The Roving Author

How Do You Create Strong Female Leads? Simple – Look at the Ones Already in Existence

Anthony Marchetta over at Superversive Press and Castalia House published an interesting pair of articles on SuperversiveSF some time ago. In the original article, he stated that there are two forms of heroines who take active part in combat in the stories writers create. The first type, he states, are capable fighters who have lost or sacrificed some part of their femininity to become the warriors they are. The second type is made up of women who are competent fighters but who lack certain feminine graces they achieve later on in the story. These heroines, he points out, are strengthened when they begin to humbly (and often lovingly) do battle alongside of their male counterparts. His second article was a clarification of the first.

I enjoyed both articles but, like some others, had a few reservations about them. It wasn’t that I disagreed with Mr. Marchetta’s point – in fact, I intend to expand upon it below.

No, my only problem with his articles was that they weren’t quite as clear and readable as I would have liked. The fact that most of his examples were unknown to me was another drawback; of the heroines he listed, the only one I had personal knowledge of was Princess Leia from Star Wars.

There is also a third category of heroine which authors ought to be aware of and which they should be prepared to utilize in their stories. Mr. Marchetta has covered this category in other posts but not these two, and so I thought I would take a crack at it myself here.

Much ado is being made in writing circles these days about the creation of Strong Female Characters. It is currently fashionable for authors – either through peer pressure or because of direct orders from the academics on high – to make the heroines in their fiction outdo the heroes in every respect. If you want to create a Strong Female Character, they say, she has to be capable of bashing men’s heads in, just like her male compatriots. She should also be faster, smarter, and more hard-bitten than your male characters. On top of this, she should still be gentle, kind, compassionate, and womanly.

If you are looking at that list and wondering how such a fictional heroine can be created, you are not alone, future writers. It is virtually impossible to come up with a heroine who can check all of those boxes exactly. Even Wonder Woman does not perfectly meet these criteria.

This presents authors with a problem, does it not? We all want to have our heroines be an important part of the story, which means they have to be more than the milksop damsels which Captain Proton (of Star Trek: Voyager fame) was rescuing all the time. I am a woman, and I have no patience for female characters that stand by during an adventure simply to scream at just the proper time or to faint when the villain turns to glare at them.

However, neither am I fascinated by the likes of the She-Hulk or Jane Foster’s Thor. They do not hold my attention because in reality there are very, very few women capable of matching or outdoing a man in physical strength and power, making them blatantly fantastical heroines. The fact that they often have little character development because they are supposed to be impressive on the basis of their physical prowess alone is another reason why my interest in them is low to non-existent.

So what is an author to do? Ah, now we come to the point, future writers. If you want to create heroines that connect with your audience and yet can hold their own in a dangerous situation, the best way to do that is to look at the heroines others created before you to see how they made the heroines who intrigue you. Below are three definitive categories of heroines I have recognized in a concrete way since reading Mr. Marchetta’s first post, with model leading ladies all authors can refer to for inspiration:

Image result for avengers age of ultron black widow at the barton farm

The first classification of fictional heroines is what Mr. Marchetta identifies as the women who have lost/sacrificed some aspect of their femininity in order to enter combat situations. To my mind, Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff is a good example of this kind of heroine. Most reviewers, when they speak of the Black Widow, praise her combat skills more highly than her character. Certainly, Natasha is a capable hand-to-hand fighter, able to bring down many different opponents without receiving a scratch in return. She is also smart, a good shot, and an excellent interrogator/infiltrator.

However, if the film writers focused on this aspect of her character alone, she would become tedious very quickly, and so they do not zero in on her combat expertise only. We in the audience know this because we relate best to Natasha when we see her connecting in a respectful, friendly manner with her male teammates. We also come to empathize with her keenly after we learn that she did not have a choice about her career. It was forced on her by the Soviets, who molded her into a living weapon they could command, sterilizing her in order to keep her completely under their control.

