Search online and you’ll find a lot of content on the exact same subject. Articles featuring the best female characters from film, TV, literature, and video games. This led me to explore something else – the definition of strong.
(Edit: Wonder Woman is of course the PERFECT character to be talking about here. But there are better Wonder Woman posts out there. Read that. For this list, let’s focus on what was already out there when I wrote it. A world before Wonder Woman. Which is now impossible to imagine. <3)
What does it mean for a character to be strong? What happens when we apply gender to strong characters? And how does that affect the story?
Based on what I’ve found, there are at least five recurring qualities of a strong character. Let’s add gender to see how that mixes things up.
So, here’s what I think a strong character should be:
A strong character is capable of handling challenges, can make decisions that impact the plot, has flaws, has clear desires, and last, she is not shy about assuming traditional gender roles if she has to.
Protagonists must have the strength to challenge their antagonists. They have to be capable and in control of their own lives. They should be bigger than life and have qualities that we can aspire to.
Whether it’s lifting an elephant or overcoming a drug addiction, they need to have the inner and outer resources that make them stand out from their peers.
Bad Example: Snow White. To be fair, she was from a different time, so we can’t expect too much from the fabled Mrs. Charming. You can argue that she does keep the house clean through animal mind control and cooks meals for seven dwarves with extremely limited resources. But in the end, her fate was in the hands of someone else, and it wasn’t a joint effort either.
Good Example: Katniss Everdeen. The perfect example of a strong character, inside and out. She is not without her fair share of weaknesses but she’s got the skills and the smarts to decide both her fate and others’. (And of course, Wonder woman!!!)
The write approach: You can’t let your characters die or fail every challenge they come across, can you? They have to be competent in whatever it is they are doing. Unless it’s somehow part of the story you are telling. They have to redeem themselves in the end, or at least learn a lesson. Whether or not they make it out of your plot alive that is. Also, capability does not mean working alone. She might have weaknesses that can be covered by working with a team. More on weaknesses later.
Agency is the ability of a character to make their own decisions that move the story forward or alter its course. Even better if they act based on who they are. Not what they are.
Imagine a war film with three characters: a buff guy with a heavy machine gun, a sniper who never misses, and a bomber who’s good at blowing things up. Their sole mission is to defeat the baddies. They pass Quality I. And technically, if they perform their mission, they sort of pass Quality II, because somehow the story gets closer to an end. However, it won’t make for an interesting film just yet because the characters simply do what they were destined to do.
But what if we learn a little bit more about them, a little bit more about their lives back home, a little bit more about what haunts them. How will that affect their mission? How it will affect the story? What will their life be like after the mission? How can they live after what they’ve done or what they’ve learned about the true nature of war? Those are the kinds of questions that will lead to characters making hard decisions. What if they won’t make it through alive and they knew that fact? The what remains the same: defeat the bad guys. It’s how they get there that can potentially hold the most drama. By exploring agency, we find make every action count. Make every decision hold some emotional weight. Everything has a consequence.
Consider The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo has a single mission. Get the one ring to Mordor and destroy it. But along the way he understands the power of the ring and how it corrupts and destroys the good in people. Based on this information, he decides to bear the burden alone. His decision did not change his mission, but it had turned his struggle into an epic.
Bad Example: Harley Quinn from Suicide Squad. (Spoilers!) Character-wise, we know that all she really desires is a normal life with the Joker. To do that, she needs to get out of the Suicide Squad alive. She could have chosen her one true wish, assuming Enchantresses’ powers could fulfill that. Instead, she does Amanda Waller’s bidding and stops Enchantress, only to end up in the same cell we see her in at the beginning.
It seemed convenient that that had happened, to perhaps encourage a sequel. There could have been a twist- maybe Harley traps the Enchantress instead of completely destroying her, and hides that fact from everybody. Something that shows us that hey, Harley has got plans, big ones. But instead she ends up leading a squad of pawns in Waller’s sick game.
She didn’t follow her character’s desires, instead she chose another path – servitude. She has agency in the sense that her actions affect the story in a big way, but it doesn’t seem aligned enough with her character of someone who is supposedly both unpredictable and smarter than they look. So what was the plan there?
Maybe she just likes taking orders. But I doubt that. Maybe I missed something, but for now, she stays as a bad example unless proven otherwise.
Good Example: Sheryl Hoover from Little Miss Sunshine. (Spoilers!) Near the end of the film, Sheryl’s husband and son pressure her to let her daughter Olive drop out of the beauty pageant. Her son even goes as far as to say- “You’re her mother, you’re supposed to protect her!”
Sheryl responds by saying how Olive has come so far and worked so hard. “Let Olive be Olive.” And with that, the film is allowed to reach its climax. Core character decision, maximum story effect. Now that’s agency.
The write approach: Actions still and forever will speak louder than words. Reveal characters by the decisions that they make. They don’t always have to make the right choices either. But make those choices important enough that they have consequences. How characters approach those consequences is another matter altogether. Questions to ask ourselves, but in the end you must write to figure it all out.
If a character is perfect, they have nothing more to do and nothing more to learn. Having character flaws are natural and human. Don’t be afraid to give your characters weaknesses. You can even make them unlikable, to an extent.
Don’t look far to see how a weakness adds flavor. Achilles’s heel. Samsons’s hair. Superman’s kryptonite. Remember Melisandre from Game of Thrones. She began as a diabolical force. Seemingly omnipotent. Until we find out her flaws. Now she becomes almost pitiful. We now associate her with multiple emotions, fear, wonder, pity. The beginnings of a more complex character.
