1. The SFC, the strong female character must be, first and foremost, a strong character. Gender aside, she must be interesting. Intelligent, courageous, and likeable. Sympathetic but not simpering. Give her darkness, yes. Give her stupid decisions and a weakness for liquor or fighting or pride, but give this character life. A heart. We want to be her. We want to know her. We are inspired by her. A unique being who carries the weight of the story, the plot, the universe on her shoulders.
This character is not a fill-in until the right man comes along. She is absolutely necessary to the story you are telling, and she is interesting enough for the reader/viewer to want to take this journey with her, to see where it will lead. To see how she is changed by her world, her trials, and her attempts at happiness. Man or woman, this main character must be compelling because the character is written that way, not because of gender
For a writer, developing our characters is difficult. It is painstaking and mind-numbing. It is joyful and uplifting when we feel like we get it right, when the character breathes and lives and acts almost without our pencil touching the paper. And it is heartbreaking when we get it wrong; when she lies there flat on the page, mumbling about sparkly vampire boys and the green-skinned man that got away.
2. A strong female character must be female. Note, this is a necessary parallel and partner to number 1. However female-ness is defined in your universe, you will find her. Notice I did not say “ladylikeness” or “properness” or “femininity.” I’m talking about women being different from men. Genetically. Intellectually. Motivationally. Similarities, yes. Parallels, yes. Shared goals and talents and desires, yes, yes, and yes.
Look around you. Look at the men and women you know. Now look closer. She does not think, talk, walk, move, eat, act or interact like a man. Her silences are not man’s silences. Her words may be the same words, but they are put together in her way. And here’s where some of the problems occur: the strong, female character cannot ever be a cardboard cut-out with boobs and a cape. If, gender forgotten, her entire backstory, motivations, movements, and methods would fit into Superman’s suit (with a little modification), then she is not a strong character, she is a token female.
Can she break through stereotypes? Can a woman become a fighter in a world of washerwomen? Can a princess turn into a knight? Can she become the slayer of monsters rather than the damsel in distress? Well, of course. But, if she is written well, the princess is still a woman and a knight, and unashamed. Do we really want our women to become men? Why?
BTW, we’re hoping our strong male characters are busy breaking stereotypes and all that over in their stories, too.
3. She is strong. Mentally, physically, emotionally, or spiritually or some combination of them. She is not perfect because that would be boring. Maybe she’s a fighter. Maybe she’s a wizard. Maybe she’s a hacker or an engineer, or believe it or not, a wife and mom. Something in her life has forged her spirit, has given her the wisdom or talent or mindset to take up the hero’s task, to strap on the sword or the book, to jump on the horse or in the minivan and DO IT. DO the THING.
That means this character is not “completed” by the men around her. She does not base her every wish, desire, goal, and purpose on her relationships. She has relationships. She has friends. She saves them or they save her. Sometimes she has to stand up to her “friends,” to walk away from them, to get the job done. And, sometimes, she loses them, too. To death, to anger, to change. And she’ll mourn. And cry. And grow. And go on.
She’ll survive. Because there is a greater calling that has its grip on her soul.
4. Emotions do not make her weak. This is something I’d like to drum into the heads of those who are writing male characters as well. If your character is a hero, a fighter, a righter of wrongs, you are allowed to paint them with more emotions than the standard two: anger and bitterness. And, you are also permitted to give them more motivations than vengeance and survival. People have emotions. They laugh, they cry, they punch you in the face. We each are equipped with the whole kit and kaboodle of the feels. Use them wisely.
Because, we are not Spock.
No woman (or man) can go into a battle without discipline and control. No professional athlete will allow emotions to blot out all of her training. But control and emotional emptiness are not the same thing. Tears do not weaken us when they are honest and spontaneous. Laughter doesn’t turn us into giggling Bieber fans. While we like our female heroes snarky and sarcastic, there is plenty of room for the women who are forthright and loving.
Willow Rosenberg. Sweet, funny, self-deprecating Willow is a total bad-ass with magic. She can flay a human with a thought or empower a whole bunch of slayer-wannabees. But she’s also loving. Caring. She gets hurt and she cries. She makes mistakes. She owns them, mourns them, and goes on. She is strong.
Winifred “Fred” Burkle. A graduate student in physics, Fred is sucked into an interdimensional portal and must survive on her own in Pylea for years. She’s enslaved. Beaten. But she survives. And, in her weakness, she saves the hero and his friends and gives them a way of escape. Fred is smart. She’s nervous. She gets excited and has self-confidence issues. She cries. But, in the last season, when Fred absorbs the soul of a godlike female and becomes uber-powerful, ridiculously strong, she becomes so much less interesting.
5. She is more than her emotions. More than her female-ness. A strong female character might be a mom, or a girlfriend, or a wife, a queen or a harlot, but that is not what defines her character. Her ability/proficiency at the sex or at having offspring does not make her strong. Her lack thereof does not make her weak. These are simply aspects of life, of her life, living among other people in whatever world she inhabits. She is the main character of her story and there will be other characters who show up along the way. Some may walk with her for a time as partners/lovers/spouses/children, but their very existence does not slam our hero into a box. These relationships round out her character, they enrich her world, they give her lessons to learn, but they are not to be used as labels, as slots to jam her into.
She’s not “the mom,” picking up after her weaker, clueless male colleagues. She’s not “the girlfriend,” perpetually worried about pairing up with someone. She’s not “the baby girl,” who must be catered to if she is not to fly apart. She’s not the “woeful barren one” who looks longingly at families with children because that will never be her.
BUT, she could be all these things at one time or another. If her story is a journey through life, one tiny aspect of it could be her internal sorrow over what she can’t have. If we see her moving, growing, becoming (ahem, I’m thinking ‘cookie dough’ here), especially from teen years when there are different motives and desires, and into a fully realized, fully baked adult, then these aspects of her character may surface. But they are not her whole story.
The SFC: Zoe Washburne. Lessa of Pern. Buffy Summers. Hermione Granger. Black Widow (before AoU). Sara Crewe. Matilda. Melinda May. Pippi Longstocking. Nancy Drew. Emma Peel.
These are my SFCs. Please, writers, creators, developers, and producers, may I have some more?