Writing Strong Female Characters

I decided to kick off this weekend with some writing tips!

It's gonna be a good weekend--tonight, I have a gallery opening for a show where The Furever Home Friends will be featured for the month of February. Then tomorrow morning, I'll be giving a talk about editing at DePaul's Thesis & Dissertation Conference. Since it's a big weekend full of exciting, writing-related events, it's a perfect Friday evening for writing tips!

Today, I'm going to talk about what it means to write strong female characters. There's a lot of different opinions about what this means--all of which have some validity. But I'm going to come at it from my perspective, based on my own experiences writing female characters.

When I was 22, I was a screenwriting Teaching Assistant at Northwestern's NHSI (National High School Institute) Film & Video Program. Basically, what that meant was, I spent the summer after my senior year of college teaching high-school kids the basics of screenwriting. It was a ton of fun, and it's what first ignited my passion for teaching. During this program, I spent one evening teaching a master class to about writing strong female characters. It was a lot of fun discussing what female characters in movies and TV the kids liked, and how we can create characters that exemplify these qualities.

The main thing I wanted to make clear at the beginning, though, was that "strong" didn't mean that a character had to have physical strength. It's often easy to take a bland character, give her a superpower, and suddenly say that now she's a good character, or a positive representation for women. But that isn't always true.

During my master class (and in my life in general), here is how I defined (and continue to define) a "strong female character": a female character whose actions are crucial to the plot. Without her agency, the story could not happen.

Strength within a story is not about having a superpower, about beating up a million bad  guys, or about being the best. It's about having an active role within a story's plot. It's about progressing a story as a whole.

I think part of the misconception about what it means to have a "strong female character" comes from the continued value placed upon traditionally masculine ideals. We can watch movies about female superheroes, and men will talk about how cool those superheroes were, then pat themselves on the back for being feminists. Often, those same men will write movies about powerful mother-daughter dynamics off as "chick flicks." 

Think of it this way: how many parents think it's wonderful and progressive to let their young daughters dress in boys' clothes and play sports with the boys in the neighborhood, but would scoff at the idea of letting their young son dress up in a princess dress or play with his mom's lipstick? Essentially, too many people are caught up in this idea that "masculine" is "better"--if girls take on "male" interests, it's fine! It's cool! It's PROGRESSIVE to let them do that. But if men take on "female" interests, it's somehow demeaning and inferior. That alone is part of the issue we have with prioritizing men's stories, or giving women the male quality of physical strength in order to make them cool.

Basically, Wonder Woman is great! And there should be more stories like hers. But that doesn't mean that EVERY story should be about Wonder Woman. A story can be about Betty down the street, who raised her kids as a single mom, or Mrs. Jones who taught a group of at-risk youth how to write poetry. Those stories can be equally powerful and important, and we should see them that way.

In storytelling, what this comes down to is changing the widespread perception that the "default human" is a man. It's about hearing the word "character" or "person" and, without additional details, being able to view this concept with the equal probability that they could be female.

These problems aren't going to fix themselves. I can't just tell other writers that I wish they'd include more of a certain type of a character in their writing, and it will magically happen. As a writer, I have to take it upon myself to create these characters, and write stories that represent what I'd like to see more of.

So, when you're writing a strong female character, ask yourself these questions:
  • What is this character's role in the overall plot?
  • Does this character make decisions for herself?
  • How do this character's decisions affect other aspects of the story?
  • Does this female character have discussions with other female characters? And are their discussions about things other than the male characters? (I was shocked at how many movies would say "no" to this very, very simple concept. It's a LOT of them.)
  • Does this character grow and change?
  • What does this character learn over the course of the story?
  • Does this character help other characters to grow and change?
  • If this character were removed from the story, how would the story be different?
  • How do this character's actions progress the plot as a whole?


As writers, we have the power to create the kinds of characters we'd like to see more of! Let's use that power for good!

Happy Friday!

Love,
Savy

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