Your Heroine Doesn’t Have to “Kick Ass” to be Strong

Your Heroine Doesn't Have to Kick Ass to be Strong | Everyone wants a #strongheroine, but what exactly does it mean to be "strong"? #Writers need to change our perception of feminine strength. Everyone wants a strong heroine.

We love characters who can kick ass like Katniss, Tris, Karou, Celaena, and Eowyn.

But what is it exactly that makes a heroine “strong”?

Lately, I’m having a problem with what the definition of “strong” has become in YA. Everyone seems to want a heroine who can kick ass, wield a sword, shoot a gun (or bow), throw a punch, and barely flinch when she’s hit by a bullet. She has to be able to keep up with the boys, and usually is better than them at fighting and can kick their butts too.

But why are we limiting “strong” heroines to girls who are physically strong and can fight as well as the guys?

I think there’s a problem with this, because strength comes in many different forms. What if a heroine can’t drop kick a villain or wield a sword? Does that mean she isn’t strong? No way!!

What about Rosa Parks? Esther? Sacajawea? Helen Keller? Harriett Tubman? Queen Elizabeth I? Eleanor Roosevelt?

Heroines who can kick ass are awesome, but we need more diversity in what makes a girl strong. Not all female readers are the kung-fu type, and they want to see themselves in stories. They need heroines they can relate to, and who show them you can be strong in different ways.

I like how Ava Jae over at Writability puts it:

There are limitless varieties of girls, and every single one of us deserve to see ourselves as a heroine. We are complicated, and layered, and contradictory, and we are raw, and real, and here.

I have a problem with seeing female characters who are feminine portrayed as weak, fearful, or prissy. I’ve noticed a trend that if a character in a book loves dresses, fixing her hair, and wearing makeup, she’s probably not the heroine. The “girly girl” characters are usually antagonists or obnoxious secondary characters.

Why do we tend to view girls who enjoy being typical girls as somehow weaker? And why is it that when we want to make our heroine strong we give her traditionally masculine traits and have them kick-ass, bottle up their emotions, and hate dresses, makeup, etc.?

I would love to see some heroines who love being girls! Why can’t a heroine love a pretty dress and be strong?

As a writer, I struggle with creating female characters. Why? Because I worry if I make them too feminine readers will see them as weak and annoying. Which is ridiculous! Being feminine does not make a girl weak!

I like kick-ass heroines, but I also like writing characters who are more “traditional” girls but still strong. My heroine in my current novel is a mix between these two. She has been trained as a fighter, but she loves dresses and being a girl. There’s a part in the story where she has to cut off her hair to disguise herself as a boy, and it kills her. She loves her hair, and she loves looking like a girl.

Does this make her weak? I don’t think so. But I’ve been struggling over her because I’m afraid other readers will think so.

Our perception of female strength needs to change. We need to stop labeling “feminine” traits as weak and “masculine” traits as strong and let our heroines be strong people no matter which traits they have.

We need all types of strong girls in YA. We need girls who can wield a sword like Katsa, and girls whose cleverness saves the day like Hermione Granger. How will you make your heroine strong?

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29 thoughts on “Your Heroine Doesn’t Have to “Kick Ass” to be Strong

  1. This is a really important message. I think the heroines reflect, in a way, what we’ve been socialized to think is strong, especially because the word itself connotates physical strength. Emotional strength is just as important.

    1. Yes I completely agree! I love female characters who are emotionally/internally strong because they can be anyone.

      My great grandmother was in Prussia during WWII and hid Jews and had to flee her home with her children and relatives when the Russians invaded. She was their “rock” and kept everyone going. She may not have physically fought Russians or Nazis but she was an amazing, strong woman. I want to see more girls like that in YA!

  2. Here here! I also like seeing a variety of characters in YA fiction, as well as other genres. Then again, I feel guilty at the same time, because the MC for my novel (YA epic fantasy) is good with a sword and a bow and arrow, and has magical powers. But I’m trying to make her strong in other areas, too. Not a Mary Sue, by any means – but she’s also good with languages, reading maps, and plotting travel routes; and she enjoys teaching hunting and self-defense to both boys and girls. She’s clever and caring as well as kick-ass, and the challenge is to balance all of her qualities so she doesn’t come across as Miss Warrior all of the time.

    Another thing that’s equally important as strength is vulnerability. We don’t want to make our characters too strong, either physically or emotionally. The right flaws can make them believable and relatable to readers, and can add “oomph” to the story as well.

    Funny thing is, I have an idea for a future story, a YA contemporary fantasy with a much different protagonist. I already picture her being more feminine than my current MC, with no weapons / combat training whatsoever. But I also see some of her strengths being curiosity, courage, and – the key word here – emotional strength. Those are all admirable qualities for any female character to have, and I look forward to the day I can start writing about her. Which won’t be for a while, but that’s OK.

