The 'Strong Female Protagonist' Problem

7:00 AM





Strong female characters. 

If you know much about the world of books and especially YA right now, you'll know that there's a push to write 'strong female characters'. We write blog posts about 'strong female characters'. We rave over books featuring 'strong female characters'. Well, this week I'm going to be blogging about 'strong female characters', but not necessarily in the sense I usually hear it.

Who do you think of when you think of a 'strong female protagonist'? Katniss Everdeen, that-girl-from-Throne of Glass-whose-name-I-can never-spell, Tris (apparently), and so on. The girls who kick butt and don't need no man to save them.


This frustrates me.

Now, not always. Katniss is a favorite character of mine, and there's a time and a place for this, as with most things in fiction. Every once in a while, you just need a character who can beat up on everyone and shoot some guns and punch someone. Sometimes it's necessary for the plot -- you need a character like Katniss to be able to survive the Hunger Games.

But this is not the definition of a strong female protagonist. 

I don't know, I just feel like this is an important distinction to make. Because I've read a lot of books where this kind of character feels the need to shame other characters in the book for being more girly, or she's painted as never needing help ever, or she's just plain rude to guys and we're told she's just standing up for herself. There's the implication that 'strong female protagonists' can't be girly, or less physical, or want a boyfriend (you know what? they're teenage girls. That's totally realistic and okay.) or any of that. I dislike this greatly.

Wow, I bet you weren't expecting me to be so serious today.

You know what strong female protagonists/characters in general are like?

Strong female characters have unique personalities, because people do.

Strong female characters have likes and dislikes and favorite types of music and favorite types of clothes to wear and favorite types of swords and goals and desires and favorite TV shows (unless you're writing fantasy, obviously) and little tics and favorite words.

Strong female characters can have boyfriends. Strong female characters can want to have boyfriends, or be boy-crazy, or whatever the heck they happen to be like. 

Strong female characters rock those old jeans.

Strong female characters rock those sparkly sundresses.

Strong female characters are introverted or extroverted and partiers or bookworms and they don't have to feel stupid for whatever it is that they like.

Strong female characters are people, and dang it, they deserve to be written as such in all their different nuances. (Just like male characters deserve to be written in complex ways, because they're people too. Heck, why don't we just approach writing all characters as fully complicated and developed people?)

Strong female characters are well-developed, well-written people, and come in all different types, and they're all awesome. 



Yes, this is a bit of rant, but I just felt like I needed to get that off my chest and into the world, because it's something that annoys me. It's also worth mentioning that just like real life, 'strong female protagonists don't always fall into the categories of shy-bookworm or blonde-cheerleader or hardcore-warrior. I mean, look at me! I like being a bookworm, but I also like being a fabulous princess or a karate master (I wish) now and then. Because guess what? Girls are complicated. Girls are awesome in how wildly varied they are. 

Who's your favorite 'strong female protagonist'? How do you approach writing female characters in general? (On Thursday I'll be posting about my favorite non-standard 'strong female protagonists', so stay tuned for that.) 

43 comments

  1. Loved your Cinderella post from a while back, and it's great to see you continuing the trend! I absolutely agree -- one of the MCs from my last ms started out as a flat "strong woman", which was why the voice just fell flat for her chapters.

    I'm starting to pull away from this trope as much as possible, although I do have a more martial female character in one of my planned PoVs. The most important thing, I think, is as you say, to develop the character no matter what gender/race/religion/homeworld they come from. Complex characters, with their own strengths and weaknesses, are real. Characters born out of a desire to satisfy some contemporary requirement of equality or diversity aren't.

    P.S.: I can never spell the name of the ToG girl either. Celaena, maybe?

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    1. I figured it was time to blog about it again, because it's a topic I get really into. *shrugs* I've written my share of stereotypical 'strong women' too, and that's something I've worked a lot lately to change. I don't think it's always a problem, just when the character isn't developed beyond that, which you see too often. I like to strive to write everyone as complex and human no matter who they are, like you said, and I think that makes all the difference.

