‘Woman warrior’ does not mean ‘strong female character’

This week, discover:

  • Why ‘strong female characters’ compete with men
  • Why women warriors can’t display emotion
  • Some of the best women warriors in fiction

I like reading fiction with powerful female characters.

There is a lot of confusion over what makes a ‘strong female character’ because the question actually has many strands.

  • Are female characters in a binary system?
  • Does ‘strong’ refer to physical strength or inner strength?
  • If the character is strong but the writing is weak, are they still a strong character?

In this article, I’m going to discuss the representation of ‘women warriors’ or ‘female fighters’.  That means I’m looking at physically strong characters and evaluating whether they are well-rounded or flat portrayals of women.

The typical ‘woman warrior’

Times are changing.  More female characters are being written (just… written at all) and, as female characters appear on the page and the screens, they are depicting a range of qualities, personalities and skills.

However, there is a long way to go.

A huge number of ‘strong female characters’ are badly-drawn caricatures.  An author has tried to demonstrate their character’s strength by making her a warrior, making her tough, making her manly…

In order to be ‘strong’ they mimic men.  But, because they are female, they must be more manly than the men in order to compete.

That means they exhibit all the clichéd macho characteristics such as practicality, physical strength, aggression, ambition, fighting skill and distance from their emotions.  And they have to display these things all the time and to a high degree otherwise people might forget that she’s really a warrior at all.

After all, a large, physically strong man instantly looks like a warrior, even without saying or doing anything.  A woman doesn’t look like a warrior and so she must demonstrate that in every action (movement, decision and speech) or people (other characters and readers) might forget it.

If you want to write a female character who exhibits these masculine traits, go ahead, that’s not a problem.  I’m just pointing out some of the pitfalls that you need to consider in order to avoid flat female characters.

A lack of depth

Often, male characters (particularly in action stories, thrillers, Fantasy and Sci-Fi) will be immersed in a culture of hyper-masculinity.  They will be soldiers or spies or knights or space-pilots.  They will present hyper-masculine traits.  However, it’s rare to find a (well-written) male character like this which doesn’t have some depth.  The author will have created a well-rounded character with a past and an ambition that goes beyond their job, and they will allow that other aspect of the character to break through into the story.  It humanises the character.

With a comparable female character who displays the same hyper-masculine traits, there is often no depth.  If she has a back-story, it is almost guaranteed to be driven by a man.  How many of the soldier women in fiction eventually reveal that they became soldiers (or pilots, or whatever) because of their father and/or brother?  How many of the women characters who throw themselves into their careers are doing it because they were spurned in love?  A chilling number.

The problem is that, if one of these hyper-masculine female characters reveals any softness in exactly the same way the male characters do (like caring for their parents or looking after a child or rescuing a puppy – all the usual things), they aren’t humanised, they are feminised.  Instantly, any softness in their nature isn’t because they are human, it is because they are female.

In a male character – especially one in a typically masculine role – any compassion, empathy or humility is something to be admired, something that adds depth to his character.  In a female character in the same masculine role, any compassion, empathy or humility she displays is expected.  It’s not seen as adding a layer of emotion and experience to her character, it’s seen as the woman finally reverting to type.

That’s why so many authors have fallen into the trap of not allowing their ‘female warriors’ to display these emotions, because they want to maintain her status as a warrior and not as a woman.  It’s still often the case that ‘woman’ and ‘warrior’ are considered distinct things.

Great female fighters in fiction

These are some of the best female fighters I can think of off the top of my head.  Like I said, there are more and more great female characters being written and even great women warriors.

These three female fighters are iconic:

Buffy from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (TV)

Buffy is interesting because she remains extremely feminine.  She didn’t have to spend a lifetime building up her strength and learning to be macho; her physical strength is simply part of her and therefore only one aspect of her personality.

Ellen Ripley from Alien (film)

I read somewhere that Ripley was written as a male character.  That might explain why she is a believable, well-rounded character who doesn’t constantly have to prove herself an equal to men.  She is capable and decisive and authoritative in the face of danger.

Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games (book and film)

Katniss was a hero for a generation of young adults.  She was clever and prickly and determined and ruthless, but she also did most of what she did out of love.  In the book particularly (I suppose the film had to cut some things out), Katniss walks the line between fitting a more feminine role to get sponsorship from the Capitol audience and using the survival skills she’s developed to make it through the Games.

Recommended reads

Try reading these three Fantasy novels for a female fighter who is a well-rounded character, too:

Celaena Sardothien in Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas

Rin in The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Bloody Rose in Bloody Rose by Nicholas Eames

Let me know who your favourite women warriors in fiction are

I’m always looking for new books to read, especially Fantasy books and especially books with great female characters in, so let me know what you’ve been reading.

You can follow me on Twitter @AlisonJanetBro1.  Say hello and give me your recommendations.

See you next week

I hope you’ll come back and read next week’s post.

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