The Heart of Strong Female Characters

(I apologize in advance for anything that doesn’t make sense – it’s the cold medicine.)

In publishing these days, you hear a lot about “strong female characters” and “kick-butt women” (some people use a different phrase, but we are ladies here at Mysteristas). Was Elsa in Disney’s Frozen a strong female character? (I didn’t see the movie and have no intention to, so I can’t say). As a woman writer, I will admit that I’ve come to loathe these terms.

Too often, they’ve come to mean women who do anything that men do. They are police officers, martial artists, tote guns, slay bad guys – you get the point. Is that what makes them strong?

I read an excellent blog post by Chuck Wendig on this. Wendig, who is rather profane (but I enjoy his views) refers to female characters who have “agency.” What is agency? Well, they do things that advance plot. They aren’t Barbie dolls to be posed or video game characters like Lara Croft who can only act within the confines of the prescribed script. Note that they don’t have to be posed by men – they can be posed by events.

Women with agency affect the course of the story. They make decisions – and mistakes – that mean something. Wendig’s point is that without agency, a “kick-butt” female character, or a “strong female character” can still be weak.

And then this morning, I saw a blog post from Jenna Bennet, who wrote a SFR book I read. Her heroine, Elsa Brandeis (what is it with the name Elsa?) is not a “kick butt” woman. She’s a doctor. Dedicated to saving life, not taking it. But I’ve read the book and I’d call her a “strong female character.” Why?

She has agency. She has heart.

I think society tends to think of “strong women” as having traditionally male characteristics: aggression, fighting, proficiency with weapons. That sort of thing. But that’s awfully limiting, at least in my view. There are many kinds of strength. Only some of them have to deal with the ability to shoot a gun.

Instead, I like this idea of “agency.” The ability to make decisions that matter. Mistakes that matter. That’s strength.

My female attorney, Sally Castle, has agency. Yes, she knows some basic self-defense, but she wouldn’t know what do to with a gun. But she makes decisions. Her actions push the plot forward. Actions that include mistakes. She needs my male protagonist – but that doesn’t detract from her agency. Because he needs her, too. She has heart.

The protagonist in my middle-grade fiction, Jaycee, is another one – at least I’m trying. She’s a kid, so she’s trying to figure things out. But she makes decisions. She does things. She has agency.

And I’m writing a new project. Again, the protagonist is male. But there are two women in his life. One is his wife. One is his former partner (now blind). Both these women have agency. They aren’t figures to be posed. Their actions and decisions materially affect the story. They have heart.

So the next time you’re reading, don’t ask “is this a strong woman” or “is this a kick-butt woman”? Ask if the woman has agency. Does she have heart? Does she make her own decisions, take her own actions, that move the story? Even if they are the wrong decisions and actions (even incorrect actions are actions). Or is she action-figure Barbie, Lara Croft, being posed within the confines of the script?

If the answer is “yes,” I think you may have found yourself a strong female character.

Mary Sutton | @mary_sutton73

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Author: Liz Milliron

Liz Milliron has been making up stories, and creating her own endings for other people's stories, for as long as she can remember. She's worked for fifteen years in the corporate world, but finds making things up is far more satisfying than writing software manuals. A lifelong mystery fan, her short fiction has been published in online magazines Uppagus and Mysterical-e. She has also had stories included in Lucky Charms: 12 Crime Tales, Blood on the Bayou (the 2016 Bouchercon anthology), Fish Out of Water, and Mystery Most Historical. She is a past president of the Pittsburgh chapter of Sisters in Crime. Visit her online at http://lizmilliron.com, find her on Facebook at https://facebook.com/LizMilliron, or follow her on Twitter (@LizMilliron).

8 thoughts on “The Heart of Strong Female Characters”

  1. Agency sums it up so much better than “strong” when referring to female characters. I like it. Good term. I’ve noticed though that most of the people who use the term ‘strong’ when referring to female characters are usually of the male persuasion. We need a good feminine term for describing characters that have heart and rock. Well done.

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  2. Thanks, but I can’t take credit for the idea. It’s all Chuck Wendig (ironically, a man). But yes, “strong” is such a subjective term. And so prone to male interpretation. There are so many kinds of strength. “Agency” speaks to me so much more. Is your character simply moved by the people and events around her, or is she (somewhat) in control of her actions/reactions? It’s something that I’ve really concentrated on in my own writing, too. Not that our women can’t occasionally be buffeted by the plot, but it should mostly move in response to things she decides/does.

    And Theresa, we are “ladies” on the surface at least. 🙂

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  3. Sue, yes. Superman does not exist in real life. Our protagonists have to be “larger than life,” but I think a little weakness helps with that. Cynthia, to me, “heart” and “agency” are the things that make a character come to life. I don’t think I’ll be able to separate them again.

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  4. The term “agency” has me vacillating between an image of a Madison Ave. exec and a spy. Do we really need another term for a strong character — be they female or male? If a lead character isn’t making decisions that move the story forward, then they have no business being a lead character. Weaknesses and strengths are subjective, when you get right down to it, and as authors we learn to balance the two to make a character compelling or, well, repellent to our audience.

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