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  2. Great post. I don't think women are going to gain equality with men by promoting female characters who have all the characteristics associated with males. Women should be able to be women, even feminine, and still strong and respected (be it physically, emotionally, or spiritually). I think the real problem is that femininity and girlyness still have negative connotations. WHY IS THAT?

    One character that I consider a good example is Ann Elliot from Persuasion by Jane Austen. She is not the independent rebel or physically strong Elizabeth Bennet, but she is a great example of a strong female nevertheless. GO GIRL!

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    1. Yes yes yes. It's totally cool and okay to be a girl no matter how you like to do that -- girly-girls are cool, and tougher girls are cool, and everyone in-between is cool. I don't understand why that's a problem for some people, or why some types of girls are looked down on more than others.

      Most of the Jane Austen protagonists are like that, which is AWESOME! They're tough within the context of their society and I love that.

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  3. This is perfect. This is exactly how I feel! There is way too much media out there that portrays girls in that way (not always bad, but you're right about a time and a place). No one needs to be desensitized or amazing at fighting in order to be considered strong.

    In my latest post I mentioned how Abigail Rook from the book "Jackaby" is a great example of a strong but not over the top female protagonist.

    Fabulous post, Aimee! This really needed to be addressed.

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    1. Exactly. I'm the biggest fan of women characters who are all strong in their own ways, and are allowed to cry and be girly and all that. Like, that seems way more empowering, for them to be able to like what they like and be able to cry and such.

      Thanks! I've had it planned for a while. And Jackaby is on my stack of books to read as we speak. :)

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  4. This is a great post, and I totally agree with you. When I'm sitting in the theater and people cheer when the "strong female protagonist" roundhouse kicks the villains, I just feel kind of sick. For a few reasons, but partly because they don't get it. That is not all that makes this girl strong. Yes, it takes a lot to do what she just did, but there's more to her than just that. Or at least there should be.

    I equally get upset when everybody in the theater is cheering for the lead man character to take his shirt off. Because again, they're not looking at his character. They're just looking at the surface. Do we really like the guy just because of the way he looks? What about all the good qualities he has. Would we still like him if he looked any different?

    I think people forget that strength is found in character, and I don't mean the overbearing, noxious kind of character (no thank you). But what about things like sacrifice? What about doing what's right even though it hurts? Sometimes it's strong to be vulnerable, to love, to let people know that you're really scared right now or that you can't do this on your own and need help.

    Strength also is different for every character. Every character has different flaws and failings. When they're able to overcome their own faults is when they are truly strong, because they've stood up against the test of themselves, and have become something more.

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    1. This comment is almost as good as the post. (And both are awesome.) I agree so much with everything.

      It makes me think of Steve Rogers (he's a guy, but the principle still applies). Even before he was turned into a superhero he was a good, brave person who was strong morally. He did what he believed was right even if it was going to kill him.

      And I don't like when guys take their shirts off. :P Just had to throw that out there.

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    2. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU. Both of you. But wow, Ashley, that's way more eloquent than how I said it. I don't have any problems with a girl being hardcore and kicking some losers in the face (ahem, Black Widow and Peggy Carter are my heroes) but it becomes a problem if that's all there is to them, like you said. To bring it back to Natasha and Peggy I think they're such great examples of good characters like this, because they're tough as anything due to their profession but they're also allowed to cry and have emotions and be a respected member of the team. So. Awesome.

      Basically everything about this comment makes me happy, so thank you for it.

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    3. Also, YES to Steve Rogers. He's one of my favorite characters ever for exactly that reason, and it's such an important point to make. <3

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    4. Ashley, I really, really like this comment. Just thought I should say. I agree.

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  5. Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes. Yes yes yes. Yes. Can I say anything else? YES. It's just like... I think people think strong female protagonists are physically strong, or emotionally strong, or not feminine, because feminine is often synonymous with weak. But that's not the case. I've watched movies where there was only one girl, she had no speaking parts, and the point of her was to be fun for the guys. I've read books where the girl is all badass and swordy and she can fight and stuff, but there's no real point to her, and she is mostly defined by the fact that she can hurt people with sharp things than she is actually a person who has a heart and a mind behind her body.

