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If you’re writing a novel with a female protagonist, it’s easy to draw on your own experiences as a woman in the world and use that to inform your character’s personality. But what about creating a female character that’s not based on you? This can be especially difficult if you’re not a woman yourself, or if you’re writing a novel about a different culture or time period, and thus don’t have much experience with the role women play in that. Still, it’s possible to create a strong female character by making sure she’s three-dimensional and by following these steps to writing a strong female personality.
- 1 Study images of strong females
- 2 Analyze their motivations
- 3 Attack the stereotypes
- 4 Erase the line between male and female, use androgyny
- 5 Make her three-dimensional
- 6 Don’t make her perfect
- 7 Acknowledge her good traits and her bad traits
- 8 Female characters can be sexist
- 9 Make her talk realistically
- 10 Explore her femininity
- 11 Elevate the quality of her relationships
- 12 Join the Commaful Storytelling Community
Study images of strong females
The way you develop your characters is going to depend upon who you want your protagonists to be. Are they subtle mouthpieces for your audience, in which case you want to make sure you keep in line with trends in your community? Or are you going after subversive characters to attack the status quo? Maybe you’re looking to create a slower-moving work than the flashy action flicks many men have come to admire. If you’re going more artistic, ignore trends and focus on creating deeper humanity in your characters. If you’re going for more commercial success, study male characters to find out how they are portrayed as strong. Men tend to be more physical, so see if your female characters include realistic ways of embodying strength.
The best way to understand how to write a strong female is by studying real life women. Read about iconic women like Rosa Parks or Mahatma Gandhi, both of whom are known for their strength of personality. Find biographies of influential women and read them, as well as the anecdotes about them as they appear in newspapers and magazines. Reading these character sketches may give you more fodder for a strong female character, or you might find a biography to be inspiring. Write down your ideas — physical descriptions, personality quirks, etc. — so that you can use them in character development and avoid accidentally repeating someone else’s idea.
Analyze their motivations
As you begin writing your female character, and particularly if this is your first, start by asking the basic questions of her character. Why did she become a soldier? Is it for the sake of another, a desire for power, or a sense of duty? You’ll want to remember these motivations, as even if your character’s backstory isn’t central to the main story arc of your book, they’ll be really helpful in showing her personality. Once you set the foundation of your female character — across your book series — it’s time to give her form.
Not literally, of course, but from a reader’s perspective, we tend to picture what we read. This means not just coloring in the lines, but giving fuller, more concrete, and often more nuanced characteristics than we would have thought possible upon first thought. Details will help make your female character strong, even if it’s the ones you would least expect. How does her voice sound to others and to herself? Does she have manners — does she chew with her mouth open? Does she lack manners — does she jostle people walking down the street in her haste and impatience? Is she a punk, a princess, or prim? Does she play video games or read books? Whatever you add to her outward affect, remember that each one of these little details is an opportunity for forward progress in the plot — the key is to keep them manageable in your head.
Attack the stereotypes
First and foremost, a strong female must be a fully formed person with her own personality, rather than a two-dimensional version of someone else. For example, Tinkerbell from Peter Pan only becomes strong when she sacrifices herself for Peter rather than sees a way to live to fight again — in other words, her strength only comes out in order to prove true love. While there is nothing inherently wrong with the “true love” narrative, it doesn’t make for a particularly strong female character. How can your female characters maintain their strength without this narrative crutch? One way is by having them exist before any men enter the picture. For example, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, is an old-fashioned, hard-boiled detective story, with a female lead who is wholly fascinating and distinct, even when her male counterpart is sharing screen-time. When you only rely on a certain character type — a wife or a mother, for example — you can get trapped in cliché. Don’t be afraid to show a hard working businesswoman, or shy and studious girl in love for the first time.
Strong female characters are not only able to fight, but they relish the opportunity to fight. They don’t back down from a challenge, and they work with the same fervor to solve personal issues as they do to solve problems on a large-scale. For example, the film Pitch Perfect begins with main character and protagonist Becca, who takes charge, yells out commands, and combats her own inner demons, while also a visible and vocal leader in all aspects of her life. She embraces her position as a leader to her choir. They follow her lead, not because she is a girl, but because they know that she will bring out the best in them when it comes to song.
