What Makes a Female Character “Strong”

I see the word “strong” applied to female characters frequently, and in most cases, I agree completely. The thing I think we need to be careful of as book reviewers and bloggers is that that there are many different ways in which a character or person can be strong.

Typically, when I see that term being used in regard to female characters it’s because those characters are warriors, fighters, or able to perform physical tasks that are stereotypically associated with the male gender. That is, of course, a strength. And I’m not saying anything negative about these books, in fact, these are some of my favorites!

But I think it’s important that we aren’t reinforcing the idea that possessing physical strength is the only way in which a girl, or guy, should be strong. Mental and emotional strength are equally important.

As book bloggers, we drive a lot of the initial conversation that is being held about books that are coming out, and the words we use to describe those books are impactful and very important, and in the case of the word “strong,” I think it’s extremely important that we make sure we’re using it in all of its various contexts.

The Merriam-Webster Definition of “Strong”

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As you can see, even the dictionary agrees that physical strength is not the only appropriate use of this word.

Books With Strong Female Characters

Books with Physically Strong Female Characters

Books with Mentally Strong Female Characters

Books with Emotionally Strong Female Characters

There are, of course, so many other books that exemplify strength in these areas, and some of the books I’ve included here include female characters who are strong in more than one way.

When I’m writing reviews in the future, I know I’m going to be more conscientious of using this word in all of its various contexts. Will you?

What are some of your favorite books with strong female characters? What are some other ways you can think of in which the word strong is applicable?


73 thoughts on “What Makes a Female Character “Strong”

  1. What's She Reading? says:

    This is such a great topic to address and I think I definitely need to be a little more careful as well. I think when I describe female characters as being “strong”, I usually mean that they drive the story along themselves–they don’t need a man to do that. I’m sure I’ve used that descriptor a little carelessly though so like I said, I’ll be paying more attention in the future πŸ™‚

    • KrystiYAandWine says:

      Thank you! I’m so glad to have you participate in the conversation! I think the way you’re using it is totally appropriate. I just know personally, I will be saying in what way these characters are strong when I use that term. I don’t want female strength to be equated with the ability to perform stereo-typically masculine tasks. You know?

  2. martina @TheMysteryCorner says:

    I loved the post. I also used strong when the character has suffered something that could have let her down but she surpass it and didnt let it define her. One character I considered strong in this sense is Eve Dallas from the In death series of JD Robb.

    • KrystiYAandWine says:

      Thanks so much! I think that’s another great example of a character showing inner-strength. Strength of character would probably be a great way to describe that. I totally agree that Eve is a great example of that!

    • KrystiYAandWine says:

      Thanks so much! I’m so glad you liked the post. It something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I love stories about strong women as well, stories that depict all the various ways in which women can be strong.

  3. whatcathyreadnext says:

    Really interesting post. I guess there are terms we all get lazy with – use without really thinking about what we actually mean – or that have become a cliche and this is one of them. When you think about it you could find in the classics plenty of examples of female characters who may not be physically strong but drive the action of the book…Jane Eyre, Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, Becky Sharpe in Vanity Fair, etc.

    • KrystiYAandWine says:

      I think you are so right. There are words that become buzz words that we all start using without thinking through their full meanings and implications. Those are some amazing examples of female characters that you shared. Thank you for doing that!

  4. the (book) supplier says:

    I immediately thought of the main character (whose name I can’t remember off the top of my head) from Cheryl Rainfield’s Scars. She’s working through abuse, trying to figure out her sexuality, and dealing with a stalker. And yet, she doesn’t completely fall apart. That’s strength if I ever saw it.

  5. Angelica (TheBookCoverGirls) says:

    Great post! I totally agree. There are so many different types of strengths that get ignored. A strong woman can be anyone so I hate when they are only described as such when they can wield a weapon of some sort. Those were great examples of books with different types of strong women by the way. Again, great post!!

    • KrystiYAandWine says:

      Yes, exactly! That is exactly the point I am trying to make. While I love books with weapon-wielding warrior women, I also love books where the characters display more inner-strength too. There are so many different ways in which people are strong in general and the conversations we have about books should reflect that as well. Thanks so much, Angelica!

  6. meltingpotsandothercalamities says:

    I’m actually doing a series of articles on this topic, and I love that you are addressing it too! I feel like this needs to be talked about more, how there is such a variety of types of strength. And now I have even more books to read.

  7. onceuponabookishnerd says:

    Great post! This will really make me think about the words I use to describe a character the next time I post on my blog.
    Also those are some great books you have posted and I think most of those women are part of more than one strong category.

    • KrystiYAandWine says:

      Thanks so much! I totally agree that a lot of the books I used have a woman, or multiple women, who are strong in more than one way. I think I’m just going to be really specific in my own posts going forward when I discuss the strengths that characters possess. I don’t want to just use that term to mean physically strong or capable of doing things that are typically associated with male characters.

  8. Beware Of The Reader says:

    Hi Kristy 100% agree with you. I woukd add Penryn from Angefall Emma Carstairs from Lady Midnight and Feyre from Making Faces + Eva From Sand and Ash both are morally and emotionally strong. Oh and Kestrel from The Winner’s Curse.

    • KrystiYAandWine says:

      Thank you! I’m so glad to hear that. And I agree this term is applicable in multiple ways to ALL characters. I am just noticing a trend of applying it to female characters in only one way.

