Strong Female Characters are great. Buffy, who when Angel asks what’s left after he takes away her weapons, friends and hope, replies ‘Me.’ and saves the world a million times over. Daenerys Targaryen, the young girl who destroys cruel slavers with the help of her dragons. Hermione Granger, without who’s impressive intellect, Harry would have had a hell of a hard time defeating Voldemort, and who takes part in dangerous battles. Allison Argent, who saves her friends time and again with her archery skills and hunting expertise.
But what really bothers me is when someone will complain that a writer ‘can’t write women well’ because not all of their female characters are badass. Sure, if every female character you write follows the same tropes: life revolves around a man, cant cope without said man, never stands up for herself, existing solely as the love interest – then yes, you can’t write women very well. But female characters shouldn’t have to be kicking ass just to be accepted as a good or well written female character.
When writing female characters, you should first concentrate on writing human characters. Some women will be able to deliver a roundhouse kick to your head, some will be smart, some will stand up for themselves, some will grow strong, some will be their own hero, some will be just like Buffy or Daenerys or Hermione. But there will also be those who cry, who need someone to save them, who are weak. There will be those who cant, or don’t, fight back, or who don’t save the day. Characters should be complex, just as people are.
Take Arya and Sansa Stark from Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire as an example. Arya is a popular character, a bad-ass tomboy who, rather than learning needlework and how to curtsy like a lady spends her time learning the art of sword fighting. During the events of the series the young girl stands up for herself, killing her enemies and saving her friends.
Sansa is her opposite. She excels at needlework and she can curtsy, and she loves it. She wants her whole life to be a song, and dreams of marrying her prince and living happily ever after. During the course of the series she is beaten, held hostage, controlled and manipulated. Unlike Arya, she does not stab a stable boy and escape from Kings Landing. She doesn’t strangle Joffrey in his sleep (as satisfying as that would have been to see.) She keeps her head down and stays alive in a way that’s fitting to her character’s personality. Sansa often receives a lot of criticism from viewers and readers for her lack of fight.
Here’s the thing: what exactly does a character have to do to be considered ‘Strong?’ Does she have to be able to kick ass, just like Buffy? Just because you have a female character who doesn’t punch every man who steps to her in the face and walk around in leather, doesn’t mean she’s not strong. Strength comes in many forms: strength of the mind, strength to carry on even when things are bleak. Sansa is strong in her own way, navigating the complex mind games and politics of Kings Landing in an attempt to stay alive in the midst of the lions den. But it shouldn’t matter whether Sansa is considered ‘strong’ or not. You never hear the term ‘Strong Male Character.’ You get your male superheroes and your weak and desperate Peter Pettigrew’s.
A female character could be many things: strong and tough or sad and weak. They could be a mix of both: she knows kung-fu but cries when she feels like crying. Could we not get rid of the term ‘Strong Female Characters’ and just concentrate on writing a wide range of complex female characters with varying traits?