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What Makes a Strong Female Character Strong?

Who are the strong female characters in YA fantasy and science fiction?

I’ll bet I can guess some of your answers. Katniss (The Hunger Games) and Katsa (Graceling) and Tris (Divergent) and Tally (Uglies). These girls kick ass. Literally – they fight and even kill. They take on the protagonist roles that have been traditionally held by male characters. They also smash the assumption boys won’t read female narrators, by appealing to both boys and girls.

Presumably, boys are reading these characters because they aren’t “girly” girls. They’re tough. They’re powerful, proactive, even aggressive. They train, quest, battle, fight – just like the boys do, and often much better.

But what about the girls who don’t fight, battle, kill?

Do girls need to act like boys to be read by boys?

Do girls need to act like boys to be considered “strong”?


What about the reverse: boys who take on roles traditionally held by females? Even typing this, I am struck by how absurd it comes off as – but why?

I’m not knocking characters like Katniss and Katsa. I definitely think they represent progress. Especially in a time when one of the world’s most brilliant forces for good, Pixar, can take 17 years to release a film with a female protagonist. (Brave, 2012. She’s an archer.) Teens need strong female characters in their books. They need girls they want to be – because of their awesomeness, not because of the smolder of their romances.

But this is also a time when a boy with pink toenails is considered newsworthy. When all that exploded last week, along with my head, I came across this comment on MetaFilter, which I haven’t been able to stop thinking about.
“…it feels like progress that women/girls can do things previously societally reserved for men/boys, but how much progress have we made when men/boys still cannot have anything to do with "feminine" things? How equal do we really have a chance to be when these gender norms are still so rigidly enforced from the time we are tiny?”
It's so true. Think about it – in general (not always, but in general), stereotypically masculine traits are thought of as positive, in the book world and beyond. Whereas, so many boys (and girls!) have been raised to consider acting “like a girl” to be a bad thing. It’s a common insult in athletics, between friends. It’s even used to offend girls. In high school water polo, I never wanted to throw like a girl. Even though I am a girl. And really, I have no idea what throwing like a girl means, anyway – I sucked, but our goalie could make a goal all the way across the entire pool. She was a girl too.

Of course, not all strong female characters are as "masculine" as Katniss. The popularity of Buffy – who kicks ass and looks great doing it – gave rise to entire tropes (like “Waif Fu”) of ass-kicking yet feminine girls, like River Tam pictured above. I’d say Rose from Vampire Academy and Evie from Paranormalcy and Ellie from Angelfire follow that lead. I know boys watch Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. But do they read books about girls like Buffy? Particularly, books through the eyes of girls like Buffy, without the ensemble casts of similar shows?

Are there any girls like this in YA SF?

More importantly, how about female characters who are complex and strong without literally kicking ass?

Here's an example. One of my all-time favorite female characters is Evanjalin in Melina Marchetta’s epic fantasy, Finnikin of the Rock. Not because she’s a master assassin or ruthless in the ring, but because she’s emotionally complex, ultra-intelligent and her ethics guide her actions, no matter the cost. Now that’s a girl I want to be.

Can you think of any more?

Could I have opened up a larger can of worms?
Kirsten Hubbard

Kirsten is the author of Like Mandarin, Wanderlove, and the middle grade novel Watch the Sky.

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34 comments:

  1. Wonderful and insightful post! I totally agree. Writers should avoid creating Mary Sue's!!!

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  2. Great post! Some great food for thought, especially the double standard held to boys. (Part of the reason I loved Peeta so was that he actually was the nurturer, the baker, and the dude-in-distress. Gender role reversals FTW! It was also the reason I was Team Peeta, because Peeta complemented Katniss's active "traditionally masculine" traits.)

    My favourite ass-kicking YA heroine who doesn't necessarily physically kick ass is Mae from Sarah Rees Brennan's THE DEMON'S LEXICON books.

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  3. My female lead is of the Buffy mould, but I spend a lot of time trying to dig through her bluffs to find her emotional core. It's in there somewhere!

    While I love female leads like Lara Croft and Sydney Bristow, my favourite female of all time is Lyra from His Dark Materials. She isn't a fighter in the beat 'em up sense, but she's strong, determined, and, when I read her story aged 10, everything I wanted to be. To me, she was everything a *person* should be, not just a girl.

    My female characters may take on traditionally male roles, but that's what I want and that's surely a reflection of modern life. Yes, there are still plenty of differences between genders in the workplace, but if a good story can grab a teenager and make them think "I want to do this and I *can* do this", then that can only be a good thing and a step forward in gender equality.

