This is not another blog post about writing strong female characters.
It’s about writing characters of any gender who show strength in all its varieties, and reconsidering who gets to define what ‘strong’ means.
Why the disclaimer? Because most of the time, I think the whole conversation about “strong female characters” is barking up the wrong tree. Instead of focusing on “strong,” the conversation focuses on “female.” When the truth is, there’s room for improvement in writing male and female characters who show the varied types of strength that actually matter in real life.
Let’s start with the knowledge that when our culture says “strong,” the kinds of strengths prized are those culturally associated with men: physical prowess, endurance, pain tolerance, indefatigable energy, unshakeable will, and being able to pound the shit out of an opponent are all bundled up in the dominant cultural understanding of the word. And because we (mistakenly) attribute these particular strengths as exclusively masculine, too many attempts to write strong women end up giving us “men with boobs.”
Yet in reality, only a small minority of people can even live up to that list of strengths, either through training or genetic predisposition. Most people in real life don’t dead-lift cars, tough out surgery without anesthetic, hike across the desert alone, or emerge triumphant from bar brawls or orc fights. The dominant cultural understanding of strong makes for a great action movie, but it doesn’t describe the reality of the sort of strengths real-life men and women demonstrate every day.
Perhaps if we recognized and prized a variety of strengths, we could have a broader range of characters in our fiction and movies that represent the kinds of courage found in real life, opening up more interesting and nuanced plot lines and characterizations. Most of us will never be Aragorn, or even Frodo, but on our best days, we might be Sam. And while the Aragorns of history are important, humanity owes most of its survival to the Sam Gamgees of the world.
My Ascendant Kingdoms Saga is a dark, gritty, post-apocalyptic medieval epic fantasy. It explores chaos and anarchy and the tension between those who want to restore the rule of law for the benefit of the many against those who want to extend chaos for the profit of a few. Blaine McFadden, the main character, becomes a reluctant warlord to save his kingdom. He and several other characters (both male and female) provide the physical prowess. But the story hinges just as much, and sometimes even more, on characters (both male and female) with less traditional strengths who have gotten pulled into a destiny they never wanted or imagined and yet have the quiet strength to do what the job requires of them, whatever the cost.
Because our default definition of strong is tied to physicality, we overlook the real strengths in people (and potential characters) who are average, or who might be older, or who live with physical or mental disabilities, or who use patience, determination and cleverness to compensate for a lack of physical strength.
What other kinds of strength could we recognize? How about dogged persistence in the face of overwhelming odds, systemic oppression, chronic pain, or illness? How about the quiet “keep calm and carry on” strength to hold a family or a community together in the midst of war or disaster? How about strengths like patience, faith, ingenuity, compassion, empathy, communication, insight, and the ability to think clearly when the chips are down? The strength to be present in the hard times, when there’s nothing to be done except to muddle through? The strength to leave everything behind and start over someplace else, to re-build after disaster (literally or metaphorically), the determination to make it through tough times and scarce resources to protect loved ones and build a better future?
This range of strength has been the enabling factor for humanity to survive. Sure, we need tough warriors, but we need never-say-die civilians, too. We need strength of mind and strength of spirit to forge and support family and community. Physical prowess is one type of strength, but some of the toughest people come in some of the weakest physical bodies. Some of the most broken people are the bravest of all because they get up every morning and fight the fight all over again.
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In fact, the world’s great wisdom literature prizes those quiet strengths above all. Purely physical strength remains at its peak for a short time in all but a rare few. Yet quiet strengths are lifelong, often increasing with age, rock solid and sure as the sunrise.
If those strengths don’t sound as sexy or box-office worthy, perhaps it’s because we’ve had a lifetime of indoctrination by a culture that inevitably sells us sizzle instead of steak. When the battle is against threats that can’t be physically beaten into submission (and most of life’s real struggles can’t), it’s the quiet strengths that come through in the clinch.
Gail Z. Martin is the author of more than a dozen SF/F novels, and her work has been featured in over 20 anthologies in the U.S. and the U.K. Find her at Ascendant Kingdoms, and on Twitter @GailZMartin. Shadow and Flame, the fourth and final book in the Ascendant Kingdoms Saga, is available now.