My guest today is Caitlin Lambert, who kindly offered to write about what she perceives as a strong female character in literature. Thank you, Caitlin, for a wonderful, well-written piece!
Lately, there has been lots of discussion about female
empowerment, and literature has not skipped out. In fact, “strong female
characters” is a term thrown around a lot, especially when it comes to YA
books. With the phrase so commonly used, how do we know what it really means?
Reviews and readers say that a book has a “strong female protagonist”, but what
characterizes such a young woman? What makes a female character strong?
It is easy to believe that strength comes from a lack of
emotion – from bottling up the pain and fear and trying to push it out. This
idea that fear equals weakness, and that tears signal a lack of strength, has
affected the way we see female characters. Here’s a few myths about girls in
They carry a sword,
so they must be strong.
Anyone can drag a weapon around. As Gandalf (aka J.R.R.
Tolkien) so profoundly said, “True courage is knowing not when to take a life,
but when to spare one.” Violence and skill in war definitely reflect a certain
kind of strength, but it is the harsh kind. What about the gentle, steady
strength? Why does all strength have to come from violence?
Someone who quietly perseveres through years of trials
without giving in is, in my opinion, much stronger than a person who unleashes
one time in passionate anger and slaughters an entire army.
Tears equate to
weakness. Characters can never cry, even if they are facing the impossible, or
staring into the face of death.
Bottle the pain, harness the hurt. Bury it deep inside until
it hardens into strength.
Guys, this isn’t real.
In this world – in this life – we experience trials and heartbreak, and we sob
until we can’t breathe. We suffer loss and death, and what is our natural, real
Why, then, do we need to morph tears into a weakness in
literature? When a character oversteps that line between heartbroken and whiny,
then they border on weak.
Strong people don’t avoid crying. They cry, but then get up
and overcome. Here, everyone, is where you find strength.
WHAT IS REAL STRENGTH?
Strength is staring fear in the face, feeling it, harnessing
it, and overcoming it. Sometimes strength is the quiet, steady kind, and
sometimes it is more fiery. Sometimes it does require passion, and speaking out
for something you believe in. But other times, it is soft. Constant.
Strength comes in all forms. Trying to stereotype a “strong
female character” is to try and fit every woman into the same category. Every
character will have different strengths and abilities.
Some qualities of strength in literature are…
PROACTIVE, NOT REACTIVE
Weak characters react to the people and world around them,
letting other people dictate their choices. They rely on others to protect/save
them, so any danger will probably render them completely incapable of action,
until someone else rescues them. Sometimes, a character is trapped, and someone
else breaks them free. That doesn’t automatically mean the character was weak.
It just requires a balance. How many times does the female save herself?
ABLE TO OVERCOME THE ODDS, IN SPITE OF HER FEAR
Strong people fight and overcome in spite of their fear, not
in absence of it. Why would we even need to be strong if something is easy? The
entire essence of strength is holding up under pressure. If we take that
pressure away, we don’t need to be strong. Therefore, fear is not a bad thing.
You as the writer just need to decide how your character will react to it.
KIND AND MERCIFUL
Harsh women aren’t always strong, and kind women are not
always weak. In fact, it takes a great deal of strength to be kind, especially
to people who don’t deserve it. Some of my favorite female characters in YA
have been ones who not only fought and overcame, but who were merciful and
looked out for the innocent.
Lots of times, young adult novels (especially big worlds
like in sci-fi and fantasy) have huge stakes and the main character must make
decisions with enormous consequences. Having them remember the small people who
seemingly don’t matter shows a huge part of their personality.
One of the biggest lessons to be learned from the Hobbit
(and the LOTR series as a whole) is that small people can do great things. One
line from the Hobbit movie illustrates this… “It never ceases to amaze me, the
courage of hobbits.” Even though the hobbits are much smaller than any other
fantastical beings in Middle Earth, they still accomplish and overcome huge
obstacles. Bilbo likes his books and his house and his fireplace, but throughout
his journey with the dwarves, he shows strength. He is the smallest, and yet
often, he is the bravest.
There are many, many characteristics of strength – enough to
fill a dozen posts. In the end, I think we should realize that “strong female
characters” do not all mirror each other. They are not all weapon-bearing,
army-leading, or kingdom-conquering. They won’t always make the right
decisions, or have everything figured out. Sometimes they will cry – sob even –
and feel the crushing weight of their fear.
And then they’ll get back up, keep fighting, and overcome.
THAT is true strength.
Caitlin Lambert is the
mind behind Quills & Coffee, where she shares tips, tools, &
encouragement for writers. She writes YA sci-fi/fantasy novels, and is currently
querying her second book, WHAT LIES ABOVE, while drafting her third. When she’s
not writing or working, you can find her reading, composing piano, and adding
endless destinations to her travel bucket list. Or quite possibly eating dark