    And before I forget: I love the haircut idea you’ve incorporated into your story. Most of the girls-masquerading-as-boys in fantasy novels I’ve read don’t give their hair a second thought. It sounds like the touch you’ve added could help make your MC’s struggles even more realistic. 🙂

    1. It is tricky to balance characteristics, but I think it makes a character more interesting and complex rather than having them be just a stereotyped tough girl or girly girl.

      And you’re right, I think vulnerability is something we need to pay more attention to. I think writers tend to skip over it because they don’t want their female character to look weak. But I think it makes the character more realistic and gives her the opportunity to show her strength and overcome her vulnerability.

      Your future character sounds interesting! I love characters who are internally strong. It will be fun to explore and write a character without any weapons training and is more like an average girl.

      And thanks so much, I’m glad you like the idea! I thought it was more realistic as well because I know I love my hair and if I had to chop it off I’d be super upset! It wouldn’t be an easy thing for me (or a lot of girls I know!). It’s not like yay yippee let’s go play boy! With her situation it’s not something she wants to do.

      1. While I agree with a lot of what you’ve said, a girl character struggling to cut off her hair is rather silly, in my opinion. Having long hair doesn’t automatically make some more feminine, just like how having short hair doesn’t automatically make someone more masculine. The notion that long hair is exclusively for women and short hair is exclusively for men dips just silly, in my opinion. I think many women, both real and fictional, also forget that hair grows back…

        1. I agree that hair length doesn’t make someone any more or less feminine/masculine. Some girls look fantastic in pixie cuts, and I myself actually find guys with longer (up to around shoulder length) hair more attractive.

          But I have to disagree that it’s silly for her to struggle with cutting off her hair. Yes, it will grow back, but it’s more than that. She’s upset because she’s being manipulated into doing something she doesn’t want to do. I don’t think it’s silly for a girl to like her hair, and if she’s being forced to cut it off against her will I think the natural reaction would be to be upset.

          I don’t mean to imply that her long hair makes her any more feminine, but from her perception it’s a part of her identity she’s being forced to strip away if that makes sense?

    1. Thanks! 😀 I’m glad you like that because I really have struggled with it. Writing her character has helped me realized the problem I have with YA heroines. I finally just had to be like screw it, she is who she is and if people think she’s weak for liking her gender then that’s their problem lol.

  3. Preach, girl! Haha! I absolutely loved this post. Diversity is so important, and literature needs more of it.

    I’ve got a few strong females in my current WIP. One is very tomboyish, good with a bow, but she is also wise and compassionate. She uses these traits to help a male character overcome his sense of insecurity and self-loathing, which I think is an interesting twist on typical gender stereotypes. My other two females are much more feminine, and both use their positions and intelligence to make their ways through life.

    All the same, I think I could still be doing more to diversify my characters. Thank you so much for the reminder that everyone is different and everyone deserves recognition in literature! I will definitely be pondering my characters when I get to revisions 🙂

    1. Thanks, I’m glad you liked it! 😀

      Your characters sound very interesting! I like how the first one you mentioned you balanced her traits and didn’t make her all tomboy. And I like the angle you’re using!

      I have my college classes to thank for my diversity awareness, my university is really big on it. And studying abroad in Ireland really helped me to look outside of my own culture. I have so many stories I want to write using mythology from other cultures with diverse characters because I feel we need more of them in YA. But one book at a time! haha.

      1. “One book at a time!” <– That is the hardest part of being a writer, isn't it? *sigh*

        Yet another thing we have in common: a love of mythology! Celtic, Norse, ancient Briton…European mythology could enthrall me for life!

        1. Oh my gosh yes! I get so distracted by story ideas but I can only focus on one novel at a time. I don’t understand people who can write multiple stories at once.

          Yes! have a whole encyclopedia of mythology on my bookshelf because I’m a nerd xD It’s such a good source of inspiration though!

  4. This is ABSOLUTELY true and I COMMEND you for writing this post. I’m all for the super strong, kick-butt heroines. But it bothers me when those characters start to overshadow the more timid girls. Or the girls who like makeup and dressing up. Or the girls who can’t shoot an arrow straight to save their lives. Because those things don’t make them any less worthy of being a true heroine.

  5. I totally agree. I actually have a lot of trouble with female characters that are too masculine. I think part of the awesomeness of being a woman is graceful strength. I don’t mind character’s that are amazing fighters as long as they are both feminine and skilled. And I also don’t mind characters who don’t fight but still show bravery and honor and loyalty in ways of healing instead of killing, keeping her baby when the father wasn’t a good man, or speaking out about something wrong to pave the way for right. I had a friend who pointed out one of the most masculine female characters I’ve seen and thought she was a good role model and I promptly corrected him. For a woman to be strong, she does not have to be like a man.

    Stori Tori’s Blog

    1. “part of the awesomeness of being a woman is graceful strength.” Great point! Being a woman is awesome, and it bothers me how YA seems to send the message that in order to be strong you have to be masculine.