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  4. JJ, Peeta is a GREAT example of role reversal!

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  5. I agree. Giving a heroine a bazooka doesn't automatically make her a "strong female character." When I was a kid I used to read the Animorphs books, about aliens invading Earth...there were 2 main girls. Rachel was the one who was violent, even downright bloodthirsty. She was cool but definitely unstable and a little disturbing. Cassie on the other hand had a strong sense of self-identity and sense of purpose, and was able to use that to help others. Instead of being bloodthirsty she fought because she had to, not because she necessarily liked it.

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  6. What makes a strong female character? The same things that make a strong male character. A good character is decent not because of their gender, but because they're complex and we feel for them, inspite (sometimes BECAUSE) of their flaws. Until we stop seeing attributes as being masculine or feminine, we won't have achieved our worthy goal; because a decent character can be strong without being overbearing, compassionate without being a pushover, feel fear without being a coward, and have a strong opinion without being a bitch. We'll know we've finally made progress when these sort of posts aren't necessary.

    In retrospect, perhaps this was more my thoughts tangentially related to your post, rather than in direct response. Sorry, hah.

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  7. two of my favorite strong female characters, for very different reasons (both from Tamora Pierce):

    Tris, a fat, cranky, spectacles-wearing nerd who just wants to be left alone with her books. She has powers that she has trouble controlling and makes terrible decisions about what to do with them at times but she confronts what she's done and does her best to make amends. I felt like giving her a very well-hidden soft spot for animals and a fondness for doing housework were both clever ways of circumventing the usual "kickass girl can't act like a girl" stereotypes.

    Kel, a big girl with no special powers except for her extraordinary perseverance. When I was younger I admired Kel so much because she just kept going. She didn't have magic, she didn't have divine intervention, she didn't even really have a special gift for fighting. She just practiced and practiced and practiced until she was better. And I think making her ~special talent *math* was a brilliant touch. She wasn't a genius, she wasn't a prodigy, even the things that were out-of-the-ordinary about her were things that you could emulate. (And she had crushes on more than one guy, and sex with them never solved her problems, and in the end she was single and happy, which I think is a wonderful message to young girls that they don't need a man to make them complete.)

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  8. I really loved this post. It's something that's been on my mind for a long time. I love the progression in YA showing strong female characters who kick butt. But even more, I love how we now have female characters who are independent, and intelligent, and confident in themselves and their abilities. I love how they are more than their love lives. I think this is amazing because it sets a good example, and shows young readers that they can be themselves.

    I just started reading Paranormalcy a few days ago: LOVE EVIE!!!!

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  9. Beautifully written post. I see where you're going with the whole "gender" thing. It just makes me wonder - can a female who is the girliest of all still "kick ass?"
    My favourite example of a kick-ass heroine would be Rose from Vampire Academy, because she can absolutely represent the traits in physical strength and an underlining sense of femininity.
    I think the best example of a female lead who doesn't necessarily beat the crap out of everyone would be Chloe from the Darkest Powers trilogy. Of course she grows throughout the series into a woman who could totally kick ass, she always uses her inner power (supernatural or not) that shines into making her a powerful woman.
    And yes, what a can of worms you've cracked open :P

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  10. I agree with Miss Cole - Lyra is a great strong female, and an excellent character because she's pretty flawed. She's tough and clever, but she makes mistakes and has regrets.

    Another that comes to mind is Sabriel from Garth Nix's Abhorsen trilogy. She's a main character only in the first book, but I think she's interesting for the struggles she goes through. She's had to grow up quickly, and even though she's an older YA character (I think she's 18) and works hard, she's dealing with geniune human affection under the emotional armor she has to wear as a slayer of dead things. She's not the most relatable girl, but she's tough and loyal, and sees the good in surprising people (and demon-cats).

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  11. These are my favorite types of characters. I like the romance to be more of a subplot and can we have the girl save the guy once in a while?

    I cannot think of another character besides the awesome ones you already named! Great post!

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  12. Awesome (and thought provoking) post!

    Too often (imo), I think people conflate "strong female" character with strong "female character" (though the two can definitely overlap). It's not enough, in my opinion, that a girl can kick someone's ass if she's still underdeveloped and more like a cardboard cutout than an actual person (in that way, she's sort of falling into the opposite stereotype of the passive, do-nothing girl). Female characters deserve the same respect and care as male characters do, the same development and realism and nuance put into them.

