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Strong Women in Fiction & Why This Term Makes Me Angry…

Why? When? How did this become such a common phrase? I’m talking about “strong female characters” and how that term instantly makes me roll my eyes.

I think it’s in response to the decades upon decades of damsels in distress and heaving bosoms. But wait a minute, Scarlet O’Hara portrayed herself as a damsel and she is one of my favorite characters. She’s a complicated woman who isn’t always likeable and I think that’s why I like her so much. Because she’s real. We need to leave the gender out of this phrase and instead of focusing on “strong women” we need to focus on strong characters.

The most important focus on crafting a character should be how to make them realistic. Readers crave characters who leap off the page, grab the reader by the face and say, “listen to my story.” These characters come alive because readers can see a bit of themselves in the character. The character is like them, their friend, their mother. Realistic characters are strong characters, period.

Consider Joss Whedon’s character Buffy (from the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy doesn’t have to run around in leather staking vampires in order to be seen as “strong” (although she does just that and is bad ass). What makes Buffy a “strong” character is the many different sides to her. She is a rebellious teenage daughter, an awkward high school student, a young woman falling in love for the first time, a loyal friend, oh yeah and she accepts her fate as demon hunter and kicks butt at it. A different example comes from the Kushiel’s Legacy series by Jaqueline Carey. Carey manages to create an unforgettable heroine who uses her wits to save her country. Female characters do not need to be violent, powerful assassins in order to be seen as strong, they just need to be authentic.

With specific reference to crafting strong characters in YA fiction, writers need to focus on telling the truth. Young Adult readers need characters they can look up to because these characters have taught them to be confident in themselves or to follow their dreams. Readers need role models from authentic examples of real women, not women who are seen as strong simply because they can fight or because they are “one of the boys.”

Strong believable characters come from women who are complicated. Women who are confident in themselves and the decisions they make, women who take action when they see an injustice. Strong female characters are the women who are loyal and value friendship. And you know what else? Strong female characters can also be villains. Women who can be cruel and jealous. Women who are insecure and make mistakes. Women who have the capacity to both love and hate. Strong characters come from strong writing, writers need to focus on crafting characters who are multidimensional. So please, leave the gender out of strong characters.

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