    This is one of the reasons why I liked Sansa even when my parents thought she was wimpy and boring. (From Game of Thrones, which I don't think you watch/read, but Ima still gonna use this example because we live in America and so far it's a free Internet.) (You live in America, right? I mean, totally cool if you don't, it's just that you don't complain about your country not getting as much attention as America, sooo.) Sansa is naiive and kind of silly at the beginning, but eventually her character develops into a hardened young woman who is more passive than not, but her passiveness is one of the things that keeps her still alive. Maybe it's not something we as a culture admire: to live on one's knees. However, you don't have to ADMIRE a strong female character, we just all have to know that it is part of her character, there is more to her than her face, and that she is still someone, even if she sometimes bothers us.

    So, rock on strong female characters. BECAUSE THEY ARE WORTH READING ABOUT.

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    1. Oh yes. I think the most important thing is to remember that no matter what they're like, a character is more than just girly or tough or hardcore or pretty or hot or whatever they may be. They have a personality and feelings and they're complex and I feel like that doesn't get acknowledged a lot of the time with female characters, which is a shame because us girls are pretty amazing people.

      I haven't read/watched Game of Thrones, but from everything I've seen that's such a great example. I'd also bring up characters like Cinderella, because it makes me sad that this culture doesn't really celebrate gentleness and kindness as admirable even though there's strength to that too. *sighs*

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  6. THANK YOU. This is why I liked Cinderella in the new movie. She wasn't a stereotypical female warrior like what everyone now thinks of as a strong female character - she was a girl who liked sparkly dresses and dreamed about princes and had dreams. She was strong because she had her dreams, and she had a strong sense of self. She wasn't embarrassed by being a girl. She had things she stood up for. And that's the kind of stuff we need to see in ALL characters, not even just female ones.

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    1. Oh, and I was also impressed with June from Legend as far as female characters. She was one of the ones who could fight, but she also admired a guy's eyes and liked to curl up with her puppy dog. Which was nice.

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    2. Yessss. Cinderella is one of my favorite examples of this! She's girly and sweet and kind and gentle, but she's totally confident about it. She stands up for herself and for others and isn't pushed around. She's such a lovely, complicated character, and I absolutely adore that and wish we saw more of it.

      Also, yes to June! She's one of my favorites as well. (And I love her relationship with Day. Just sayin'.)

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    3. I forgot to mention this, but I do like what you said about having things to stand up for. We need more of that in all characters -- more confident characters who really own that.

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    4. Haha, well, I haven't read the last two books yet, so don't give spoilers. ;) And, well...characters who DON'T stand up for anything? They're not very likable. Or they're just boring. Conviction and courage are two of the most important traits in a really likable character, I think.

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  7. Aaammmeeennnn!!!!! Amen amen amen. *ahem* amen. AMEN.

    *calms self*

    If you haven't seen Mad Max:Fury Road yet, you need to. Those women....they are my favorite women in any movie/book/story ever. Like. Just as a whole how that movie portrayed women was my FAVORITE. They were literally exactly what you described and there was no "feminist agenda".

    Also I know you don't like her but Celaena (Throne of Glass) and also Maas's other heroine Feyra (A Court of Thorns and Roses) are two of my all-time favorites. They. Amaze. Me. They are human and have their faults and yet they still stand up for everything they believe in.

    This is also why I LOVED Cinderella, the new live action one. Just. Wonderful.

    Excellent post, Aimee dear!

    (And Clara says thank you as well, since she is not necessarily what most people see as a Strong Female Protagonist... ❤️ )

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    1. Ughhhh I do really want to see it because I keep hearing about it and it looks like just my thing and I NEED IT OKAY STOP TEMPTING ME. *flails*

      I'm so glad you liked Cinderella too! It brought me to tears several times and it's such a great example of this. I'm glad you liked this!