      1. Thank you. 🙂 I wouldn’t say /all/ YA, but a lot of YA does. It’s just one of those things for the next generation of writers to change. 🙂

  6. I recently read “Shadows on Snow” by Starla Huchton, where one of the characters says, “Strength comes in many forms. Beauty is but one.” Yes, strength comes in being about to kick ass, but it also comes in quieter ways of other virtues, and we shouldn’t forget the women who represent them. This is an excellent point, and definitely goes along with what Ava was saying earlier. 🙂

    1. I love that quote! I think it sums it up well. I’m going to have to check out that book! 🙂

  7. I got to be present at a book reading event (The Squickerwonkers) for Evangeline Lilly who was Tauriel in The Hobbit. I found it interesting that you brought up Eowyn at the beginning of your blog. Evangeline had made a very similar observation and point related to female Hollywood roles. This quote is from her IMDb biography, and is very similar to what I remember her saying at the book event:

    “[on adding feminine energy to characters in ‘The Hobbit’ film series] To his defence, Tolkien was writing in 1937. The world is a different place today. I kept repeatedly telling people that in this day and age, to put nine hours of cinema entertainment in theatres for young girls to go and watch, and not have one female character – it’s subliminally telling them that ‘You don’t matter, you’re not important and you’re not pivotal to the story’. I think that they were very brave and very right in saying ‘We won’t do that to the young female audience that will come and watch our films’. And even for women my own age, I think it’s time that we stop making stories that are only about men. I love that they make Tauriel a hero.”

    She added at the book event that Hollywood is getting closer to writing stronger roles for younger and older women as main characters and heroines who show strength in non-masculine manners. But they are still far and few between, and Hollywood still has work to do. She mentioned mothers and activists and a few other examples of how Hollywood could improve in finding (and writing about) the stronger aspects within the ordinary and complex female characters.

    I’m a middle school teacher and I tried to explain what Evangeline was saying in regards to female roles and the relation to societal expectations and breaking stereotypes. Your blog has summed up what Evangeline was saying and I could not. Thank you so much for your insight. I will be using your thoughts for my Language Arts and Stereotyping lessons.

    1. That’s really interesting, thanks so much for sharing!! And that’s awesome that you got to be at a reading with her! I do hope that she’s right and Hollywood starts portraying more female characters that are internally strong and not just the kick-ass, leather-clad, sword-wielding gals you see in action flicks. I’m so glad you enjoyed my post and I’m honored you’ll be using my thoughts for your lessons 🙂

  8. I really like the way how you described a strong female character.

    Sometimes I feel forced that all my female characters must be kick-assing, fighting with a sword or can’t show any weaknesses, but I guess this is what males our characters special.

    My fear is the same, that once you put a female protagonist in your story and she loves to do girly things, readers will see her as weak and maybe bitchy.

    But from my point of view, you are completely correct with this article here 🙂

    And sorry for the bad english by the way.

  9. I just had to share something with you. I pinned this article on Pinterest months ago, read it loved it, kept in the back of my mind. For years and years now, I’ve had this one story that has gone through so many reincarnations. Recently it has just felt WRONG. Primarily my heroine didn’t feel balanced to me. All the sudden, it clicked in my head that I was trying to twist her into the kick-ass type, which is not my thing at all. Nor do I feel it is her thing. I’m not sure why that was happening, but once I realized what was going on, I cam back to this article again, and read it with new eyes. Suddenly it meant something more to me. I understood it better. Thank you for talking about this, when no one else really is. It helped me rediscover my favorite story, and write my main character the way she should be. It gave me inspiration, and made me feel comfortable in my story again, when I felt like it was a lost cause. Thank you.

  10. If anyone’s looking for a pre-YA book eg for their daughters I can never recommend the Rescue Princess series enough. They wear pretty dresses and tiaras, then do ninja moves (ie sneaking out from boring royal events) and go rescue baby animals-perfect for my very girly daughter and her tomboy mother 😉 my YA main heroine is quite feminine and not at all kick-ass, but then she’s not really in a fighting type of situation

  11. I kind of have a girl like that. She’s not showy or backflippy, she cries when she’s angry and she likes pretty things. She’s pretty tough all the same; she is selfless and affectionate and clever. working all day long, and then spending every penny you earn on your family – why aren’t people like that considered “strong”? So what, she doesn’t have the money or the time to make herself look nice, why should she care? Well she does, and I don’t think the fact that she’s bothered by stubby nails and shabby clothes makes her silly at all.

  12. I’ve been thinking about this exact topic a lot lately. We definitely need to start re-shaping the image of girls in YA and MG. The term ‘strong female character’ is for some, I think, misleading. It’s essentially a writing term that means a WELL-DEVELOPED or WELL-ROUNDED female character, but the only word that stuck was ‘strong’, so people assumed it had to do with a girl’s strength. I’m not opposed to a female character who can physically hold her own or pack a punch, but does she have to be emotionally distant? Hard to talk to? A rule breaker? A rebel? Clothed all in black?
    Can we have a heroine who’s favorite color is pink? Who’s greatest trait is maybe kindness or understanding, without being thought of as a total prig?
    Okay, rant over. Great article!

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