Spare Me The Strong Female Characters

I am thoroughly sick of strong female characters (SFC). I can’t turn on TV, watch a movie or read a book where the female characters aren’t superior examples of their sex in every way shape and form according to a feminist ideal. Knowing exactly what they want, they fight tooth and nail until they get it, never failing, never giving up, and never being hopeless.

In other words, boring.

For example, Game of Thrones (HBO version) has undeniable SFCs…the women who are not vicious and lethal are victims or pawns. Compassion is for the weak. These women use whatever means available, sex, violence, deceit, and manipulation, to get what they want. Those that don’t, end up dead. Those who show compassion, dead. Those who rely on help from others, dead. 

SFCs are shallow automatons. These strong females are to be beautiful and sexy and smart and and ruthless and physically capable of body slamming a 800 lb gorilla all without breaking a nail. Not that they would worry about such trivialities as a broken nail, because worrying about broken nails is what women who are dependent on men do. Strong female characters don’t need help, especially from men, because they can do everything themselves.

Yes, I laughed, too.

The closest characters in Game of Thrones to complicated characters with depth are Brienne of Tarth who, while strong and smart, is compassionate and has to be rescued on occasion by men; and Daenarys who is overly sympathetic and tries to be everything for everyone and it fails miserably. However, she takes advisement from others and realizes that she’s not perfect.

There are SFC that work, River Song in Dr. Who, is the perfect example of a character who is strong. She can kick butt, she’s intelligent and she’s fun. I sometimes wonder if liberal authors remember what fun is, because their characters are not fun. But, I digress.

Whether we realize it or not, fictional characters shape our views and actions. If these superwomen, who can do no wrong or ever fail, are the standard bearers for the sex, what is it doing to readers who can never relate? My guess, the same psychological damage caused by the standards set by photo-shopped anorexic models. Is it any wonder that suicide rates have risen over 200% in pre-teen and teen girls, not to mention the 60% overall rise in the past 15 years, according to the CDC.

This is of course speculation. However, psychological studies have found that one of the leading factors of the rise in suicide is being attributed to unrealistic life expectations. And that romance novels can give women unrealistic views of relationships. So, it’s reasonable to think that the unrealistic examples of SFCs in entertainment is contributing to this dissatisfaction with the ordinary.

How can one be satisfied with the ordinary, when the examples in literature and movies aren’t satisfied with the ordinary? And when you do get a female character with weaknesses, they are just as awful the other direction. Bella Swan in the Twilight series was an emotional wreck who is just shy of being a suicide victim. The two dimensional character of Anastasia Steele in 50 Shades of Gray was little more than a sex doll for Gray. And, while some claim her as an SFC, Katniss Everdeen was little more than a puppet of circumstances and the people around her. She was used and abused, first by President Snow and then by President Alma Coin.

What I want to see more of are female characters who are complicated. Give me characters who accept that they have weaknesses, that they need help from, not only other female characters, but from males as well. Give me characters who are okay with being rescued, failing, and not being the smartest person in the room, but still have a will of their own. Give me characters who are flawed, who make mistakes, who aren’t perfect. 

Give me characters that I can relate to.

  • I made the mistake of signing up for a pitch coaching session. Now, I was quite prepared to be told that my baby was ugly (even though it’s my product at this point) but not that it was ugly because it didn’t have this SFC stereotype. While I think of my FMC as a strong character, the “coach” told me I would not get published because most editors are female. What was wrong with my FMC? She’s not superior in “every way” to the MMC. I was told that being equal wasn’t acceptable anymore. She had to be stronger, faster, smarter. She had to be his superior, not the other way around. Never mind the story, the milieu, the ACTUAL characterization. It’s ideology uber alles.

    • That’s incredible. This right here is why EVERYTHING is in stultifying lock step.

    • Terribly sad. That there kills a story.

      • Oh no, I’m not going to change it to suit them. I’ll burn it first.
        I mean, I’m disappointed that this is how things are done, and frankly, I was more than a little surprised, although I shouldn’t have been.

        • Good! It sounds cliche, but stay true to the story and to your characters.

  • Give me feminine characters that are alluring and dangerous.
    Give me feminine characters that are wicked through and through..
    Give me feminine characters that are actually worth a hero and worth every risk imaginable.
    All of these are ubiquitous in sff before 1940. They’re verboten now. What happened?!

