The need for strong female characters in YA fiction

Posted by houndrat on Friday Apr 2, 2010 Under writing, Young Adult

Who’s sick of strong female characters? Not me, that’s for sure. And hopefully, not you either.

Here’s the deal. I think people tend to equate strength with physical power. And in that context, well, I can see how ass-kicking females of the literal variety might get old after awhile. (Although, hmmm…Buffy, and Rose from Vampire Academy? I can’t ever get enough of them). But strength comes in many forms, most of them way more important than the purely physical type.

Don't Tempt Me

Don't Tempt Me

There’s the strength to get out of an abusive relationship (Caitlin in Dreamland by Sarah Dessen), the strength to change something you don’t like about yourself (Sam in Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver), the strength to use your brains to stay alive (Katniss in Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins). There’s the strength to not bow to peer pressure, to support your family if someone is ill, to reject stereotypes. The strength to drag yourself up from the brink of despair and survive (Melinda in Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson).

Why do I think strength is so important to female characters, especially in YA?

First off—I don’t want to read about ANY characters that are complete wimps, male or female. I mean, what’s the point? And I’m not saying I want to read about Superwoman either. The only thing as bad as an utterly wimpy MC is one that is perfect–*yawn*. Yes, characters should have flaws and weaknesses, but good story-telling shows us how a character changes, and learns from her mistakes. Or, if your character doesn’t change, then shows us the negative impact this failure to change has on her life.

What’s guaranteed to get fellow YA writers up in arms? To NOT show us the repercussions of the MC failing to become strong, and instead saying by default–hey, it’s okay to be a victim and a wimp. Especially if you get the hot guy at the end. That’s more than a tad unsettling.

Which brings me to the second reason why I think it’s so key to write strong female characters. Unfortunately, despite the fact that it’s 2010, women are still battling a lot of power imbalances and extremely disturbing gender stereotypes. Don’t believe me? Then ask yourself the question Tracey asks in her post—would anyone be saying they’re sick of strong MALE characters? I rest my case.

I mean, we still live in a society where many young girls—and women—define their self-worth in terms of who their boyfriends are or how many guys think they’re pretty. I don’t buy into that, and I certainly don’t want my MC to, either. And if she does at the beginning of the novel? She sure as hell better not by the end.

Wait, whoa, what? How did I get from writing strong MCs to gender roles to self-esteem in girls? You know what? I think I’m going to let you figure that one out.

Check out my awesome writer friends who blogged on the same subject, probably a billion times more eloquently than I did:






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19 Responses to “The need for strong female characters in YA fiction”

  1. Sarah Says:

    Yes, yes, yes, yes.


    Thanks for posting. :)

  2. T.H. Mafi Says:




  3. Josin Says:

    What I hate is the assumption that if the girl is the “strong” one, then the guy has to be a wimp, and if the guy’s strong, then the girl’s a wilting flower.

    Strong girls can match up nicely with strong guys. Together they’re exceptionally strong, and hopefully each act as temper to the other’s steel. If you’ve got a teenage kid responsible for any sort of “saving” – be it of the world, or the family’s farm – they can’t afford to pair up with someone so inept they screw up the hero’s every advance.

    If your hero gets his sword knocked out of his hand, there’s absolutely no reason his lady love can’t pick it up and take a swing while the villain is pre-occupied with his “monologue of impending victory” and gloating at the hero. And if your heroine meets a baddie who doesn’t mind hitting girls, then there’s no reason for her sweetie to stand back and watch her get pummeled. It’s not weakness to let someone who cares for the MC to step in and save them from a few bruises.

  4. Tracey Says:

    Woohoo!Great post!

  5. JennW Says:

    great post!

  6. ChristaCarol Says:

    That was perfectly eloquent, you’re crazy!

  7. Julie K. Says:

    When I first read the title, I thought it was going to be a call for more Buffys and Roses. Not that more is a bad thing, but JUST that is as bad as JUST the opposite. I’m glad you pointed out other examples of strength. I recently received beta feedback that I’m still pondering. I’m not sure if the reader didn’t “get” the MC’s strength or if she really is too wimpy. Until I hear from more of my readers, I’m thinking about splitting the difference :P

  8. Amy Says:

    Lovely. And so true.

  9. Gretchen Says:

    Excellent point about people not being “sick” of strong male characters. The point that we even need to discuss this topic really just goes to show the extent to which we need to discuss this topic.


  10. Shveta Thakrar Says:

    Excellent, excellent post, Deb, you strong woman, you. :D

  11. Jason Black Says:

    “To NOT show us the repercussions of the MC failing to become strong.”

    Can I just say, I absolutely LOVE that wording of the core issue here? Spot-on, I say, spot-on! I’m working on a middle-grade, female protagonist book for one of my clients right now where she has the same issues going on. I’m totally going to steal that line in my feedback to her on her book, and direct her to this post.

    Awesome, awesome, awesome.

  12. Other Lisa Says:

    What Gretchen said!

  13. Karla Nellenbach Says:

    amen to that sister! if there is one thing i hate in the books i read is a damsel in distress type character. I want no wait, i need an MC that can damned well take care of herself!

  14. Sage Says:

    Excellent post.

    And bonus points for the Buffy reference

  15. Sandy Shin Says:

    Great post! I’m definitely with you about not wanting to read about wimpy female characters (or male, for that matter) — and that strengths come in many forms.

  16. Emilia Says:

    “Especially if you get the hot guy at the end. That’s more than a tad unsettling.” HEAR, HEAR. I agree with everyone! So utterly true, and awesome post.

  17. Lisa and Laura Says:

    YES! I love strong female characters. I can’t imagine ever writing about a weak, damsel in distress type. These weak female characters are a dangerous trend, especially if we’re talking YA.

  18. Gabriel Novo Says:

    I wholeheartedly agree that strength in its other flavors needs to be as prevalent as ass-kicking strength. One of the things I’ve always loved about Miyazaki (Studio Ghibli) films are the strong female protagonists. Some of them are physically strong and courageous (Princess Mononoke), but many battle violence using love and compassion (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind) or overcome adversity by being clever and tenacious(Spirited Away).

    You’re also right that the failure to become strong should have ramifications as well. Mary Sue’s are boring no matter how interesting the plot may be. Flawed characters with layers of emotion are what make good stories great.

    Thanks for the great post.

  19. Kitty27 Says:

    You are SO right. I don’t understand this trend towards weaklings in YA fiction.

    I write strong girls only. I am incapable of writing anything else.

    Being a damsel in distress all.the.time is unappealing and frankly,insulting.

    I hope the up and coming YA writers help to do away with this disturbing trend.

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