How to write a strong female character, with Emma Swan

Posted: September 10, 2012 in How to... (Writing Tips), Writing
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This is my third post in this series where I discuss TV shows and movies and the knowledge that we can gain from watching them. We can then apply that knowledge to our writing. As always, I never pretend to be an expert. I just like exploring my own thoughts on the matter as I write these blog posts! I welcome all comments and would love to hear what you think about this topic.

Make sure you check out my previous post titled, “How to be brothers, with Sam and Dean Winchester.”

There are a lot of strong female characters in literature that, as women, we can look up to as role models. Some of the more modern ones include Katniss and Hermione, to be sure.

There are countless others, but I won’t rehash them here. Who they are and how many there are is less important than understanding how to create a character like this. Most of the time when you have a strong female character, other feminine attributes tend to get overlooked. This is especially apparent to me in Katniss – she’s definitely got female qualities, but I find them to be muted for the sake of her strength.

Of course, we can’t blame her (or Suzanne Collins for that matter). Katniss has been through a lot and she’s adapted her personality to survive. She’s a cold character, especially in the beginning of The Hunger Games. But she has to be. There’s a lot of hardship and death in her past (and her present and her future…) and her strength and introversion are a result of this.

So, how do we make a female character strong, but still compassionate and emotional? My suggestion? Study Emma Swan from Once Upon a Time.

Emma is one of my favorite characters from the show, and for good reason. She’s a totally badass character, but she’s still beautiful, feminine, and expressive. In the beginning of the first season, we see a little less of this softer side, though you can still tell right away how vulnerable she is.

In the pilot, Emma’s son (whom she gave up for adoption) comes to find her and bring her back to his hometown. He thinks there’s a curse on the town of Storybrooke and that Emma is the only one who can break it. You see her panic just a little bit. When you give up a child for adoption, you don’t exactly expect them to pop up in your life one day and beg you to follow them home.

Her immediate plan is to take him back to his adoptive mother and get the heck out of there. But she doesn’t. She sticks around and we now have the makings of a great TV show. We see her quickly fall in love with this boy that she gave up. Her motherly instincts come out (much to her surprise, I think) and she feels protective of him.

Emma’s personality doesn’t change to accommodate this strange half-mother, half-friend role she’s taken up with her son. She’s still an introvert, still walled off from the world. She doesn’t get close to many people, and even when she does she continues to be guarded.

Does that make her “strong”? Maybe. But I think her strength comes from other places. She makes tough decisions. She always tries to make the right choices, even when the opposing team is playing dirty. She’s fair and forgiving, but she also doesn’t let people take advantage of her.

And yet she’s still feminine. She’s beautiful and well-dressed. She cries, she feels. She isn’t hard or cold. She can sympathize, and that makes her stronger and that allows us to connect with her.

So, how do you make a strong female character without turning her into a robot? Give her emotions, give her feelings. Make her cry, but don’t turn her into a wimp. Don’t let people control her. Make her the type of person that falls down and gets right back up. The type of person that takes control of her own fate, no matter how intimidating that notion might be. Give her some obstacles and watch her knock them all down.

Who’s your favorite strong female character? Have you written a strong character in the past? If so, what qualities did you give her (or him!) that made them human and believable?

  1. mlfables says:

    When I think of a strong character, (male or female), I think of a character who doesn’t change their core values regardless of the circumstances they find themselves in.

    Basically, they have ‘strength of character’ rather than a strong A-Type personality or presence.

    My favourite strong female characters tend to be women placed in roles that could have been played by either a man or a woman, because when that happens the story focuses much more on the characters intrinsic strengths, rather than on their feminine or masculine strengths as it would be if it were a sex-specific role.

    The female leads in Terminator 2 and Aliens are a perfect example of this.

  2. EM Castellan says:

    Awesome post Karen 🙂 In my WIP The Last Queen, I have really tried to create a strong female character with weaknesses and feelings. This was actually my main inspiration for this story. Sometimes the balance is hard to nail, but I think it’s definitely worth trying to create a complex heroine. One of my favourite female characters on TV was Alma Garret in Deadwood: she looked fragile and weak, but she turned out to be a wonderfully strong character, who never gave up in the face of obstacles and who took control of her own fate in man’s world. I don’t watch Once Upon A Time, so I can’t tell you what I think of Emma Swan, though.

    • Karen Rought says:

      I didn’t reference her here (blasphemy!) but Buffy is obviously another great character – blonde, small, a little air headed sometimes, but in the end she can definitely take care of herself. Good luck with your WIP!

      Oh, and obviously I highly recommend OUAT. 😉

  3. One of the things I think makes Emma such a good strong female character as well is her growth. She starts out a much colder character than she develops in to. I think we see this in characters like Katniss as well, though, over the course of the book and the series. Look at the way Katniss mourned for Rue. That’s something she couldn’t have done at the start of the book.

  4. ddog13 says:

    This is just the post that I needed. I’ve been trying to get down a strong female character, and these are some good guidelines for what I’m trying to do. Great post, and thank you. It helped more than you know.

  5. Kristin says:

    Really interesting post! I always wonder about what makes the “strong” female characters strong in our entertainment, and it’s really hard to find good ones like you’ve mentioned. You’ve pinpointed exactly the problem, such as how they seem to be trying to make them more masculine, needing to sacrifice femininity to be “strong.” I’ve never seen “Once Upon a Time,” but she sounds like a great character!

  6. […] How to write a strong female character, with Emma Swan […]

  7. Julie Glover says:

    Since I’m reading this before 6 a.m. in the morning, my brain is not coming up with many brilliant examples at the moment. However, I always liked how Hermione in the Harry Potter novels was written. She was smart and super-confident. She was brave in the face of danger. She was feminine enough to flirt and express her feelings. She was so passionate for the house elves. She knew who she was and yet developed into a more complete person throughout the books. Can you tell I liked her?

  8. […] Make sure you check out my previous post, titled, “How to write a strong female character, with Emma Swan.” […]

  9. […] And if you want another examples of a strong female character that is also vulnerable, check out my post on Emma Swan. […]

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