The quintessential “strong female character” usually has a checklist of traits: She wears makeup, but not too much and she’s never vain. She’s “one of the boys”. She’s a good shot. She doesn’t cry. She uses “girl” as an insult. Y’know, tropes like that.
The thing is, no one wants to read a trope-full “strong female character”. Female characters should have flaws just as male characters or nonbinary characters might. No one wants to read a story where “it’s got strong female characters because all the female characters are perfect and everyone of a different gender is flawed”. That’s not it either.
What I want from a good, strong female character is humanity. I want her flaws, I want to know what makes her tick, I want to see her biggest weaknesses exploited. But I also want her to be powerful, to know what her strengths are and to see her wield them in just the right way, whether she does it consciously or not.
I want her to be just as complex as her accompanying male (or otherwise) characters are.
The writers I’ve seen that get female characters as close as possible to real life are rare and far in between. I used to believe that JK Rowling did female representation pretty well. That changed when I realized what she did to Hermione and Ginny and Cho and Lavender and, well, basically every girl in canon. (But that’s a post for another time.)
Ironically, most of these writers are fanfiction writers. Most of these fic writers don’t work in original fiction, and it’s a pity really, but I understand why. The only professionally published, mainstream author I can recall at the moment that manages to characterize women on point? Probably GRRM. (kind-of Game of Thrones spoilers ahead)
Look at Cersei Lannister, for example. I think we can all agree that she can be a real asshole sometimes. She knows exactly how to exploit and manipulate the court, she takes a sadistic pleasure in weaving her web around King’s Landing and through Westeros itself, she hates Tyrion, despises Sansa, has a huge blind spot where her children are concerned, she’s ridiculously spiteful sometimes… And yet, I adore her. Certainly not what she’s done to some of my favourite characters, but Cersei Lannister as a character… Damn son, GRRM put a lot of work into her. She’s complex as fuck, man. She’s inscrutable, unpredictable, damn well evil at times, but she’s also fucking badass.
And then, we have Daenerys Targaryen, a Khaleesi of the Dothraki, Mother of Dragons, Rightful Queen of the Andals and the First Men (I forget her other titles). She went from a timid, terrified 13-year-old to a badass, terrifying freaking Queen. She loves her dragons but she’ll lock them away in order to protect her people, she hates slavery, is quite scarily ruthless sometimes, she’s built up this magnificent facade that she presents to her subjects, but she still hurts. She’s still a child in so many ways, and when we’re reminded of that, it’s basically a quiver of arrows to the chest Boromir style. She’s a kid, but she’s also a Queen, she’s an amazingly complex, developed character (don’t even get me started on the character development arc of hers unless you want to be stuck here for another 500 words).
Next, we have Lady Catelyn Stark. To be honest, I hated her through the first two books in the GoT series. I thought she was weak, I thought she was annoying, I thought she was a lot of other unflattering things.
See, what I thought was annoying was actually what made her such an interesting character in a first place. Too bad I didn’t realize it until she died in season 3.
But here’s what I found awesome about her: she’s loyal, she’s dedicated, determined, pretty damn scary when she wants to be, and she has this ability to make others rise up and fight for her. Her weak spot is her family: her children are what drive her motivations, for the most part, and it’s sad when you remember that the last time she will see her daughters is the day they leave for King’s Landing in book one, and the last time she sees her younger sons before her death is the day she leaves for King’s Landing. Her children (and, before his death, Ned Stark) are what keep her going, the major influence on the decisions she makes throughout canon, and yet, by her death, she only knows where Robb is–and then he gets killed. In front of her. In her last moments, we can really see that she’s broken. She’s nothing left to live for; her daughters are missing, probably dead or worse; her younger sons are gone and she probably believes they’re dead too; her eldest child has just been killed before her eyes, along with his wife and her grandchild; her husband died years ago. She essentially loses her will to live.
And that’s what I find interesting, that her children could be such a strong driving force in her life.
That’s it for now, but keep an eye out for part two! I’ll tackle the Stark girls next, but comment with the third woman you’d like me to write about in pt 2.