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  13. Frankie Landau Banks from The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks and Ananka Fishbein (and Kiki Strike, for that matter) from Kiki Strike are both strong, smart, clever girls. They remind me of Veronica Mars. None have any special powers, or crazy fighting stills, but they are witty, independent, and kick ass in real life. They are the kind of "real girls" that little girls should aspire to be.

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  14. For me the question isn't simply what makes a strong female character strong, but what makes a plausible female character. What are the markers that I have to develop and include that say this person is a girl and not, say, a boy to whom I've given a girl's name.

    There are a ton of "strong male characters" out there who are dull as bricks - they always solve the problem, they're always strong or moral or wise or smart enough and they always win. They're not interesting, but we often give them a pass because at least they're fulfilling a stereotype instead of running against it.

    #writingishard

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  15. "When all that exploded last week, along with my head"
    That about sums up how I felt about the toe issue too!

    And I completely agree about Evanjalin's awesomeness.

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  16. @rubybastille: Sabriel and Lirael are excellent examples of strong female characters... and now I totally want to re-read that series!

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  17. Excellent comments, everyone!

    Lyra is a great character, agreed.

    There's nothing inherently wrong with the Buffy trope, or the Katniss trope, or any of that, I want to re-emphasize. It's just that "strong" female characters who aren't either of the above seem so rare in YA fantasy and SF.

    (They're more common in contemp for sure -- Frankie's a good example -- because there is less sword-fighting and arena-wrasslin' and magicking to stand in for other strengths.)

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  18. First of all, I didn't know Pixar is making a film w/ a female lead. Thanks for that info. Second, I love metafilter.

    I wish I had a good example of strong YA female character that hasn't been mentioned yet. I'm newer to reading YA so my examples are slim. Currently, I'm reading about Katsa in Graceling. While she's a warrior type, she still grapples with her female identity and explores what that means. I think that type of exploration is really essential to strong female characters.

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  19. Great post! I like reading books where female characters are strong on the inside, not just physically.

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  20. I've always loved an kick-ass female protagonist who has brains, beauty and the power to defend herself (I think it's one of the reasons I like urban fantasy so much) but I'd love to see more unusual guys.

    I have a student in one of my classes who I'd love to see as a character in a book. He loves pink and other loud colors, paints his nails black (as well as purple and blue), loves to read but doesn't study or do well in school despite his intellect, likes the girls but is super-shy around them, and has a wicked sense of humor. I want to read more characters like him, not just guys with smoldering eyes and hot abs.

    Flip the script.

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  21. Fantastic post. I absolutely love strong females. I love reading about them and I love writing them.

    I agree that boys watched Buffy, so what's saying that they're also not reading about females as strong as her.

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  22. Amazing post and great food for thought (in the comments section too!)

    I don't know what bothers me more - the Pixar/girl protag situation, or the fact that I never even realized it until you pointed it out.

    As for strong female characters that don't literally kick-ass...

    I'm going with Matilda. Innocent, sweet, smart as hell and most importantly, not afraid to be herself. A great fictional role model for young readers.

    And as for "role reversal," or boy characters taking what's seen as a typically female role, I'm going with Mackie and Tate in Brenna's The Replacement. As a male protag, Mackie was actually physically weak for much of the book, and emotionally fragile - Tate's strength (both emotionally and physically) were highlighted in several scenes. She was also the "dominant" one in the kissing scene. (Great couple too, I loved their chemistry.)

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  23. Isobelle Carmody has written an awesome series of fantasy YA novels all based around strong women... some who kick butt, and some who don't.

    This is a really interesting topic, and I am glad to see you broach it. My YA novel isn't fantasy, but I struggled and struggled to make sure my femal protagonists were strong, but they also had to be vulnerable. It was tougher than I thought, so I have a lot of respect for writers who do this well.

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  24. This is a really important question, thanks for this post! I think it's very important that there are strong female characters for girls to read about, and more importantly, characters they want to read about. I also agree with you about Evanjalin. The sign of a strong female character is not one who can necessarily beat everyone around her to a pulp (although it certainly makes for thrilling reading!) but one who has independent ideas and fights for them, as well as her right to express her emotions and her rights as a human being.

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  25. I really love Aly from Tamora Pierce's Trickster duology. She's witty and quick-minded and everything her father - oh, George Cooper - is, while coming from the typical 'kick ass act like a boy -literally- and win the world' Alanna (not that Alanna is typical...: P) as her mother.

    I also loved Plain Kate. She's a very strong person even though you can tell that she's still developing. And, I mean, she's a carver. Not exactly swinging a sword around.