Erase the line between male and female, use androgyny
Regardless of your characters’ gender, including an ample amount of androgynous traits and clothing will make them stronger with more dimension. While most writing advice is targeted at creating traditionally masculine portrayed characters, creating a character with traditionally feminine features and values makes your protagonist – male or female – less predictable. You don’t have to remove the trait from either extreme, but by giving your protagonist a little bit of both, you’ll create a character with more layers that will make them more interesting to the reader.
The main goal is to show a combination of masculine and feminine traits – the best characters will have all represented traits to varying degrees. If your character is either timid or courageous, they will be boring and unrealistic. Someone who is female but rules with a ‘cradle to the grave’ demeanor may also be viewed as weak. This doesn’t mean to compensate for stereotypes that exist – you are writing for the modern age. Remove gender biases, and help to create a more accurate and modern worldview in the romance novel.
Make her three-dimensional
One of the best ways to do this is to introduce a few flaws. It may seem counterintuitive, but coming up with a character who doesn’t seem to have any character flaws is more difficult than it seems. Whether it’s a blind spot, a distinct lack of empathy, an arrested emotional development, a distaste for butterflies—whatever it may be—deepening your female character requires you to find somewhere for her to land shorter of five-star-general perfection. Another tip is to avoid stereotypes and clichés. It may be tempting to make a female character a duplicitous schemer or a secretly powerful witch, but those kinds of stories are a dime a dozen. One of the last pitfalls to avoid is having her engage in competition with other female characters. From her personal rival to her family members to her possible love interest, there are bound to be conflict moments with other females in her life. In a sea of stereotypes and clichés, a funny, quirky female character is bound to rise above the others.
Don’t make her perfect
It can be tempting to nail characterization early in the novel by having the female character display her strength immediately. However, it can be just as compelling to reveal the character’s strength based on her growing trust when her situation steadily worsens. In The Hunger Games, Katniss keeps herself alive by supplying her friends with food, but eventually realizes that she has to kill all the others if she wants to live. Male characters tend to display their strength sooner, which makes them more interesting. Make your female main character endure an ordeal in the first 1/3 of the book before she becomes strong. Then her strength can get her through several ups and downs.
You shouldn’t have her play the damsel in distress. She can be the huntress if you want someone to run after her hero. But if the story is outdoors and the heroine has to run away from something, she could trip and fall and hurt herself and then have to climb a tree and scramble for safety. Think — conflict, challenge, suspense. Then make her display a special skill, natural intuition, intelligence, or strength. Then make her blow it. That can be fun and emotional.
Acknowledge her good traits and her bad traits
Whenever you create a strong female personality, it’s essential that she not come out of your imagination as flawless. Your female characters should have their own good traits and their own bad traits, that are unique to them and consistent all the way through the storyline, just as men do. This takes a realistic depiction of a character into your work. So, include both minor and major flaws in order to do it. Pointing out character flaws that are problematic for the relationship between the female character and her love interest, or between her and other characters can also be an effective technique.
You can also have more than one love interest as well, which can deepen them in terms of flaws, etc. When you are trying to develop your main character who is a female, it requires having major flaws here and there. It is ok to have any kind of flaw like jealousy, uncertainty, fear, etc. in any female character because it makes her more human and realistic. You do not have to follow the formula where only good traits like brilliance, shyness and kindness accompany it. The readers will not find this effective in generating emotions from the characters. Try to make your characters more human not just by good traits but also some bad ones as well that your readers could resonate to.
Female characters can be sexist
You’re going to have debunk the common misconception that a woman without an agenda is weak. Having a character that pursues her own purposes is a staple of good characterization, not just in writing strong female characters, but in writing good characters, period. In fact, being aware and working to avoid female tropes can help you counter any inherent sexists themes in your writing. If your female character’s only purpose is to serve as her male counterpart’s equal, you’re writing sexist characters. If your female character is just as embattled by patriarchy as any male character, but still has an arc and agenda that is separate from the male hero, you’re writing strong females. The trick isn’t to stop writing female characters entirely, but to be aware of tropes and solutions for how to present your female heroine.
