Redefining the “Strong Female Character”

I’m currently reading yet another YA book with a “strong female character” who performs crazy physical feats. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great book (Glass Sword by Victoria Aveyard) and I love the action in the book and the main character, Mare. However, I’ve been thinking a lot about all the female heroines and protagonists in many YA books, and while I love female lead characters, most of them have some sort of physical strength.

Katniss Everdeen from Hunger Games? She can hunt, run, fight, and swim. Tris Prior from Divergent? She can throw knives, run, jump, climb, and fight. And all rather magically, considered she was raised in the simple, humble Abnegation faction. I’ve been counting off YA books with such characters, many of whom develop instant physical prowess when confronted with challenges that require strong physical abilities.

Now, most of these characters are also intelligent, strategic, and loving. They’re not all brute. But the problem is that I can’t imagine myself as any of these characters. I’m not athletic or strong. I could never fight or jump or run like these characters do. I would really love to see more books where the “strong female character” is strong because of her intelligence. What would that kind of book look like?

We were traveling today, so in the car I asked my family to brainstorm with me. We thought of all kinds of different problems that would require brains to solve, from a poisonous virus destroying trees to an asteroid hitting Earth to some technological crisis similar to Y2K. It was a fun conversation!

It hit me that this might be another reason why I love Madeleine L’Engle’s female characters so much. They’re smart. They’re strength is in their intelligence, and often, their love. Meg Murry was nerdy and average, but she ended up being the heroine in A Wrinkle in Time. She wasn’t larger than life. She was a normal girl that I can imagine myself being. Yet she still saved her father and little brother.

While I will always love the YA genre and YA “strong female characters,” I want to see more books that paint more realistic girls doing important things in their lives and the lives of others. In the novel I’m currently working on, my main character, Jasmine, is smart, but her intelligence in not necessarily helping her solve a problem. It’s more of a story about finding herself, and her art is actually what helps her comes to terms with who she is. But one day maybe I’ll write a book with a “strong female character” who isn’t unbelievably physically strong, but is still a person who makes a difference.

What YA books have you read with female characters whose strength was something other than their physical feats?

2 comments

  1. I enjoyed this post, although I don’t usually read YA. Maybe the heroines in adult fiction tend to be stronger intellectually than physically. What do you think? I was amused that the protag in Glass Sword is named “Mare,” since that is also the name of the main character in my novel, Cherry Bomb. My mare overcomes adversity and finds healing through art – her own and the mystical world of icons, including a miracle-working icon of Saint Mary of Egypt. Still looking for a publisher!!! Anyway, I always love to read your blog. Keep it up!

    • I remembered your Mare and thought about your book, Susan! A lot of YA books are also fantasy or dystopian, and that’s when the physical heroines usually show up. There are YA realistic fiction books in which the characters are more normal, but the really popular YA books seem to be more of the fantasy types. I do think heroines in adult novels are more intellectual/emotional. I just really love the YA genre and would love to see a greater range of character types in the genre.

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