    • [3rd wave] Feminism killed them and buried them next to chivalry. 🙂

      • Surprisingly enough, a look back at Francis Stevens reveals that even 1st wave feminism had it in for them.

        • Bellomy

          Yeah. First wave feminism has become sort of lionized, presumably by people who are grateful for some of the perks it ended up birthing, but they were cursed gifts; the groundwork for the modern nastiness was very much laid by those feminists. A great deal of them would probably be third wave feminists now.

    • Dawn Witzke

      Feminists became mysogynistic. They hate everything that makes women unique.

      • Misandrist too. The male must be an idiot in order to make the female look good. Never mind just letting men be masculine and women be feminine.

    • The men who founded the publishing companies died, and their daughters, who they sent to ivy league schools took over and applied what they were taught there to the industry.
      I’m not kidding, I’ve met a few of the women who have taken over some of the old publishing houses, and that’s what they believe. Same for the few guys who are running things now as well.

    • Mrs. Wright

      Hear! Hear!

  • Yakov Merkin

    Agree 100%. While I do enjoy writing characters that are definitely strong female characters, I try and ensure that they remain, well, feminine, in addition to being just generally a good character. That’s what always has to be the priority. It’s something that should be common sense for writers, but unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be the case for many.

  • Nohbody

    I’m not sure if Furiosa (not mentioned but her picture is included in the article) is really an SFC in the way that you object to (and rightly so, IMO). Yes, she fought with Max, but even with him partly drained of blood and toting around an unconscious body and car door on a chain he still won.

    Also, ultimately it was Max that saved their collective bacon with his plan (as opposed to Furiosa’s “Moses in the wilderness” suggestion), and Nux’s sacrifice was what made it possible for her to succeed in carrying out that plan.

    Tangentially, for all the talk of it being a “feminist” movie, if that were the case the old women would have magically made the Green Land great, not have it devolve into a murky swamp, and the men would have been in a similar position to The Wives, as nothing more than breeding stock for the Matriarchy. 😛

    • Dawn Witzke

      I didn’t mention her, because I haven’t seen the movie. I just recall the hype around her being the protaganist, which turned me off to the movie. Seems stupid to me to put the hero in the background.

      • Nohbody

        I’ve not watched any of the other MM films in years, but I vaguely recall that a lot of times Max was more reacting to others than acting on his own, and rarely got a lot of dialogue compared to other characters.

        • Oh please. Go watch them again. The spotlight is solidly on Max in both Mad Max and Road Warrior. There is a supporting cast and he plays second fiddle to none of them.

          Heck, he’s the only character that scored genuine leather getup.

  • Karen Myers

    In the back of my mind I think of “Adventure” books (in which I class Fantasy and SciFi) as having a male lead. That’s not a complaint — it’s just an observation of the genres as I grew up reading them, where “Westerns” and “Military” were at one extreme. When I started writing my own fantasy series, I did the same for my first one — it just seemed natural. Sure, it had strong & complex characters of both genres, but the primary was male, and that was the only choice that made sense.

    For my second fantasy series, I decided to use a woman as the protagonist in a heroic story. It was surprisingly challenging — the more I made her a complex character, with (wizardly) power but normal human strengths and weaknesses, the more I had to work to keep the story overall, through a multi-book arc, “heroic”. I think I pulled it off, but the process was illuminating. The emotions and character that motivate a woman in that position are not going to be identical to a man’s.
    Think, for example, how many fantasies with a strong female lead have the “older woman, coming along to clean up the mess” characters.

    • Dawn Witzke

      Too many books try to substitute women in roles that would be ideal to a male character.

    • Nathan of Brainfertilizer Fame

      Well said.
      Men are not women, and women are not men. Men tend to be adventurers because that is/was the best way for men of low status to rise to a level he could get what he wanted.
      Women with low status have different ways to rise.
      Women want different things in a mate than men do. So women are motivated into action differently.

      That doesn’t mean women can’t or don’t adventure. But they have different motivations for doing so. Failing to acknowledge that and failing to incorporate those differences result in unconvincing (and thus unsatisfying) stories.

