The Myth of Strong Female Characters
Updated: Nov 23, 2022
A few months ago, I read an excellent post from a fellow writer, Michelle Pennington, about strong female characters that really resonated with me. A recent trend is for TV shows, movies, and books to pitch the idea of a strong heroine. Great! But this isn’t the new concept they would have you believe. And even though these programs champion their portrayal, many miss the mark.
In her post, Michelle asked the question “Why is it that so many storytellers—in various mediums—fail at something that should be so easy?”
I think writers start with the goal of making a strong character but fail in the execution because simply using the buzzword doesn’t make it so. A strong character is layered and real. Stuffing a heroine with strengths and making her better than everyone else doesn’t make her a strong character. To gain strength, she must overcome her weaknesses… or at least have weaknesses.
As a reader, are you going to invest in a character who is kind, intelligent, brave, resilient, and perfect in every way? Maybe…
But will you be more invested if there is a conflict in her life? Instead of some writer telling you she’s intelligent, brave, resilient, and perfect in every way, wouldn’t you rather join her on the journey and see for yourself?
In my first book, Enigma of Lake Falls, Jenny Nicolay is haunted by a family scandal and forced to move to a new town and start over. She’s making friends, building a life, and burying her secrets. She’s intelligent, brave, and confident. But issues with her family make her doubt her abilities.
A smarter person wouldn’t be duped. A braver person wouldn’t care about the gossip in Boston. A more confident person would stay and fight.
The internal struggle is what makes a character leap off the page.
The first example is a shameless plug for my book and I might be a tad biased when it comes to my own character. So now I’ll talk about some of my favorite characters and the inspiration for Jenny Nicolay. Three people helped shape her, on a mostly subconscious level because they are the characters I grew up loving.
I first wrote Jenny Nicolay when I was in high school. My frame of reference up to that point was Nancy Drew. Why after ninety years do people still love her character? She’s fearless and pursues the truth. When someone tells Nancy she can’t do something, she accepts the challenge and proves them wrong. But sometimes her stubbornness leads her and her friends into harm’s way. But there wouldn’t be much tension if Nancy was always right… but she mostly is. Especially when paired with the Hardy Boys. Her struggle to prove herself and overcome hurdles is why we still love her.
Another one of my favorite characters is Lorelai Gilmore from the Gilmore Girls. I didn’t catch the show’s original run but I enjoyed binge-watching all seven seasons in a short span. There’s humor, love, family drama, and a quirky town. Lorelai is the heart of the show but she isn’t perfect. Some of Lorelai’s greatest strengths are also her weaknesses. That statement sounds like a terrible answer to an interview question, but for Lorelai, I think it’s true.
Her fierce independence means she never wants to ask for help. Her quick wit is unparalleled. But she sometimes uses her sarcasm to deflect emotion and keep people at arm’s length. Lorelai is without a doubt a strong female character and it’s because she isn’t flawless.
The third inspiration I want to highlight is Lois Lane. Similar to Nancy Drew, there are many different versions of the character throughout comics, cartoons, TV, and movies. Each portrayal is a little different. When crowning the best Lois Lane, debates become heated. Everyone has a favorite and mine is Erica Durance from Smallville.
From her first appearance on the show, she grew into the character of Lois Lane. She went from an aimless high school student who didn’t know what she wanted to the nosy, intrepid reporter we all love. She was funny, sarcastic, and held her own in a fight. She never complained about not being treated like Superman’s (the Blur’s) equal. She never tried to prove she was stronger than the Man of Steel. She was confident in her abilities and knew her strengths. She didn’t try to be better than Clark; she used her unique skills and complimented him.
This is where the newer superhero shows miss the mark. I stopped watching the CW’s superhero lineup because of annoying characters who weren’t as strong as the writers would like you to believe. If to build up your female character (who doesn’t have powers) you sacrifice the hero of the show (who has powers), was she ever really that strong?
Michelle Pennington made a great point in her article that I’m going to reiterate here. In response to criticism about Disney princesses of the past, recent adaptions forget what made these characters beloved.
Orphaned Cinderella was bullied by her stepfamily and treated as less than. When the story starts, she believes her dreams are silly fantasies because that’s what her family wanted her to think. They kept her locked up as their maid and told her she couldn’t go to the ball without something to wear. She didn’t outwardly fight back. Secretly she cobbled together supplies and sewed her own dress. Again, her family tore her down. With the help of her fairy godmother and some animal friends, she became more confident and learned to stand up for herself. She worked hard for her happily ever after. If you eliminate the struggle and make her a self-assured person from the start, she isn’t Cinderella.
Writing strong characters isn’t about making them invincible from page one. Why do so many movies like Rocky include a training montage? Because as an audience, we want something to cheer for. When a character falls, we want to see them get up again and do better next time.
My last example is from the movie Secretariat (which is obviously based on a true story). This is one of my favorite movies and mirrors the underdog/Cinderella story. From his birth, people discounted Secretariat. They said, “he’s fast but he won’t handle the distance”. But Penny Chenery saw something in him. Her small, ragtag team came together and turned him into the champion they all knew he could be. And when they competed in the longer Belmont Stakes no one thought he could win, he finished in first place. By 31 lengths. A record that still stands today.
Would the story be as compelling if Secretariat went into the race as the clear favorite? He’s the strongest, fastest horse and he’s guaranteed to win by at least 30 lengths. If this was the sentiment going in, I don’t think we’d still be talking about the race almost fifty years later.
The idea of a strong female character (or any character) comes down to being real. Not a perfect, phony Hollywood creation. We want a person we can relate to and cheer along. If a character doesn’t have flaws or weaknesses, their win comes too easy. Overcoming an obstacle is what brings the character strength.
I hope you enjoyed this long post and thanks for reading!
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject.
Think of a movie, TV show, or book. What is it that makes you like or dislike the main character? What might make them better?
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