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The "not like other girls" trope is pretty common in young adult fiction, arguably misogynistic, and usually applied to a female protagonist or love interest. Attempts to make a female character strong and unique can very easily end up in this territory, even if the author didn't intend to write their female character like that.

I write superpowered female characters in YA sci-fi/romance fiction, and I want them to be strong, independent, unique girls, without straying into "not like other girls!!!" territory. I don't want them to be copy/paste characters, predictable in nature, or an acre of water an inch deep, per se. How do I keep my characters unique and avoid this trope?

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    I suppose if the trope is that these strong, unique women aren't like other girls, then trying to make them like other girls would avoid that, right? – BKlassen Apr 1 at 16:56
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    Is that "superpowered" literal? – NofP Apr 1 at 18:06
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    @weakdna: I'm not sure I understand the concern. If you don't want to use that trope, then just... don't use it? Do you have a problem that arises when you try not to use it? – Nicol Bolas Apr 2 at 0:23
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    "YA" = "Young Adult"? – Nat Apr 2 at 6:37
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    @Nat Yup – mcalex Apr 2 at 7:46

13 Answers 13

76

If you want to avoid showing a character as "not like other girls" then make sure your "other girls" aren't stereotypical.

The trope shows up with female characters who don't fit in. They don't have a lot of female friends, if any. When they do the stuff they like to do, they're surrounded by men. You can praise these characters all you want but the sexism sticks. Because they're doing these fun, intellectual, deeply felt things because they're different.

Don't make them different.

Make your female characters just like some other girls and very different from others. And just like some boys and very different from others. In real life, there's a mix anyway.

Our culture does steer kids from a very young age into male and female roles and activities (even when the parents don't, even when you don't think it's happening), so you'll have some lopsidedness. And that's okay. But for any large group where the social gender pressures aren't too extreme, you will have various genders doing all sorts of things and acting all sorts of ways. Show that.

Girls who like stuff that is more commonly done by boys will seek out other girls who like it too. It's only in TV shows that these girls have no female friends. Ditto boys who like "girl" stuff. Sure, maybe there are some exceptions, but it's not common.

If your female characters aren't actually doing things that most people would identify as "boy stuff", and it's just that they're strong and independent, and that is what makes them "not like other girls," then your problem isn't with your main characters but with your supporting cast. Not everyone is strong, not everyone is independent, but that has little to nothing to do with gender.

Write true to life and balance your characters out. That's how to avoid stereotypes.

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    +1 I'd give this 5 upvotes if I could. Not making all the other characters into a bunch of flat, boring stereotypes is key, as is not clinging to outdated gender roles. – Evil Sparrow Apr 1 at 22:21
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    Again, not what I'm saying. And also part of the stereotype. – Cyn Apr 1 at 23:29
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    @RonJohn When you write a story, don't you have secondary or tertiary characters who you know and understand but you don't have the space or time to flesh them out fully? Characters who the main characters interact with, hang out with, see at school and events, do their sports or hobbies with, live with, etc. – Cyn Apr 1 at 23:32
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    @RonJohn: "If you're a woman who doesn't like to do what "all" (note the quotes!) the other women like to do then... you won't have many female friends." From my personal experience, not true. You can have a woman who never wears make up and can't walk on high heels be very good friends with women who can't live without make-up and high heels. The bond between such women is not make-up and heels, it's other things: cinema, kids, sport, gossip... anything! – Sara Costa Apr 2 at 0:39
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    @RonJohn: I'm the 'not like the other girls' friend. I'm the weird one. At school, I was the outlier. But my friends liked me for my friendliness, even if there was mockery about it (not a bully way). My best friend these days can't understand one thing of what I like. Not books, not history, not culture beyond soap operas. I can't understand her fierce obsession with family and soap operas. But we both accept our differences and we love hanging out together because we can talk about anything that troubles us. We bond over trust. Like I said above, women can bond over anything. Choose one. – Sara Costa Apr 2 at 9:03
26

Embrace the opposite of the trope.

Is there some reason Supergirl cannot love talking fashion, and own ten pairs of shoes?

