Gone are the days where female characters in novels tended to be simpering, dependent and virtual cardboard cutouts. To celebrate the strong – but also the not-so-strong, the complex and vivid – women in fiction, this week we’re talking about 7 great females characters and what they can teach you about better character writing.
However, before examining the character development of strong female characters, it’s important to define what is meant by a strong female character. Writers have grappled with this definition and cautioned that it is important to allow a strong female characters to have weaknesses. Developing a strong female character doesn’t simply mean creating a protagonist who defies prescriptive gender expectations. It means developing a character who is well-rounded and real. Most importantly, perhaps, a strong female character is one who acts rather than one who is acted upon by societal and other pressures that revolve around her sex or gender.
The female characters below all exemplify good character development:
Writing characters who have a strong sense of self: Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre
We can reach back to the classics for one of the novel’s earliest strong female characters. Jane Eyre survives an abusive childhood, first in the home of the family charged with caring for her and later at a boarding school, only to find herself working for a man who has his own complex and disturbing relationship to women [no spoilers here].
One of the most remarkable aspects of Jane as a character is that she is, in one sense, a victim of circumstance, of the time and place into which she is born and her station in life, and yet despite that she seizes agency and makes her own choices even when those choices are very limited. This begins with her rebellion against her cruel relatives, continues in her care for her fellow students in the abusive boarding school and culminates in her rejection of Mr. Rochester.
A lesser writer than Charlotte Bronte might have written a similar book in which the same series of incidents unfolded and showed Jane as passive in the face of those incidents. Yet it is her resilience, her determination in the face of suffering and her own sense of self that stands out in this novel. The lesson from Jane Eyre is that your character will be engaging and interesting if she has the agency to choose her response to things even when that response changes little or makes the situation worse, as is often the case for Jane.
Other strong female characters also find a way to thrive in gender-regulated societies:
Isabel Allende’s generations of vibrant women
Critics have described Chilean author Isabel Allende’s novel House of the Spirits as a kind of woman-centred companion or response to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, which foregrounds the historical experiences of mainly male characters. Allende’s novel examines the lives of women amid upheaval wrought by men, but it is always the three generations of women that provide the vibrant core of the novel. Clara Trueba is the matriarach of the tale, but her daughter Blanca and granddaughter Alba are just as strong.
Unlike some of the other female characters discussed here, all three of the Trueba women are strong characters and strong women who defy oppressors in more traditional ways. However, their commitment to causes such as education and health care are shown to be ultimately more effective in securing change than the revolutions the men carry out.
The lesson from the Trueba women is that strong female characters do not necessarily have to refuse or abandon all characteristics or roles seen as traditionally ‘female’ or ‘feminine’. For these women, these roles actually turn out to be the most effective ways for them to remain strong and bear up under the suffering they endure.
The heroine’s journey: Lauren Olamina and Octavia Butler’s Parable novels
In her classic science fiction novels Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, author Octavia Butler gave her character a disability. Because of a drug her mother took when she was pregnant, Lauren Olamina suffers from a condition known as hyperempathy in which she feels whatever a living thing near her is also feeling. However, in most other ways, Lauren’s character arc follows one that is traditionally depicted as predominantly male. She becomes a leader for her people and founds a new religion.
There has been some criticism of Joseph Campbell’s study of the hero’s journey as a distinctly male construct. Lauren’s character arc from a teenage girl to the leader of a new society demonstrates that there are no character arcs or paths of development that need to be reserved exclusively for male or female characters.
When developing your own strong female character, there is no reason she cannot command an army or rise to a high position of influence just as a male character might. It’s always good to remember that you can write the world you want, not merely the world you have.
Some female characters are so memorable that fans feel they should have been the main characters in their books:
Brains over beauty: Hermione Granger
Many readers of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter fantasy series love Hermione even more than Harry. Hermione is probably the smartest pupil in Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and she’s also loyal and brave. But she isn’t perfect. She can be a know-it-all. She talks too much. She is sometimes bossy.
Hermione’s negative traits are as essential to her existence as a strong female character as her positive traits are. In a world where girls are often assumed to have the most value if conventionally beautiful and adept at social interactions, Rowling created a girl who is described in the books as somewhat less than beautiful and often socially awkward. Yet Hermione remains one of the most beloved characters of YA literature.
The lesson from Hermione is that it is important make sure your strong female character has flaws, and it is even better if, as is the case with Hermione, some of those flaws are inextricably connected to the characters’ strengths. After all, the reason Hermione is a know-it-all is because she very often is the smartest person in the room or the only one who is correct about something. If Hermione is bossy, it is because sometimes the people around her need to be bossed.
The unlikable heroine: Katniss Everdeen
Some readers find Katniss Everdeen a hard character to like. However, Katniss lives in a hard world that only gets harder as the Hunger Games series goes on, and it is that hardness that saves her. Katniss is also a reluctant heroine. She steps up to fight in the first round of hunger games to save her sister and the second time because she has to. Katniss does try to protect the helpless, but she does so on an individual basis. She has no desire to become to face of the revolution and is pressured into the role.
Katniss possesses many characteristics that are thought of as traditionally male, and to some degree, she was criticised for characteristics that would be much less likely to be singled out if male characters had them. Whether or not Katniss is entirely likeable — and plenty of readers adore her — the lesson for writers here is that they should focus on writing people first and genders second.
Katniss would have been a very different character and the Hunger Games series a very different set of books if their author, Suzanne Collins, had felt pressured to make Katniss worry about her looks or fret about boys. A second lesson is that authors should be unafraid to make their protagonists into characters who are sometimes difficult to relate to, as real can be.
A change of view: Cassie Maddox in Tana French’s The Likeness
Tana French’s character Cassie is a particularly good example. The reader first meets her in the crime writer’s first novel, In the Woods. Cassie is the best friend and colleague of homicide detective Rob Ryan, but the novel is written from Rob’s point of view. When we next meet Cassie in French’s second novel, The Likeness, the story is told from Cassie’s point of view. Therefore, we get a fascinating look at character development from two different angles. A further complication is that Cassie spends much of The Likeness pretending to be someone else.
Cassie is well-developed as well. A policewoman, she exhibits courage and intelligence, but the challenges she faces in The Likeness uncover unexpected vulnerabilities.
The women of speculative fiction: Margaret Atwood and Offred
Margaret Atwood’s unknown narrator in The Handmaid’s Tale is another fascinating example of how a writer can develop a strong female character. Because the dystopian world Offred lives in is so restrictive, Atwood does not have access to many of the usual tools a writer might use to develop character. However, she manages to develop a character who rebels in small ways under oppressive and degrading conditions.
The narrator known as Offred remains nameless and we learn very little about the typical aspects of her life that we do with other characters. From reading her story, we can learn how to develop a strong female character without access to information about things like friends, career and leisure time activities.
Writing strong female characters is a matter of understanding that these characters should have weaknesses as well as strengths. By reading the stories in which the characters listed above appear, you can study the variety of approaches that writers use to develop characters and get a sense of the diversity of fully realized female main characters that exist.
Who is one of your favourite women of fiction?