She-Ra or Sheepish?

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

The trope that will not die a peaceful death! Why is that? Because writers (new and not so new) continue to make mistakes on what exactly constitutes as a “strong female protagonist.” There are many fantastic posts on this very subject, some rather amusing as well. S.E. Sinkhorn yaks about it over at Maybe Genius (she’s hilarious, by the way) and the fab folks over at YA Highway are also in the pot, just to name a few.

How many of you have read a book and thought, “Holy moly this chick is whiny!” Or, on the flip, “Wow, that girl has some serious Terminator issues.” The magic recipe? Editors, publishers, bloggers, and readers would probably agree that your girl needs to straddle the line. She needs to have the best of both sides. She can’t be the eternal victim. Nobody wants to read that. BUT! Your leading lady can’t have a one track mind to annihilate all bad guys. RAWR! Yup, these ladies get boring too. If all your leading lady does is bite the heads off nails and spit ‘tobacca,’ well, then your readers will likely think you’re shallow.

Let’s define STRONG. According to the folks at, the number one definition:

Physically powerful; capable of exerting great physical force.

Sure, I’ll buy that. It’s what we all think first with this ambiguous word.

Definition #4:

Having force of character, will, morality, or intelligence.

Now we’re talkin’!

Definition #13:

Having force of conviction or feeling; uncompromising.

Yup! Being strong is not just about biceps, and I will come back to this in a moment.

So mix it up! What do you love most about your favorite ladies? I’m going to guess it’s not that they liked to lie down and take it when the world crushed them. No! We lean toward characters we either wish we could be or aspire to be.

Take Clary Fray from The Mortal Instruments, for example. She’s not the Type A (red hair, freckles, artist, graphic novel junkie), however she evolves into not only a kick-butt Shadowhunter but also a mature young woman. She wins some, but also loses some, and that’s where her story really resides.

Calla, from the Nightshade books, is the opposite. She’s a Guardian; a wicked alpha female (hello!) for her pack. Calla is take charge and obedient and kick-butt and won’t hesitate to kill when her pack or (gasp) masters are threatened. Once her world flips over on its head, Calla’s view of the world is widened and she learns there’s more to life than being obedient. She’s a strong young woman who learns to depend on others and back down when she’s in over her head.

Your MC (main character) can start off meek or self depreciating in all the wrong ways, but she has to grow. Okay, she doesn’t have to end the story wielding a double-sword all Darth Maul fashion sporting the latest achievements in chain mail, but she does need to grow as a person. She needs to become stronger, tougher, wiser, and maybe even more mature.

Also, if your MC is a good-old-fashion butt-kicker, that’s fine, but she, too, needs to grow. She needs to find her softer side. Maybe she falls in love, or loses someone she cares for, or heck, maybe she even succumbs to the enormity of saving the world as expected by all depending on her. And, please, if your MC is a major alpha female who kills before asking questions, make her believable. No Waif-Fu, no uber petite girls taking down a Steelers lineman, our girl needs to have the proper brawn to compliment the butt-kicking.

Super powers are NOT a must, but being human is (or human-ish for paranormal writers). Severe anxiety over all things scary is NOT a must, but finding an inner strength is. Being a master at mixed martial arts and weaponry is NOT a must, but self discovery is. Let her be hard, let her be soft, let her be conflicted, let her be confident, let her be laugh, let her cry, let her show weakness, and let her find hope. By all means, let her be strong.

Please, share your thoughts in the comments. Who are some of your fave YA heroines and why? What made them special to you?

D.B. Graves is a young adult writer living amidst the rolling hills 
of Middle Tennessee with her husband and young son.

6 thoughts on “She-Ra or Sheepish?

  1. My favorite YA heroine at the moment is Tris from Divergent & Insurgent. I love that she started out as a quiet girl who wanted to be brave, then chose a path to make herself brave (“I am selfish. I am brave.” <–my favorite line from book one), then became too brave and reckless and had to be pulled back. I think, given a holy-crap-the-world-is-unraveling-right-before-my-eyes situation, I'd probably be a lot like Tris. I'd want to be tough, but I am small. I'd want to be brave and make wise decisions, but I am temperamental. I'd want to love fully, but I am just as cowardly as I am courageous. Tris is very real to me, so I believe her as a character.

    • Tris was great but my favorite heroine moment would probably be Cassia in Matched by Ally Condie because she starts out so unknowing and discovers that she must fight and must win a fight worth winning. She really discovers the strength she needs and “Do not go gentle” gives Cassia the strength she needs.

      If I had to be in a situation like that I would do it to win for the people around me, not just myself. I often find myself up at 2:00 at night crying over books I reread and knowing that these characters are real. I Never ever forget a good heroine. Especially one who tells my heart that the fight is worth winning.

  2. One of my fave tough females is River from River’s Recruit. She is tough and strong and puts her community above herself. I love her and her compassion while still being totally kick ass!

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