An analysis of the literary ‘strong female character’

I hate the term ‘strong female character’, and I have for the longest time. As readers, we yearn for female characters who are brave, tenacious, tricky, defiant, kind and adventurous, but this phrase is just a step backwards. We never hear of ‘strong male characters’, only male characters, because if they’re men, then they have to be strong, right? When we specify that these strong characters are female, we imply that most other female characters are weak.

With the emergence of the ‘strong female character’ came characters who were written solely to fill this category, which resulted in the task of creating multi-dimensional, multi-faceted characters falling to the wayside. These ‘strong female characters’ became a stereotype in themselves and began to belittle and shame women who didn’t rebel. To be strong, they had to be masculine, because femininity was a weakness. Female characters needed to ‘man up’, because they weren’t like other girls; they were strong. 

While physical strength is great, characters can be scared, tired, angry, confused, empathetic, determined, kind, and even physically weak, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t a strong character.

The best kind of character is one who is strongly written. Well-written characters carry the story and drive it forward; they are three-dimensional, multi-faceted and life-like. Readers can root for them and become emotionally engaged in who they are; they have flaws and strengths, and they change and grow throughout. When well-written, a character is strong, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, age, or physical strength.

Here are just a few of my favourite female characters: Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice), Emma Woodhouse (Emma), Liesel Meminger (The Book Thief), Francesca and Hyacinth Bridgerton (Bridgerton book series), Nora Seed (The Midnight Library), Claire Fraser (Outlander), Lyra Silvertongue (His Dark Materials), Janie Starks (Their Eyes Were Watching God), Alice (Alice in Wonderland). I could go on.

There’s little that all these characters have in common besides their gender, and yet they are all strong, in different ways, in their own right.

It is incredible how far literature has come in its representation of female characters, but they don’t need labels. We need to abandon the idea of writing a ‘strong female character’ and instead write women who have successes and failures, strengths and weaknesses, fears, ambitions, dreams and desires; show us who they are, and they’ll be a character readers will fall in love with.

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About Author

Nerisse Appleby

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September 2021
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