As we see in Age of Ultron, Natasha is aware that this has destroyed an important part of her femininity. In the brief scenes at the Barton farm in that movie, she demonstrates a deep affection for and interest in her best friend’s children, not to mention a sisterly relationship and respect for his wife. Her fondness for the Bartons is due mostly to the fact that this is as close as the Black Widow will ever come to having an actual family.

Because of her sterilization, Natasha will never know the joy of conceiving and giving birth to a child which she and a prospective husband can raise together. She was robbed of this key aspect of her identity, and so her career as a super heroine is all that she has left. So while she will love her “niece” and “nephews,” care for her friends, and continue to fight for others, Natasha will always mourn her lost humanity. She will grieve for it because a piece of her identity has been stolen from her and she has been denied the freedom to select any vocation she desires. Even though the Red Room no longer “owns” her, they have forced Natasha to remain in the military role they chose for her.

None of this limits her combat capabilities or takes away from her career as a super heroine. But it DOES make Natasha a three-dimensional protagonist who is relatable in a sympathetic manner to her audience and fans.

Tigress, from the Kung Fu Panda films, is in a similar situation. The difference is that she committed herself to her profession from childhood; she chose to study kung fu and to become a fighter. But because she did not receive the love she desired from Shifu in the way that she most wanted it, Tigress denied her femininity as she strove to become the “perfect” kung fu warrior.

Throughout the first film Tigress remains “hardcore,” the pillar of strength and firmness. She does not smile, laugh, or “loosen up” until the very end of the film, making her a complete contrast to her friend Viper. Where Viper is openly sweet, kind, and willing to smile and laugh, Tigress usually refuses to show her emotions – with one exception. At no point in the film does she ever fail to demonstrate her deep and abiding anger.

It is this emotion which is the key to understanding why Tigress is a favorite among fans of the Kung Fu Panda series. Deprived of open signs of affection from her foster father, she blamed her adopted older brother, Tai Lung, for Shifu’s reluctance to spoil her as he had his “son.” This left her with unresolved anger issues and resulted in her decision to become a warrior who puts aside her natural sweetness and femininity so that she may rise where her older brother failed. All of this makes her seem less like a woman (humanoid cat though she is) and more like a man – although, from what we see in the first two films, Po certainly appears to be intent on changing that fact.

Kung Fu Panda 2 shows Tigress coming to the realization of what she sacrificed in her misguided attempt to please Shifu. In this film she begins to soften, to show her more feminine attributes, while continuing in her career as a warrior. It makes her more three-dimensional and relatable in that movie than she was in the first.

The second classification Mr. Marchetta has set down for heroines who go into combat is that of the female warrior strengthened by her ties to a hero. The example from this category which he discusses at length is Princess Leia Organa Solo from the original Star Wars films.

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I can attest to the fact that Leia is a relatable, interesting heroine; growing up, she was my favorite Star Wars protagonist. As Mr. Marchetta says in his article, Leia is a capable opponent in battle, able to wield a blaster to great effect and command divisions of Rebel fighters with excellent tactical skill. She becomes even stronger in the original books when Luke begins training her as a Jedi.

But, as Mr. Marchetta also points out, Leia has a tendency to be abrasive and sharp. This is especially apparent when she is dealing with an enemy or Han Solo. While her biting wit is endearing when she mocks Vader and Tarkin, showing how far above them she is, it is rather aggravating to see her using it on Han while they are working together to accomplish some task.

This is where Mr. Marchetta and I diverge slightly on how this type of heroine should be defined. Certainly, Leia needs to learn humility in order to become not only more likeable, but more competent. However, Mr. Marchetta fails to point out in his article that Han needs to do some growing here as well. He is a good man whose moral compass is off-kilter, yes, but he is not doing anything to realign it on his own. It is his love for Leia and her love for him, combined with his brotherly affection for Luke, which brings that compass back into balance and makes it start pointing true north again.

