This is an open letter to the aspiring author who asked, “How do I write female characters who are strong, but not bitchy? Who can fall in love and want kids and marriage without seeming weak. I want a female who isn’t overly emotional, but still somehow inherently female. I just don’t know how to do that and write a strong female character.”
I respect that you are seeking advice and that you seem to be sincere in your desire to overcome this “problem.” However, the fact that you see it as a problem makes me want to scream. It shows how socialized we are to see women as less than men. So, please understand that I recognize the problem is the patriarchy, not you.
To answer your question: To write a strong female character you write them as human beings. Period. Women are not mysterious creatures that conform to a set standard. Each women is unique. While many people call this a “strong” character, I’d call it a dynamic character, which simply means that the character is fully fleshed out and developed. To write a dynamic, write her (or his) character as a complete person with unique motives, experiences, hopes, dreams, fears, flaws, weaknesses, etc. I’d also add that the character’s appearance shouldn’t be the most important element. Their beauty should not be supernatural or verging on perfection.
If you can write a dynamic male character, you can write a dynamic female character. The same rules apply. Bitchy is what people (misogynists) call women who are aggressive, or stoic, or ambitious. When a man display’s these characteristics we say he is, aggressive and stoic and ambitious. If someone reads your character’s actions as bitchy, simply because she’s a woman, that’s their problem.
A dynamic character will fall in love because the person they love is a good friend and partner. Not because he saved them, completed them, or because some unexplained magnetic force drew her to him (or her) almost against her will. A strong female character gets married when and if it makes sense in relation to her personal goals rather than because that’s what she’s supposed to do, has to do, is forced to do. She has children if and when she wants them. Some women will not want marriage or children, and that’s ok. [Personally I think it was the wrong choice to have Katniss marry and have kids at the end of Hunger Games, since it perpetuates the myth that women who claim to not want children will eventually change their minds, but it made for a pat “happy ending.”]
As for being intrinsically female–give them a vagina. That’s what makes someone “female,” which indicates sex, not gender. On the other hand, if you want your character to be perceived as feminine, which is what I believe you mean by female, have them identify as feminine and conform to certain social standards of femininity. Not all women identify as feminine. Not all cultures consider the same things feminine. Figure out what this means in the context of the story/world/time period you are writing in.
Emotional reactions should be born out of your character’s past, her psychology, her fears, not her gender. Women are not “naturally more emotional than men.” Nor are they more likely to react on their emotions just because they’re women. Just look at the outrage and temper tantrums men are prone to throw when a woman turns him down to see that men are just as driven by emotional reactions.
Ultimately, in order to write strong or dynamic female characters one has to realize that women are fully developed people in their own right. And I hate the fact that in the 21st century, that’s still a revolutionary idea.
My final piece of advice is to read more books with dynamic female characters.
Here’s a very short list of some of my favorite books that feature strong female characters:
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Sabriel by Garth Nix
Wicked by Gregory Maguire
The Awakining by Kate Chopin
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
Deerskin by Robin McKinley
Song of the Lioness Quartet by Tamora Pierce
Beloved by Toni Morison
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf