A Different Take on Strong Female Characters

unconventional strong female character vintage-977158_960_720Recently, while out for lunch with my editor, she remarked that my work always contains strong female characters. While this is true, what she said made me think more deeply about my motivation and what I look for in a strong female character.

Not long after that I did a beta read for a fellow author which made me think in a new way about my own writing and what I look for as a reader. Yes, the author you do a favour for may not be the only one to benefit. Haha.

A third incident, actually from a new promotion coach I met on-line, asked me a similar question. Why do I write what I do? What drives my passion?

I have said before that my writing is character-driven as opposed to plot-driven. That is not to say that I neglect plot, or even setting, but rather that these are used to allow my protagonist to change and grow. This is also what I look for when I read. It may explain why mystery is not a genre I am drawn to. Nor do I normally choose court dramas, or action adventures. I will often stop reading a book that does not have characters who show me how they tick and why, or who don’t grow or change as a result of what happens to them. Those books bore me. Fortunately the book I beta read was atypical – a mystery with a wonderful character who struggled with personal challenges and changed as a result.

I realized that, while I create strong female characters (and this is deliberate), mine are not the ass-kicking, system-bucking rebels I have seen in many novels. My characters’ strength is often seen as unremarkable, taken for granted, and in response to a need, not as the result of a desire to be exceptional or noticed. Her role, while often unconventional, is not to change her world but rather to rise above it in response to a situation.  Recognizing this made me realize that my main male characters are not much different in this respect. Now that was a revelation I had not had before.

I love to explore what “strong” means to me. This involves looking at gender roles in non-conventional ways. To that end I create worlds, settings, and cultures that never and never will exist. A participant at a workshop I attended a couple of months ago took me seriously to task for calling my trilogy “pseudo-medieval” and not making it historically accurate. To her historical accuracy was paramount.

My response is that creating a non-real society allows me to manipulate social mores and removes the constraints existing cultures place on expected behaviours and their outcomes. By creating an imaginary society, I can manipulate situations that otherwise would not be possible, or at the very least would be seen as rebellious or too far out. I want characters that will be accepted as normal and to explore gender in ways that the constraints and expectations of existing cultures would render less believable. My female characters get respect for their inner strength, not for trying to change the existing system, but rather from adapting to challenges within it. I create women who, like real people we meet in the real world, become strong because they are presented an unusual challenge that gives them a choice – to fold and conform – or to meet it. To me, that makes them more real, more believable, and easier to identify with without the protest that what they encounter could never happen.

I used to wonder if I was wimping out by portraying women in somewhat traditional roles. But I have made my peace with the idea that we can stay within tradition and still be strong and worthy of respect and admiration. Call it my quiet revolution – effecting change without making a big hullabaloo.

Author: Yvonne Hertzberger

Yvonne Hertzberger is a native of the Netherlands who immigrated to Canada in 1950. She is an alumna of The University of Waterloo, with degrees in psychology and Sociology. Her Fantasy trilogy, ‘Earth’s Pendulum’ has been well received. Learn more about Yvonne at her blog and her Amazon author page.

20 thoughts on “A Different Take on Strong Female Characters”

  1. Your perspective is really dead on right. When I think of the traditional woman, her strengths are taken for granted. For centuries women have been the backbone of the family, enduring more than most could handle. That quiet endurance is the glue that holds a family together. If everything we wrote was historically accurate, there would be little to no room for creativity. 🙂

  2. I tend to agree with you about “effecting change with making a big hullabaloo.” I want to write (and read) good stories. If I want heavy social/political commentary – I’ll read an editorial or partisan blog. Stories with subtly trump (sorry about that) those that harangue me with their philosophy/politics/or whatever. Nice post.

    1. Thanks, Armen. There is certainly a place for stories with kick-ass characters who do extraordinary things. I like to read those sometimes, but I prefer to create characters whose strength is more subtle, as you say.

  3. Oh I enjoy extraordinary characters, too. I’m fine with suspension of disbelief – I write YA fantasy, so it’s sort of required. What bothers me is when the “lessons” and “morals” of a story outweigh the story itself. If that makes any sense.

  4. “I create women who, like real people we meet in the real world, become strong because they are presented an unusual challenge that gives them a choice – to fold and conform – or to meet it.”

    This is why I so enjoyed reading about the challenges faced by M’rain, the heroine in your Labyrinth Quest story, and how she so realistically met them. I didn’t give the fact that she was in an imaginary world a second thought because I felt I was right there with her.

  5. Hrm. So fantasy and/or magic realism are supposed to be “historically accurate”? That’s going to be news to a lot of writers who work in those genres — including me. 😉

    Anyway. Your choice — to have your characters work within the traditional constraints of the worlds you create — is valid. I’d even say that’s harder to write than having them rebel against the system outright. Keep doing what you’re doing, Yvonne. 🙂

  6. Great post, Yvonne. I much prefer the subtlety of getting to know and understand characters on my own, rather than be hit over the head with their qualities. It certainly makes them more real. And I love to have characters evolve over the course of a story, both in those I read and the ones I write. Setting them in traditional roles, then having them be strong or brave or adventurous in quiet ways, can be hugely satisfying. If I want a super-hero, I’ll watch a Bruce Willis movie; if I want a good, solid character who feels real and can carry the story, I’ll read a good book.

  7. I’m right there with the choice of fantasy because it allows us to create a setting that has never been, but possible could happen, if everyone thought the way you and I do 🙂
    And as far as changing society; if our main characters aren’t strong enough to make a change, however small, in their societies, then they probably don’t deserve a book written about them!

    1. Thanks, Gordon. I think “however small” is the key phrase in what you say. Societies change mostly by evolution, not revolution. The steady strength leading to slow change is more believable. That allows us to identify with a character in a personal way rather than admire them from afar.

  8. ‘effecting change without making a big hullabaloo.’ Interestingly, I believe that that is the /only/ way real change occurs because attitudes only change incrementally. I’m talking here of real world people, but believe something similar should also happen to characters. 🙂

  9. Thanks for the interesting post, Yvonne. Strong women characters come in many shapes and forms. I write gritty crime thrillers. Many of my female characters are strong women.

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