So, what is a strong female character?

sansa“Honestly, my least favourite trait is when authors try to make their female characters ‘strong’, but actually just make them ‘masculine’. It teaches the female audience that in order to be a good character (or person), you have to be as like a male as possible. When in reality, ‘strong’ can be feminine, it can be anything. Strength does not have to masculine, or physical. Crying and vulnerability make a character just as ‘strong’ as anything else. Writers should aim to make their female characters well-rounded, and see that there is strength in that; women can be ditzy, feminine, mothering, shallow, etc, and still be good characters.”

I call it a feature, in reality it’s a bit of a ramble on my part. For my final dissertation project at University, I looked at the portrayal of heroines in young adult books and various other issues, but ran out of word count before I could give the notion of the ‘strong’ female the attention it’s worth. And now, I’ve switched off my academic brain. But after seeing serious bitching on Tumblr about Sansa Stark, I thought it would be worthwhile having a little blog on what characters people considered strong in my research, and why. (I will get to Sansa in time, I swear…)

hermioneThat opening paragraph is a quote from one of my many interviews, from my super, smart and wonderful friend Becky. She’s so on-point that I couldn’t word it better myself. So what do people consider a strong female character?

In my research (which, often, overlapped my own opinions), Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games proved the epitome of the strong female in the traditional sense. She was physically capable, smart, intelligent, a fighter. She fights for right, she fights for others, she fights for freedom.

But the Harry Potter series was one of the few to find multiple names plucked out, from Molly Weasley to Minerva McGonagall.

Hermione Granger fared particularly well “because she is incredibly smart, brave, and loyal. She is also stubborn, she can be self-righteous and annoying; she’s flawed. And I love that about her. She’s a complex, three-dimensional character that I identify with, probably above all others. Also, she keeps her femininity; it doesn’t define her, nor does it hinder her, and she doesn’t have to be ‘masculine’ in order to be ‘strong’. ”

Ginny Weasley stood out “because she grows from a shy besotted girl into a badass who won’t be defined by a male character. She, too, keeps her femininity in a family overwhelmed by males. She can be tomboy-ish too, and both are completely okay. Even though the book is told from a male perspective, her presence is never for the sole purpose of furthering the male protagonist’s story; she has her own development entirely separate from him.”

Molly loves fiercely, is protective and brave – she dedicated her life to her family because it was right for her. McGonagall listens to those who are often ignored (school children), tries to demonstrate fairness, is vocal on where she stands and won’t be cowed. Luna Lovegood doesn’t let other people’s attitudes towards her change who she is, and even Lily Potter is picked out for her immense love, kindness and bravery in sacrifice.

trisThese characters are interesting, and they’re not one-dimensional. They’re realistic (as realistic as wizards can be), they’re simply themselves. Mothers, for one, are rarely given time in books to be shown as powerful people, beyond bossing kids around. The point so far? Strength isn’t just physical. There’s far more to the term than there appears.

Beatrice Prior from the Divergent series fared well as someone following their own desires and succeeding though being pinpointed as the underdog, as well as holding her own in terms of intimacy – she’s not ready, and won’t be made to feel otherwise. Paige Mahoney of The Bone Season is a truly thought out character, and rather than me break it down I’d point you towards my interview with author Samantha  Shannon, where she looks at Paige in detail.

Hazel from The Fault In Our Stars was pinpointed for not letting her illness define her. Cassidy  Murphy in What Happens Next is raped on a school trip by an older guy, and tries to keep her life together without telling anyone. She doesn’t tell her mother for fear of ruining her life, her battles are real – and rarely is this personal tragedy given the air time, let alone the strength of coping and carrying on.

By now, I think I’ve made at least a dent in the point that strength comes in many forms. And, probably more importantly, strong is an oddly weak word to aim for, and particularly broad to encompass a character. To be yourself, to love, to protect, to survive, to continue living life, to be interesting, well-rounded, real. These are more important than strong. It just so happens that when I looked into it, strong was a chosen word, and within that came so many divisions, so many sides to the word that it didn’t even seem worthwhile as a singular description to aim for.

But, for Game of Thrones and Sansa, strong is what fans appear to want in the TV adaption – she’s letting the brigade of strong women down – and they are waiting for her to find the strength to kill people, to rebel, because she’s kind of sitting there, passive.

You’ve got Dany, who’s putting herself in a place of power and freeing the slaves, Margery who puts up with the most repulsive marital ties for her own goal to be Queen and to bond the Tyrells to power, Cersei who can have people killed on command and would do anything to protect her children (though her main desire is to rule herself, and be the one on the throne), Catelyn, who would sacrifice herself for her children, and Arya, the little tomboy powerhouse who said her goal in life was not to marry and be a Queen, but to be herself, fight, be strong – do whatever she desired.

These have their own variances on strength, but Sansa possesses an equally powerful kind, because it’s an inner strength. She has been thrust into a world of the power hungry, those willing to sacrifice anything and anyone to succeed, surrounded by enemies, paired off to marry the horrid boy who ordered her father’s death, forced into another unwanted marriage, watched as her family were taken from the world one by one, beaten, used and she survived by masquerading as naive, as a little girl.


She is kind and caring, and fakes it when necessary to avoid trouble. She’s unhappy, but she never gives up. She plays a role in order to survive, she doesn’t give rise to her enemies even when they taunt her with the remains of brutally murdered relatives. Passive? Passive? She’s suffered more than most in the series, and she’s still surviving.

There’s a million discussions to be had about strong, from “What is strong?” and “Don’t write strong, write X” to the fact that strong is a particularly weak description, creating a flat character if that is all they are. But, with the drive of this ramble being the seeming desire for Sansa to actually grow up and find some strength, it felt necessary to look at the term itself, and what people I know have found to fall under that umbrella.

This has been a ramble. Long live Sansa.

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