and media, this can be a bigger issue for female writers than male writers (though both suffer from it) because of the way the societal gender norms inform their perspective on what they can be. When you’ve been told your whole life that “you’ll never be as good” at X, or “you can’t beat a guy”, or all the other little stories and common wisdom littered across a thousand different television shows, books, media, and forum discussions then the specter of the Damsel in Distress can feel like an omnipresent and even unbeatable threat.

I’m going to launch into a deeper discussion about how losing and getting knocked down doesn’t make a character weak, but I’m going to leave the most important piece of advice here:

The Damsel in Distress is an object within the narrative. Defeat it by making your character a person.

Okay? Okay.

The trouble with the “Strong Female Character” is that it’s a response to the regular female character and the regular female character is regarded as weak. By accepting the term, it means we accept that the vast majority of women out there are weak and by creating a female character who doesn’t begin with StrongTM stamped on their ass that they are inherently weak before they can become strong.This locks us in because in order for this female character to be “Strong” she must be everything the average woman is not. To even be on the same playing field as her fellow men, she must be unbeatable. By starting with a “Strong Female CharacterTM”, we begin with the mission statement that just being a girl is not good enough.

According to the media and the general perceptions presented by society, all boys are heroes while all girls are damsels in distress. If you’re worried about your character becoming a damsel then it’s because for you, the damsel is still the default.

So, below the cut, I’ll try to make some suggestions for how to beat this.

Do you define your hero as being a hero based on who they are or what they can do?

The average male hero is defined as a hero based on who he is. The average “Strong Female CharacterTM” is defined as hero based on what she can do. When working with female characters, we begin to revolve around not who a character is but what they can do as being important to their success.

We start to feel like any loss is a sign that they’re unworthy. They always have to win and the win must be effortless.

Say it with me:

“My character doesn’t need to be anything more than who they are to be the hero of my story.”

I know I battle with the omnipresent feeling of “not deserving the spotlight” or “not being good enough”. It’s okay to step back and say “yes, it’s all about me”. Your character isn’t going to win every battle. They are going to encounter enemies that they cannot defeat by force alone. Enemies they cannot fight head to head. It’s not a sign of them being weak or incapable, it’s just a matter of them having to solve their problem a different way.

I have a character who spends the vast majority of my novel running away. Well, really, running toward her enemy. She is more than capable of fighting head to head with most of what the setting can throw at her, but is also capable of assessing which fights are worth her time and risk. She’s working within a very short time frame. At the end of the novel, before fighting the main villain, she fights six guys. Instead of fighting them straight up, she runs from them.

Someone out there may be going: but running away is cowardly!

No, it’s smart. By running, she breaks them up and has a better chance one on one than fighting them all together. By running, she can lose them. When they lose her, they have to start searching for her, and so she can begin hunting them. The tables turn and the prey becomes the predator.

Take a situation that places the character at a disadvantage and have them turn it to their advantage. Take an action that may lead to the character being perceived as weak and turn it into an action that is strong. Strength can come from cunning and resourcefulness as much as it can from physical action. It can come from compassion, kindness, and the willingness to forgive.

Your character can be weak and strong at the same time.

Stop being afraid of how other people will perceive your character.

The damsel in distress is a fear of what other people will think. It’s a worry that you’re not doing it “right”. There is no right. People will think what they think. So, fuck ‘em. Write your story. Write it the way it wants to be written. Then, revise it to be what you want.

Just do it.

You’re not failing the Feminist movement. You’re not failing anyone by telling the story the way you want.

Trust yourself. You can do it.

-Michi