Monday, March 12, 2012

WANTED: Strong Female Characters

Sarah Connor: strongest woman ever
Back when I was researching agents to query, I read about an agent who was interested in “strong female characters.” I was thrilled because Sacred Fire has a strong female character, so that meant she would like my book.

Then I got to thinking; is Tuccia actually strong? She’s insecure. She shrinks from being a Vestal Virgin because she feels inadequate. She blames the goddess Vesta for her best friend’s death but is too faithful to let herself be angry. When she faces her own execution, she decides her life was a string of doubts and regrets. She’s kind of weak.

Yet as the author, I can feel the strength of her convictions, her integrity, and her refusal to be anything less than perfect. Her determination to rise to her calling causes her pain, but ultimately drives her to become the most famous Vestal Virgin who ever lived. If that isn't strength, I don't know what is.

I realized I don’t know what qualifies as “strong.”

This has been a personal dilemma for ages. As a teenager, I believed a woman was only strong if she could do everything a man could do. Sarah Connor from The Terminator was my hero; in fact, during a brief lapse in judgment I considered joining the army so I could be as cool as her. I even gave my name to a recruiter. My dad had a heck of a time getting him to quit calling us.

This mentality quickly became disappointing and exhausting. Men are biologically stronger than women, and I have no desire to lift enough weights to rectify that. They have a different types of aggression, energy, and skill sets than we do. I can’t be a man, and frankly, I don’t want to be.

I decided strength means having the willpower to always get what you want. A strong woman has a don’t-talk-back-to-me, I-don’t-care-what-nobody-thinks-of-me, get-it-done-yesterday attitude. When I got married, I discovered another definition of that behavior: selfish. Sometimes strength is not getting what you want and letting it be.

My next idea was that strength is not having flaws. Being perfect would certainly require strength, but it makes for a lousy main character. Surely that’s not what the agent meant.

Then I thought strength is the ability to conquer flaws and challenges, though having flaws and challenges in the first place negates the concept of strength.

I eventually decided never to separate my characters into “strong” and “weak.” Everyone has strengths, and everyone does strong things. They also give into their weaknesses.

When we think a person is either one or the other – whether in fictional or real-life – it means there’s another side to that person we haven’t discovered yet.

From now on if anyone asks me if my female characters are strong or weak, I’m going to say, “Yes.”


  1. Absolutely; all characters need strengths and weaknesses to be rounded. Otherwise they're just cardboard cut outs.

    I think true strength isn't in the actions you do, but how you recover from what others do to you. I throw everything I can at my characters, and the strong ones are those that keep getting back up again.

  2. I've always thought that one of the strongest characters I ever read about was Helen Keller, yet I bet I could out bench press her. I think you're right, though, about characters needing both strengths and weaknesses.

  3. "Then I thought strength is the ability to conquer flaws and challenges."

    I agree with this. I think agents, publishers and readers want to see characters that change, improve, and overcome challenges. So a "strong" character might start off appearing weak, but identify and call on his/her strengths to defeat obstacles over the course of the story.

  4. Most of my female characters are quite damaged - the stories focus on them becoming stronger. I think strong women - like Sarah Connor - are best in film, where character devlopment is not quite so blatant.

  5. Annalisa: Now that I think about it, Sarah Connor does make the transition from weak to strong. Maybe that's why I like her so much.

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    1. I agree with you and Matt. A strong character will change and evolve over the course of the novel, using his or her strengths to overcome weaknesses.

      (I edited to correct a typo.)

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  8. Very nice article, Teralyn: and yes, immediately I thought Sarah Connor was an inspired choice, because she's just your regular gal in Terminator 1. I wouldn't call her weak, necessarily, but she's just sorta "normal." I might say she went too far in her quest to be strong, but then in the end she scaled back a bit, and lo and behold, a truly impressive woman was born.
    (I also had to correct a typo. Sigh.)

  9. At this point in my life strength is accepting oneself. The guts and commitment to change the things that can be changed, realizing one won't be perfect, and not always needing to feel damaged about this reality. I like reading about women who cover this territory as well.

    Normal and sane are illusions. Humans are inherently nuts--just different flavors, IMHO.

  10. Personally, I don't have a problem recifying the idea of someone being 'biologically' stronger than me, if given the motivation and a purpose, and I think everyone is different. Engery, yes, they tend to have more, but aggression, willpower, and skills varies from everyone. That's how I see it. People aren't following the sterotypical skills and jobs of men and women anymore.

    Everyone is flawed, and have a bad/good side. I think a truly strong person would be able to keep some type of determination to continue onward.


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