Is there some reason a brilliant chemist must also be mousy and withdrawn?

There is no reason a brain surgeon can't be emotional about receiving unexpected flowers on her anniversary.

Whatever a woman's superpowers are, there is no reason they should preclude anything ELSE in her personality, so go ahead and make her a plausible woman first, and add her superpower as more of a tool she can use when it is necessary.

The superpower may have some influence on her personality; but I'd make it more like "Hey, I'm really good at math!" and not like "I'm good at math so I must be a nerd and wear glasses and dress in a gray sack."

Find (Invent) opportunities for her to express her femininity, so she IS like other girls; and at the same time IS NOT like other girls; which probably applies to MOST girls; they all likely deviate significantly from the average in some trait or another.

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    Or, so that you don't fall into the trope of "girls can be strong and feminine" (which ignores that nearly all media about strong girls has them be fairly feminine, with the exception of Brienne of Tarth) you can have your Supergirl have friends she cares about who are like that, she can appreciate that some girls like makeup without having to be into it herself. – David Rice Apr 1 at 20:15
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    @DavidRice Not what I said. And would make her "not like other girls"! You can write your own answer, you know. My advice is to make them feminine. I live amongst young men and women; there are distinct differences between them in terms of interests and topics of conversation, in attention to grooming and fashion. These are overlapping distributions, but they have differences. So my advice is to embrace the femininity of a female character and show she IS like other girls, despite any enhancements or disabilities or both. What's wrong with Supergirl wanting to wear lipstick or eyeliner? – Amadeus Apr 1 at 20:35
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    there's nothing wrong with having Supergirl wear lipstick - it's just that's a pretty standard, normal, common, overdone trope. The way to subvert the trope of not-like-other-girls isn't just to make her similar to other girls, but to make her not disdain girliness in other women - to support her female friends whether they're into fashion or transformers or soap operas or sports. – David Rice Apr 1 at 20:53
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    @DavidRice If that's your opinion; write your own answer. It is not a terrible idea, it just is not the advice I choose to give. I don't consider wearing lipstick an "overdone trope", a super-majority of the women I know wear lipstick. It is common IRL. A woman that does not is quite distinctly "not like other girls," and the whole point of this particular game is to avoid that label. The OP is not asking for general advice on writing a tolerant female character. And clearly, if she engages in girliness herself, she is showing that she doesn't disdain it. – Amadeus Apr 1 at 21:39
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    From your answer I couldn't help but think of Legally Blonde. – Shufflepants Apr 1 at 23:29
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"Strong and independent" does not have to mean "behaves in a masculine way."

  • Strong can simply be "has healthy self-esteem and doesn't rely on third parties for her self-image."
  • Independent can similarly be "doesn't require a romantic relationship and/or partner to be happy" (even if she has one, she doesn't need it).

These characteristics mean the person is whole, unto herself, and doesn't need to be part of someone else's plot. Your character can be a delicate Southern belle, a Brooklyn bulldyke, a Beach Boys tribute band singer, a biologist, a grumpy babushka, a blind dogwalker, a brine-soaked sailor, a ballerina, a biographer, or any combination thereof and be "strong and independent."

Does each character have her own arc? Does she have her own life and her own interests she is pursuing? Does she do things which don't have anything to do with the main plot of the book or any of the other characters? That is what makes her unique.

15

The thing you're seeking to avoid is creating a character who is nothing but an inverted collection of stereotypes.

That's arguably better than just relying on the original stereotypes, but not by all that much. You avoid this by putting the work in to create a three dimensional character. Some typical advice for doing this is:

  • Give her a complete backstory (not in the story, but in your mind)
  • Do the research (interview, study, read about, or otherwise get into the head of someone like your character)
  • Make sure she's not just serving a functional purpose in your story. Samuel Delany suggests guarding against this by giving your character three types of actions --purposeful (goal oriented), habitual (characteristic of this particular character), and "gratuitous" (related to a life outside the framework of the story).
12

Start by understanding that a girl with super-powers is a girl just like any other girl except with added super-powers.