Bad example: Elsa from Frozen. I loved the film, but an ice queen who can create life and take it away at will? I consider this abuse of power a character flaw.
But despite losing control of her powers in her early years, I don’t think she has a true weakness. She can learn to control her magic, learn to socialize, learn to lead the kingdom, and then she’ll be flawless.
Good example: Lala-Ru from Now and Then, Here and There. Okay, so this example is from one of the most heartbreaking anime series I’ve ever seen. This girl is a sort of water goddess who can draw water from a world of water using a tiny pendant around her neck. The only catch? It kills her a little every time she does it. Her strength is her weakness.
What’s unlikable about her at first is that she has no concern for humanity at all, leaving the other characters to suffer at the hands of an evil dictator. It’s only when she realizes that humanity has some flicker of hope left that she starts using her powers, consuming herself in the process.
The write approach: Keep the big picture in mind. How is their weakness related to their strengths? How is it connected to themes you wanted to explore? What are the effects of other characters finding out your character’s weaknesses? How does the character react to that? These are just questions that will naturally arise out of writing. So just write and let curiosity do the rest.
IV. Distinct goals and desires.
Characters must want something. Otherwise they wouldn’t do anything, they would just let things happen to them.
Personally, I have a hard time writing characters who desire things and have goals. This is because I personally do not really desire things and I don’t have goals either. If the goal approach does not work, try fear. What do characters don’t want to happen? A secret or weakness exposed? A truth they were avoiding?
A TV series could explore the most base of motivations, endless poetic iterations of the same desires. In cinema you have to say a lot in as short a time as possible. Every scene must lend to character. They say a picture is worth a thousand words and all that. But you’ve got to learn how to cheat. Strike the balance. Use dialogue. Use it. Don’t fear using it because a textbook on script writing told you not to. Use it.
Now for an example. A baker in the background of a period film doesn’t have to be just part of the background. They could call out, yelling the protagonist’s name, asking for the money they owe them. A bit of exposition for your character, no?
In romantic comedies, the friends of the protagonists are often one-dimensional. Sounding boards, listening ears, mirrors to contrast with the main characters’ personalities. Why not have them have their own complicated sub-plot, their own fates in the course of the story? It doesn’t have to have anything to do with the main character. They get married, have a child, get a new job, lose a job, get their car stolen, etc. Make your side characters feel real, make them feel alive, that outside the scope of your story they are still out there, living their lives.
How the main characters react to subplots serve as additional exposition, maybe even a critical realization that helps the main plot, and/or a wider and richer exploration of the themes of the story overall.
Bad example: Bellatrix Lestrange from Harry Potter.
I haven’t read the books, but just basing it on the movies I have this memory of Bellatrix being this interesting diabolical force in The Prisoner of Azkaban. But once we get into The Deathly Hallows she somehow falls flat. She becomes a side-kick who just wants to serve Lord V. (Now if you have a different opinion about the screen portrayal of Ms. Lestrange, please do leave comments!)
Good example: Jyn Erso from Rogue One. We know she was reluctantly pulled into a Rebel Alliance plot at first. But after learning the truth about her father, she volunteers on a crucial mission with newfound conviction and ferocity.
Follow up good example: Kathryn Hahn in Bad Moms. Not only does this side character stand strong without the main protagonist, she also has her own monologue late in the film that has agency.
The write approach: Goals can be corny. I find writing characters easier if I think about fears rather than desires. If you don’t want anything out of life, what do you fear and how do you avoid it? Motivation is just that, wanting or not wanting something to happen.
One challenge is if the characters don’t really desire any specific outcome in their lives. One cure is to introduce a challenge. An inciting incident, in film speak. A potential love interest. A rival. A cat that won’t budge from the doorway. A meteor. Zombies. Their desire can simply be to put things back to the way they were. Or even simpler – to survive.
Desires are just the starting point. Keep writing and you’ll stumble upon natural obstacles to those desires. Find it out, keep writing.
V. Embracing Gender Roles
It’s is not necessary to abandon traditional feminine roles. I’m talking about compassion, caring, maternal instincts, and so on. This does not make a character weak.
Veer away from the slew of badass female characters who become as one-dimensional as their male counterparts.
Bad example: Katia van Dees in Agent 47. (Spoilers!) Once it’s revealed that Katia is in fact a superior version of the genetically modified assassin named 47, she becomes a ruthless killing machine and not much else. She was a daughter to her father, and a sort of genetic sister to 47, but both chances at developing those relationships are thrown out the window in favor of a killing spree.
Good example: Ellen Ripley in Alien. She’s tough, but still saves the cat. Enough said.
The write approach: This last quality is the only one that adds gender to the equation. Like what the other articles on the subject suggest: write the character first, gender second. Fun fact: Ellen Ripley’s character was originally intended for a guy
You may already know which character will be which gender. But it’s good practice to keep it flexible. Don’t let gender decide what actions your characters will make in the end.
Again, you must write to find this out. Keep writing. I may be all wrong. What if your character had no goals, no weaknesses, no agency, no gender?
Your story is yours.
Sources of inspiration that I highly recommend you check out as well:
I do not own any of these photos.
Credits to the true owners.
Thanks to Kim Quinola for suggesting Bellatrix!
These 5 qualities are by no means restrictive.
I focused on these as these are the ones that show up over and over again.
To be honest, just learn what you can from this post and other posts before me, but find your own path. Experiment. Create. Let your own stories breathe. Too much reading into guides like these spoil the fun. But I hope it helps if you need a sort of guide.