An Argument Against Writing “Strong Female Characters”

Fun Fact: The movie Alien was originally written with the entire crew of the Nostromo being entirely male.

A common question, especially to men who write female characters, is what makes a strong female character? As if there’s some secret formula, mix the proper ingredients together and the resulting concoction will be a “strong female character.” There are two resulting problems I have with this question being asked.

Everyone knows the famous answer Joss Wheadon gave to the question:

Q: Why do you always write these strong women characters?

A: Because you’re still asking me that question.

And I’ll love him forever for that response, but that stupid goddamn piece-of-shit question has made me think a lot. I mean, what’s really being asked there?

I’ve had the Strong Female Character (SFC) conversation, and I’ve come up with my own answer to how to write them. Don’t. Don’t write SFC’s.

If you’ll just allow me a few more paragraphs, I’m going to do my very best to explain why I, as a feminist woman writer, have given up on trying to write an SFC. Because…because…you can’t. Well, you can, but it’s really hard to do, so if that’s the question you ask yourself when you sit down at your computer, make it easier on yourself. Don’t write strong female characters.

Write strong characters.

My screenplays tend to feature quite a few SFC’s, but I’ve never been staring at a blank page and thought, “right, now how am I gonna write this strong female character?” Because that’s the last way you should approach the task. You are first and foremost writing a character. Don’t write strong female characters. Write strong characters.

Here’s a fun game. Look at the last thing you wrote, take any strong male character and gender flip them. What happened? If the story has suddenly fallen apart then you’ve got a fundamental problem with your story.

I’ve heard a lot of filmmakers be accused of not knowing how to write their females. I think if someone “doesn’t know how to write women,” they’re unfortunately suffering from a deeper problem. Because you should connect with all your characters regardless of gender.  The character is there, then they should have a purpose. What do they want, and where’s the humanity in that? And how do you, as a human, identify?

Now obviously there are going to be some differences between men and women, but not as many as people the people asking that stupid idiotic bullshit question seem to think.

Okay, let’s say you’re writing a movie. Or a TV show. Or a book. Or anything, and you want there to be a heterosexual romance between a male and female character. Let’s say the guy…well, he’s great.  Best male character you’ve written. The female can’t just be him as a woman. That’s rubbish. That happens a lot too. Make it pink and give it a bow, but you’ve got to dig a little deeper. What does she want and why would she be drawn to this character rather than someone else? What connection does she have to the guy? What connection does she have to you?

Luckily, SFC’s have been on the rise in contemporary movies (anything Hunger Games or chick-buddy comedy, like Bridesmaids, have been obliterating the competition), particularly in sci-fi and fantasy (yay, go sci-fi!), but I also think people run the risk of overcompensating.

Filmmakers may not take the time to flesh all these characters out, so they take off half her clothes, hand her a gun, and make her an assassin or a sniper.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with the occasional Haywire or Kill Bill type protagonists.

As a matter of fact, let’s stop and look at Kill Bill for a second. The Bride goes on a killing spree. And why? To avenge the death of her unborn daughter. Until she discovers her daughter’s still alive. At the end, she and Bill have to fight to the death for the daughter. It’s a mom and a dad fighting over who gets to keep the kid.

If you look at the premise in those terms then it’s the same theme as Kramer Vs. Kramer (Note: Tarantino also has a menagerie of SFC’s in his portfolio. He’s actually a good filmmaker to look to if you’re having problems writing women). Imagine Liam Neeson’s character in Taken had been a woman. Same thing.

But the characters in those films have met injustice. We see them afraid, we see them beaten, we see them on the brink of giving up. That’s very relatable. Then we see them take their intelligence and skills individually useful to them and use those to continue surviving. That’s also very relatable. They’re not “Strong Female Characters,” they’re strong characters.

Because, if I may hop up on my soapbox for half a second, these are the role models people are going to end up looking to. Let’s not just raise generations of strong men or generations of strong women. Let’s raise strong generations of strong people.


About Risa Romano

Writer type thing. I work on stories for kids when I'm on the clock and screenplays quite a bit less for kids when I'm not. I have a blog: I'm also the creator and moderator of the Doctor Who vodcast/podcast A Disused Yeti:
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