I would therefore like to add an addendum to the definition for this classification of a female heroine by saying she is a heroine who is ennobled and strengthed by the man she loves, while at the same time he is ennobled and strengthened by his love for her. In the original Star Wars expanded universe (now called “Legends”), for example, the writers showed how the depth of Han and Leia’s love refined and strengthened their two characters over the course of time.

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My other model in this vein is Kitty Russell from Gunsmoke. Kitty is an experienced businesswoman in Dodge City. She is good with a gun and a hellion when threatened or angered. When endangered she will, without much hesitation, take up some kind of implement in order to protect herself or others. And even when she has no weapon, she is willing to stand between a villain and a potential victim in defense of the other person.

While I write this I am recalling one episode in particular. It was an early installment, filmed in black and white. In this show Kitty and her fellow stagecoach passengers were taken hostage by a gang, to be held for an exorbitant ransom. Throughout the ordeal she held her head high and worked to keep the other passengers’ hope alive, maintaining her faith in Marshall Matt Dillon (the hero of Gunsmoke and her love interest), to come to their rescue.

She did all of this with her characteristic sharp wit and defiant attitude, which did not falter until the end of the show. At the end, when Dillon and the citizens of Dodge arrive to rescue the passengers, Kitty immediately runs to Matt’s arms. After the final gunfight, she breaks down in tears and has to be held and comforted by Dillon.

This, to me, is the best illustration of what Mr. Marchetta was speaking of when addressing this type of heroine. Kitty derives her strength in this show from Matt even while he is not present during her tribulation. In fact, for half of the episode, he is not aware that she or the others are in danger.

Yet Kitty remains strong, both in the face of present peril and in the mind of the audience precisely because she believes in her man. This is despite the fact that she is prejudiced against a fellow passenger who “holds his cards” too close to his vest before aiding in the liberation of the captives. This is why it is only when Matt arrives and the villains are rendered ineffective as a threat that she breaks down into sobs, showing how much stress the entire situation has put on her.

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Again, this is a case of a heroine who is ennobled and strengthed by the man she loves at the same time he is ennobled and strengthened by her. Matt would have sought out the captured passengers anyway, but he does so with more vigor and ferocity than he otherwise would have because Kitty is one of the hostages. While the two are not married or courting, they do love each other and are mutually strengthened because of that love.

The final class of Strong Female Character I wish to mention here is a much maligned type in modern literature, which we might call the category of the passive heroine. (Mr. Marchetta has many different articles discussing this type of heroine.) Passive heroines do not actively do battle with the villains, solo or alongside of their men. Nevertheless, they show heart, courage, and smarts during the course of theirs and their men’s adventure(s) that impresses the audience and sends them home talking.

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One example of this kind of heroine is Della Street from the TV series Perry Mason. Della is rarely required to do more than follow the parameters of her job during an episode of the series. On occasion she must pretend to be Perry’s (or someone else’s) wife or play some other role, and once she knocked out an antagonist with a frying pan. But all in all, Della’s position in the series is to be nothing more or less than Perry Mason’s secretary.

This makes Della a passive heroine. She does not actively work, like Paul Drake, to find evidence for Perry’s defense cases. Neither does she hunt down suspects, help to wring confessions from the killer, or confront a villain physically in any way (save that one incident I know of with the frying pan). Throughout the series, she does little more than what most other secretaries do.

And yet, the audience does not forget Della Street. Her less active role in helping Perry and Paul solve cases does not diminish her character or her part in the series. We remember and appreciate Della not for her ability to use a gun or martial arts, but for her quick mind, her heart, and her dignity of presence. And these are things she demonstrates without taking on the villains in a direct manner, while remaining relevant to the story and unforgettable to the audience nonetheless.

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Likewise, Fiona Elisi Linnet from Zoids: Chaotic Century does not impress us with her fighting prowess. In the English translation of the series, the most we see her do in a physical confrontation with a villain is to bite him or her. I can only remember seeing her use a pair of guns once – and that incident nearly ended in disaster.

