By Allie Skalnik
“Strong female character”. The phrase seems to have devolved into a buzzword more than anything empowering or meaningful. But after watching one too many teenage rom coms grasping at female empowerment with, as a friend put it, “usually white, straight, smart, sassy, etc.” leads (she’s not like other girls), I found myself wondering: Would I really be any better at crafting that “strong female character”? And if so, what would that look like?
First of all, let’s step back. Apart from being a way to ask writers and directors to include 21st century girls and women in literature and cinema, what does it mean for a character to be strong? Who am I to say what is strong and what isn’t? It seems to me that strength comes in many, many forms, and each of them should be appreciated. In the typical hero’s journey arc of storytelling, strength would mean that the character’s faced significant challenges over the course of the story and were able to grow to overcome them. Writing female characters with arcs stops them from being one-dimensional plot devices for a male lead, but that’s not where it should end. Strength goes beyond that.
When considering “strong female characters”, the conversation usually revolves too tightly around personality and characteristics. We should stop and ask ourselves why a woman’s personality influences how we think about them far more than that of a man. This isn’t just the case in book characters. Characters don’t need to be perfect to be compelling. They should have flaws. They don’t always have to be the spokesperson for feminism. Especially in literature, I find myself losing touch with a story when the book values its feminist agenda above telling a good story or representing people well. She doesn’t have to always challenge societal norms and attend every rally and go on long rants about the wage gap. She can, but her character should also go beyond that or else a character is reduced to a vessel for political thought. It disrespects a character’s value as a person who has a story worth listening to.
Rather than create empowering characters, focusing too much on personality limits who women and girls are allowed to be. So a female character can’t ever be a villain? They can’t be bad people? They have to be honorable role models? The result of this fixation on personality are characters who are all the same. It’s this weird copy-paste of characters that I think also limits a character’s ability to be compelling. It breaks girls down into “types”: shy nerd, rebellious delinquent, action movie fighter, hopeless romantic with a hobby. And… that’s it? If nearly every female character I can think of can be put into one of those boxes, there must be something wrong. Perhaps they have an arc, but these characters lack depth because their stories have been told before. Moreover, it tells girls to fit into boxes. What am I supposed to find empowering about that?
A major pitfall for these “strong female characters” is that they end up telling me what I’m supposed to look like, how I’m supposed to act, rather than tell stories just as compelling and meaningful as their male counterparts. Because that’s the real point, isn’t it? It’s not about writing the perfect, unproblematic female character who I won’t be able to relate to. It’s about telling stories about women and girls that haven’t been done justice in the past. It’s about telling stories where female characters are not delegated to sidekick or romantic interest and are seen as characters with their own important story to tell. The story must take precedent. Not to mention, there are plenty of other groups besides women who are badly represented and delegated to plot devices in other peoples’ stories.
So how would I write a strong female character? I would focus on writing a compelling story first and foremost. I would write her like she’s my best friend, someone real and full who doesn’t have to be perfect for me to love her to death. I would write about issues dear to my heart, things I’ve lived through. I would watch her grapple with them and learn from them, and I would make sure that her story is one that my fifth-grader self would be compelled by.