Strong Female Characters

"Strong Female Characters" has become a buzz-phrase of 21st-century literary criticism. These are supposed to be characters young girls will want to emulate. The independent, modern woman who just doesn't need a man to get things done. Unfortunately, these characters are often poorly-written cardboard cut-outs who substitute coldness, abrasiveness and emotional stuntedness for strength.

Strength does not just come from throwing out one-liners and being better at punching people than everyone else. It comes from real strength of character, which doesn't have to be obnoxious or ostentatious to make itself felt. A strong character is, above all, a person in her own right, and not shoved into the script to gain feminism points or pass the Bechdel Test. If a character is only a woman so the author can prove how progressive they are, then that character isn't a character, she's a tool and an ego-boost for the author. Authors who can't treat their characters like human beings shouldn't write books. No one cares if your protagonist is a "Strong Female Character", or a book or movie has lots of "Strong Female Characters". A book with a female lead isn't automatically better than a book with a male lead. Nor is every female lead destined to be some kind of two-dimensional "role modal" for young girls. "Look, girls! You too can have serious anger management issues and a monumental ego!" This is deeply disrespectful to the characters. Remember: characters don't know they're fictional. They have their own thoughts, dreams, emotions. They have no reason to fall into your agenda. As an author, you created them, you put them through this Hell of a plot, you can even kill them off and walk away. The least you owe them is basic respect as human beings, not your trampoline into the halls of feminist fame.

But enough negativity. It is actually possible to write female characters well. It's actually not that hard. In fact, I feel people were better at it before we developed this hang-up about "Strong Female Characters". When characters were just characters. Maybe we should just relax a little when it comes to female characters. Let the character come first and the Bechdel Test or whatever look after itself. So, here are some actual, honest-to-God, no-quotations-marks-needed strong female characters.

Isobel Rivers, Beau Geste and sequels, P.C. Wren

After the love of her life announces his love for her, he vanishes into the blue in disgrace. And not only does she endure years of agony and grief, with the added bitterness of public scandal, but, when he finally returns to her for the happy ever after, she has the courage to let him go back to the desert on what some would call a fool's errand, to find a man most likely dead. Isobel's strength is the kind that isn't celebrated enough. Not flashy or ostentatious, but patient, stoical, ever optimistic and generous enough to risk sacrificing her own happiness for the life of the man who saved her husband.

Mrs Weasley, the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling

Middle-aged house-wife who enjoys cooking and knitting. How sweet. Do NOT threaten her children. One of the famous dark witches in the world found that out at her peril.

Raksha, The Jungle Books, Rudyard Kipling

I didn't say they had to be human. Raksha, with cubs of her own to care for, takes in an orphaned human child and cares for him as if he were her own. When Shere Khan, a full-grown tiger (admittedly he has a lame leg, but nevertheless he's a tiger) tries to kill baby Mowgli, she outfaces him. She'd fight to the death for an orphan human as one of her own cubs. And Shere Khan backs off.

Penelope, The Odyssey, Homer

Despite having no evidence that her husband is still alive, Penelope continues to wait for him in his house, raising their child as best she can while bombarded with the unwanted attentions of hordes of persistent suitors who basically move into the house and begin looting the larder. Any woman could be forgiven for going to pieces in such circumstances, but Penelope keeps a cool head and uses her wits, insisting to the suitors that she'll marry one of them when she finishes weaving a shroud for Laertes. Penelope is another example of the courage and endurance which I don't think is valued highly enough.

Mary, Mr Standfast and sequels, John Buchan

Mary shows her courage as Richard's contact in Mr Standfast, hunting down Ivery in war-torn France, but she really comes into her own in The Three Hostages. Medina laughs off the threats of Richard and Sandy, both war heroes and very brave men, but Mary bluffs him into saving David Warcliff. Despite having a strong enough maternal instinct to terrify Dominick Medina, she sends her only child, Peter, off to the Island of Sheep with Richard, knowing that he can be of use there and she can't keep him at home out of selfish concerns.

Ella, Ella's Big Chance, Shirley Hughes

A modern re-telling of Cinderella in which Ella turns down the prince—very politely—in favour of Buttons the boot boy. Love over money. Ella is warm-hearted, sincere, loving and doesn't let hardship get her down. And you don't get much stronger than that.