When I first saw the backlash about strong female characters, I must confess that I was affronted. As it turns out, my problem was with the word “strong”. I was reading it one way, while most people meant it another.
The “strong female character” most people are familiar with is a hard-ass, unfeeling, tough, even cold. I will not call them “masculine” because I don’t think any of those characteristics are inherently masculine, and frankly it does both men and women a disservice to continue the trope that they are. Men who are emotional and sensitive aren’t feminine, after all, and the idea that they are – that men must be stoic at all times – hurts those who need support.
This kind of SFC is fine on its own. The issue really is that for some content creators, it has become an easy default. They reach for the strong female paper doll to slip into their story and as a result, the characters are not richly developed. It’s exchanging one two-dimensional female character – the classic damsel in distress – for another.
For me, the term “strong female character” has always meant “strongly developed” – a genuine strong characterisation. From this perspective, the stock SFC isn’t “strong” at all; she’s a weak characterisation. A strong character has depth, has personality, has richness and history and emotion and potential. A strong character is one we can identify with, cheer for, even hate. A cardboard cut-out badass doesn’t give you that opportunity. They’re just support for the characters that are strongly developed; set-dressing, essentially, or plot points. If you’re going to have a character like that in the mix, balance her out with some characters you’ve spent some time developing.
For that matter, please don’t be afraid of writing female characters. Men, you too. Women are just people; if you can write people, you can write women. If you have any issues you need to iron out with a character’s motivation or personality, or how she might respond in a scene, ask someone. A friend, or perhaps a writing community. It’s always been odd to me that some people find it difficult to identify with a character of a different gender, so that aspect of things doesn’t bother me much when it comes to female characters in fiction, but whether or not the piece works as a whole, it does stick out when there’s no female characters involved. Somehow, it’s significantly worse when there’s a token female character without proper characterisation. (I’m looking at you, Ducktales. Webbigail is the Scrappy Doo of that series. You had a chance to get rid of her with the reboot, and you didn’t. I’m judging you.) Don’t slot in a cardboard cut-out to meet your representation quota. No one will thank you for it.
So I appear to be a dissenting voice when I ask for more strong female characters, but I think we all want the same thing, we’re just stumbling over the words we use. When I say we need more of them, I mean the wimps as well as the badasses, the nerds, the artists, the marathon runners, the insomniacs, the perennial losers. We need female characters who fuck up, who are emotional messes not because women are emotional but because they are emotional. I think it’s possible to confront stereotypes by making them aspects of fully rounded characters. Avoiding them doesn’t help, it just makes people who do conform to that stereotype on some level feel uncomfortable. “Don’t make your character a tough hardass” isn’t the way forward. We got here because “don’t make your characters wilting violets” was taken too far. Some women are tough, stoic, even cold, just like some women are swooning damsels. The point is that they’ve got more going on in their lives and their heads than a couple of one-word characteristics. Make them layered. Make them complicated.
Hell, I’m an unfeeling monster and a neurotic mess. I can be both. So can your characters. Let them be people. Love them, nurture them, and it will show in your work.
And then take away everything they’ve ever loved just to see what they do.