      (And Clara is very welcome, because I loveeee her.)

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    2. You were the first person I thought of when I got out of the theater. "Aimee. She needs this. Needs it bad." XD

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  8. BLESS THIS POST.

    Strong female characters are vastly misrepresented these days, seems like. What really annoys me is that all these macho, better-than-the-boys characters seem to imply (at least to me) that girls aren't worthwhile or admirable unless they can throw a punch and shoot a gun, and that if you have no desire to do ju jitsu and like wearing glittery high heels you're somehow "weak". I mean, what even??

    Most of the girl characters I like aren't even protagonists... they're people like Darcy Lewis, Roxanne Ritchi, and Idril Celebrindal. But there's a few people like Cinderella and Blue Sargent who totally rocked the MC role.

    Anyway, THANK YOU for this post. I can't wait for Thursday!

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    1. Yes. I mean, I'm all for a girl who can throw a punch when it's needed, but guess what? That's not necessary. It's okay if you don't. It's cool to love dresses and want to be a princess and have a sweet boyfriend. That's really important to me, and I wish we could recognize it more.

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  9. I love how passionate this post was! When I can I tend to use the term 'Realistic Female Character' over 'Strong Female Character', because I don't know anyone who's strong all the time. In real life girls do have hard times, they might need help, and I've never met a teenage girl who hasn't had a crush at some point or another!

    Rather than being portrayed as strong, I think we need real characters. Even if she is a crazy skilled assassin warrior, she should still have the traits that all girls do, that's what simultaneously unite people and make them unique.

    I don't know if I got this over clearly, like you said, this topic makes me a little ranty. I loved the post!

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    1. Ah, that's a MUCH better term for it, really, because that's what it is. We need more realistic female characters, and that means realistic in all their different types. We need tough girls, and girls who like glitter and all things nice, and farm girls, and city girls, and ALLLL the girl characters because girls as people are so varied and complex. So don't worry, I get ranty about it too. xD I'm glad you liked it!

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  10. Great post! This is 100% true: you don't need to always where pants and wave a sword around to be considered a "strong female protagonist." Look at Hermione Granger. She's stronger than many of the characters in Harry Potter, and not because she prances around with a sword, shaming all girls for being girls.

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    1. I can't say I'm a huge Harry Potter fan, but there's definitely that. I can respect Hermione for being smart and not waving a sword around everywhere and being her own kind of strong person. <3

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  11. THIS RANT IS GOLDEN. I have a post ranting against the use of "strong" when describing female heroines too, mine is just so wild and unintelligable I've hidden it in teh bottom of my drafts folder. hehe. YOU SUM UP MY FEELINGS SO WELL. "Strong" is a word that needs to be kicked, tbh. I want to read about interesting characters, girl OR boy. Yes I like girls that punch people's daylights out...but that's just the most shallowest definition of "Strong". Which is why I love Celaena because she's a wicked freaking assassin AND she loves dresses and cake and puppies. <-- THAT IS INTERESTING.

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    1. I want to see yours, now! xD I think we need more people ranting about this because it's super important. And you're right, we need /interesting/ and realistic and varied characters, because what's the fun otherwise?

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  12. Great Post :).
    I think the actual strong girl characters have to be contradictory to themselves. Girls as a whole are complex and hard to understand. Like a multi-fauceted diamond. Strength is definitely not about how you fight or how independent you are. It's about how you deal with life.

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    1. Thank you!
      And yes. All people are hard to understand, and complicated, and that needs to be shown in all the glorious different ways possible!

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  13. YES. A strong female has nothing to do with acting less girly. When a female reacts to a situation and takes control of herself, she is strong, even if she is wearing heels and a dress.
    I think aiming for realistic, thinking, what are the females in my life like, helps write a good female character.

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    1. Yessss. Which is why I love characters like Cinderella, and Cress, and the others I'm going to list tomorrow. They're not traditional 'strong female characters' but they take control and are confident in themselves and that's super important.

