Let’s talk about the writing “strong” female characters phenomenon. As a writer, I enjoy creating multilayered characters, especially characters that show growth over the course of a story. However, I don’t necessarily set out to write a character that is strong (physically and/or emotionally). I try to craft my female protagonist to be intuitively recognizable to my readers—meaning that they can in some way identify with her. She’s tangible and authentic, just as they are. Heroines in books especially for teens become role models, whether we want them to be or not, and I think writers have some responsibility to be conscious of that. People look up to these characters and connect with them, or sometimes, it’s the opposite. That said, I don’t write to teach or preach—that’s a parent’s job! But I would hope that my material would inspire great conversation and/or open doors to communication between teens and parents or within discussion groups. I'm an avid reader of books, young adult books especially, and when I started writing, I knew that I wanted my heroines to be independent, but relatable, because their growth in the story has to be believable. As a reader, you have to connect with the heroine and be willing to be a part of her journey. The heroine’s story has to encompass elements that any reader/teen can accomplish, even if they're not the most powerful witch in the world or a cybernetic super soldier or an alien sea princess. For me, the perfect heroine has to be multidimensional so that readers can find some part of themselves in her.
Since every writer has their own vision of what their heroine is going to be, I can only talk about what I like in my heroines. First off, I’d have to say she would need to have a strong sense of self—she knows exactly who she is (for better or for worse). She has to have confidence, or least gain some along the way through the course of the story. I’d prefer her to be feisty, and have some spunk, but it could turn out to be a front/defense mechanism to hide a fatal flaw. She would be the kind of girl who saves herself, but doesn’t realize that she may also need saving. I like a strong but vulnerable protagonist—one whom the reader can root for when she’s in the middle of a kickass fight scene and empathize with when we start to peel back her layers. Last, but not least, she has to have heart. Some of my favorite heroines are Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games), Hermione Granger (Harry Potter), Fire (Fire), Katsa (Graceling), Arwen (Lord of the Rings) and Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables).
Like all of these amazing, multi-faceted heroines, I wanted to create dynamic characters in my writing who are forced to question everything they are and everything they know. They may be born with special gifts, but learning to accept and use those gifts is part of the challenge. The perfect heroine isn’t necessarily perfect. She’s likeable, she's funny, she's smart, she has a lot of empathy, but she also makes mistakes and does stupid, reckless things sometimes. She is not going to give up even when the odds against her to fail are great. In the end, it’s about celebrating who she is, no matter what. She's a normal person who evolves into someone extraordinary, and that is what makes her strong … it’s the same strength that’s in every girl, the same strength that will inspire all of us women, young and old, to be unique, fierce, and fearless.
That said, not every character is written to be perfect from the get-go. Nerissa from Waterfell is a ruthless, selfish alien princess who wants nothing to do with her people and her throne. She just wants to live and enjoy life without responsibility. This is a teenage phenomenon. I remember being sixteen and terrified of having to live up to my parents’ expectations. Deflection and an indifferent attitude became my best friends. As a writer, I really enjoy being able to explore the flawed and more real facets of my protagonists, especially early on. After all, it’s not only our strengths that make us heroes, it’s also how we handle and overcome our flaws. Nerissa is not perfect by any means. But she really evolves between Waterfell and Oceanborn become someone you can respect and believe in—she becomes the queen she was always destined to be. What I love about Nerissa was her willingness to change the things about herself that needed changing. It’s hard to step back to take a long hard look at yourself and find yourself lacking. She evolves from a selfish princess to a queen her people can be proud of. To me, that takes insane courage because facing and acknowledging your imperfections can be terrifying. As a reader, I enjoy when character arcs show that kind of development. The thing is people are flawed. Many of us are not born to be perfect heroines. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t become them. Like Nerissa, we can evolve. Someone once asked me who my favorite heroine was, and my answer was the Phoenix/Jean Grey. I have no doubt she’s had a lot of influence on the character development of several of my heroines. I love that she embodies life and passion, and as a character, she fascinates me because she is so consumed by her own state of being, which is really neither good nor bad. She defines herself.
With The Almost Girl when I was initially doing my character study for Riven (whose name by the way means ripped apart), I knew that I wanted her to be fierce. After all, she becomes a legion general of an army at the tender age of fourteen (tender by our standards, of course). She comes from a very tough universe, so she has to be the result of that. In Neospes, there’s no room for softness and emotion. Those are the things that can get you killed. As a result, Riven is the perfect product of her environment. She’s a very intense character. I wanted her to be powerful, highly skilled, focused and mature. A soldier first, Riven is hard on the outside but still vulnerable on the inside—I hoped that readers would relate to her struggle throughout the novel to let go of all her rules and be a girl. We build so many walls to keep from being hurt that we don’t allow ourselves to connect with others. As a character, Riven has to dig down deep to embrace her emotions against everything she has been taught. Highly trained, she knows who she is and what she can do, but she comes to understand how to be judicious and compassionate. That’s formidable.
As a female author writing young adult fiction, I try to draw from my own experience and what I went through as a teenager to make my characters more fleshed out and more complex. It isn’t about writing “strong” female characters (or male ones). It’s about writing REAL ones—making them well rounded with both emotional and physical strengths and weaknesses … making them multifaceted and intricate. It’s about giving them challenges and allowing them to rise to meet those challenges. At the end of the day, it’s not about actual strength—it’s about versatility and resilience. It’s about how these characters respond to the things they come up against and how they are shaped by their experiences. That’s the message I want to convey as a writer to the young people (girls and boys) reading my books. Be brave. Be resilient. Believe in yourself and what you can accomplish. Don’t be afraid to be different—one day you’re going to be happy that you’re the exception and not the rule. And never, ever give up. That’s the hallmark of true strength.