Your “strong female character” doesn’t have to be a Buffy clone . . . although she’s not a bad template to start with.
I see variations of this question from time to time on writing blogs and forums: “how do I write ___ female characters?” Usually the blank is filled with either “strong” or “convincing.” I also see various answers. The most recent iteration was on Terrible Minds, wherein Chuck Wendig makes the very excellent point that making a female character physically strong does not make her well-developed.
But what I want to know is, are we women really so mysterious and difficult to write? Granted, there are some differences in how men and women process information and emotions that can be useful to know about when developing your characters. Men tend to be better at compartmentalizing whereas women tend more to let the different aspects of their day mingle and interact.
For example, say (hypothetically) my husband and I have an argument early in the morning. He’s going to have an easier time setting it aside to focus on his work and other relationships, whereas I’m more likely to stew and obsess and let it affect every aspect of my day until we resolve our disagreement and make up. But other than that, we both feel the same things: hurt, angry, frustrated, sad, etc., because minor gender differences aside, we’re both human.
And that’s the key to writing convincing/effective/strong female characters: remembering that women are first and foremost PEOPLE, just like you. We feel the same things and react the same way to situations and circumstances as you do. We, by and large, have many of the same interests, basic desires and motivations.
There may be some women out there who only ever want to talk about men and shoes and hair care products or whatever, just as there may be some women who only ever want to talk about their kids and housework and what pregnancy and breastfeeding did to their bodies, but these women are in the minority (and most likely women who appear to fall into these categories only do so in certain company or during certain phases of their lives and don’t deserve to be caricaturized like this).
Interesting women, MOST women — women worthy of being protagonists — might be interested in these things but they’re also interested in art and politics and religion and books and TV and film and pop culture and current events and their families and their pets and music and crafting and making art and food and cooking and good restaurants and good beer and good wine and good Scotch and comic books and role playing games and video games and sports, and, and…the list could go on forever.
Women generally want the same things men do: to be loved, accepted, understood, to have people in their lives who they can talk to and count on, for life to be more easy and uncomplicated than hard, to avoid drama, to get a good night’s sleep, to be respected and treated like competent adults, to be recognized and rewarded for accomplishments, to be emotionally supported and encouraged in pursuit of their goals. Women have big dreams and desires that often don’t include landing a man and/or having babies (although some women do dream of being wives and mothers, but that’s usually not ALL they dream of, just like how men who dream of having families someday also have other pursuits).
Want to write a strong/effective/convincing female character? Start with striking out “female” and just focus on writing a strong/effective/convincing CHARACTER. This doesn’t mean you should just write a man with breasts. What it does mean is that your focus should not be on making your character convincingly female, but on making her convincingly human.
Give her quirks and complications and interesting interests and desires and realistic motivations and logical reactions. Make her imperfect and screwed up in interesting ways that help drive the plot. Give her weaknesses that balance her strengths, and vice versa. Make her smart enough and emotionally strong enough to keep her head and take care of herself and others in a crisis.
Give her steel-toed boots and a big gun or martial arts training or superpowers if you want but know that physical strength is not a substitute for emotional and spiritual strength. Don’t make her so tough that she doesn’t have a soft side, or so soft that she can’t be tough when it’s required.
Just look at the character who started the whole “tiny butt-kicking girl” trend — Buffy Summers. Buffy is physically strong, yes. But what makes her a compelling character is not that she can beat up vampires. What makes Buffy a great character is that she fights, and survives, emotional battles that often take a greater toll on her than her many physical altercations. Buffy can train her body to be able to take on the biggest, baddest hell-beast out there, but nothing can prepare her for betrayal, or having to slay her first love, or losing her mom, or battling severe depression, or getting involved in an abusive relationship and having to find a way to heal from all of that. It’s not the super-powered Slayer side of Buffy that makes you care about her; it’s the human side, with her normal human desires, and all of the totally relatable human travails that she endures.
And that’s how you write a strong, convincing, interesting female character.
Did I miss anything? Let me know what you think makes a great female character in the comments, and while you’re at it, tell us some of your favorite female characters. I’ll start: Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Eyre, Buffy Summers, Leia Organa, Marion Ravenwood, Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor, Kerrin Murphy, Suzannah Dean, Diana Scully, Olivia Dunham, Michonne, Aeryn Sun, Kate Beckett and Abby Mills, to name a few.