Part 1 of 3:
What makes a strong female character? Better question: What makes a female strong? I believe the answer is a combination of factors. Part 1 explores foundations.
When building a house, a good, sturdy foundation is key. The same is true of character building. I've been thinking a lot lately about the women in my current and upcoming manuscript. It's true I tend to write women who have a sense of their place in the world, whether it's as an amazing full time mom, RN in a busy ER or CEO of a global company (the full time mom gig is often the most challenging of all--just saying). Not all of my characters start out strong. They're each flawed in their own way. Some have a long road ahead of them in the quest to better their situation and discover their strengths. But they all have something in common.
Within each, whether deeply buried or just beneath the surface, is a tenacious will to be the person they really want to be. You know, the grown up woman you imagined yourself as when you were nine or ten. When possibilities were limitless, money wasn't an issue, and there was no ceiling on all that you could accomplish. I hate sounding jaded, and I know I do here, but I'm talking about the difference in expectations between a nine year old little girl and a twenty-nine year old woman. If we're lucky, we retain at least a shred of that childhood belief that anything is possible, that if we just believe in ourselves enough, we'll succeed. When we have someone believing in us, modeling for us what it means to believe in ourselves, we do succeed.
The person who believes in us, who gives us a living example of strength, integrity and independence, isn't always a parent. I was blessed with two parents who were great examples. Not everyone is so fortunate. I'm not sure "mentor" is the exact right word, but a key factor in how satisfied we are with our accomplishments as adults is the presence of someone in our early lives who not only recognizes what we're capable of, but makes sure we see it too. This person can be anyone: an aunt, a sibling, a friend, a teacher.
Something I've worked at in the years I've been writing is seeing my characters as real people: multi-dimensional people with fears, hopes, failings, triumphs. I develop each character's history, which lets me know what their reactions and responses will be, and how that history has shaped their personality traits. Most of the character development does not make it into the story, but it's a vital step that I can't skip. I'm always mindful of how my characters got to be the way they are when we meet them, and who helped contribute to the people they've become.
As my kids become teenagers, I'm increasingly aware of how the seemingly small things I do, the choices I make and actions I take, can affect the development of their future selves. That's some pressure, right? We spend a lot of time making sure we will not make the same missteps with our children that we feel our parents made with us. We make all kinds of new mistakes instead. Nobody's perfect. Parenting doesn't come with a handbook. The best we can hope for is that we've given our children the confidence to reach for that person they want to become, and the belief that they can accomplish what they set their minds to (within reason, of course; I always knew I wouldn't really grow up to be Wonder Woman).
It's pretty cool when you stop to consider how you got where you are today, and which people in your history were instrumental in helping you along that path. Aside from my own parents, I found an unlikely friend and mentor in a fellow waitress when I was seventeen. Stephanie was at least 15 years older than I, had an exciting and mysterious past, a Ted Nugent-haired biker boyfriend of several years, and this incredible energy that was impossible to resist. She exuded a kind of calm, peaceful confidence; she was just one of those people who is very comfortable in her own skin. To this day I'm not sure how she did it, but in the short time I knew her, she gave me the gift of finally trusting my own instincts. From my parents I'd learned to be honest, responsible, resilient, smart; but from this friend, I learned I was actually capable of creating for myself the future I imagined. I could make it happen.
If I treat the characters in my books as real people, then I figure they each had, at some point, their own version of my Stephanie, whether simply in parent form or some other incarnation. Even Nicole, the main character in the soon to be released THE FALL OF OUR SECRETS, gained support from the few people who believed in her, both in her early childhood and later, as a young adult. Without that, her story would have been a very different one.
However ... the presence of a supporting, guiding force in the development of strong female characters--and people--is just part of the equation. It's not enough. Stay tuned for part 2 next week!