Strong women, as they’re portrayed in a lot of fiction and films, have a problem. They act like men (albeit hot men with curvy bodies and perfect hair, teeth, and nails).
This bothers me, and it should bother you too, because we’re being fed a lie. Male and female perspectives each possess great worth, and both genders are vital aspects of the human experience. Neglecting one or the other in a story guts the truth’s potency.
But misrepresenting a woman’s strength is even worse.
In the book 7 Women, Christian biographer Eric Metaxas says, “to pit women against men is a form of denigration of women, as though their measure must be determined by masculine standards.” The value of women is in their differences from men (and vise versa). The two cannot be compared. But lies are a distortion of the truth and thus designed to resemble it.
In our efforts as Christian writers to accurately depict reality, we must be aware of the fallacy weighing down female protagonists.
The Lie: A Woman Can Do Anything a Man Can Do (and Do It Better)
This falsehood bases a hero’s competence on mere physical prowess. The female protagonist can overpower anyone—man, woman, or monster—because she’s ultra tough. The trope is so widely accepted that it almost goes unnoticed.
In the 2017 spy flick Atomic Blonde, undercover agent Lorraine Broughton is sent to recover sensitive information. As with most Hollywood thrillers, the protagonist defies reality, taking on multiple opponents in fights that ignore the limitations of the female body.
Women have less muscle mass than men, higher-pitched voices, and don’t grow beards because their bodies produce less testosterone. Brawn, baritones, and beards aren’t required to write a resilient protagonist who can save the world. Yet we’ve been convinced that a female protagonist must be as virile—or more so—than her male counterparts. We squeeze her into a masculine hero archetype and expect her to perform accordingly (with perfect hair, teeth, and nails).
The Truth: A Strong Woman Is Inspiring Because She Is a Woman
We can’t copy and paste a woman onto a man. A strong female protagonist is interesting and compelling primarily because she isn’t male. True strength goes beyond a person’s physique—into the mind, character, will, and spirit.
The book of Judges showcases a woman’s cunning capture of an opponent. Jael encounters the enemy commander Sicera as he flees a military defeat. She welcomes him into her tent, lulls him to sleep with excellent hospitality (warm milk and a blanket), and then drives a tent peg through his skull into the ground. It’s startling and brutal. Jael exhibits great strength, not in muscle, but in mind and spirit.
Brandon Sanderson does a superb job of portraying a strong woman in his Mistborn series. Vin, the female protagonist, is petite, thin, and an abuse survivor. The story absorbs these disadvantages and plays with them, allowing Vin to change and conquer in a believable way. First, Sanderson gives her access to magic that compensates her height and weight. Second, her psychological struggles and growth are a catalyst within the plot.
We can preserve a heroine’s femininity without turning her into a damsel in distress whenever she faces a threat. In fiction and in real life, women have been using their unique abilities to outsmart enemies, survive catastrophe, and solve problems for centuries. If we acknowledge instead of deny how God designed each gender, our stories will help readers view men and women with both empathy and admiration.
Shape Protagonists According to the Truth
Now that we’ve pinpointed the issue, we’re left with a question. How do we make sure we aren’t reducing female characters to male clones with pretty faces? If we pay attention to three areas where male similitudes tend to invade, we can correct them.
1. Identify the Strengths and Weaknesses of the Protagonist’s Gender
This might be a bitter pill to swallow, but we can’t pretend that physical limitations don’t exist, regardless of the genre we’re writing. Understanding how women participated in combat throughout history will further enhance authenticity. Weakness is often more compelling than strength, so if we don’t shy away from a character’s frailties, readers will find her even more endearing.
Meagan Spooner’s Beauty and the Beast retelling, Hunted, provides an example of a strong female character who fails to be relatable. Yeva plays the part of Beauty, an attractive, expert huntress who’s desired by a cute man but wants oh-so-much more than a normal life. She journeys into the wild forest to rescue her father from a fantastic rendition of the Beast, but nothing about her personality or interaction with the world is profound, which prevents readers from connecting with her.
A protagonist who can’t easily win a battle resonates far deeper with readers than one who knocks the enemy flat with one punch. Perhaps she’s in denial of her limitations—or she’s obsessing over what she can’t do rather than what she can. However we decide to have a female protagonist overcome obstacles, we need to stay within the boundaries of her womanhood.
2. Consider How Archetypes Change When the Protagonist Is Female
Arming a female protagonist with a sword or superpowers may make her imposing, but that doesn’t give us an excuse to let her run rampant without clear motivations. Look at Eowyn from Lord of the Rings. While she inhabits the archetype of the hero who wants to prove himself, her role is distinct because she’s a woman. Most of all, she fears being caged, and she desires the glory of battle and the honor of a swift death.
Planning how a female protagonist will save the world requires careful, deliberate thought. The overall pattern of the hero stays the same, yet many details will and must shift. She’ll have different goals and display different emotions than a man. As with any character, her choices and behavior need to reflect who she is, not the shadow of someone else.
3. Evaluate the Protagonist’s Personal Strengths and Weaknesses
If a protagonist is prideful, this will spawn many other faults and influence her actions. Cocky people are often intolerable to talk to and work with. But this flaw isn’t restricted to either gender—it plagues all of humanity. The same could be said of qualities like kindness and courage—both men and women share them.
Instilling our characters with unique virtues and vices will guard against clichés and scenes that make readers scoff. If you need ideas, two quick resources are The Negative Trait Thesaurus and The Positive Trait Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman. These books dive into how negative and positive attributes manifest inwardly as well as outwardly.
We Need Strong Women Who Act Like Women
We must remember that a woman differs from a man in her preferences, tendencies, psychology, strengths, and weaknesses. God, in His goodness, gifted humanity with both men and women. Readers deserve the same gift from us as sub-creators. Generating authentic characters is a difficult but worthwhile investment. Before creating a strong female protagonist, take time to seek the truth and be brave enough to write it.
Unrealistically tough women isn’t the only female character stereotype that appears in fiction. Want to make sure you’re avoiding the other ones? Fill in the form below to download my guide to six more kinds of leading ladies who make readers cringe.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on April 6, 2020. Updated January 13, 2022.
Rose Sheffler is a Kentucky native who began her writing career in the seventh grade by hijacking a simple assignment and turning it into an elaborate creative piece. Her teacher reprimanded her for not following the instructions and said, “You should be a writer.” She studied English Literature in college, with a focus on creative writing, and returned to teach seventh grade English at the same private school. Her favorite genres are fantasy, historical fiction, and fairy tales.
This summer she completed a manuscript of new fairy tales and hopes to have them traditionally published. Until then, she homeschools her three kids, feeds her philosopher husband, grades papers, engages daily with her church community, talks to herself, updates her blog, reads too many children’s books, considers the brevity of life in the face of eternity, and takes bookish photographs for Instagram.