I've heard people talk about how they don't like the 'strong female character' story in hero movies because they're written bad, but how is a good strong female character written?

  • 1
    Easy: Write a male character, than when you finish the story, go back and change the pronouns from "He/Him" to "She/Her". Yes, I know it's a bit problematic, but I find a lot of the bad "strong female characters" are the ones who exhibit negative traits and behaviors that society would never tolerate from a male character filling the same role.
    – hszmv
    Feb 9, 2023 at 20:22
  • @hszmv Heh heh. I'm flashing on the scene from "As Good as it Gets" where Jack Nicholson explains how he writes female characters. Pretty sure it would get deleted if I quoted it.
    – Boba Fit
    Feb 10, 2023 at 13:22
  • @BobaFit: I'm unfamiliar with the film. Sorry. For me, one of my favorite female heroes I ever wrote is one of my favorite heroes I ever wrote... and she started her character life as an intended male character.
    – hszmv
    Feb 10, 2023 at 13:51
  • In the movie, Jack is a writer of romance novels. The kind with cover art showing a lot of men with no shirt holding women in ripped lace. Here he is leaving his publisher's office when the secretary, a fan, asks him a question. youtube.com/watch?v=pBz0BTb83H8
    – Boba Fit
    Feb 10, 2023 at 13:59
  • This question needs clarity. Currently way too broad, and fishing for opinion answers. Add details: genre, archetype, setting, or any narrative information at all that suggests this is more than troll bait.
    – wetcircuit
    Feb 10, 2023 at 18:25

2 Answers 2


To start, I'd say do not give an excuse for why she is "strong". Don't make her a lesbian as if that explains it (it doesn't, there are plenty of feminine lesbians).

You don't have to make her stronger, bigger or taller than most women.

Avoid giving her stereotypically "male" characteristics; she doesn't have to be rude or intimidating or socially inept or whatever.

What makes her strong, while being a woman, is her confidence.

She is not shy, and she has opinions. She doesn't defer to others unless she is wrong, but she can admit she is wrong or was wrong without feeling that changes her standing or her right to continue being in charge. Even if she is physically weaker than a man, this doesn't mean she needs to be subordinate to men.

If she has power she is not afraid to use it.

A strong male lead character knows who they are, what they are capable of, and doesn't really question their standing.

Think of Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory, along with Leonard Hofstetder. Sheldon is written as a strong male, despite being physically weaker with weird phobias and quirks. But he is unapologetic about these, he still assumes he is in charge and other people will listen to him. His power is his ability, and he very seldom questions his rank in any group, from his friends to his professional life.

Leonard is written as a weak male. Easily pushed around, always apologetic, fearful of confrontation, and pathologically deferential to others. (Even though he is the primary character in this show.)

Penny is a strong female, Amy is a weak female, usually deferential and uncertain (except in her professional life) and fearful of new things.

Penny is unapologetic about how she lives her life (or her promiscuous love life), she is like Sheldon in seldom being deferential, always being opinionated and confident. She always assumes she belongs in any setting. She is beautiful and sexy and she knows it.

In groups, Penny is often the center (imagine the scenes with Penny, Bernadette and Amy -- Penny is typically in a leadership position; either facing the other two side by side, or sitting in a separate chair while they both sit on the couch, etc).

The gender and sexual preferences do not matter. Characters are strong because they are not afraid of being themselves, they are confident in themselves, and they seldom consider anybody their better, despite whatever flaws or weaknesses they know they have.

Write your woman the same way. She is in charge, even when she isn't technically in charge. Have other characters defer to her, as Bernadette and Amy defer to Penny. She is confident and she knows what to do or what needs to be done. She doesn't have to be a bully, neither Penny or Sheldon are; but other characters listen to them.

It is similar to the way you should write a beautiful female character -- You don't have to describe her at all, ever. She is beautiful because of the way other characters respond to her. She walks through a restaurant, and heads turn as if she is a movie star.

You write a strong woman the same way -- You don't have to say she is strong, or confident. You just show it. She acts strong and confident, and all your other characters treat her as strong and confident.

  • 1
    In short, by writing a confident, unapologetic character, same as strong male ones. And as always: show, don't tell.
    – Negdo
    Feb 10, 2023 at 12:34
  • 1
    I wouldn't say "unapologetic". It is true that subordinate characters (including women IRL) tend to apologize more than strong characters, but a strong confident character can certainly apologize, sincerely, if they have made a mistake. That is one thing that confidence enables; they can admit their mistakes without any fear of losing social rank or power or their position of authority. "You were right, I was wrong. Sorry about that, I'm glad you caught it."
    – Amadeus
    Feb 10, 2023 at 17:57

So I think where the problem arises from is twofold. I'll ignore the "pass the torch" moments where a female character replaces a male character wholey, because some of the upset might be due to fans who don't like changes to their show in general. Where I see the big complaints stem from one of two problems that tends to come up.

