To Hollywood, a strong character = a character with masculine traits, stoicism, aggression, and low tolerance for authority. Strong male characters come in two flavors, the stoic and the wisecracker (and sometimes the stoic who drops a wisecrack or two.) Thus any female who is considered a ‘strong female’ character in Hollywood, usually acts the exact same way the ‘strong male’ characters do. The idea that in order to be a strong female character in Hollywood means outside of romcoms and dramas, that women have to kick ass and take names just as well as the boys and daren’t show any emotions while doing so. So, in most action movies, they are either beating shit up with the boys (Terminator, Alien, Resident Evil, Tomb Raider, Ultraviolet and Avatar) or they are sex objects (Transformers, pretty much every other action movie I could name.) This totally disregards the strength of the roles that women have as nurturers, caregivers and mothers. It ignores that women can be scientists and engineers. (Avatar gets a pass here, yay Sigourney Weaver.) Women are as much providers of income in today’s world as men are. This also usually ignores the strong roles that men have as mentors, shepherds and fathers, which betrays a great weakness there too.
The large problem in why there aren’t enough strong characters in Hollywood is because most the times characters are talked of as a gender first and a person second. This is a trap in thinking. Who a person is, is not dependent on their anatomy! Or what the current social constructions view as appropriately ‘male’ or ‘female.’ (Which is just bullshit anyways.)
What is a strong character? Well, it definitely can’t be what Hollywood thinks it is, a character with all the supposed qualities of a man, stoicism, aggression and low tolerance for authority. Those characters tend to be flat and dull. They’re that stand up card board cut out that everybody wants to take their pictures next to at parties. So, not that.
Strong characters have more purpose in the plot than to be a love interest or a victim. A strong character needs to be vital to the story. The story needs to hinge upon them in some way that if you take them away from the plot, then the entire story would disintegrate. A love interest is a face to hang romantic emotions. A victim is a tool for angst. These aren’t strong characters.
Strong characters have (moderately) developed backstories (where they came from), they have beliefs, they have believable weaknesses and flaws. These are the elements of being a person! They have hopes, dreams and desires, aka a goal. There is something that drives them to their end result. These make them real and sympathetic to the audience. They have some sort of talent or occupation that has a purpose in the narrative that is being told.
Strong characters have something called development and change. They need to grow. The character at the end of the story we’re telling should not be the same character at the end of the story we’re telling. They have an arc, a personal story that at the end makes them different people for good or for ill. There are a lot of people who believe that this plot arc should be independent of other characters, however, unless the character has been dropped into the middle of a wasteland to survive on his own or in a plane crash as the lone survivor a la Cast Away, then I find this next to impossible. When people change it is once they have decided to change and usually is a violent reaction to something, either they want to be like another person and take on that persons good or bad traits or they don’t want to be like another person and choose the opposite traits that person has.
This doesn’t matter if they are male or female or if they are interacting with males or females.
The question to ask is “If I stripped gender away from this character… would they still be a strong character?”
(Sometimes I ask myself, is this character a mind bleeding stereotype regardless of gender?)
All of these elements that make them a person are the tangible things that the audience can grab onto to relate to the character in one way or the other. Gender is a window dressing. The sad thing is that for many years the default window dressing that the audience is given to work with is that of a male. Thus, ignoring 50% of the population who would like to see their stories on screen. Male doesn’t need and shouldn’t be the default!
This is why, when I started creating characters for my original stories, 90% of the time I didn’t start with gender. I say 90% of the time, because I know what I write and I know what I write well and there is always going to be at least one couple metaphorically duking it out in my stories. However, the other main character and ensemble and back up people tend not to get gender until after I’ve decided what they are and what their role is in the story. Gender is secondary to me in the long run of character creation. Once I know where they fit, then I tend go with what feels right and, honestly, what is funny. I have come up with some interesting character concepts this way. I hope they are strong characters, but there is no way to know that until I put them out there in the world.