    In fact, I find that the physically strong female characters are very often some of the weakest when it comes to personality/emotional centre. They put up walls to shield themselves from others and build their physicality so that they don't have to deal on an emotional level - for me, this kind of characters is a 'I can do what archetypal males can do' character, not a 'I'm a strong female character'.

    Not ALWAYS. But it's an easy hole to dig. : )

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  26. One example, I think, would be Violet Baudelaire in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. She's a (successful) inventor, helps keep her family together in the face of adversity, and always manages to outwit the villain(s).

    Her brother, Klaus, might be an example of role-reversal. He's a reader/researcher and very intelligent and also helps save the day, but neither Violet nor Klaus descend into violence, even when they start making morally ambiguous choices.

    (I realise ASOUE is more Children's Lit, but I certainly enjoyed well into my teens so I'm not going to discount the fact that others may have too.)

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  27. Great topic! I explored some of these ideas (and provided a reading list) in a recent blog post: http://theunemployedbooklover.blogspot.com/2011/04/f-word-in-ya.html.

    Since then I've read THE BOOK THIEF; Liesel is such a believable and strong character, even if she doesn't fight physically. Lyra, Nancy Drew, Jo March and even Laura Ingalls Wilder also come to mind as non-fantasy non-fighting characters. Those a strong girls!

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  28. Hermione Granger is my favourite example of a "girly" strong female character in YA literature.

    I actually think that this is why I (as well as many other readers, I believe) did not like her much when I first read Harry Potter as a teenager. It took me years to realize that Harry's first impression of Hermione had completely dominated my impression of Hermione. And there's really no excuse for that, because when you look at the last chapters of the first book, it's obvious that Hermione is a major BAMF. In hindsight, I think it says a lot about my own misogyny -- "strong" female characters, for me, were defined by being boyish, and Hermione is very much a girl. Today, I think it's actually one of JKR's great accomplishments that she created a character who is unashamedly female -- as well as loyal, brave, principled and smart.

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  29. Wow. Great post! And I've been thinking about this topic for my first thesis. Strength doesn't always mean fighting skills (although I do love a novel with a good kick-butt heroine). I think about any female character written by Melina Marchetta (Francesca in Saving Francesca; Taylor in Jellicoe Road for example) and see strength. They're strong enough to be true to themselves.

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  30. Maybe the problem with boys reading about female protags is not the gender of the character but what she does.

    Boys will read about girls doing things that interest boys. Yes, there's some amount of butt-kicking involved in that. But more than that, boys typically aren't interested in domestic drama; they want adventure, intrigue, danger, new worlds, excitement. You can give them the best, stongest female character ever written, and if she spends an entire book worrying about her hair, boys, clothes, mean cheerleaders, dating, and the prom, they'll turn off after three pages.

    Hermione is a great example of a character who is feminine but acts and thinks in a way that's interesting to boys. I wish I'd met her in high school!

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  31. I second the nominations of Kiki Strike and Anaka Fishbein, as well as Matilda! They are some of my favorite characters and I often feel that stories like theirs are neglected because they are less violent.
    I also nominate Deryn and Alek from Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan as a role reversal couple. Deryn's obvious, she's in disguise as a boy, and Alek's a nerdy little prince... (love them!)

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  32. I recently think I figured out why girls can act like guys but guys can't act like girls. For centuries, men were superior to women. In this day and age, we're now more equal, but there's still a feeling of difference, I guess. I can't really explain better what I mean by "difference". But anyways. For a girl to act macho, she's striving to be higher, to join the "upper class". But for a boy to act girly, he's degrading himself.

    Just ignore my ramblings. I don't know what I'm saying anyways. I love kick-buttt heroines, though the romantic in me hates when the girl is stronger than the guy. I love, love, love Graceling, but that one little aspect bothered me. I like to write stories where the male and female main characters are on pretty equal ground, and both can kick butt, but the guy is just a bit better than the girl. (Hey, I do that myself!)

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  33. Excellent post. I am glad you pointed out that a female character does not have to be a "kicking butt" type to be strong. New Zealand writer Margaret Mahy writes books of strong, complex young girls in fantasy situations, but they're not the warrior type. Her "Changeover: A Supernatural Romance" and "The Tricksters" are good examples. Also Diana Wynne Jones wrote about complex, strong young girls all the time. Anyone read "Howl's Moving Castle" or the Chrestomanci series? What about Tenar from Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea books?

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  34. Kira from the second book of the Giver series was a great strong female character.I wrote a blog on books with strong female leads here: http://understandingamber.blogspot.com/2012/02/girls-girls-girls-kicking-butt-in.html

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Item Reviewed: What Makes a Strong Female Character Strong? Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kirsten Hubbard