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  14. This is a really interesting post! I love the characters that you have mentioned, who kick ass - and you mentioned Celaena (I think that's how her name's spelt), who is actually a good example of someone being 'girly', as she loves fashion and she can kick ass. But there are other types of strength that are more subtle than all the fight scenes that go on in some books, and are maybe not as noticeable as the Katniss Everdeens etc.

    Strength can come in many forms and doesn't mean having to wield a sword etc. Hazel from TFIOS is a strong character: she kept fighting to live every day and took a chance on love in the short amount of time they knew they had left. Mia from If I stay, had to have had an incredible strength to survive what she did.

    I think people often focus on the girls who can physically kick some ass because for so long this was not considered acceptable for females and it's nice to see the changes that have taken place, but that can often mean that variety goes out the window a bit and people become too focused on this one type of character. Anyways... I've rambled enough... Yay, for all the strong female characters out there - what ever form they come in.

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    1. While I wasn't a huge fan of Throne of Glass I agree with you; she had different layers and that was a little more realistic to me. I did love Hazel for her strength, too! :D

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  15. Aimee, if you ever wrote a book... Dang girl!!! Shut up and take my money! You expressed my thoughts and feelings on this issue EXACTLY.
    I'm gonna play copycat on another comment and say Hermione Granger all the ding-dong way. She is simultaneously tough, and yet still cries. She's awkward when it comes to love and yet is an incredible witch. I will forever be grateful to J.K. Rowling for creating a dynamic female who has both flaws and strengths, quirks and opinions. So. Much. Yes.

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    1. Haha, thanks! It's something I really try to focus on in my writing especially, because I feel so much on the issue. :P

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  16. The "strong" female protagonist has her roots in the feminist movement, I think. I understand feminism at it's roots I think.
    But I'm tired of people making fun of my brothers just because they're guys.
    I'm tired of hearing that guys are good for nothing, that they are slackers or lazy, and that ladies are so much better than them.
    If they are slacking and lazy, staying at home until they are thirty, it's probably actually just because so many ladies have told them they are good for nothing.
    Yes, guys are wonderful, and every once in a while, I think it's okay if a girl can't do everything herself. It's okay if every once in a while, a guy stands up for a girl's honor. It's okay if every once in a while, a guy makes a girl's day, buys her lunch, holds doors open for her, and is genuinly sweet.
    It's okay for the prince to slay the dragon to save the damsel in distress. Because sometimes damsels are in distress.
    Guys were built stronger physically, and girls were built stronger in other ways.
    That's okay.
    It's okay for a lady to be married to a fantastic gentleman who goes to work every day so that she can stay home and care for her precious children, because isn't raising your own offspring an honor?
    I think so.
    Thanks for writing this article, and thanks for giving me an opportunity to rant.

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    1. YES YES YES. This is a lovely rant, and my feelings exactly, so I can't really think of anything to add to it. xD

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  17. Awesome post and YES YES YES SO TRUE! I actually talked about something similar on my blog recently, though it was a brief aside rather than a full-on rant. There are all kinds of girls and we should be portrayed that way in fiction! Butt-kicking queens are cool for sure, but they don't /have/ to be that way to be strong female protagonists.
    Also, I tagged you for a thing. Don't feel obligated to do it, though... okay, maybe a little bit obligated. I really want to hear your book loves. http://thessalexa.blogspot.com/2015/06/thoughtful-thursdays-courtship-book-tag.html


    Alexa
    thessalexa.blogspot.com
    verbositybookreviews.wordpress.com

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    1. Haha, I'll totally do the thing! I'm glad you liked this :)

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  18. Fabulous post, Aimee. I think a big problem with Strong Female Protagonists (TM) is that it washes away the rest of their personality, because their badassery overwhelms everything else. So many of them describe themselves as plain and unnoticeable, and then suddenly they "take off their glasses" (or equivalent) and they're kickass heroines. *mutters* Tris.

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    1. *glares at Tris* Yeah, that's basically it.

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