Then understand that it is perfectly normal for girls to be capable and competent. And that those are qualities you learn from experience. So your characters would over time grow to be capable, competent and confident. Gender actually has no impact on this.

You probably should acknowledge that we live in a society where it is still somewhat awkward for young women to express being confident and capable. There are studies that suggest that in subjects such as maths girls do worse in mixed groups.

Incidentally this is also not specifically a gender issue. It is part of the process of growing up and building up your adult self. Both genders actually have the same issue. The difference is that boys are specifically told they should be confident and "man up".

The role models for girls that are pushed otoh... Fortunately you can solve this fairly easily simply by providing your girls with some adult women they can look up to.

This moves your issue from characters in focus to background characters. Your main characters would not really need to know or care if these role models fit into the trope, so you do not need to show readers either.

So I'd go with ordinary girls with super-powers, normal growing up issues with self-confidence, and good role models. Then show them organically growing into whatever you wanted them to be without changing into another character.

That incidentally is a common issue with these types of stories. If you start with the super-hero and then insert "the backstory", it is very easy to end up with two different characters. So you should make sure that the pre-powered character has enough development that carries over.

Classic Spider-Man is probably the best example why this matters, it is actually Uncle Ben and Aunt May who made Spider-Man not a radioactive spider. (And that one selfish moment that makes certain that making Spider-Man give up is well beyond the reach of normal super-villains.)

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    "we live in a society where it is still somewhat awkward for young women to express being confident and capable." The society my daughter lives in swoops down upon girls who don't say "I love math, and am going to be an engineer!" and sends her to a re-education camp. – RonJohn Apr 2 at 0:07
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    @RonJohn I think that actually qualifies as being awkward, don't you? If we were comfortable with girls liking math and engineering we would not do things like that. – Ville Niemi Apr 2 at 0:21
  • @RonJohn Basically, and I know this is unfashionable, I think of things like this using the old Hegelian thesis-antithesis-synthesis model. It doesn't actually directly work but it helps understanding when you realize that rejecting something is not the actual solution, it is just a step that allows you to look for it. And on this topic we are still looking. – Ville Niemi Apr 2 at 0:26
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    Ville, I must have done a poor job explaining my point: the society my daughter lives in is the opposite of "a society where it is still somewhat awkward for young women to express being confident and capable." They are, in fact, expected to say it even if they aren't. – RonJohn Apr 2 at 0:30
  • @RonJohn Yes, I understood you perfectly. My point is that that is not really any less awkward and it is a symptom of the exact same issue of us not being comfortable with it. I explain why I think of the matter this way in my previous comment but obviously you do not need to do the same. But my answer was written by somebody (me) who does think like that so you should understand what I meant with that line with that in mind. Do you think I should add the explanation to the answer or is us discussing it in the comments enough? – Ville Niemi Apr 2 at 0:37
8

I get worried when I see the word strong followed, with or without independent, by female character(s). I think it bespeaks a fundamental misunderstanding of how characterisation works. I feel this is required reading for anyone who wants to understand how to write female characters well - that's the operative word. Here's the key observation:

I think the major problem here is that women were clamoring for “strong female characters,” and male writers misunderstood. They thought the feminists meant [Strong Female] Characters. The feminists meant [Strong Characters], Female.

So feminists shouldn’t have said “we want more strong female characters.” We should have said “we want more WEAK female characters.” Not “weak” meaning “Damsel in Distress.” “Weak” meaning “flawed.”

And then the author, Shana Mlawski, herself a YA novelist, finishes with some examples of (SCs) F that work and why.

(See also this webcomic, discussed here.)

Our job as writers is not so much to look up which human traits are "strong" and bundle them onto your characters; it's to make sure the characterisation itself, including character development*, is competent. Can I believe a real human would have this bundle of virtues and vices, given where they came from and what they've been through? Does it make me want to root for them (or against, if they're the antagonist)? Can I believe, given all that they are, what they end up doing?

* When it comes to character development, there are at least three viable "arcs"; just see what works for you.