  • I write novels with strong male characters and boy do I get a lot of shit for it.
    I’ve got two more I’ve promised to write in two different series, but after that, I’m thinking of doing what everyone else does and just write strong female characters, really strong, UBER strong. Stronger, smarter, faster, better than all the men, who they constantly show up, and who all worship her.
    Because that’s what sells. In droves. Women want it, and at this point the minority of readers who are men are used to it enough, that they’ll still buy it, as long as the story as good. And if I can throw vampires and werewolves into it?
    I’ll make a million.

    • I hope that’s sarcasm. I don’t think it’s what readers want, including women. Who is stronger, smarter, faster, better in every way? Superman without kryptonite, without Lex Luthor, etc. Isn’t that what we are told not to write? That you can’t have an all powerful character and still have any sort of identification, or story for that matter? What would be the point of writing a character who’s only flaw is that she hates her big boobs. Or her little boobs. Or whatever. Because that’s about how deep these types tend to be. She’s written this way on purpose, so she hates some part of her body that ends up being part of her allure. Eye roll. As Dawn says, “Give me characters who accept that they have weaknesses, that they need help from, not only other female characters, but from males as well. Give me characters who are okay with being rescued, failing, and not being the smartest person in the room, but still have a will of their own. Give me characters who are flawed, who make mistakes, who aren’t perfect.
      Give me characters that I can relate to.” Because I can practically guarantee you that the minute Miss Perfect Queen Bee steps into the room, or the page, the first thing that women are going to want is to take her down.

      • It’s not sarcasm, it’s proven fact.

        An author did this about a year ago. Female uber character, she’s hot, she’s powerful, she shows up special forces ultra commandos on a daily basis, who all worship her. There are vampires, werewolves, (who all worship her) lots of swearing, aliens, and eventually an interstellar war. I think she’s ruling the earth by that point.
        Oh, and she was kick ass before she got the ‘uber’ except for she thought her legs were too short.

        As of the beginning of this year he had made over one millions dollars in royalties and was selling 2000 copies A DAY of the twenty or so books he had written so far (he churns them out really fast, less than a month). I ran the numbers myself based on the sales statistics, then when I looked him up, he was pretty upfront telling people he was now a millionaire.

        So yeah, I give up on trying to write for an under-served market. I do pretty good, I sell over 22K copies a year. But I’d rather be selling that in a month. You don’t even have to have good grammar or spelling, (he doesn’t). As long as you’ve got all those elements, it sells like hotcakes. Women want to constantly be told how much better they are then men apparently, because writing books about it sells incredibly fast.

        I don’t get it. But I’m tired of having my nose rubbed in it.

        • Very relieved Gamerdude

          Which story was this?
          Learn from the best, I always say.

          • Look up Michael Anderele (I may have spelled that a little wrong). I will give him this, he writes action on action on action scenes. But his Heroine? She could kick superman’s ass without breaking a sweat.

          • Very relieved Gamerdude

            I appreciate that.
            Just looked you up too.
            I might just have to pick up a couple of books.
            Which do you recommend?

          • I would say to try either ‘wolf killer’ or the first book in the ‘days of future past’ trilogy, as they’re more recent. The POI series is very popular, but I wrote the first book in it like 3 years ago, so it’s not exactly my best work. However, it is definitely written for guys over gals (yet oddly 3/4ths of my beta readers are women) and it’s seven books long with #8 on the way.

          • Very relieved Gamerdude

            Thanks.

          • Very relieved Gamerdude

            Holy smokes….. he’s got 21 books out under a series and I know I’ve never seen him in a bookstore.
            And he’s got a collaborative universe going.
            Interesting.

        • Dawn Witzke

          If that is what you want to write, run with it. And I hope you make the million mark.

    • Mrs. Wright

      Where do I go to get people to complain about my strong male characters? That’s one of the best things about my series. Since it was based on a game, the men were all written by real men…and they read that way. But no one has complained. The only complaint I got was a really funny one star review on Amazon by someone who only reviewed the first four chapters…but who had many complains about how unSJW-like it was.

      If you are getting complaints, it means someone is reading your stuff…which is nice.

      Still…in a fair world, strong male characters would be a plus.

