The term “strong female character” has become a bit of a buzz phrase in the world of literature, particularly in young adult books, but what does it actually mean? Let’s explore a few possible definitions.
I’ll start with the obvious definition: it can mean a character who is physically strong, a character who is a fighter. An example of this type would be Paks from the Deed of Paksenarrion books by Elizabeth Moon. The first book opens with Paks running away from home to join a mercenary company and a large part of the first book is given over to her training. Even after the initial training, she keeps learning, taking opportunities to try new types of weapons. If she sees someone using an interesting sword move, she will ask them to teach it to her. As a reader, you can believe that Paks can take on an army of orcs or huge spider monsters, because her physical strength is gained right there on the pages. She is strong because she’s earned it.
Another possible definition is a character who is strong-willed, a character that will face challenges without backing down and won’t break under pressure. I’ll use one on my own characters for this example: Sophie from Child of the Hive. She is not physically strong and you’re more likely to see her with a felt tip pen in her hand than a weapon, but she has spent half her life fighting a mental battle. The Hive tried to take her over when she was a little girl and she has spent the years since then keeping them out of her mind through sheer force of will. A character like Sophie would never win a physical battle, but that doesn’t diminish her strength.
My third definition follows on from this idea: a strong female character is a character who has strengths. Many people have talents and skills that they consider strengths even though they have nothing to do with the physical. In the realm of science fiction and fantasy, these strengths may be more than ordinary talents. Take Miriam Black, from Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds series. Here is a young woman who can see how people will die the first time she touches them. A talent indeed, and a strength the character uses to her advantage.
Finally, I want to put the emphasis on a different word in the phrase. We should consider the strength of the characterisation. A strong character is one who is plausible, who has a well thought out background and who fits into her world. I will hold up as my example here Akira from Shadows on the Moon by Zoe Marriott. She is a character with an interesting past and a deep secret, which becomes apparent over the course of the book. She had a history before she met the protagonist and she has an independent future. A strong character should have motives, which are not simply to help the protagonist or move the plot along. Each character should feel like a real person.
The interesting thing about these definitions is that they are not mutually exclusive. A physically strong character may also be strong-willed. Someone with strong characterisation may well have talents and strengths. As a writer, it’s important to populate your novel with examples of any or all of these but it’s also important to remember that no two people are strong in exactly the same way.
Jessica Meats is an author of science fiction novels and self-published young adult novellas. Her first book was Child of the Hive, published in 2009. She has also written a technical manual on Microsoft SharePoint. She has a degree in mathematics and computer science from the University of York, and now works in the IT industry as a Microsoft technology specialist. She uses her love of computers to populate her science fiction writing with interesting technology developments.