The last two novels I finished writing each have a 10-year-old female protagonist, but apart from both being smart they've got very little in common. One of them is so good at manipulating others she feels a conflict in herself, fighting not to do anything too evil. It's not a fight she always wins. (I don't blame her, given occasional but serious reasons the world has given her to turn angry.) The other is a continually downtrodden child who starts to benefit from others' kindness, but feels so guilty about not taking the reins much herself that, when she does have only-she-can-fix-it situations, she's willing to do increasingly brave things as part of them, eventually risking her own life.

Attempts to make a female character strong and unique

aren't likely to be unique. It's just an archetype now. Doctor Who marketing often acts as if it's something new that a female companion is like that. It's not unique at all. The first episode of new Who saw Rose Tyler solve a problem by swinging from a cable. And frankly, her successors aren't even following in her footsteps; they're following in those of practically every companion, regardless of gender, the Doctor has ever had.

I want them to be strong, independent, unique girls, without straying into "not like other girls!!!" territory. I don't want them to be copy/paste characters, predictable in nature, or an acre of water an inch deep, per se. How do I keep my characters unique and avoid this trope?

Every person, real or fictional, is somewhere on a bell curve for intelligence, somewhere else for physical strength, somewhere else again for her opinion on politics, or fashion, or whatever. The challenge in characterisation is to think about who they are from every angle one can see the story having to look at.

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    Now this is the crux of it. It's not strong female characters you need to think about. It's quality female characters(1). Where it fits their characterisation to make them strong, make them strong. Where it fits their characterisation to make them weak, do that instead. Just make them proper rounded characters, who are female. *(1) Initially I wrote 'good female characters', but that falls into the same ambiguity as 'strong', and we might end up with a whole raft of goody-two-shoes female characters as the next big thing. – Ynneadwraith Apr 2 at 14:23
  • I've edited my answer because it was, on reflection, too confrontational. I'm open to further suggestions on how it should be improved. – J.G. Apr 2 at 14:27
  • It didn't read as particularly confrontational to me to begin with, but it is less now :) the only thing I'd do is add a short bolded title to it. People seem to like short bolded titles ;) – Ynneadwraith Apr 2 at 14:46
5

If they have literal superpowers they are already unlike their peers.

Hm, Susan flew to school. She’s not like the girls I know.

If she is a strong character who has opinions and flaws, is wrong and willing to admit it, but more often right - don’t worry too much.

Superpowers introduce another level of fantasy. Nuclear fallout makes us stronger instead of killing us.

Make her a well rounded character with problems, preferably not all of the answers and make her engaging.

Give her thoughts. Make her a pond, not a large puddle. Make her think about what she and others do. Have her own and respond to her mistakes, but as she is young, she does not know everything - might thinks she does. Give her room for personal growth and show it.

Puddle characters only reflect outward, the pond or lake takes that reflection and internalizes it.

She makes a mistake and learns from it. She might not begin with great depth, but it can develop. She learns that there is no such dichotomy in life as good/evil and that life is complicated.

4

Just be aware that almost everything is trope/stereotype of some sort: https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/AlwaysFemale

One of the best ways to mitigate that is to make sure there are MANY women -- Buffy in Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a classic "strong & female" character, but she's so into "normalcy" that in s3, she competes to be homecoming queen. But there's also Cordelia, a rich "girlygirl" who also is amazingly direct and honest about what she wants. Willow, Faith, Tara, Anya, Jenny Calendar -- all are very different type of women. By the nature of the show, they have some superpowers (magic via chemistry, magic via witchcraft, technopagan, demon-life), and they take different elements of the patriarchy and adopt or rebel against them. Anya loves capitalism and heterosexual sex. Jenny goes to Burning Man.

In my own real life, I've noticed I hated pink, partially because I was rebelling against what I was supposed to like...until I started trying to cosplay Delores Umbridge...suddenly I'm looking at all the pink in Goodwill and finding... I like it! Not all pinks, but quite a few look good on me. So often there's a struggle between figuring out one's OWN tastes, the current social-group's tastes, the over-arching society's tastes, etc.

