I want you to take a look at these amazing heroines for a moment. Think over what it is about them that makes them great, memorable, and admirable.
Then, I want you to think about why they are great role models for young women.
Consider what it is about them that makes them strong. Is it their clothing? Is it their hair style? Is it their weaponry? Or is it something else entirely that identifies them as strong heroines?
Keep those reasons in mind, because we’ll come back around to them in the end.
As a female, as a writer, and as an avid fan of all things “admirable heroine”, I find the subject of the “strong” female heroine becoming imbalanced and overburdened with grave misconceptions. What is it really that makes a female heroine “strong”? It seems to me that society in general is skewing what “strong” women really are.
The misconception is that our female character must lose her femininity in order to appear stronger.
And I have to strongly disagree.
By allowing this idea to erode confidence in femininity simultaneously humors the belief that there is only one kind of “strong” female heroine. And it discourages confidence in our natural strengths. The idea is that this heroine has to be more boyish or manly in her traits, her looks, her hobbies, and her attitude. She has to “win” by being manlier, stronger, better. But is that really a strong female heroine? And is there really just one kind of “strength”?
The thing about femininity is this: people (I think women, especially) are terrified of the cliched image “being feminine” conjures up: a sort of a bimbo girl who likes tutus and the color pink. A girl who thinks diamonds are a girl’s best friend, a girl who doesn’t get her hands dirty. A girl who would rather visit the nail salon than take a walk in the woods. A girl who likes to cook and clean, wear aprons, and make sandwiches for her man.
(Oh no, no, no NOT that last one!)
See, this girl is seen as some sort of cave-man’s fantasy. And that is what frightens some women the most, I believe. That being more feminine makes you this woman- a sort of slave to man. An unprogressive barbie doll.
But see, that’s not femininity. Thats just one kind of woman. And this type of woman still exists today. And if these types of women truly do love that lifestyle with all their mind and heart, then who are we to scorn it as fellow women? Why should we scorn it? What is so evil about it that we must spend our energies wholly destroying that image? Don’t we desire respect? So why shouldn’t we give it in turn?
See, how I see femininity is this: it is pride and respect for what makes us women, it is honoring what complimentary assets we bring to society as women. Our mind, our heart, our body- these are unique to who we are. Not our hobbies, favorite color, hair style, or what shoes we wear.
Femininity doesn’t limit women’s potential, as I think many women fear it does.
Further, it’s our resounding, admirable qualities as women that truly identify us and make us strong. And it is what we do with these qualities that decides how women affect society.
Women tend to be more compassionate, we tend to value mercy over justice. We sympathize with those who are less fortunate. We are generous of our attention, our devotion, our loyalties, and our time. We are healers, nurturers, believers, protectors, and educators. We are brave, we are sacrificial. We are intelligent, ambitious, capable, and we are imaginative. We appreciate beauty, we give attention to detail, and we value the little things. We value honesty, encourage confidence, and we seek truth. And most of all, we know, we appreciate, we give and we thirst for love. Giving and receiving love, in all its various forms. Whether that be for our mates, for our children, for ourselves, for our friends, family, for the world, or whatever else. Love is something we highly esteem, and something that quenches a deep part of our soul. We are all of these things, or at least we strive to be. And it is these priceless qualities that make us unique. And it is when we hold fast to them despite challenges that make us strong women.
These qualities, when held fast to, make for “strong” female characters as well.
Why do I say that? Why do I believe that these qualities make for a truly strong female character?
Because we see very little of these qualities in the world today. More often than not, challenges that face us test our ability to display these qualities. Negative forces either external or internal berate our devotion to such qualities. And often it is this struggle that inspires our stories, our characters, our message to the world. And it is in our female heroines that our stories of struggle and overcoming darkness are relayed.
Think about our heroines represented in the photos above, again. What positive, remarkable qualities did they have that made them stand out?:
Leia was resourceful and capable
Eowyn was fearless in the face of evil
Katniss was sacrificial and selfless
Arwen was Loyal and Faithful
Despite the odds, despite the injustices, despite the pressures from society, your heroine shouldn’t be afraid to respect and be proud of her femininity in its many forms.
Dont shackle your heroine to one cliched image of a “strong” female heroine.
