What is a strong heroine?

… and what is a strong woman and what is the difference?

I should say first, that I’m a feminist. I don’t believe that’s a dirty word or something I really should have to explain and all it means is that I care about equality for everybody and that I might read a little closer when it comes to statements about men or women.

I come across this idea of the strong female heroine a lot in reading publishers’ and agents’ wishlists and guidelines. Sometimes other qualifiers are used – spunky or feisty come to mind. Now, I will freely admit that these make me shudder a little bit; that patronizing sense of ‘oh look at that! The girl can speak!’ It made me wonder if I’m a strong woman, a strong protagonist of my own life – if I would consider myself spunky or feisty. origin_2903147328

My first thought was that I would be somewhat insulted or at least put off, if someone called me either of those things as a serious descriptor of my personality. I don’t consider myself weak, though. I simply don’t think that the amount of back-talk or bad-assery is necessarily a measure of strength. I have actually found this in characters and real humans alike – that fake strength, the façade of the tough girl that only becomes interesting when you break her shell and she becomes a vertiable literary cliché.

So, what for me is strength? And as such – what traits do I personally consider important in female characters? Because I do feel very strongly about writing strong women and strong bonds between women.


1. Strength feels hollow without vulnerability

I respect a strength that is open and a little raw. I want to be able to feel where that person has been hurt and where the strength has grown like beautiful weeds from cracks in the pavement. I want to read about women who haven’t been born a bad-ass, women who struggle and who keep on struggling even when they feel at their weakest.

2. Strength does not equal rude

If I need to show my heroine’s strength through rudeness, I think I’m on the wrong way. Of course she can be rude – everybody should be from time to time, but that is a sign of weakness not a sign of strength. Kindness and the ability to care about people can signal strength of character as much as – or more than – the ability to wield a weapon.

3. There is a difference between genuine opinions and back-talk just for the sake of it

I think strength has a lot to do with knowing who you are. Opinions are part of that and I like to give my characters opinions and convictions. I like people who are interesting and interested – yes, I love nerds and geeks, people who have the strength to say: I LOVE this and I don’t mind spending hours and hours learning more about it.
I don’t like that detached coolness and a devil-me-care attitude. I also don’t like it in characters that I am supposed to empathize with. I like especially women who have hobbies, ideas, who create and who are politically and socially aware and let you know that they are. But that doesn’t mean she has to talk down to other male or female characters to prove it.

A female doctor with the International Medical Corps examines a

At the end of my little thought experiment, I have to admit, I am still not exactly sure what everybody means by feisty or spunky – or even by strong. I think strength is something that grows and I’d much rather read about a weak and shy girl that develops during the story into a slightly less weak and shy girl than one that stays the same strong-ass tough throughout the book — or worse, who looses all that toughness the moment some alpha male cracks her shell. I want my alpha males to make women stronger, not weaker. And the women make them stronger and better in return.

Too idealistic? Maybe? I’ll be thinking about this some more.

How about you? Why don’t you let me know what a strong female character is to you? Or blog about it and don’t forget to link me. I’d be thrilled to read your opinions!

photo credit: kReEsTaL, DFID - UK Department for International Development and Rennett Stowe via photopin cc

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