Friday, April 2, 2010

Unearthing her Inner Badass: Creating Strong Female Characters in YA

There’s been lots of talk in the YA blogosphere lately about creating strong female characters. A few of us got together to talk about it today, so make sure to check out the links below to hear what everyone has to say.

On first thought, you might think strong means super aggressive, sword-wielding, boy-crushing, snarky characters that tell people to screw off. And while all those characters can be really cool, that doesn’t have to be the only definition. And, if you aren’t writing those types of stories, it doesn’t mean you’re off the hook in terms of creating strong girl characters. I’m talking about the other type of stories. Sigh, the romantic ones.


I love the swoony stuff. Many of my stories have a significant amount of romance. I like reading them and love writing them. Having characters fall hopelessly, head over heels madly in love is fun, especially at the young adult age when emotions run high and first love is all-consuming. Falling in that type of love does not make a character weak. If a character is so into a guy that her heart aches when he’s away and she’s thinking about him every second, remembering their smoldering first kiss and the hint of muscle under his tee shirt, that doesn’t make her weak either. Strong girls can fall in love and strong girls can be smitten. It’s realistic.


Falling in love doesn’t mean losing yourself and that is where we separate the strong from the weak.


The first element of a strong female character is being someone, a real person. Herself. The character should have things that make her her, things that are important to her before she falls in love, and even after if it doesn’t work out. Something has to matter to her besides the guy. Maybe she’s a kick-ass field hockey player or the head of the math club. Or maybe she has a family or best friend she’d do anything for. Maybe she’s got her sights set on a Harvard law degree or loves playing the cello. Maybe she’s a poet or the biggest Red Hot Chili Peppers fan ever (okay, that last one is me, but still, I digress). Anyway, whatever she’s into should be important to her no matter what, even when she’s swooning over the sexy guy in her algebra class. She can fall all over him and be madly in love, but she needs to stay true to herself and the things that are part of her. She’s strong by not allowing his presence to define her, by being someone whether or not he’s there. Plus, she is herself, even when she is with him.


Second, weak moments do not make a weak character. In fact, sometimes it’s through moments of weakness that she can truly grow and find her strength. A tiny example of this in my current WIP: One of my main character’s biggest pet peeves is when people call her by a certain nickname. She spends the first chapters correcting people and insisting they use her full name. So why, when she starts falling for the guy who takes her breath away, does she let him use the nickname that she always hated? Because she’s falling in love and unsure and overwhelmed and letting herself give into that moment of weakness. But when she realizes it and in a simple moment says, “Hey, call me Abigail, I prefer it,” she (and readers) are reminded of what’s important to her. This return to self, while a minor example, is a small way to demonstrate that girls don’t have to lose themselves or what they want, just because they’re falling in love.


Third, the teen years are tough. Awkward, unsure and with a wavering or sinking confidence for many, girls and guys. So creating characters that reflect those insecurities is okay, too. It’s realistic and doesn’t mean someone’s weak if they haven’t quite figured out who they are yet. It only makes them weak if they leave it to someone else to decide.

Remember that a lot of our audience will be teen girls. They are reading in the years that they are growing into the women they will become. And while reading is often for pleasure and entertainment, we should create characters that are someone to look up to, or at the very least, ones who show that it’s okay – above all else – to be true to themselves.

Sometimes, being badass is on the inside.


And check out what other super YA writers/bloggers have to say on this topic:

Debra Driza

ChristaCarol Jones
Tracey Martin
Gretchen McNeil

Shveta Thakrar

21 comments:

  1. Loved this. You nailed it - she can be head over heels, but the LI shouldn't define her.

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  2. Way to go on this post! LOVED IT! That's a fine line that sometimes I'm disappointed in reading in an otherwise great book.

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  3. I LOVE your last line "Sometimes, being badass is on the inside." Perfect. And I love your points, especially having weak moments, and not having others define you. Great stuff, Jenn!

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  4. Great post, Jenn. And a wonderful point that weak moments do no a weak character make.

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  5. Great post, Jenn! And I love the Abigail example--that's brilliant! A really important post, too, bc the truth is--a big chunk of teen girls' lives is usually spent thinking about boys. The key is not to lose yourself while in love--true for any age.

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  6. What's wonderful about a good love story, to me, is that there is an element of vulnerability inherent in the process. And it takes a strong girl to allow herself to fall in love...

    And an even stronger one to get the hell out when it's bad. JUST SAYIN'!

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  7. "Falling in love doesn’t mean losing yourself and that is where we separate the strong from the weak."

    YEEEEESSSSSSSSSS.

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  8. This is excellent. Very useful advice. I agree that falling in love doesn't make a character weak, but when she gives up everything for the guy, including who she is as a person, then it's not healthy (and frustrating for readers who want her to be strong!) Thanks for posting!

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  9. This is such a great post! I definitely agree that falling in love does not make a character "weak." This line is my favorite:

    "Falling in love doesn’t mean losing yourself and that is where we separate the strong from the weak."

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  10. Great post! I'm trying to harness strength in my MC too. This post is so timely!

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  11. Blogger hates me today and I have tried to comment on several other posts without success. But what I was going to say was essentially this, that you said: She’s strong by not allowing his presence to define her, by being someone whether or not he’s there. I think this is where some fiction (and not just YA) crosses the line into wimpy-heroineland. There are many forms of strength, as all the bloggers have pointed out. The difference is, a "strong" female character needs a sense of agency -- a sense of SELF.

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  12. Really enjoyed your post--so true. Girls need strong role models and not just the ones that go out and kick ass. They need to see other girls who can hold their own, know how to speak their minds, and won't disappear into a relationship just because they're in love.

    I agree with Other Lisa: they need to show a strong sense of self.

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  13. This is just great. And I think its not so much where they start as it is where they finish. As long as the distance between the two marks is significant the writer has made the character stronger and true.

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  14. Hey, Jennifer!!!

    I just tagged you on my blog!

    Loved this post A LOT, by the way.

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  15. Hello Jennifer! Great advice here, completely agree about making a character real. And I must confess, am also a huge Red Hot Chili's fan!

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  16. Great post! I really like how you outlined the strong female character. I'd add another trait: she might not be able to kick somebody's butt, but she's got a brain.

    I think you addressed what I don't like about some female MC's in books with romance: once they fall for the guy, they don't have any other hobbies or interests...or friends. It's like she drops everything for him and never picks it back up again.

    Cool blog! :)

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  17. Thanks. I am writing a fantasy between a sailor and a mermaid/siren. It will be an erotica novel but isn't coming along. Not at all. I have been stuck in their first meeting for two years! Things will progress pretty quickly...

    But thank you for this... It may help me.!

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