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How to Write A Truly Strong Female Lead

In honor of International Women’s Day, which came this past week on March 8th, I decided to sit down and blog about a subject that’s been close to my heart for some time: strong female characters.

The Icon of Strength

There’s been a recent (and much-needed) push for more strong female leads in fiction. A movement that seemed to have its advent primarily on the heels of such well-known and widely-scorned female MCs as Twilight’s Bella Swan has since produced a great swath of heroines who bucked the norm. The term “damsel in distress” was no longer heard of. These women were icons of power who could absolutely and unequivocally save themselves.

The problem that eventually arose with this trend was that female characters were once again expected to fit a mold…only instead of the mold being “damsel in distress whose world revolves around a man,” it became “strong independent woman who doesn’t need anyone or anything except maybe one family member.”

In today’s blog post, I want to tell you how to actually write a strong female character. Here goes:

Write her however the hell you want.

Simply Strong, or Fully Real?

A few years ago, I was struggling to write even one female character who would fit into the image of the strong heroine, who – according to multiple sources I very much trusted at the time – was the icon of empowerment, necessary to every narrative. This girl was usually a warrior, sarcastic, closed-off, could take care of and rescue herself a-okay from any situation, and would never even dream of risking her life for a man, even if he somehow gained her cool and mercurial affections. At the time, this was the mold that a lot of writers, especially in YA fiction, were being nudged toward. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Somehow, my heroines just never emerged that “strong”.

And then I saw a writer’s post that truly changed my outlook on writing female leads. The saying started with, “Screw writing strong women. Write real women.” It went on to name just a few examples: interesting women, women who cry, women who rant, women who are in positions of power, women who serve, women who are shy, women who are outgoing, women who want a husband, and women who don’t…the list went on and on. I remember reading it about seven or eight times, just to let it sink in…because with every category flashing up on the screen, I thought of at least one woman I knew in real life who matched each one.

All Women Are Strong in Their Own Way

That’s the thing…womanhood is a mosaic. When the damsel in distress was the mold of the day, the physical strength and ingenuity of women in tricky situations was often lacking, it’s true. But when writers are pushed out of their zone and into the mold of writing the powerful woman who can kick any and all kinds of butt that comes her way, with no help from others, that leaves no room for the women who need to lean on friends, family, and even a love interest for help.

I’m not advocating for the strong, kickass heroines to go away. They are also a form of strength, and they deserve a platform. But I want to encourage all of my writer friends not to worry about the kind of strong female lead they SHOULD be writing, as if there was a mold their heroine must fit into in order to really be “strong.” Instead, write the strengths that are natural to your character. Maybe that means she’s a good politician and a terrible fighter. Maybe she’s a good fighter and a bad diplomat. Maybe she’s a fighter and a politician both. Or neither one.

In my current WIP, my main character, Cistine, was written diametrically opposed to my old, preconceived notions of what a “strong” female lead must be. I wrote her this way specifically to challenge myself, because I wanted to explore more deeply the fact that there’s nothing wrong with a female lead who loves dresses, tea, and boys, who giggles and blushes and cries at the drop of a hat. But she does have other strengths, which she discovers in fistfighting, politics, and swordplay as the story goes on. Still, by the end, Cistine isn’t eager to jump into battle. She’d rather have peace than war. And none of these things are weaknesses! Luckily Cistine busted all of my paradigms, and the journey of growth and strength I’ve made with her is by far my favorite of any WIP to date. It’s also helped me to fully embrace that strength in a female lead can come in any number of different forms.

Shades of Strength

Many authors recognize that feminine strength is not dependent on whether a woman wields a sword, and that female empowerment is about more than just a girl stepping into traditionally-male roles. For me personally, when I draft, it’s about finding where my women are, where they want to be, and where they need to be…and then letting them grow toward those goals.

So I encourage all of you: write the kind of woman you want to write. Write a well-rounded damsel in distress. Write a compulsive crier. Write a tough-as-nails warrior. Write a loving matron. Write a doting wife. Write someone who’s happily single-by-choice. Write these interesting, capable, broken, beautiful, strong women in every shade of strength imaginable.

Respect your characters, respect your sisters, and respect that strength comes in many forms. And on the writing journey, as much as it’s possible…let them surprise you.

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