The quest for believable characters is a long and arduous one, full of false leads, difficult lessons and special cases. One such case is the so-called “strong female character.” While what that phrase implies specifically varies from person to person in general it refers to a character who shows the fortitude and strength of character frequently portrayed in cinema by the likes of John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart or Jimmy Stewart. Except these characters should be female.
It’s a lofty goal to show as many different characters as possible living life with strong convictions and personal integrity and I wholeheartedly agree that women should portray this as well as men. However, many stories that set out to create a strong female character overlook a concept we’re going to call the physical and emotional cores of the story and that hamstrings their attempt to tell a good story with a strong character at the center. Let’s start by talking about what I mean by physical and emotional cores.
Each story tends to have a a physical and emotional embodiment. Another way to think of the physical embodiment is as the part of the story where action takes place and the emotional embodiment is where the story tries to make you feel something. Most good stories tend to have characters act more in one or the other of these areas to make those characters clearly defined. Yes, this is unrealistic but it tends to lead to better storytelling overall.
The two characters who best embodies the themes of the story carry the emotional and physical cores of the story.
For example, in the Disney classic Sleeping Beauty the emotional core rests with Princess Aurora, who’s feelings of isolation and desires to see the wider world define the emotional tenor of most of the film. The physical core rests with Prince Phillip, who finds Aurora in the forest and takes her to experience new things. He also takes center stage in the battle against Maleficent in the third act, another moment of peak physical storytelling.
It’s important to have the two cores in proximity to each other at moments of importance as they tend to draw one another out into sharp relief and lead to some of the best moments in a story. It’s Phillip and Aurora’s meeting that sparks their resolution to resist their arranged marriages (even though said betrothals are to each other, which they don’t know at the time). It’s also the catharsis of their reunion that makes the climax of the movie hit us square in the feels.
The problem is, if both the physical and the emotional cores are in a single character it can be hard to see how they’re impacting each other. Look at any shoddy piece of fiction and you’ll see unclear motives and hard to understand actions. That can happen for a lot of reasons but sometimes it’s just because one character is carrying too much of the story. Like any real person your characters sometimes need to step back and take a break, breath and let ideas settle. A character can’t do that if they have to carry both halves of a story.
At the same time, it’s the way the two cores impact each other, the emotional and physical character influencing each other with their different goals and needs, that makes the important moments impactful. If both cores are in one character that tension is missing.
How does that relate back to writing “strong female characters”?
Well, in the typical story women carry the emotional core and most people who set out to write strong female characters just take the physical core and hand it to their female character as well resulting in exactly the problem we just discussed. If we want a female character who carries the physical core – and this is typically what people mean by “strong female characters”, many characters have carried the emotional cores of their stories and been plenty strong but that’s not the point – if we want a female character who carries the physical core then we have to put the emotional core somewhere else.
A great example of this is the much more recent Disney film Frozen, where Anna embodies the physical core, climbing the mountain to find her sister and struggling with a slowly debilitating curse, while Elsa embodies the emotional core, struggling with self doubt and self loathing while struggling to maintain emotional distance from those around her.
Another is the animated 1990’s film Ghost in the Shell, where the Major embodies the physical aspect, taking most of the highly kinetic action scenes for herself while her partner, Batou, while still having action beats, mostly serves as a sounding board for her philosophical musings and an emotional tether to the humanity she fears she’s left behind. Where Motoko is mostly an emotional cypher Batou takes it upon himself to feel embarrassed by her lack of modesty and grieve when she is wounded.
Whether or not you’re interested in the mythical “strong female character” understanding where the physical and emotional components of your story lies is important. Don’t make the mistake of thinking your story is missing one or the other of the sides, either. The best action heroes tend to be grounded by family and friends and Harrison Ford still punched someone out in Sabrina. No matter what your story is, knowing who goes where in these equations is going to help you construct a better narrative.