Don’t Make Your Female Character (Too) Strong – Make Her Believable
Chapters Completed: 18
Chapters In Progress: 4
Chapters Not Started: 12
“Chronicling The Craft” is an article series where I share my experience with writing my current work-in-progress (WIP), which is a fantasy novel. Every 5,000 words, I let readers know what I’ve accomplished since the previous article and share advice, discoveries, techniques, etc. Besides the word count in each article title, a “chapter ticker” at the top also tracks my progress as I use the skip-around / “writercopter” method to write the novel. Today’s installment celebrates the book reaching 70,000 words in length.
Wow. Has it really been less than one month since the novel passed 65,000 words? It feels like it’s too soon to write this article for 70,000, especially with the non-writing commitments I’ve had the past few weeks. (Then again, when are summers not a busy time of year?) I even combed through the current draft chapter by chapter with the word counter after finishing Saturday’s session, just to make sure the math wasn’t off somewhere on my Excel tracking sheet. It wasn’t. So I sit here now, convinced I’m wearing bemusement on my face because that’s 1000% (yes, one-thousand percent) how I feel: baffled yet flutteringly happy.
Here’s what I’ve worked on since the previous Chronicle:
- No straying from my priority of finishing the in-progress chapters this time! (Yay!) Chapters 11 and 18 are now finished. The former shows Eva (protagonist) making a genuine attempt to gain the trust of the Mountain Men that succeeds in some ways but not in others. The latter is a pivotal point in the novel: Eva finally reveals her emotional wounds to one of her Mountain Men companions. She also learns of two seemingly minor and unconnected events that, given what’s transpired earlier in the story, trouble her deeply.
- My current focus is on completing Chapter 24, the saddest section of the novel. I can’t summarize without giving much away, so that’s all I’ll say for now.
- Still plugging along on the character development appendix, particularly on the profiles for Eva’s fellow Councilors. I want to make sure each Councilor (seven in total, including Eva) has a unique personality and set of strengths, and so far I think I’ve achieved that.
That idea of character development brings me to this Chronicle’s focus question: What makes a female protagonist strong? Chances are you may have seen this discussion on other writing blogs. Jami Gold, Natalie Whipple, and (on a related tangent) Erika Johansen are just a pinchful of the writers who offer various insights on the subject. DebateIt has also approached the topic from an interesting angle: Does a weapon or super power define a strong heroine in speculative fiction?
I’ve been thinking about this idea (especially DebateIt’s slant) from time to time, since the WIP a) features a female protagonist and b) is epic / historical high fantasy. My concern has never been whether Eva is a strong main character, though. In fact, it’s been the opposite: What if I’ve made her too strong? What if she’s too empowered or tough for readers to connect with? (The answer’s coming shortly.)
In some ways, it’s hard to not be influenced to create kick-ass female characters today – because they’re everywhere! In film, literature, comics, and TV shows, we see women wielding guns or swords, throttling opponents with snazzy martial arts or combat skills, practicing magic or witchcraft, or exhibiting other uncanny skills that we could only dream of having. They can (but don’t always) possess qualities such as confidence, decisiveness, and sensuality, among others. What writer wouldn’t want to include that kind of character in their stories? However, if not built with enough care on the writer’s behalf, a leading lady can become more like an anti-damsel-in-distress – a female protagonist who may be too powerful for her own good, and not believable enough for your audience.
That last thought has crossed my mind a few times with Eva, especially after presenting her character profile on this blog. As a Faerie, she uses her inherent magic to cast spells and defend herself. She’s also good with a sword and even better with a bow and arrow. Then there’s Eva’s thirst for vengeance against the Mountain Folk, which she’s kept secret for years. Yep. This is one dangerous woman. Even I wouldn’t want to piss her off, and I’m her “mother.” Which means the typical challenge of developing a believable protagonist that readers will care about has become a steep mountain to climb. (Eeeek!) But after careful consideration, I can still make a case that Eva is still believable and able to connect with readers.
So, how can this pitfall be avoided? If a female character possesses talents or skills like those mentioned earlier, what should a writer keep in mind to balance dynamism and believability? Here are some suggestions I can offer, along with examples from books I’ve read as well as what I’ve done with Eva in her story.
Give her a goal – and an opportunity to evolve. Readers want to root for the protagonist as she strives for an external objective, but they want to see her transform as well. Tenar of Ursula LeGuin’s The Tombs Of Atuan must renounce her role as a priestess of death to save the wizard Ged from Tenar’s corrupted priesthood. This act of defiance frees Tenar of the cruelty she’d been forced to inflict upon others and opens her heart to compassion and friendship. As for Eva, she must learn to set aside her desire for revenge against the Mountain Folk so she can help them recover lost relics from their ancestors, and then to reclaim a kingdom. As described here in more detail, her external and internal journey becomes a lesson in forgiveness and letting go of the past.