Even when she participates in a zoid battle, it is in a passive manner. She acts as the hero’s copilot and does not control a zoid in a skirmish on her own. The few times she pilots a zoid Fiona is either doing recon, providing non-combat support to the heroes, or rushing to her man’s side in order to stand or fall with him.

It is never implied or stated that Fiona could not become a combatant if she wished to be one. Instead, the audience is left with the impression that she prefers being a passive observer or copilot to actively fighting in a zoid. Her decision to be a passive participant/spectator is certainly not the result of a culture which frowns on female pilots; three other women with varying levels of skill in the series pilot zoids, switching between combat and non-combat roles with ease. It is therefore obvious that Fiona herself has chosen to eschew a career as a zoid warrior because it is not what she wants to be.

And yet, none of this lessens her impact on the series and its viewers. We remember Fiona for her grace, kindness, and the fact that she is the soul of innocence – not for her ability in battle. We remember her for her love for and loyalty to her friends and her man, shown by the fact that she willingly rides into battle with him as his copilot. She does not need to fight physically. Not when she has such powers as these at her beck and call.

We see here that passive heroines can leave as much as, if not more of, an impression on an audience than the active heroines listed above do. To forget these heroines or dismiss them as “soft” is a mistake. Neither Della nor Fiona is a weak character because they chose a career different from Black Widow’s and Tigress’ professions. Like Leia and Kitty, they also draw strength from their men at the same time they support them. But their main influence in their separate stories is that they accept their femininity, using the power and purity of their sex to help the heroes in their adventures.

Along with Mr. Marchetta, these are the three categories of heroines I see and wish to utilize in my own stories. In fact, the two adult heroines in my Space Marine/dystopia novel fall into the category of Passive Heroines. Neither of them uses a gun at any point in the tale; they do not actively do battle with the enemy in a physical confrontation. This is not because women are not allowed to enter battle in the book’s universe, but because these two women chose to be non-physical combatants.

Yet their lack of presence on the battlefield does not lessen their impact on the story. They support the active heroes in passive roles, doing more for the men in their lives this way than they would by toting a gun into battle or bashing an opponent’s head in.

In spite of the claims of “experts” in our field, future writers, it is possible to create heroines of many different stripes which will impress your audience. And you can do this without sacrificing your heroine’s femininity on the altar of politically correct peer pressure. Play around with the three categories we discussed above. Find a heroine who works well with your male heroes and who fits the story you are telling.

Should the “experts” claim you have done it wrong, evaluate their criticism to see if your technique actually does need improvement. If you find that the main reason they dislike your work is because they think they could have created a better heroine than you did, hand them a pen and tell them to get to work. Then get back to writing your stories the way you want, with the heroines you love and wish to learn more about. It is your book/novella/short story, after all, not theirs. Unless they are offering helpful criticism, do your best to ignore them.

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22 thoughts on “How Do You Create Strong Female Leads? Simple – Look at the Ones Already in Existence”

  1. I think it is also possible to write a strong, active female hero who accepts that she cannot compete with men in combat and doesn’t try. Instead she outthinks her male antagonists, using diplomacy when possible and treachery when necessary to achieve her goals.

    The prime example of this is Mattie Ross from Charles Portis’ “True Grit”. Mattie is not passive–she drives the story from the beginning to the end. She knows that she can’t match her enemies in combat, so she recruits Rooster Cogburn (and to a lesser extent, Ranger LaBoeuf) to handle the combat end of things. She uses threats of legal action, her understanding of commerce, and most of all sheer force of will to overcome obstacles.

    Another of my favorites is Betty Sorensen from Robert Heinlein’s “The Star Beast”. While John Thomas Stewart the Umpteenth is the nominal hero of the book, Betty handles both the strategy and the tactics throughout–what’s more, Johnny follows her lead willingly, acknowledging that she is superior in such matters without being less of a masculine hero.