Another, less-gendered example: So many of my friends love Firefly, but I don't care what in-jokes I won't get: I'm just not interested. Am I trying to be "not like those other SF fans?" Have I just not encountered the right podcast to make me reconsider? I really don't know. A lot of people locally are upset that a local Dr. Who convention died, and they don't want a general SF con to take its place: are they trying to say they're better/different than all the other fans? Or is it that these are the type of fans that whichever fandom they found (Baseball, Roman history, antique cars), they'd want a deep focus, and not be interested in "sports", "history," or "transit"?

The best way is, especially since it's YA, is 1) have multiple characters, so no one person is The Representative Whatever (woman, person of color) and 2) have the characters recognize that they're struggling with this. As YA protagonists, trying on identities is pretty normal; as superpowered ones, expressing that via costumes and variant names can really display this!

4

Just make the other female characters also non-stereotypical.

If your female lead is insterested in Dungeons & Dragons, perhaps some of her female friends are also interested in Dungeons & Dragons.
If your female lead doesn't wear lipstick or makeup, perhaps some of the other female characters also don't wear makeup.

If a number of the female characters "aren't like the other girls" then it becomes much harder for the lead character to be "not like the other girls".

Also, go very careful with aiming for "strong, independent, unique". If you stop to look, you'll find that's actually very normal/common among female characters. In general you'd be harder pressed to find a character (male or female) who isn't any or all of the above.

Also "unique" and "but not 'not like the other girls'" are contradictory.
If a character is unique then by definition they are "not like other people".

Lastly, being "not like the other girls" (or "not like the other guys") isn't inherantly a bad thing.
It's an expression of one character's opinion of another character, it's not necessarily true (because it's inherantly subjective) and it's not necessarily insulting (it depends how the receiving character feels about the statement).
A character is more likely to feel insulted by it if "being like the other guys/girls" is something they actually want or strive for, and/or they're insecure about their differences.

0

I personally see no need to avoid the "Not like other girls" trope, or to avoid "not like other boys", or even to avoid "not like other humans".

It seems to me that a very eccentric character can seem strong and confident by not being overly worried by how different or similar they may be compared to other humans.

0

"How do I avoid not like other girls?"

Don't bother. As long as your character never says those words, it should be fine. Women are not a monolith. They can have differences from other women. Characteristics and aptitude can come in almost any combination as well.

You can also use foils. Foils are great, especially if you really want to confront this idea for some reason.

One thing I'll warn you about is that seeking to avoid making your female characters no like other girls can easily end up putting you in a spot where you accidentally make Sakura from Naruto. Make sure the characters are good first, and relatable second.

0

Make many/most of the other girls also strong but not in the same way.

When I went to high school, there were 2-3 girls who were the mousy pushover type. Given the probably number of girls in my high school, those were, by far, the exception.

Make most of the other girls be the "I'm not gonna take that cr** from anyone" type.

Also, make the other girls (and boys unless you want to make a boy bashing story) competent.

Even if the MC is the only one with super powers, it doesn't mean that she's the only one with something going for her.

Example:

One girl works out a lot (martial arts, cheer leading or sports). She will never be "super" strong but that doesn't stop her from trying. She might see the MC's strength as a goal to strive toward, she might be resentful of the massive "cheat," or she might have some other motivation. You don't have to even go that far. Just show a large number of girls who have fun and socialize as they work out.

That was just picking the low hanging fruit of physical strength but I hope it makes my point.

Another thing that you can do is have the MC share the same interests as several of the other girls. Have her not isolate herself by writing her to not have the same interests.

Have people know about her powers but not treat her any different.

If I had suddenly gotten Superman's powers in high school, the typical jock of my high school would have looked at me and said something like, "yeah, you could bench press me and the gym I'm standing in but you are still a nerd." The jocks in my school were not the stereotypical bullies but, generally, self assured and nice guys. It was the wannabe jocks that you had to watch out for.

0

Show, don't tell. Write a set of arguably challenging situations where the character is tested. Her decisions and reasoning behind said decisions are what makes a good character. As a reader I don't want to read "I bought red shoes because I like them, giggle" but rather gritty, petty or otherwise symbolic reason. I want to explore a character and not be given a bunch of quirks that mean nothing or change by the flip of the pen.

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