Strong female characters have not only been a topic of discussion quite frequently over the last few years, they’ve been steadily becoming better as readers and writers both recognize what that phrase means to them and why it’s being talked about.
One of the key elements in writing strong female characters (and this applies to writing strong characters of any gender), is understanding the difference between behaviors and personality traits. Behaviors are things a character does (what we do), while a personality trait is how a character behaves, thinks, and feels (what we are). Personality traits are difficult or impossible to alter, while behaviors can be changed.
For too long, “strong female characters” were based on behaviors such as fighting, sarcasm, sexual activity, shunning femininity, using her body for manipulation of others, etc. The personality traits behind these behaviors are much different than the behaviors themselves and are what readers will connect with on a deeper level when they are fully brought into the story.
Consider the list of behaviors above and what personality traits caused or impact the behaviors, and what the sources of the behaviors might be:
Fighting: perhaps the character grew up in a rough home life and had to defend herself from a family member, bully, gangs, etc. Perhaps she was a victim and learned to fight for protection.
Sarcasm: sarcasm may come from insecurities about self, status, a pessimistic worldview, or a sense of humor. It may limit their ability to make friends or have deep relationships.
Sexual activity: This may come from a place of confidence and freedom or a need to please and fill emotional holes. Is it self-destructive or empowering? Does this this affect relationships or self-image?
Shunning femininity: Consider what caused this shunning. It my come from sexual orientation or gender issues, having been victimized and made to feel vulnerable, growing up with masculine role models, insecurity about being seen as feminine or weak, or a genuine dislike for typically feminine activities or looks.
Using the body to manipulate: This may speak to the time/setting and the character’s status in her community or social structure. I may be a learned behavior from a role model, or developed out of survival instinct. A woman could also see this type of a manipulation as a useful tool she sees no problem in utilizing, and possibly even see it as a equalizer with men.
These are only a few considerations, examples, and questions brought up by these behaviors, but they highlight how much more interesting and engaging the personality trait is than the behavior. Readers want to uncover why a character says, does, and thinks the way they do. Developing personality traits rather than only behaviors leads to opportunities for deep backstories and character growth and development.