Writing strong female characters comes with identifying her physical and character traits. Is she strong and independent to the point of detaching herself from her emotions? Is she an intelligent, brash, androgynous woman who loves her femininity? Maybe she’s a rare strong female character that is a plus-size woman, LGBT, poor, or otherwise able-bodied. Also, think of the traits that make her personality dynamic. Does she overcompensate by being hyper-emotional, super-competent, or entirely androgynous? Would her backstory be told in a tragic, band-of-sister story, with total rose-tinted redemption packaged with the second installment of the series? Consider these traits, as well as any core personal principles, to create the layers that will bring out a woman who is in totality, a strong female personality.
Make her talk realistically
While you certainly want to make your female character strong, believable dialogue and realistic perspective are a must. Although this type of character gives you an opportunity to break out of gender stereotypes, you also need her to be credible. Make sure you know just how your character speaks, how she thinks, and keep her words and actions in line with her inner motivation. If you can do this, not only will all your character’s development be true to who she really is, but also she’ll be an engaging and interesting role model for your readers.
It’s important to give your character an authentic and nuanced voice. Like the characters of any gender, your female character could have a backstory that comes with rich nuance and experience that has helped to develop her into the person she is today.
One way to authentically portray your character’s distinctive voice is to discover it and use it confidently. One way is to bring her to life in your mind and ask yourself, “How would she describe this? What does she notice? How does she see the world?” If you have a first-hand understanding of the way she thinks and speaks, you’ll be able to write realistically. And just as you don’t want the dialogue of any character to sound artificial and forced, you never want to have to construct your character’s voice in the first place, taking short cuts for ease or sparing your readers the experience of thinking through something that will belong uniquely to your character.
Explore her femininity
Ask yourself why she should be a strong female character in the first place. Is she strong due to her personal agency, or is her strength more of a masculine nature — that is, a physical and aggressive strength? Contrast the differences, and make note of how they reflect on the woman themselves. A character who only succumbs to her emotions and the environments around her loses her agency. She’s only as strong or weak as the men and women around her. When writing a strong female personality, take note of her circumstances. For example, if she’s in a village where women’s rights are restricted, but she’s making an effort to subvert those norms, the reader will be able to relate to her. If she’s an alcoholic who blames her male lover for her own weakness and proceeds to emotionally abuse the man, the reader won’t like her and her sympathies won’t be with her, no matter how strong she is.
Why is the character strong? Does she first have to test her physical prowess in a competition with the male protagonist, or can she show her physical skills in another way? Does she then have to prove how good with children she is? Is she at her strongest when it comes to combat? Does she side with the traditionally masculine character when it comes to doing things? Where does she see herself in society — is she deeply emotional, or is she more of a cynic who’s good at keeping a straight face? Make sure that any traits that the character has, whether physical or mental, is a part of her strength. If a woman is strong because of how many men she can sleep with, that doesn’t make her a good character.
Elevate the quality of her relationships
Let her have positive relationships with major supporting characters. Readers don’t expect women to have a ton of close friendships, nor do they expect women to prize competence as highly as men, but they do expect women to have a single best friend after puberty and to be married by the time they’re 30. Strong female characters can also bond with family members and colleagues, but tend to strive single-mindedly after romantic relationships and children. Paradoxically, the best of female friendships exhibit many of the characteristics of what popular culture deems to be “masculine”, like independence, prickliness, and egocentrism. The key here is to either bring in healthy male characters who show the female character aspects of the feminine side of that same coin, or to make the male characters fragile or weak — somehow inferior in an effort to show that the female characters earn respect primarily through unconventional means.
Strong female characters can be likeable without being feminine. Female characters and female real life CEOs should not be afraid to be abrasive and tough — for viewers to relate to them, they need to see themselves in the character beyond the physical characteristics, and that means in their goals and behavior. The trick to success is in finding a balance between how a person communicates character on the first page, and their personality traits on the second.
In truth, every character, regardless of gender, should have their own inner definition of what makes them strong. But in the real world, we often turn to stereotypes of what it means to be “strong.” This makes it all the more important to show how we can move beyond these restrictive gender definitions. Strong female characters are just that — women, and they can do whatever they want.
Ultimately, the best way to create a truly unique female character is to stop and think. Jot down notes. Brainstorm. Turn to books and other resources to learn more. Use all of it to steer your way towards the best representation of a woman that’s reflective of the character’s journey, as well as what you know to be true about the female experience. The female character you’ve been itching to write is there — you just need to have the time and patience to find her.
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