The Strong Female Character

I saw a thread on Twitter the other day about the Strong Female Character. Part of me is surprised we’re still talking about this. Hasn’t that term been overused to the point of exhaustion? It’s been so debated and over-defined and re-defined and misused that it’s practically meaningless.

First there were no SFCs. Then there was Bella, who some argued was strong because she fought for what she wanted. Personally, I’m not a fan because Edward cut her off at every corner and I don’t think she fought him hard enough. But I could see where people were coming from. Bella had an objective and she was going to achieve it, over her dead body. (Get it?)

Later people pointed to Hermione, who was certainly clever and strong. I have no qualms with Hermione. I do think it’s unfortunate that Hermione primarily related to men and had no meaningful relationships with other women within the series.

Later we entered the Katniss phase. It was almost universally agreed that Katniss was a SFC, and she passed my primary test through her relationships with Rue and Johanna. But I’m afraid Katniss also won her SFC medal through a nefarious trick: She became a strong female character by rejecting feminine things. She loved her bow and old leather boots, but come near her with a dress? Yech! Instead, Effie Trinket was Trivial Lady Things personified, and Katniss — and the reader — mocked her.

For me, a strong female character comes down to a simple question:

Is she more than an archetype?

A SFC is a well-rounded character. In short, she’s HUMAN, with all of the flaws and emotions and desires and fears and qualities that the spectrum of humanity provides. Given the true dearth of SFCs in fiction, a true SFC is likely to make the reader a little uncomfortable. Like most humans, she should have a dark side. She should have some unsavory desires. Maybe she occasionally wants to punch people. Maybe she wants to buzz her hair. Maybe she’s got a taste for power and she relishes wielding it. These are examples of things real women do, and such qualities should be reflected in SFCs.

There’s a bonus test for a SFC, too:

Does she have meaningful relationships with other women?

Real women relate to other women. They don’t live in vacuums where they’re the token female surrounded by men. (I love Star Wars, but when it comes to both Leia and Rey: Hello, Vacuum.) Frankly, having only one female character puts too much pressure on that character to represent her entire gender. It’s better and infinitely more realistic to spread it out. And that isn’t too much to ask. In fact, it’s something readers should demand.

Women make up — what? 51 percent of the world’s population? I’d dare say that most novelists are women. Yet their stories still often feature only a single female character, occasionally with a two-dimensional best friend who steps aside as soon as the love interest walks onstage.

TLDR:

Yes, we need more Strong Female Characters.
No, the term doesn’t mean just one thing.
A Strong Female Character is, quite simply, a HUMAN.
We need Strong Female Characters PLURAL. We need female relationships.

Here are some of my favorite YA books that meet the criteria I’ve outlined above:

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor
The MC Sarai has meaningful and complicated relationships with her…let’s call them ‘cohorts’. She does some dark shit, not all of which she’s sorry for. That said, I absolutely love this girl.

When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon
Dimple fights the patriarchy but doesn’t let it overwhelm her, and she holds on tight to her personal goals. Also: Celia.

A Court of Thorns & Roses (series) by Sarah J. Maas
The MC Feyre has complicated relationships with her sisters right off the bat, and she goes on to form both positive and negative relationships with other female characters throughout the series. Also, Feyre is rather fearless when it comes to sex. I know — le gasp, right?

Cinder by Marissa Meyer
Iko may be an android, but her friendship with Cinder is my favorite relationship in the book. I give bonus points to Marissa Meyer for writing a female character who breaks the meter on villainy. Lavana is not the archetypal Evil Stepmother. She does some truly heinous things in Fairest. She made me uncomfortable, and it was oddly refreshing.

Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen
That’s right. Star Wars fails the Bechdel Test, but Jane Austen blew it out of the park 150+ years earlier. Elizabeth + Jane, Elizabeth + Charlotte, Elizabeth + Mrs. Bennet… This book is proof that having a bunch of female characters who relate to each other is not that hard.

The Young Elites (series) by Marie Lu
Adelina and her sister — whoa.

Truthwitch by Susan Dennard
Iseult and Safi get into some admirable scrapes together, and they don’t bail at the first sign of danger or handsomeness.