So, I had a brief Twitter discussion with Jolene Perry (@JoleneBPerry – awesome writer, awesome lady, FOLLOW her) about strong female characters, and their struggle to achieve the same recognition as strong male characters. This has been a big subject for me ever since I started writing The Year of Lightning, yet I realized I haven’t spoken much about it although the book’s been finished for several months.
The two main characters are twins, one boy and one girl, and for the first time I found myself writing half of a big story from the perspective of a teenage girl that I wanted readers to embrace just as much as the boy. A girl that I wanted to be strong, but also to feel like a real human and not just some cookie-cutter “strong female” archetype. Large portions of my character development time went toward making her read authentically.
Here’s what I wanted for the character of Valentine Gilbert. First and foremost, I wanted her to be three-dimensional – to feel like a real person with inner struggles, hopes, passions, and the insecurities of youth. I wanted the reader to experience how big her heart was, even though it had been damaged. At times, I wanted her to feel lost in the mire of both her own emotions and the external threats of the story, wondering if there was a way out. Through all that, though, I wanted her to have a core strength that would shine through more and more as the story progressed. As she was assaulted from all sides, I wanted everything she was to distill into power that she had to discover inside, and I wanted to be along for the ride while that happened. In between those intense moments, I wanted to see her joke and have fun with her brother, and to see what made her truly happy. If I could show her inner beauty and vulnerability, yet let that fuel the strength she would eventually find, then hopefully the readers would come to love her as much as I did.
I see so many writers make the mistake of equating “strong female character” with an abrasive or generally unpleasant nature, all sharp edges and emotional disconnection. To me, though, a character’s real strength isn’t about the shell that she shows the rest of world. It isn’t about how quickly she can verbally eviscerate another character, how hardened her feelings can become, or how many punches she can take before falling down. It’s about the moment when all that she is – hope, anger, insecurity, determination – rises up and coalesces into a bright star of stalwart power. When despite every force arrayed against her, she stands up to her enemy and says, “You will not get past me today.” And then, when danger fades and life resumes, she digs deep and finds the strength to smile again. To be vulnerable, to love, and to let herself be loved back.
How well did these ideas work? Did I really succeed in crafting the character I wanted? I feel like it’s more the readers’ job to make that assessment, but personally, I’m pretty proud of Valentine as a character. For those of you who’ve beta read for me, feel free to chime in with your thoughts on Valentine in the comments below. Everyone else, what do you think it takes to make great, strong female characters? Who are some of your favorites?
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