I spent a recent evening chatting with a group of writers about the public’s desire for strong female characters. The simpering, helpless, man-dependent archetype of the past is no longer the paragon it used to be. If any of our female protagonists swoon into the arms of their brawny rescuers, they better be seriously ill or recently wounded in battle. Encountering a spider no longer qualifies as trauma.
Then our conversation took an interesting turn. Someone shared an opinion that the presence of kindness and compassion in a female protagonist might make her appear “weak.” The unspoken implication was that a female character is “strong” when she is more like the stereotypical caricature of a man – as emotionally sensitive as a block of wood.
Yes, I’m talking stereotypes here and the wind blows both ways. Some believe that gentleness “weakens” a man as much as the lack of it “strengthens” a woman. It’s an antiquated mindset that persists on many levels and is slow to evolve.
Of course, the souls who populate our books must be true to their natures. Both male and female characters (like the rest of humanity) fit into a broad spectrum when it comes to emotional intelligence. Expression can be passionate, volatile, ambivalent, or completely shut down. On top of that, consider that feelings are fluid and slide all over the place along the love-fear continuum.
Emotional texture is one element that puzzles together a character, no different than physical appearance, skills, aptitudes, and social competencies. An emotional undercurrent is one way to enhance complexity, but it’s not necessarily indicative of a character’s strength.
I’d argue that what makes characters “strong,” regardless of gender, is their determination to act upon the world rather than react to it. Kind and compassionate people fall as easily into this definition as ruthless overlords and heroic champions. Strength is demonstrated by conviction, how actively they pursue their goals, overcome their flaws, and engage both the internal and external obstacles that block their paths.