Strong, female characters are one of my favorite topics on which to wax eloquent and passionate. As Andrew and other friends can tell you, my “Strong, Female Character” rant makes me a huge hit at parties all the time. All it requires is for one person to mention nonchalantly that George R. R. Martin is known for writing these strong female characters and the entire group is in for an evening full of fun entertainment.
It is best to start on the discussion of strong, female characters by determining what exactly that term means. The easiest way to start defining the phrase is to list the females in books and other media that are commonly considered strong. Catelyn Stark is fan favorite. She is the wife of Eddard Stark, the lord of the northern section of A Song of Ice and Fire’s Seven Kingdoms. She watches over the household while Eddard has been called away to be the king’s right hand man, and then leaves her family to warn him about a possible plot to kill him in the capital.
Eowyn, a daughter of Rohan from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, has been called strong as well. She is the only person left at Meduseld who can keep things running at all, since her brother, Eomer is angrily riding across Rohan, her uncle the king has been possessed by Saruman, her cousin Theodred is lying on his deathbed after a fight with some Uruks, and Grima Wormtongue, the king’s steward, is an evil, lying bastard.
Last but not least, my foreshortened list of strong female characters would not be complete without Aerin, from Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown. Unhappy that she is not living up to her father’s expectations, Aerin sets out to fight the mighty dragon Maur. She defeats him, but is very badly injured in the process. She makes her way to a healer, who gets her set to rights just in time for her to lead an army of her people against the invading demons from the North.
Many authors create female characters that they believe to be strong. The word that I hear most often is “complex.” The author creates a girl or a woman who must be completely human, and especially heir to human fallibility. The character must meet the challenge, fall before it, and then rise to the occasion, or at least, this is how the formula seems to have been constructed.
It is obvious through past blog posts and most brief conversations with me that I love Joss Whedon’s work. His characters are multifaceted and lifelike, the worlds he builds are four dimensional, and the situations into which he throws his casts are complex, even when they are fantasy. However, his women are rarely strong. I love this quote from Bobby Roberts:
“Joss shoots his actresses most lovingly when they’re wet and crying and curled up in the fetal position, pressed up against a wall, broken, mascara running, bleeding, and reaching out. And what are they typically reaching out for? Some dude (or vampire or werewolf) and the dick he’s attached to.”
A truly strong woman, as history has shown us through the phenomenal examples of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Harriet Tubman, Golda Meir, and Margaret Thatcher, to name just a very few, is that to be a strong woman, one must do two things. First, one must recognize one’s destiny. It does not matter whether this destiny is to lead a country through a time of peril, or to raise one’s children to be productive members of society. The second is that one must fulfill that destiny without turning aside.
It is this second half of what makes a strong woman truly strong that trips up many would-be strong women—both real and fictional. If Catelyn Stark truly believed that her destiny was to help put her sons on the throne (and her actions say loudly that she did), then she made some incredibly foolish decisions. She deliberately destroyed Robb Stark’s ability to negotiate with the Lannisters for the return of Jaime because she thought that releasing him would give her daughters that she believed were in Kings Landing a better chance at survival. Not only did her scheme not happen as planned, but it led to massive losses that included her life, and that of her oldest son.
Eowyn would be considered strong, since she knew that her destiny was to be a Shieldmaiden of Rohan. When the time came for her uncle, the King of Rohan, to lead his troops into battle, he asked her to take the throne and lead his people. Instead of remaining in Rohan and realizing that she was the last in line for the throne and that her death would throw Rohan into chaos, Eowyn decided to disguise herself and ride into battle. She would rather risk the complete destruction of her homeland to save herself emotional turmoil, than actually follow the orders that would allow her to fulfill her destiny.
On the other hand, Aerin, the protagonist of The Hero and the Crown, chose to sacrifice personal gain, love, and even her health to become the ruler of Damar. She left her home and the man she loved to kill a dragon, and then to find the healer who could make her whole again. She lost her mortality and her innocence along the way. She fell deeply in love with an immortal, and chose to leave the life she clearly wanted to make with him and came back to lead her people and marry her consort to keep the land together and at peace. Aerin is the embodiment of a truly strong female character.
To be truly strong, it isn’t enough to simply feel the pull of stressors. It isn’t enough to continue to live during hardship. It requires a bone-deep acceptance of destiny, and the sacrifice of ease and even of relationships to fulfill that fate.
Who are your favorite strong, female characters, and why do you consider them to be strong? I’m always looking for new books to read and movies/TV shows to watch, so let me know in the comments!
11 responses to “Editorial | What Makes a Strong, Female Character”
Have you read Heinlein? Just wondering what you thought of his women characters like Friday. As teenager, I thought they were empowering, but now I wonder if he was just a dirty old man.
I haven’t, although he is on my Reading List of Doom, which seems to only get longer and never shorter. I will check it out and let you know! -t
(A Song of Ice and Fire spoilers) Cersei Lannister was my go-to “strong woman” character until recently. She was smart, ambitious, and unwilling to be held back by what her society told her she should be. Then I found out she’s just a pawn of Littlefinger and so she is strong no more. Just lucky and kind of stupid. I’d like to know if you agree that the former Cersei meets the strong woman definition, as I’m a bit confused by your meaning.
With Cersei my big beef is that although she felt that she should rule the kingdoms (believed she was smart and strong enough to be the Hand, etc.), which you definitely see in her inner dialog in the books, she spent just as much time playing a petty fools game because she was jealous of her future daughter-in-law. Also, she refused to believe there was anything wrong with her offspring, when it was more than obvious that he was completely psycho.
Eowyn might be my favorite character in all of fantasy fiction. I also love love love Murphy from the Dresden Files, and Kristin Cashore’s Graceling books feature a trio of strong female protagonists–all very different, all complex, but each formidable.
I think both “complex” and “strong” women have their place in fiction. Complex characters make the story interesting and relate-able, while strong ones are inspiring and give a story an epic quality.
I wholeheartedly agree that both complex and strong women belong in literature. In this post I’m pointing out that they are terms that are often confused and used interchangeably when they shouldn’t be.
This clears up my confusion. I mistook strong as complex. What character do you say is both?
I think all three of these women are very complex characters–Catelyn and Aeryn more than Eowyn, but that may be attributed to writing style. Aeryn is the only one who actually sacrifices her own desires to fulfill her destiny, so I would say she is the only character among these examples who is both.
Yeah, I think you did a good job articulating the distinction 🙂
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