      • They haven’t complained because the people who do complain are all ‘feminists’ and if a woman does it, it’s okay.
        I’m not kidding about that either. There are a group of ‘feminists’ who go around and one star all of the male written fiction in a certain genre that is built on the strong male character archetype. But the woman author who is writing in it? They’re leaving her alone.

  • cjleete

    One of my favorite female characters on TV is Deputy Victoria Moretti on Netfix’s (formerly of A&E) Longmire.
    She is fully capable of kicking butt, but she has several vulnerabilities and blind spots. Definitely not a candidate for a SJW heroine figure.

    • JR Handley

      Agreed, I loved that character!!

  • Benjamin Rodriguez

    I need to write an article about the level *worse* that “SFC”.
    STRONK Independent Wimmins that Don’t need no Fish Bicycles.
    See, the Stronk (Purposeful misspelling) comes into play when an author tries to write a SFC and fails miserably, leaving a character more ineptly crafted than the cliché straw damsels of yesteryear.
    Is your Stronk Wimmin in a military leadership position? Make sure to opine in the narration that she’s strong. Have a male character think she’s strong & tough & on a par with any of the men. Then write her actions being blindly illogical, her opinions uninformed, her plans & orders guaranteed to result in disaster, but oh well, she’s in charge and all her male underlings about to die thank her for the opportunity!

  • JR Handley

    Well thought out, thanks for sharing!

  • Corey

    The thing is, I’ve found, it’s less of the the specific actions of a female character, and the reasoning behind it. I have one who is a mercenary. Now being a mercenary is hardly feminine, but her personality…she’s a momma bear, and she sees her partner as her cub (He’s bigger than her, but she found him when he was younger and protected him). She scares others because she’s ridiculously fierce, mostly because she’s fighting to protect someone, a kind of maternal instinct gone psychotically violent.

    She also freely acknowledges men are stronger than her (she uses magic to cheat). She kicks men’s rears in fights because she can cause their muscles to lock up and effectively paralyze them. She’s also got tons of her own issues, and begins to become more feminine…

    All the other female characters (with the exception of a non-human, the entire race of whom believe it’s their God-given duty to fight) are much more feminine.

    And I don’t have a problem with a martial maiden. Examples abound in classical mythology… but the issue I see with these SFC’s is that they’re not strong. They’re irresistibly strong. No one can stand against them. I have my female mercenary, in a crucial scene I just wrote, get picked up by another much more competent warrior, and he throws her headfirst into a stone wall, after she tries to attack him. But of the 6 core characters, she’s one of the 3 females. The other two are much more feminine. One’s a scholar who likes to play matchmaker and also is stuck with a guilt complex, while the other is… she’s difficult to describe succinctly.

    • Nathan of Brainfertilizer Fame

      This sounds like an interesting character and interesting story.

  • Bellomy

    One big marker, which I got at in my earlier post about Sheeta in “Castle in the Sky”, is gratefulness.

    If you’re ungrateful for help, you’re immediately less likable, sympathetic, and feminine. “Iron Man 2” had this issue to a certain extent – not Black Widow herself, but the direction.

    When Jon Favreau and Black Widow get into a fight with goons, Jon Favreau locked in a struggle with one guy is played for laughs while Black Widow beats everyone up.

    The problem isn’t the Black Widow section – hey, she’s a superhero – but that we’re making fun of the fact that Jon Favreau is taking on people who are a real challenge to him. It shouldn’t be funny. It should be heroic! He’s NOT a superhero, yet here he is.

    So some of it has to do with how the men are portrayed. If a Strong Female Character is grateful for a man’s help, and an offer of help from a man is taken seriously and not disrespected, it helps solve a lot of these problems.

  • Bellomy

    To use another positive example to illustrate my point – think of Jacob in “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”. He’s the only non-magical (essentially non-superpowered) person of the group, yet he tags along on their adventures and even punches out a goblin. While there’s some fish out of water fun to be had early on, his aid isn’t played for laughs.

    Tina and Queenie are both technically stronger characters, but they still come off as feminine and likable because they’re at least appreciative that Jacob is attempting to help. And Jacob himself doesn’t come off as weak for being outmatched by everyone else, but heroic; here’s a normal guy, going around with, basically, superheroes and taking out monsters! It’s not pathetic or laughable, it’s heroic!