Balance the “badassery” with other admirable qualities. Traits such as empathy, generosity, and perceptiveness can soften the edge and add dimension. Take Danaerys Targaryen (A Song Of Fire And Ice saga), for example. She may be bold, independent, and ruthless toward her enemies, but she also shows genuine gratitude for her advisers and compassion for slaves and the poor. In Eva’s case, two of her strengths are her inclination for teamwork and her humility. She’s happy to help others and isn’t afraid to ask for help in return, and she refuses to take all the credit for her successes.
Make her afraid. By this, I don’t mean to forsake flaws; those help with rounding out your character. However, give your leading lady something to fear. Not just a quirky phobia, but something deep and potentially paralyzing. Then, make it central to the story’s plot to inject urgency and force your MC to overcome it. Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games trilogy) is terrified of losing the people she loves. This explains much of Katniss’ personality, and why she volunteered to replace her younger sister Prim in the 74th Hunger Games. Eva shares the same fear for her own loved ones. She endured it once before when her parents were murdered – and even though she’s part of the Council of Selanaan (a group of seven ambassadors tasked to protect their people, the Faeries), she hopes she won’t have to face that fear again. *cue the “Jaws” theme*
Help her stay in touch with her emotions or gentler side. Even if your character’s an alpha female, her softer or sensitive side is going to peek out. Let her express those feelings through internal dialogue, physical cues, or conversations with other characters. Brienne of Tarth (A Song Of Fire And Ice saga) may be one of the most physically and mentally tough female characters in current literature. Yet when she recalls her childhood and the shame her choices have brought upon her family, readers can detect pangs of guilt and sadness. Eva proves during her own story that she’s retained her female essence. She shows her gentle ways with her horse and her messenger bird, empathizes with a boy whose father has neglected to teach him how to fight, and is overwhelmed by grief and remorse when tragedy strikes.
Allow her to use her powers and/or skills wisely. Make her aware of the harm her talents can do as well as the good. The titular character of Kristin Cashore’s Fire possesses the ability to control others’ minds – a power that can be easily abused, as she witnessed from her father (from whom she inherited her powers) for years. Fire chooses not to follow in his footsteps. Rather, she uses her powers sparingly but eventually adopts a careful sense of purpose in order to help her kingdom. In the WIP, Eva knows that Faeries have been stripped of their wings and exiled for practicing dark magic (magic with evil intent) in the past. She therefore treats her own powers with wonder and respect.
Writers aren’t the only ones concerned with believable female characters, by the way. A reader’s experience with a story often depends on how well they connect with or relate to the protagonist. So, here are some quotes from fellow readers who shared their thoughts via Facebook on the idea of a “strong female character.” Many thanks to everyone who contributed!
Max L. talked about what he likes to see from female characters and what makes them believable in his eyes:
“I adore well-written, strong female characters, whether they be natural badasses or ones that overcome adversity in whatever ways they can. The only way they can be ‘too strong’ is if they aren’t believable, meaning their struggles are overcome too easily or they’re too close to a certain pre-fixed ideal. A good strong female character (or strong character in general) is one that uses her natural or acquired strengths to overcome the obstacles she faces, but also displays emotion, vulnerability, and weakness like any human would. If she’s not human and doesn’t possess typical human traits such as those mentioned above, then that needs to be worked into the story in a way that makes it believable.”
Angela I. made an excellent point about strong characters in general, not just female characters:
“I think a strong character (in general) is one that uses everything in their power to accomplish their mission (in general, they have one in books / movies) and is not easily distracted or put down by obstacles, emotions, etc. They have to successfully overcome themselves to count as strong. If you can switch around the gender and they still seem strong, you’re doing it right. Male vs. female should not matter, in my opinion.”
Finally, Justin B. shared some of his favorite female characters from literature and why he admires them:
“… I want interesting characters, characters that are dynamic and have large / extremely interesting personalities. I would count Yelena [from Maria V. Snyder’s Study series] as one of my absolute favorite ‘strong, interesting’ female characters that I’ve read about. I also love Julia from Lev Grossman’s Magician series because she’s neither good nor bad by default and is able to exhibit a more morally ambiguous, complex psychological side to herself. She’s intellectually strong, but not exactly ‘physically’ strong. Her magic is more about inner-transformation, and she could have easily been a male character without changing anything that really makes her stand out as an interesting character.”
How about you? What are your thoughts on the idea of a “strong female character”? Do you have additional tips or examples on how to ensure such a protagonist can connect with readers? Does the WIP’s protagonist Eva seem believable enough based on the examples given above? Feel free to share by commenting on this post below.
Next Chronicle: When I hit 75,000 words – which means it will be time for another exclusive reveal from the novel: villains and antagonists!