October 21, 2010

What Makes a Female Character Strong?


There’s a graphic making the Twitter rounds called The Female Character Flowchart.  It walks through the different female stereotypes—from The Trophy and Damsel In Distress to The Shrew and Ugly Duckling—and it’s interesting reading.  The chart’s goal is to avoid those stereotypes to create a “Strong Female Character”.

Some writers have started panicking over this breakdown, however.  If a well-known character was used as an example of a stereotype, does that mean the character was badly written?  What if we liked them?  If the goal of this chart was a “Strong Female Character”, does that mean all these stereotypes are weak?  Then we worry about whether the characters we’re creating are weak.

Or more personally, as Natalie Whipple mentioned on her blog post, does that mean we are weak?  After all, we’d often fit in with one or more of those stereotypes.

When I first read Natalie’s post, I wondered about that as well, but then I read the original article by the creator of the flowchart and her flowchart explanation.  As the author, mlawski, says:

Strong just means they have their own goals that move beyond “I want to do whatever the male hero wants to do” or “I want to marry the male hero.”

So her point is more about making female characters well-rounded.  Sure, we might possess some of the stereotypical aspects depicted on the chart, but that’s not all we’re about.  Being a mother doesn’t make someone incapable of having their own life or mean that they can’t also be leaders and dreamers and doers.  And female characters should be just as varied and flawed and real as we are.

The Path to a Strong Female Character

So instead of concentrating on all the stereotypes along the way, let’s focus on what the chart says makes a female (or male for that matter) character strong:

That’s it.  I don’t disagree with anything on that list.

So, don’t worry if your female characters are sometimes the stereotypical mom or damsel in distress or butt-kicker.  As long as that’s not all all she is, she can still be a strong character.

The main character of one of my stories is a stay-at-home mother who’s insecure to the point of martyrdom, yet I still see her as a strong character because she’s also loving, stubborn, looks out for herself as well as others, and stands up to the bad guy despite the personal costs.  It is her story, she has at least three dimensions, is much bigger than any one idea, has flaws up the wazoo, and lives to the end of the story.  Bingo, strong female character.

Is it risky to create a character like that, with so many flaws and who doesn’t fit with genre expectations?  Absolutely.  But no one can ever accuse me of writing a cardboard character.

Who are some of your favorite strong female characters?  Do you disagree with this list?  Is “strong” the wrong word to use (does it conjure Lara Croft stereotypes)?  Would you add anything to this list?

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J. Leigh Bailey

When I hear the phrase ‘strong female character’ I immediately think of Eve Dallas from JD Robb’s “In Death” series. Eve is a tough as nails homicide lieutenant that can kick the rear of any bad guy that crosses her path. She’s completely confident in her skills and her job. But she’s also socially awkward, doesn’t know how to handle falling in love with a billionaire, has a tragic past that haunts her dreams, makes friends despite herself, and is an all-around complex character. So, even though she is physically strong, it’s more that she’s a dynamic, three-dimentional character, complete with strengths, flaws, fears…

The stereotypes have a purpose (they wouldn’t be stereotypes if they didn’t appear so often). It can help mold the early development of a character. It’s what we do with it after that, the little touches, that takes her from being a stereotype to strong character.

John Tagliaferro
John Tagliaferro

Glad I caught this from #amwriting. Glad in the sense that it is something else to make me feel good about my main character, Suki.

When a friend and I began character development, I wanted her to be a strong, heroic (of the real world variety) woman. My idea of that just did not fit when I gave the description to her and some other women, including the woman who became my editor.

I was told that she was too tall and too old, so I made her significantly younger than the man and 5′ 6″, kept her multi-lingual with advanced technical degrees.

It was not a conscious decision to give Suki dual careers, one in an office at her mother’s business, which was more about the close relationship she has with her mother, and another career as a theoretical researcher. That is not quite as uncommon in real life as many people think.

For added strength, she does fall in love with a guy who has complimentary qualities. They keep their own careers and residences, but they help each other rather than either giving up everything for the other. She even gives him important lessons about his lax record keeping and how he is leaving himself open to personal liability. In the third book of the first series, Suki kills two people assaulting her fiance.

I really appreciate the post and will be using your advice!


I agree with you. If your character is three dimensional, I think at one point or another, she will end up being a sterotype. As long as she can dig out of that stereotype and complete the quest she started, that’s where the story lies.

Lisa Gail Green

Great post! I agree, strong female characters are important and that doesn’t necessarily mean “kick-butt” though those are good too!

John Tagliaferro
John Tagliaferro


Thanks again!

Now, by far, the stupid superficial feedback I get about that character is her being Asian. For some, that means I must have an Asian fetish. I swear they imagine her with a thick “Asian” accent, even thought the setting is 20 years in the future and giving the character a race and a name were the last things we did before I started writing. She is also born and raised near Richmond, VA and has an American Southern accent.

The reason given, almost always, about her being “too tall” is that most women readers would not like her just because of that, so I adjusted it.

Something else I did, might be a little off topic, was obfuscating the races of all but Suki, her boyfriend and her mother. Was pretty easy to do too, even the way styles of speech and dress are today. If you don’t specifically mention a character’s pigmentation or race, everything else is mix and match.


Great post Jami!

I had this whole long comment and it got eaten! Drat! In a nutshell: I was thinking about the strongest female characters that I’ve read and some of the most enviable, have a kick *ss inner core strength that involves a level of personal sacrifice that invests the reader – much more than any ‘in your face’ action motivated Laura Croft type character does.

Boy, my last comment was way better!

And, for the record? I pick on you because you know how to use a comma.

John Tagliaferro
John Tagliaferro


No guys objected, it was only the women objecting about her height, including my editor who was about 5′ 11″. Minor guy complaints were about when she was Dominant and they had no clue about D/s interaction.

Much later a former editor woman piped up that if my character is into archery then she needs to be tall. I think the series was already published then, so too bad, so sad, she is already written. However, when I have several women saying the same thing “too tall” then I am fixing it. The Asian part was marketing. I wanted her to be dark hair and eyes and the Google images for that set the race.

John Tagliaferro
John Tagliaferro


I was able to leave the male lead’s height out, other than having Suki mention that he is “tall, like way over six-feet” as she describes him to her friends. Maybe I could have left her’s out too, but her height and her mother’s height came out in the course of describing a scene where Suki is getting advice from her mother. In one of the fan fiction stories that my character developer wrote his height is set at 6′ 4″, something I am going along with as I write more.

John Tagliaferro
John Tagliaferro

I can paste that passage here if you like.


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Shelly Chalmers

Nice post, Jami. This looks a lot like the idea of using archetypes too – you can always use a mostly archetypal character (even fit more closely to one or another yourself) and not be exactly the same as every other similar example. That’s where the individuality comes in – and flaws are the human part of that. I’m all for the flawed characters since it makes it easier as a writer and a reader to relate to them.


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Todd Moody

Glad I found this post Jami, I am writing a dual track novel with one of the leads being a female pilot. I plan to have the plot lines intersect and invlove the leads together but I want her to be strong and also realistic. I was deployed this past summer and met a gal who was the squadron commander of the other flying unit there. I thought she would be a perfect peson to pick her brains but she was reticent to let me get into her head too far. Your viewpoints are good for us manfolk to be able to do justice to the awesome and strong women in our lives.


A great female character makes me want to finish the book, and a bad female character makes me want to throw up.

Jules Archer

Enjoyed this post. Completely agree that to have a “strong” female character she does not have to be feminist, or NOT be a mom, wife, etc…she just has to be her own person…someone who is herself and honest.


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