Having a “thick skin”, being relentless, being rude or overtly manly- those traits can diminish qualities that dignify us as women. And those traits- they’re all okay if you want your heroine to be like that. You’ve no doubt poured hours of your time and attention into this character and are happy with her. And that’s okay! There are many characters we’ve come to love that are depicted in this fashion as well.
And really, this isn’t about “booing” female warrior types. Female warriors certainly have their place, and are well loved and highly respected. In fact, some of my favorite heroines like Katniss, like Eowyn- these girls are brave fighters. I honestly love a female character who fights smart, isn’t afraid to roll around in the mud, and kick some serious butt! I’m a tom boy myself, so I relate to a girl who likes to rough the elements and relay her physical strength. But these characters, if you recall, never abandoned their femininity.
What this is about is suggesting that we as writers think outside the mainstream reality of what a truly valuable, memorable, strong female character is and try to reshape society’s image through our choices.
Don’t be afraid to create a heroine who likes to wear dresses or heels. Don’t be afraid of what people might think if your heroine desires to have children or someone to love. Don’t be afraid of making your heroine sweet, gentle, kind, or forgiving. Don’t be afraid to even make a female heroine who rather enjoys cooking up a marvelous meal!
Leia had no qualms appearing like a true “princess” on occasion
Eowyn wanted to find true love
Arwen wanted a future with a family
Katniss needed comfort and reassurance at times
Women are human; so stop trying to make them more “ideal” by eliminating realistic desires, habits, issues, or flaws relative to their lives.
Likewise, there’s much to be addressed when it comes the to the physical image of our heroines. I have noticed that heroines have crept into a sort of androgynous realm, where body shape is whittled down, or hidden behind bulky layers, and beauty is rather dismissed with vague, blanched, or “un-opinionated” physical traits.
Again, there is a place for heroines of this nature in our writing. Not all women look the same! And it is certainly okay to have female characters who look like this. If that is your wish and what you feel comfortable creating, then I’m certain you’ll create a memorable character readers will relate with.
What I am saying is that as women, (and men!) we have a responsibility to show young girls who admire our heroines that heroines come in many shapes, sizes, and races.
Our heroines should be proud of their hips, their hair, their legs, their smile– the very things most young girls want so desperately to change. Young girls need to understand that they don’t need a “thigh gap” or wavy, brown hair to be considered beautiful, or ideal. Young girls likely should understand that there are heroines in every culture and they should be proud of their own heritage. This pattern of “blanched heroine” seems to be drowning out the idea that women with unique body shapes, physical traits, or diverse backgrounds can be strong heroines too.
So don’t be afraid to give your heroine a curvy body that she’s proud of, or a sporty shape that she works hard to maintain. Don’t hide a true woman’s shape behind a thin veil of “idealism”. Our female characters will be loved and admired by other young girls, so she should encourage girls to be proud of their unique qualities both internal and external.
And don’t let someone tell you that your heroine is not realistic or is boring. Because I’m certainly not saying that your strong heroine has to be perfect. All readers highly appreciate a very flawed heroine. A woman with serious problems, flaws, quirks, and issues makes for a realistic heroine. Our readers relate to her flaws, to the things that keep her up at night. And our readers admire the courage, the kindness, the beauty, the virtues she upholds to.
Think about it: what flaws did our represented heroines have? Eowyn was naive and innocent. Leia was brash and unapologetic. Katniss was over-protective to the point that it put her life in danger. Arwen was rebellious and suffered from a serious case of tunnel-vision which led her to sacrifice her immortality.
But it is always the beautiful qualities that we remember our favorite heroines for. We value and appreciate their flaws, but we respect and admire their strengths.
So remember what it is that you found admirable in these characters? What about your own personal favorite heroines: what was it that made them memorable to you? Let’s start a discussion. Comment below on what it is you find admirable in your favorite female character.
Meanwhile, it’s time we take a serious look at our “strong” female characters. After all, this blog post was just the beginning.
Is your female heroine going to positively affect society and reshape the idea of what makes a woman admirable?
Are you uncertain if your heroine is shaping up to be an unforgettable character?
Then the second workbook in the Checklist Every Author Needs series: The Complete Workbook for Creating Complete Female Characters is the workbook for you!