First is that female heroes in traditionally male heroic roles have a tendency to devote time to showing they are better than the male characters. Now, this is not a bad thing, as yes, on an individual level, a female professional athlete is going to be better than a man who works at a desk job for a living at that particular sport. However, when the story shows this to excess, it can come off as mean spirited towards men and if done exceptionally poorly, the female character can say or do something towards male characters that, if the genders were reversed would be shockingly sexist and no writer would dare claim their hero would act in such a way. The way to avoid this is to make sure your character builds others up, and does nothing to put people down. One example I give of how to do this correctly, is from the 2017 Wonder Woman film, during a Criminally Underrated scene where the character Charlie, who is dealing with some PTSD from the things he's had to do during the war, tells the group that he's quitting the squad... he's afraid of what this war has done to him... of what he's become because of it. All the men protest this, but no one can say anything to Charlie to convince him to stay, save for Wonder Woman, who knows Charlie the least. "But Charlie," she asks, "who will sing for us?"

Here, Wonder Woman isn't calling Charlie out for quitting, nor offering platitudes of "one more job and after this, we all go home." nor play to his masculinity. Those won't work. Charlie needs some humanity. She is telling Charlie that he was asked here because of reasons that have nothing to do with his sniping skills and that he has talents that contribute to the team and are useful off the battle. She is telling Charlie what the rest of his friends are trying to say... "You are a better person than you think you are, and that is why nobody wants you to go."

And what's more, while it may be precieved as Wonder Woman's felinity being far superior to the male characters in this job, it's more due to Wonder Woman's innocent nature that she says this... because she didn't pull it out of her ass... not a scene earlier, while celebrating a major victory and the first time such a victory had been seen in a long time, she is talking with the team lead, Steve Trevor, when Charlie starts to sing and Steve expresses joy at hearing Charlie's singing for the first time in very long time. Charlie's singing is a sign he is getting better to his comrades, all of whom are very worried about his depression. They want him there... because they worry about him when he isn't... and they know he's suffering... and they want to be there when he gets better. In this moment, Wonder Woman is being "one of the boys." They are committed to helping Charlie. So is she.

The second reason this often is criticized is that often times, the use of a "strong female hero" is used as poor shield to deflect criticism of the work of fiction that may be valid complaints. This isn't just a tactic used with female characters, as characters that add more diversity to the show frequently are used in this way, where someone complains about a show (often poor creative decisions that open plot holes, contradict lore, or just bad storytelling in general) is responded to by the work's defenders as the complainer being bigoted against the (in the case of this question) female character. This happens more in works where a female character was brought in to fill a role traditionally held by a male character. Consider the excitement of Doctor Who fans when it was announced that Peter Capaldi was stepping down from the role of the 12th Doctor. Fan Polling showed that more members of the fandom was hoping that the 13th Doctor would be played by a Woman... a first in the 50+ year history of the character. When it was announced that it would be, fans were hyped (I'll admit I was disappointed... I wanted a different actress to be the first female doctor). But 13's time in the Tardis marked period where fans stopped watching enmass, over the noticeable drop in quality in the writing, a lack of any classic Who monsters in the first of 13s seasons, and a tonal shift back to the early days of the series, when it was intended to be a kids show. It didn't help that the lead writer, who had penned much of the revival show's best scripts, had stepped down and was replaced by a writer who had no experience in Scifi. But if you believed the writing staff, it was all because the fans hated the idea that the doctor was a woman (Again... fan polling had shown that Fans wanted 13 to be a woman... and in fact, before Peter Capaldi was given the role of the 12th Doctor, fans wanted the 12th doctor to be played by a woman... and they loved the character of Missy, who was a female reincarnation of the classic villain the Master... this incarnation is considered to be one of the best versions of the character too.). This only turned off the fans more, as not only was it clear the missteps weren't getting addressed, it was very offensive to many that the Male writer was defending himself by throwing his lead actress under the bus (To my personal knowledge, the 13th doctor's character was one of the few aspects of this show's era that didn't get a complaint) and many fans felt that the actress was done dirty by having to be associated with an era of poorly written storylines. A similar situation came up with Rey, from the Star Wars sequel films, who, between episode 7 and 8 was wildly popular by fans, who ironically, learned their lesson almost a decade earlier when Asoka Tano was introduced as one of the protagonists for the Clone Wars cartoons. Then, fans were skeptical because it was clear she would be Anakin's Padawan who was never discussed in the films up to this point... and the last film with Anakin's character in it, showed his first act of on screen evil as killing Jedi who were probably 5 years old and looking to him to save them. It didn't matter to fans what gender Anakin's Padawan was... having the future slayer of younglings as a teacher of a young Jedi didn't sit well with fans. And Asoka was initially an annoying character in the show's initial season. However, this was largely part of her character arch, and by the show's much delayed 7th season, not only did Asoka star in the finale, the fans wept for her. It's hard to believe the creative staff were being upfront when the fans started complaining about episode 8 and they blamed them on hating Rey because she was a woman. Especially knowing that the fans have been awaiting the promised live action Asoka series for years.

  • I don't think this is a particularly good answer: it's hard to find any practical advice hiding in all this verbiage. Feb 10, 2023 at 15:31
  • @TobySpeight The TR;DR is that most of the rejection come because the "strong female hero" is written in way where bad behavior that isn't tolerated in male counterparts is defended as good behavior AND the female character is not the reason why the story is not enjoyed but the writer(s) rather than listen to criticism tries to deflect it by countering that the criticism is solely because the character is female. Avoiding these things does tend to produce likeable characters.
    – hszmv
    Feb 10, 2023 at 15:47

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