3 Starter Tips for Strong Female Characters

by Samantha Chadwick

Elizabeth Bennett. Cinder. Katniss. Hermione. Tris. Hazel.

You almost certainly recognize at least one of these names, because these memorable female heroines have been topping bestseller lists and championing blockbuster films in recent years. They’re powerful, striking, and real.

Creating a character like this can be difficult. There are a million different things to be decided—including, but not limited to, hair color, eye color, family life, friends, love interests, motivations, and skills (just to name the tip of the iceberg). Once you’ve nailed those things down, the internal character traits become key—figuring out what she wants more than anything (so you can make sure that something gets in the way); deciding what her flaws and strengths will be; and establishing when, why and how she will grow.

All of that can seem daunting at first, but these three tips will help you get started.

Watch People

The characters listed above are bestsellers for a reason—they are compelling because they’re complex, relatable, memorable PEOPLE! If you want to write “real” people, start with watching real  people interact with the world. Go to a mall, a sports practice, a library. Go where your character would be, because there will be probably be a girl there who displays the characteristics you’re looking for. People watching is also a great way to add detail to an already-formed character.

Watch for little nuances in behavior and add them to your character’s profile to make her more human. Maybe the girl in the library (who looks just like your main character) flips her ponytail every time she picks up a new book; maybe her earrings are mismatched. And don’t stop with physical appearance—many actions and gestures reveal things about internal thought processes that can be applied to your characters. Think about what genre of books she reads and what she buys at the grocery store. If she’s with friends, is she the loud, outgoing leader of the pack? Or is she the one in the group who always hangs back? Does she take time to pick up a piece of litter or is she the one who drops it?

In essence, tiny human details like these help your character become deeper and better rounded—and more relatable for the reader. So pick a spot, take a notepad (and maybe a snack), and observe away.

Keep a Balance

Your leading lady should have a balance between masculine and feminine traits. Sure, she’s a butt-kicking, knife-wielding rebellion leader, but she still gets butterflies when her crush bumps her in the hallway. Keeping a balance between masculine and feminine will ensure your character doesn’t become a gender cliché.

Stereotypes exist for a reason: some actions and thoughts are commonly and dominantly found among one gender group over the other, but there’s also a reason we want our characters to break gender stereotypes—because fiction should illuminate real life. Explore how this is done in your favorite books. Tris, from Veronica Roth’s bestseller Divergent,  was a leading soldier in a war, but she also noticed how pretty she looked in a dress.

Try reading through your manuscript and marking each time your character does something mainly masculine or mainly feminine. The counts don’t need to be perfectly even, but keeping this type of “score” reveals whether your character leans too far one way or the other.

Give Her Relatable Problems—Then Show Her Growth

Nobody’s perfect—and nobody wants to read about someone who is. Perfection is boring. By giving your character flaws and obstacles to overcome, she becomes real to the reader. Katniss had trouble controlling her temper. Tris was weak when she joined the Dauntless. Hermione was a know-it-all, desperate to prove she was smarter than everyone else.

One mark of a great character who readers will love is that she has weaknesses that she tries to overcome. Tris entered Dauntless weak and scared, but by the end of the book she was leading an entire rebellion. Katniss struggled with her temper, and although it remained a problem throughout the series, she still did things to try to control it. Every girl can relate to having challenges, from a big forehead zit on the first date to a broken friendship to being humiliated by a family member. Likewise, every girl can relate to having flaws, from being too loud to not being able to make friends easily. When your readers come across a character experiencing the same struggles or flaws she has, it builds an emotional connection between your character and the reader, making your character more memorable and real. Your readers will recognize the actions and thoughts they face in their own struggles, and your character will become more like a friend than a name in a book.

