Friday, January 5, 2018

Writing Advice NOT to Heed: Strong Female Characters

Lately I've been thinking about all the advice newbie writers are given. Some of it is good. Other pieces are great. But as is the case when learning any craft or industry, you end up getting a lot of advice that simply isn't worth heeding. Of course you often don't know it until years later.

When I was shopping around my first book, Citadels of Fire, to traditional publishers, what I heard over and over again was that I needed a strong female character and to sell the book, I needed to capitalize on her strengths in the description.

The problem with that is that my female character, Inga, isn't what most people would consider traditionally strong. In fact, I sort of wrote her to be weak in the beginning so the audience could see the dynamic change in her over the course of the trilogy. Even though I thought she was a compelling character, I couldn't think of any particular strengths she had that I could capitalize on, so I had a hard time selling the story to traditional publishers and agents.

Part of the problem was being so new and not understanding how to frame my story in a way that readers and others in the industry can latch on to. That's a skill that comes over time

But my point is that if you listened to traditional publishing advice, it starts to sound like every story must contain a tough-as-nails, leather-wearing, Laura-Croft-type kickass character or the story won't sell.

That's simply not true. 

I'd venture to guess that any character you write will have strengths. They just may not be the traditionally "strong" female characters that the industry likes to rave about. Anything can be a strength. Even things that are low key. Look at Jane Eyre. On the surface, she appeared quite plain and boring to most people, but she's one of the most beloved female characters of all time. Decide what your character's strengths are and play them up. A lot. Just don't assume they have to fit into any particular mould.

And don't get me wrong: kickass characters are great and they do tend to be fan favorites. But there are other fish in the sea. And there's a lot to be said for starting your character off in a place of weakness and letting your audience watch her/him grow. My audience has connected with Inga in a way that has pleased me immensely. They love her because they can see her growing stronger from one book to the next.

I'm gonna go out on a limb here (sarcasm) and say that it's less important for your character, male or female, to be "strong" (what's the definition on that anyway; it's a total umbrella term) than to be relatable. It's the characters unique traits that will connect your audience to them.

Let's take a look at a couple of character examples who tend to be fan favorites: Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley.


Hermione definitely kicked butt with her spells various times over the series, but she wasn't exactly a leather-wearing martial arts expert. Her strength was in her goodness and her academic smarts. She wasn't strong in a physical or conventional sense, but because everyone either knew a girl like her, or WAS a girl like her during their school days, she's very relatable.

And how about Ron? He doesn't have any tangible qualities to point to. He's your average every-boy. His strengths are in the non-tangible: humility, kindness, and loyalty to his friends and family. But because he's just so human and boyish, he's someone every single one of us can relate to.

See what I mean? So pick your characters' major traits (the less like other characters, the better, in my opinion) and just bring them across in a strong way.

Ignore the hype that suggests every successful story must have a strong female character, a vampire or werewolf, an exotic setting and a pornographic love scene. Because if that's all we had to read, well...that would be awful. ;D

How do YOU bring across strength in your characters?


  1. If that was all, then I wouldn't be writing!
    Strength can come in many forms. Often the quiet strength is the greastest.

    1. Agreed! I prefer the quiet strength as well. In both male and female characters. Thanks Alex!

  2. This is such a good point. I recently finished an arc whose blurb is focused on the bad ass girl, but it's actually another female character, as important as the badass character who I think is the stronger character given her growth through the book. She's just sensational and not one bit the picture of what we expect to be "strong"/. Just loved it!

    1. I think this is probably the case a lot. The way so many books are marketed today just tries to make us think otherwise. We see this kind of thing in film and TV as well. Glad you found a character with unconventional strength to connect with. Thanks Verushka! (Love your name, btw.)