What’s strong?

From a Twitter conversation last night, which started with Gail Simone saying:

GailSimone Why is it that lately, whenever someone says they are writing a, “strong female character,” I know I’m in for a huge heap of bullshit?
marjoriemliu Regardless of gender, a character has to have CHARACTER, and strength comes from that.
marjoriemliu Also, ‘strong female character’ is overused w/o any thought to what strength actually means. It goes deeper than ass kicking.
GailSimone Right, it’s a shortcut for a type of characterization that’s no more about females than it is about sea otters. Often.

marjoriemliu I also find that shallow characterization of women often leads to shallow characterization overall. It’s sloppy writing, period.


To be clear, we were discussing comic books, but I think there’s some crossover with prose fiction, as well.

When you talk about strong female characters as part of what makes your book appealing — or, alternatively, a female character who kicks ass — there’s often a tickle at the back of my head, as though the implication is that women aren’t normally this strong or kick ass (a term I use loosely), and so this character is somehow special in that regard, and therefore stands out because of it.

Maybe I’m reading too much into it.  There’s another issue, though.

For example, I often hear:  “This book has a kick-ass heroine” as an identifier of strength and what this woman is about.  She’s kick-ass.  Well, okay.  But what kind of ass is she really kicking?  It’s like this thing I read once, maybe out of a philosophy book, where someone says, “So-and-so is a good person,” and the reply is:  “Good for what?”

Yes, I know I’m being deliberately obtuse — because obviously, kick-ass is also a stand-in for ‘hip, hot, spunky’, etc.  Kick-ass is tough.  Kick-ass means you can handle the world.

Still, though, the words we use are important.  What they imply is important.  And, if you’re not careful, that kind of loose language can also become a crutch.  I’m guilty of this, which is why it’s on my mind.

It’s not enough to be good or kick-ass.   What’s the actual meaning behind those words?  When I hear kick-ass, that implies only physical strength — or a mental state related to the physical.

Kicking ass is fun, but no big deal.  Inner strength, on the other hand?  That’s an entirely different matter.  Where is the character’s inner strength in these loose characterizations?  How is strength defined?  For example, having a baby and bringing up a kid requires an incredible amount of strength.  Patience is strength.  Kindness and forgiveness in the face of overwhelming cruelty is strength.  Restraint, when all you want to do is kick ass, is strength.

In other words, what is strong?  How do you define strength for your character?  And if it’s just that she has a good left hook and can beat a man to a pulp, that’s not horrible — but it also doesn’t mean much.  It doesn’t mean that character is good for anything important, other than being a thug.

Male characters also fall victim to this loose, shortcut characterization.  Heroes are ‘alpha’ this, and ‘alpha’ that — domineering, take no prisoners.  Again, though…what does that really mean?  Alpha doesn’t necessarily mean strong (strong, on the inside).  Alpha doesn’t even mean interesting.  Alpha is a stand-in for saying this man is bossy and tough, but there needs to be more.

I’m not sure where I’m going with all this.  Just that next time you begin to characterize your hero or heroine, think about the language you use — and ask yourself why a (possibly overused) term is better than another — one that reflects something deeper, and more enduring, about your character.

9 thoughts on “What’s strong?

  1. I can’t resist saying, Marjorie, that you’ve been writing some seriously kick-ass blog posts lately. 😉

    But what I really want to say is: Thank you. This one has hit home for me in many ways; I agree with a lot here. There’s a point where I’d also want to get into a good discussion about how teen girls are sometimes portrayed in YA fiction, and how if I described my own heroines as ‘kick-ass’ it would be more to say: she is awesome. She is as awesome as girls ALREADY ARE in real life. A fictional girl doesn’t have to be rescued. But on the other hand, she is able to accept help when necessary. She solves her own problems, except when she can’t – and that’s okay. Even if she IS strong physically, she doesn’t use that strength to hurt others just because she can.

    I now have no idea where *I* am going with this, but I’m going to be giving it lots of thought. I’m not sure that I actually HAVE ever described my female characters as ‘kick-ass’ but… that doesn’t even really matter. I get what you’re driving at here: just to think about it. To be conscious of the words we use.

    Also, yes! Being a ‘kick-ass’ female character absolutely doesn’t have to be about physical strength. I never think of it that way, actually. If someone tells me they have a “kick-ass character” I tend to think they mean that she’s awesome (but in many ways), that they have ‘inner strength’ on different levels. But that’s just me and the way my brain works, and again is probably neither here nor there. I think my brain leaps to Buffy, who is undeniably kick-ass, but her actual ass-kicking skills are secondary in the face of all the other ways that she’s strong.

    Thanks for making me think! I feel a blog post of my own coming on…


  2. So what is “strong”? What kind of actions or behaviors would demonstrate a strong character? I also hear the term “strong female character”, and I wonder what it really means. Dear God, I hope it is not about her aptitude for violence. How will I know when I am reading a story about a strong female character?

  3. Great post. Very…um…strong.

    I’m noticing this problem in many comic books these days. A number of creators are failing to really flesh out their characters and give them considerable depth and strength. They focus more on depicting the character as kick ass without providing the underlying motivations behind said kicking of ass.

    And yes, a character doesn’t have to actually kick ass to be strong. They can show strength through determination and overcoming whatever obstacles the writer throws at them. Conflict and the ability to persevere can be great tools for creating a character of real substance.

  4. I think that female characters, certainly in adventure stories, tend to fall into one of two categories: the pixie and the brute.
    The pixie is cute. She is a source of comic relief, which usually stems from her outrageous behavior. She may start out with a combative attitude toward the protagonist, (a male, naturally), but ultimately becomes a nurturer and loyal supporter. In this sense, the pixie is a mother-figure, and a likely sex object.
    Although it’s often compounded in to the pixie personality, the brute can be seen as an entirely separate character type. The brute is aggressive; she’s violent and foul-mouthed. She survives in a male dominated environment by appropriating the worst of male behavior. She also takes on the stereotypically male practice of emotionless sex, where sex becomes sport.
    The brute is more likely than the pixie to be a protagonist. (She’s seen as “man enough” to handle “manly problems.”) However, not unlike the pixie, the brute is often “tamed” by the affections/sacrifices of some male figure. And again, the woman becomes the sex object.
    Some may judge these character templates as flat, and two-dimensional at best. Others may respond, “What character, regardless of gender, can compare to the complexity of a flesh and blood human being? Archetypes are flat by their nature.” It’s an ongoing struggle for many writers, including yours truly. While this struggle may not evoke a conspicuous verdict, I’d bet that the results bend toward justice.
    Yours truly,
    Eugene Argent

  5. The first strong female characters I remember (strong as in complex) were in StarStruck by Elaine Lee and Michael Kaluta. I loved the story and it has remained my favorite comic book through all these years and through all its iterations, including the new, almost too heavy to hold, deluxe edition.

    I think one of the things Joss Whedon does so well is to realize that a person’s strength, regardless of gender, comes as much from the complicated relations they have with their friends and companions as from themselves.

    I’ve got to put in a PS. A while ago, on a blog event for In the Dark of Dreams, I left a comment about Powerhouse Comics. You mistook me to be Bob the owner (I’m actually a friend and alternate Bob), and replied with a comment about your fond memories of him and the store. I showed it to Bob and he was touched. (It also led to a still running joke about me stealing his identity.) I actually did feel guilty about being mistaken for him, so I want to set the record straight.

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