  9. Tiana (The Book Raven) says:

    I LOVE this discussion!! Strength is a term that should only be described physically, but it all it’s forms. Celebrating the individual strengths of the characters we love most is important no matter the gender. 😊

    • KrystiYAandWine says:

      Thanks, Tiana! This is something that’s been kind of worrying me for a while, so it’s been so great chatting about it with all of you today! I definitely agree with you. We need to celebrate the individual strength of each character, and specify what the strength is. And we should NOT just be using the word strong female character to apply to physical strengths. I know that’s not how I want to be categorized as a person, so I don’t want to apply it to book characters in that why either.

      • toomuchofabooknerd says:

        It’s so awesome that you think like that! I feel like a lot of people associate being strong with the physical strength but there’s so many other aspects to it and I love that you brought that out in this post! πŸ™‚

    • KrystiYAandWine says:

      Thanks so much, Kim. Hermione is definitely a character that I had in mind when I wrote this. She is strong in so many different ways, but her mental strength is truly what makes her such an important and inspirational literary character for me. Eve Dallas really is another great example.

  10. ignitedmoth says:

    Awesome post. πŸ™‚ I love that you went into the different ways a character can be strong. So many people assume to be “bad-ass” is what makes someone strong and that just isn’t even close to the full picture.

    • KrystiYAandWine says:

      Thank you so much! I know there are many other ways people/characters can personify strength. These are just a couple I wanted to use to kick off a conversation, and it’s been awesome reading everyone’s comments! Yes, this bad-ass girl idea neds to go! We don’t use that term when discussing male characters. Why do we feel the need to do it with female characters?!

  11. Book Princess Review (@_bookprincess_) says:

    Ugh, I went to the spam folder. D: My comment is lost in oblivion. But in that comment, now lost forever, I discussed how completely right you are and how it’s not just all about the physical strength. There is so much more to it as you brilliantly put it. I’m definitely going to have to watch myself and see how I do. Wonderful job! πŸ˜€

  12. Books, Vertigo and Tea says:

    Fantastic post! Thank you for sharing this. I think sometimes (maybe too often) we tend to overlook some of the other traits that can make us “strong”. It certainly goes well beyond physical qualities. In fact, I will dare to say that emotional and mental strength is much higher on the list for me when seeking strong female leads.

    • KrystiYAandWine says:

      Thank you! It definitely is a word that I feel like we aren’t using to its full extent, and I want to change that! I enjoy books that really highlight all three. It really depends on the mood I’m in, I suppose. But I definitely think that in life mental and emotional strength are every bit as important, if not more important, than physical strength.

  13. Jackie B @ Death by Tsundoku says:

    This is a very articulate post, thank you for writing it! I agree that we tend to use “strong” in many contexts and assume the meaning. I find that I often refer to female characters are strong when they are tasked to be mentally or emotionally strong, not when they are acting physically strong. An interesting self-reflection, indeed.

    However, I do want to counter with this: Does it matter if we use strong without the descriptor? It should be apparent in our context what type (or types) of strong we are using to describe the character. Perhaps this has less to do with the word “strong” itself and more to do with the community’s poor or lazy use of the English language? For example, we could call a female character intelligent, bright, passionate, forceful, fierce, athletic, persuasive, ardent… etc. etc. etc. I honestly think we get lazy and use the easy “word” out more often than not. I agree with your thesis that “strong” is overused, but perhaps not that we need to describe the strength with ____ strong. Instead, we should find better words to describe these vivacious women.


    • KrystiYAandWine says:

      Those are excellent points, Jackie, and I absolutely agree that if you’re using effective adjectives to describe the character instead of just defaulting to strong, then that is fantastic. My only concern is that I’m seeing so many people say strong female character and only meaning that she can fight or is capable of performing physical tasks that we usually associate with the male gender. I certainly wouldn’t want my own strength defined that way. I think being more creative in the adjectives we use to describe a character and really putting effort into finding those words that truly define them is an important skill for book bloggers to master, but that’s for a whole different conversation.

  14. The Book-Filled Day says:

    This is a fantastic post! I totally agree that there are many different ways that female characters can be strong. I think it’s good for us to think about what ways a female character can be strong when doing a review. I love the books you listed with strong characters that I’ve read. Great choices!

    • KrystiYAandWine says:

      Thank you so much! This is definitely a topic that has been fun to discuss with all of you today. I’m so glad that everyone mostly feels the same way I do regarding this topic. πŸ™‚

  15. Jazz says:

    I completely agree with you. There are so many ways in which a female character can be strong. I recently read a book where the female lead could so easily have been dubbed a ‘damsel in distress’ and in need of rescuing. She wasn’t physically strong at all, but she understood this and used her cunning and intelligence to escape the situations she found herself in. Not only that, though, there was a point where she had agreed to marry a cruel man in exchange for financial aid for her sick father and while some might view this action as incredibly naive and downright stupid, I felt it exemplified the sheer strength of her character emotionally. She was willing to give up her comfort and happiness for that of her father’s.
    Awesome post! Thanks for sharing your views πŸ˜€

    • KrystiYAandWine says:

      Thanks so much for commenting! I love the example you shared. It’s true that there are so, SO many ways for characters to be strong, and this is a great depiction of that! Thank you!

  16. Krysta says:

    Unfortunately, I think the “strong female character” has become a stereotype. Usually it means a weapons-wielding woman who has qualities we typically view as “masculine.” But there are many different ways to be strong! You don’t have to be physically strong or violent to still be a strong woman!

  17. bibliopathictendencies says:

    I love this post! And I agree. I feel like people say someone is a strong female character if they’re a fighter or a warrior. And that’s great! I love awesome female fighters. But just because a woman ISN’T a fighter doesn’t mean she’s not strong.

    That’s what I liked so much about The Winner’s Trilogy. Kestrel wasn’t a warrior in a warrior-filled society, but she was still awesome and badass and definitely strong.

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