Your character’s problems don’t need to be overemphasized or spelled out in the narrative right from the start; you can easily show them by the way your character acts in downplayed moments. If she struggles with her weight, she might not be walking around telling people how she feels about herself, but she might avoid shopping trips with her friends and turn all the mirrors in her room against the wall. Many good books only hint of the problem at first then demonstrate how the problem becomes an Achilles heel or complicates the plot or forces growth.

Lastly, a strong character will be the one who works through and solves the problems you give her—don’t let her be rescued without her own efforts contributing to the cause. In other words, make sure she thinks for herself. This can be something that your character grows into as the novel progresses, or it could be a defining trait from the beginning.

Though there’s a great deal more to creating a strong female character—much of which has to do with the plot and conflicts you place her in—ensuring readers actually care  about the character (and thus what happens to her in the plot) is mostly about making her relatable and memorable. There are rare literary exceptions to this rule, but most bestsellers offer up just such a character. By following these three tips you’ll be able to better focus your energies as you work to create the bestselling/blockbusting heroine of tomorrow.

Do This Now

  1. Create a character sheet. Examples of these can be found on the Internet. A great one can be found in Gail Carson Levine’s book Writing Magic.  Ask questions about your character that go deeper than hair and eye color. What did she get for her seventh birthday, and why does that matter? What is she hiding in the box under her bed? What is in her pocket right now? Who does she admire most in the world and why? You want to ask questions that will help you (and your reader) really get to know your character.
  2. Find your character’s emotional desire. The great thing about Katniss, Cinder, Hermione, Elizabeth, Tris, and Hazel is that they don’t just remain stationary. They learn and grow and overcome emotional trials in addition to their physical/external challenges. Katniss and Tris don’t start out as great warriors, but their emotional desires morph them into leaders. Hermione and Hazel have to learn that they need other people in their lives. Even if your character has a concrete goal (wanting to live, wanting to destroy evil), give her an emotional desire as well to help her grow psychologically. Try this resource to get the creative juices flowing.
  3. Go watch some Joss Whedon shows. Joss Whedon is the master of creating strong female characters who are still very feminine. Buffy Summers is a vampire-killing cheerleader, River Tam is a deadly machine who loves to dance, and Kaylee Frye is a ship’s mechanic who loves pink, frilly dresses. If there is ANY female character you love in movies, TV, or books, study her and see what makes her so great. Then take what made you respond to the character and figure out how to make your character great.

Talk back! Who is your favorite female heroine? Why? What makes her special or unique?

Know someone who is facing this issue? Please like and share this article!

Samantha-gray2Samantha Chadwick has been an intern for Eschler Editing for the past year. She is currently a sophomore at the University of Utah, and loves writing and reading in her spare time. Her all-time favorite book is  Gone with the Wind, and she can be found reading anything from Tolstoy to comic books.

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  1. Amy

    Loved this article! Joss Whedon is a great example of writing strong female characters who are funny, tender, strong, and the kind of woman you’d want to hang out with! Thanks for sharing this!

    • angela

      There are so many ways to write a great female lead. I particularly love the Lunar Chronicles (starting with Cinder) because each book has a different female lead even though all the stories intertwine, and they are all very different characters. It’s a good series to check out, because the tone is different in each book–based on the lead character–and yet the whole world works together. It’s a great series to study in terms of keeping a series fresh with strong female leads.

      • Sam

        I’ll have to check out the Lunar Chronicles! My all time favorite female character has got to be Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind. She was so unlikeable at the beginning of the book, but by the end I just wanted to reach through the pages and hug her! Thank you so much for your comments!

  2. Adrianne

    I just re-read this post (I read it when it went live) and I’m so glad that I did. I’m struggling right now with making a female lead likable; I already know that she does some awful things by the end (based on an old story), and she has to be beloved enough to the reader by that point that they are heartbroken by her actions rather than just disgusted. Quite a task! Thanks for reminding me to make her relatable, tenacious, conflicted, *real*. I want my readers to mourn as though their best friend had committed these crimes– I just hadn’t framed it that way until just now. Thanks!


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