    Female villains who are schemers rather than fighters are somewhat more common, perhaps because it’s easier to write a unsympathetic manipulator than a sympathetic diplomat, but the same principle applies–instead of outfighting a man, a strong woman maneuvers the conflict into an arena where something other than fighting determines victory.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Mattie Ross is awesome, though I would strongly argue that she would fit point two anyways.

      But yes, in my article I did specifically point out that it was more male-oriented and combat related strength that I was referring to.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Er, fit point one anyways.

        The final chapter of the book True Grit and epilogue of the awesome Coen Bros. movie shows pretty clearly that Mattie’s attitude, which served her so well on the trail, has left her alone in life, because nobody wants to deal with her attitude.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Now, I may be reading into the story something the author didn’t put there, but I felt that Mattie’s uncompromising attitude was only half the reason she remained single. The other half was her carrying a torch for Cogburn, which she could never admit even to herself.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Thank you both for the extensive comments. I agree with both of you on your points and an happy to hear that the article was enjoyable. Mattie slipped my mind, sadly, or I would have filed her under point 2 for both your reasons.

        Since this article has done so well, maybe I should do another – and one for female villains. 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  2. 2 things off the top of my head:

    Black Widow is an excellent example. Funnily enough the scene where we learn her backstory from AOU is considered one of the worst in the movie by SJW critics when it is in fact one of the best.

    I don’t disagree at all about Han, I just happened to be focusing more specifically on the female characters.

    Good article!

    I used the characters from the show “Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood” as examples because it has great female characters and it helped clarify in my head the reasons why they work so well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t intend to demean your choice of “Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood”; those examples helped, but they didn’t have as much impact for me as they did for you since I haven’t seen the series. I have yet to read Lewis’s Space Trilogy, too, so I picked out heroines whom others like me might recognize more easily.

      Re Han: since the male half of many fictional romances tends to get downplayed, I thought it best to highlight his part in in Leia’s life.

      That flap you mentioned after AOU came out – I remember that. It was laughable; Widow was sterile in the main comics, and all Whedon did was make it irreversible for the film franchise. The fuss over Renner calling Widow a “slut” was equally ridiculous. You would think everyone had forgotten what it meant to call a woman a “black widow.”


  3. An obvious addition to my point that I forgot to mention:

    When Lady MacBeth decides that the way to the throne lies in murder and domination of her weaker-willed husband, how does she put it?

    “Spirits, unsex me here.”

    Shakespeare saw it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. A little late to the party, but: nice summary! I would like to posit another definition, though–the Strong Female Character (TM) as someone who is Emotionally Self-Sufficient and Resilient. She can be passive, she can be a warrior, she can be a damsel, she can be someone who does nothing other than weave in a tower–as long as it’s something she choses to do, understands, bears the consequences of, and does not regret it…because it was her doing to begin with.

    My go-to for this is from a Bollywood movie: Bajirao Mastani. There’s a scene at the end where Mastani, who has been arrested and imprisoned, is forced to give up her child. Instead of letting them drag her son away, Mastani calmly sets him down, gives him instructions on courage and proper behavior, and tells him goodbye.There are other scenes in the movie–Mastani fights off assassins, or practices with a sword, or verbally smacks down on uppity in-laws–but that is the one that stuck with me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. True enough; your example reminds me of the princess in the fairy tale “The Wild Swans.” She spent a year keeping silent to protect her brothers while she worked to free them from their step-mother’s spell. No assassins here, but it took a lot of emotional strength and resiliency to keep silent when they tried to burn her as a witch before she finished the shirts – so much that she passed out after declaring her innocence when her brothers were finally safe! I’ll remember this point for next time.


      1. One of my favorite stories! I really hate it when old-school/fairytale heroines are dismissed as damsels in distress. They are damsels, they are distressed, and they have got nerves of STEEL.

        Liked by 1 person

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