What Makes a Strong Female Character: A Basic Guide

Recently Kate and Charlotte were talking about how easy it is to focus on the negative, when there are some awesomely feminist things going on in the realm of young adult literature. So we spent a lot of time going over the relative strengths of female protagonists in young adult literature (YA for short). After several conversations, we decided it would be helpful to have a written guideline of strengths to judge characters against. We think that the list that follows is a good general template for judging. When making this list, we were aiming for broad categories – it’s not a helpful criterion if it is so specific that it describes only one or two people.

Please note, we do not expect (or want) a character to have all of these traits. That would make for boring books. However, we do expect a strong female character to possess three or more of these traits. We are also completely aware that there may well be strong female characters that don’t fit ANY of these categories. If you can think of any, please tell us who they are and why they are great! We are happy to be wrong (and to make new categories).

Divergent's heroine Tris getting ready to make a literal and metaphorical leap into the unknown

Divergent’s heroine Tris getting ready to make a literal and metaphorical leap into the unknown.

We threw around many of our favorite protagonists from fairly current YA novels to make this list. Ladies that helped us form this list of traits (and whom we may use this list to check in on in subsequent posts) include Tris from Divergent, all the girls from the Graceling trilogy, Kami from Unspoken, Frankie Landau-Banks herself and many more.

So without further ado, here are the traits we have defined:

Physical Strength/Bravery: She can face physical challenges without wussing out and she can fend for herself in a scuffle. She may also be unusually talented physically. You see this a lot in books with men and boys as protagonists (Harry Potter is innately gifted on broomstick, for example), and while being physically strong does not necessarily make her a great character, it is important for media (YA literature especially) to represent women and girls who are physically capable.

Emotional Resilience: She can stand up against people she cares about. She can deal with other people attacking her emotionally and trying to bring her down. She can make it through a crisis without freaking out. She has a sense of self worth.

Intelligence: She thinks through problems and comes up with unique solutions. She analyzes facts and formulates theories. She does research. She observes the world around her.

Strong Moral Compass: She cares about the consequences her actions will have on other people. She thinks about her motivations. She tries to avoid or clarify morally ambiguous situations.

Compassion and/or Kindness: She treats other people well regardless of who they are. She goes out of her way to help others. She has empathy. She has sympathy.

Katniss demonstrating one of the ways to be strong. Credit: Lionsgate

Katniss demonstrating one of the ways to be strong. Credit: Lionsgate

Flexibility: She is able to change when circumstances change. She is able to admit that there may be a better way of going about things.

Leadership: People want to follow her. She is able to motivate others to help her achieve her goals. She either steps up to fill a leadership void, or rises to the occasion when called upon to do so.

Independence: She is self-motivating. She can get by without encouragement or support from others. They say no man is an island, but if that’s not an option she would like to be a peninsula, thankyouverymuch.

Strong Sense of Self/Self Confidence: She is confident in herself, and knows who she is. By design, YA characters are young and may not be as well formed as adult characters, and she is (and should be) in the process of discovering herself and gaining confidence around her identity. This is often very much a work in progress, but its important to see that she has some development, or growth here.

So, these are the things that our favorite strong female characters seem to bring to the literary party. We will checking in with some of these ladies in the future – let us know in the poll below who you would like us to look into first!

-Charlotte and Kate aspire to one day be Strong Female Characters (but not a la Kate Beaton, as seen here).

Sexism is OVER!


One thought on “What Makes a Strong Female Character: A Basic Guide

  1. Pingback: Betty Cooper: Door Mat, Girl Next Door, or More? | Sassafrakas

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