A blog about the amazing things teenagers do, about writing for teens, books for teens, and occasional forays into my world and the world of publishing.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

More Than Just Skin Deep--Creating Strong Female Characters

**NOTE This blog post has pictures of BEAUTIFUL, NORMAL, UN-PHOTOSHOPED, REAL teen aged girls to illustrate my point***

We’re all bombarded with it—gorgeous women, dressed in almost nothing, perfect bodies, perfect skin, perfect teeth, Photoshop perfection. It’s hard for a woman to feel like anything more than a freak compared to those images, much less to feel beautiful.

Advertisers, television producers, and Hollywood directors have gotten the message loud and clear—SEX SELLS. But what are we selling to a fourteen year-old girl, just growing into a woman and struggling to be accepted and more important—struggling to accept herself?

The message they're getting is harsh and painfully clear.


A news story in my community brought this into focus for me. A fourteen-year-old girl, trying to hold onto her boyfriend, sent him picture of herself—naked. The story came out when that picture was sent from cell phone to cell phone around the four middle schools in town. The community was outraged and the boyfriend and several others were charged with distributing child pornography.

Less than a week later a Superbowl commercial showed a popular model, sitting i

n a bubble bath with her cell phone. She took a picture of herself and said, “I wonder what would happen if I hit ‘send’.” The next images were of men, dropping things, neglecting whatever they were supposed to be doing to stare at their cell phones.


Double standard? Conflicting messages?

I recently read a quote from a General Authority in my church, Elder M. Russell Ballard, (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints—Mormons).

He said, “Popular culture today often makes women look silly, inconsequential, mindless, and powerless. It objectifies them and disrespects them and then suggests that they are able to leave their mark on mankind only by seduction…”

As a writer of young adult stories, targeting teen aged girls, I’m increasingly conscious of the message that my stories send. As a mother (I know that comes into this a lot,) I am especially conscious of the messages that are being fed to my almost-teen aged daughter. I find myself searching as I read for what makes a strong female character.Where is a woman's power? Is it sex appeal? Is it seduction?


My own case in point, in my first attempt at a YA novel, I worked hard to make my main character well-rounded. She worked in a nursing home, did community service, and she was a good friend. Then in

the name of word count I cut a bunch of those scenes out. After reading the story, a member of my critique group told me that the main character and the villaness, (a woman who used sex appeal to get what she wanted,) in the story were just alike and she couldn't figure out why the hero of the story would like either of them. I tried to defend myself by saying, “but the main character is hot.” Guess what? It wasn’t enough.

So, I went in search of strong female characters who didn’t rely on sex appeal. Some of my favorites, Katniss from THE HUNGER GAMES, (they tried to make her sexy, but she just came off as tough and everything she did was for her family), Hattie from HATTIE BIG SKY (homesteaded without the help of the rich and handsome rancher next door and showed compassion and love towards her and Mardie from THE RING (female boxer who learned to accept herself for what she was).

One of my new favorite character is Terra in Justine Chen's NORTH OF BEAUTIFUL. Terra is born with a port wine stain on her face. She works hard to maintain a perfect body to balance out the imperfection she sees in her face. The story is about learning to accept yourself for who you are. By the end Terra finds beauty in herself as she is and beauty in those around her, even in her overweight mother.

So what makes a woman strong and beautiful? Is it perfection? Is is sex appeal?


I submit that what makes a woman strong and beautiful is what's inside--self-reliance, compassion, and intelligence. And reality--zits, flat chests, big thighs, bad hair, and all is far more beautiful and far more interesting than Photoshop perfection could ever be.

So as I create my characters I will build into them courage and flaws and

character and compassion. Hopefully, the message my stories send will give teenager girls a sense of how beautiful and strong they already are.

Help me out. What are some of your favorite strong female characters? What makes them strong? What makes them beautiful?


  1. I really love Katniss for the reason you stated and also Jane Eyre because she was plain and simple by some people's standards but she changed people's lives. We all know girls from High School that were "beautiful" but then they opened their mouths. I believe Wayne called them scuds :) It can very much be the other way around (ex. Jane Eyre). If we are not beautiful to the world but are beautiful to those who know us best, we are the real pure beauties.

  2. I'm going to have to read some of these books as I need strong women in my life right now.
    I am grateful to know some, one being my friend Monica, who is raising her three young children alone with a smile and an amazing amount of energy and talent.

  3. Thanks Teralyn. Love Jane Eyre. I should have mentioned her, especially since my son has to read that book for his freshman Honors English class.

  4. Oh, and since we're talking classics how about Jane Austin's female characters (I especially like Elinor from SENSE AND SENSIBILITY), and Dorthea Brooks in MIDDLEMARCH.

    Ali, Your friend Monica sounds like a wonderful role model. (Or great character for a book.)

  5. Great post! Favorite imperfect-but-strong women from literature: Rosie and Katriona from Spindle's End. Robin McKinley does a great twist on the Sleeping Beauty story. The fairies give the princess all the usual "gifts", but they end up slightly askew. (Like, Rosie has a beautiful singing voice, but she always sings off key.) Aerin from The Hero and the Crown (also by Robin McKinley.) And Mattie from A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly. One of the best books of all time! Mattie fights against these same cultural pressures, but also poverty, sexism, and a painful family life. She's an amazing character.

  6. thanks mom im glad i hav u as a mother 2 help protect me from theses things :)lul (lots of luv 4 u non txt-aholics :))from my almost teenaged daughter.

  7. Excellent character examples Molly. Thanks for sharing!

  8. I think strong women become strong by persisting, evolving, like Anne in Persuasion. She was influence by those around her initially but once she figured out who she really is (and part of that is know what you really want). She found her strength.

    Nice Blog!
    From Britt Erin's other Aunt, Kathy

  9. Thanks you so much for this post. I love that quote by Elder Ballard, it was recently brought to my attention as well. I really appreciate your remarks on strong female characters.

  10. Great post Jen! Boy, this is a topic we could go on and on about. As a mother of a teenager I'm faced with the same challenge of helping my daughter sift through what the media bombards us with to recognize and embrace our own individuality and inner resilience.

    I purposely write stories that have girls for main characters who are smart and clever and find a way to solve their problems through their own ingenuity. Because in real life - that's what happens too!

  11. Wonderful post, Jen (if I can come late to the party!). I totally agree with Molly about Robin McKinley's books. I'd add "Sunshine" to that list as Rae, the main character, describes herself as skinny and with wild hair. She's described as "fierce" once, but never simply beautiful.

    I spent most of my childhood looking for books with strong female leads and it was DANG hard. Part of the problem was I preferred to read fantasy and at the time, fantasy was almost entirely a male genre. I devoured the Alanna series by Tamora Pierce and kept looking for more!

    That need for strong female characters is what led me to write YA fiction with (I hope!) strong female leads.

    Other female leads I've admired?

    Syrah in "Overboard" by Justina Chen Headly
    KJ in "Wolves, Boys, and Other Things That Might Kill Me" by Kristen Chandler (NOT a werewolf book)
    Janie in "Fade", "Wake", and "Gone" by Lisa McMann

    And for readers looking at science fiction:
    Cordelia from "Barrayar" and "Shards of Honor" by Lois McMaster Bujold

    Oh, and YOUR book, too, Jen!