A few weeks ago, I asked “What Do We Mean by Strong Female Characters?” and argued that a female character doesn’t have to deny traditionally feminine qualities to be strong.
But what if you need to write a physically strong woman with few of those traditionally feminine qualities?
Sometimes a story does call for this type of female character. In the novel I’m working on with my co-writer, Lisa Hall-Wilson, our main female character is an Amazon. She’s been raised to hate men and to see all signs of femininity as weakness. If we allow her too many feminine qualities (at least in the beginning), we’ll undermine the believability of her society and her character.
Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games is a great example of this as well, as is Kara “Starbuck” Thrace in Battlestar Galactica.
Katniss doesn’t want children. She’s more at home in the woods hunting than she is helping her mother nurse others. And she’s placed into a situation where it’s kill or be killed.
Starbuck is a fighter pilot who needs to be tough in order to get respect and survive. Her commander assigns her emotionally grueling tasks like interrogating (i.e., torturing) prisoners and assassinating a dangerous superior officer.
So how do you make sure this type of female character is still likeable?
Unfortunately, most of us can’t relate to this type of woman. She’s not like us. She’s not like our mothers or our best friends or our significant others. And when we feel like we have nothing in common with someone, it makes them difficult to like. If your reader doesn’t like your main character at all, that spells death for your story.
As writers, we have to do a little extra work to give that common ground if we’re creating a strong female character who denies traditional feminine qualities.
Answer the question “What made her this way?”
When Katniss’ father died in a mining accident, her mother sunk into a deep depression. Katniss had to feed and care for herself and her younger sister. She had to be the “man of the house.” She didn’t really have a choice. Her world dictated how she feels about motherhood as well. Why would she want to have children when they could be reaped for the Games and killed?
The writers of Battlestar Galactica also recognized the need to explain how Starbuck became so hard. We get glimpses of Starbuck’s abusive mother, one who told her daughter that she was weak and a failure, and who beat Starbuck so often that she came to believe pain was a way of life.
In showing how Katniss and Starbuck became who they are, the writers allowed us to sympathize with them, even pity them. And as the old English proverb says, “Pity is akin to love.”
Let us see that she loves something.
They might have an iron exterior, but underneath, there’s one person they love, one person they’d kill for or die for. To lose them would leave a permanent hole.
For Katniss, it’s her sister, Prim, and we see it in heartbreaking clarity when Katniss volunteers as Tribute in Prim’s place, knowing that she has only around a four percent chance of coming out alive.
For Starbuck, it’s Commander William Adama, her dead fiancé’s father. She’s willing to cheat on her husband and turn against her lover, but losing Adama’s respect and fatherly affection would destroy her.
By letting the reader see what they love, you’ve shown they have a soft spot, an Achilles heel. (You also have a built-in way to ramp up the tension by threatening the thing they love.)
Show that someone loves her.
In The Hunger Games, Katniss furiously attacks Peeta after the interview where he confesses his crush on her. Haymitch (their mentor) tells her Peeta did her a favor—he made her desirable. In loving her, Peeta sent the implicit message that she’s worth loving. If he loves her, maybe the reader should love her too.
For Starbuck, it’s Lee “Apollo” Adama. Many men want to sleep with her, but it’s Lee who sees her for all her flaws and loves her for her strengths. It’s Lee who never gives up on her. She’s the love of his life in the same way that Katniss is Peeta’s.
What other methods have you used to keep your strong female (or strong male) characters likeable? What did you think about Katniss or Starbuck? Do you find them likeable?