Strong female leads aren’t enough

Along with the Demon’s Heart trilogy, I’m working on another series that’s been brewing in one form or another for a good decade now. I’ve worked at it on and off through the years, but it went through a long stretch on the shelf for one reason:

Both the main characters were boys.

I felt somehow that I was betraying my fellow women by writing a story in which the female characters play only supporting roles. I read articles about how we need more strong female leads, how girls need better literary role models, how vital female authors are in battling sexism.

And, you know, I agree with all that. I like reading MG and YA books about girls who are strong, compassionate, and resilient. In fact, after reading a post from a fellow blogger about how she made a special effort to seek out female authors this year, I went back to my Year in Books to see how much of my reading list was written by women.

The answer? Two-thirds. Easy. And I wasn’t even remotely making an effort to read more women authors.

(What I also found interesting was that there were two books I read this year with grossly shallow female characters, and only one of them was written by a man. But that’s for another post.)

Our girls today have an abundance of literary role models to learn from, and for that I am so grateful. I can’t wait until my girls are old enough to read The Penderwicks or Princess Academy or Jane Eyre or Tuesdays at the Castle.

But at the same time, I can’t help thinking–who are our boys looking up to?

See, most of my friends growing up were boys. While I spent most of my youth fielding jabs about all my boyfriends, the truth was, they were practically brothers to me. I loved them to pieces, and I worried about them a lot. I was painfully aware, especially in middle school and high school, that the fictional characters they idolized were often either trained killers or sex-obsessed. Often both.

And the thing is, that doesn’t just affect boys. Just as the portrayal of women in fiction affect what boys think women should be, the portrayal of men in fiction affects what girls think men should be. Do you know how many girls I’ve met who are in love with Captain Jack Harkness? Do you understand how this is a problem? The man is (according to popular opinion) gorgeous, charming, and willing to sleep with anything that moves. Is that the kind of man you want your daughter going on a date with?

What worries me even more is how often these stereotypically violent, shallow men are romanticized and “redeemed,” which often just means excused with the most fleeting explanation possible. I’m in the middle of the Lunar Chronicles, which are incredibly well written with a depth of world-building that makes me drool. BUT. Wolf? I’m sorry. “He can’t help it” doesn’t make me fall madly in love with a man who has spent his life tearing throats out. And as for Captain Thorne, you can’t spend two books setting him up as being dumb as a post and twice as shallow, then convince me that he’s turned his whole life around and suddenly has hidden depths.


Our boys AND GIRLS need upstanding male characters as much as they need upstanding female characters. If we want our boys and girls to grow up respecting each other and capable of working together, children’s literature is a good place to start modeling that.



  1. Oh man. You’re so right, but to the point that I feel almost ashamed of how much I loved Wolf. Kai and Jacin are redeeming good guys, though Jacin bugged the crap out of me.
    I definitely see your point. I feel like I need to go back and rewrite characters now. Hmm…

    • See, and that’s the thing. I actually kind of like Wolf and Thorne. Meyer does a better job than most at making them relatable characters. It’s just when I step back and look at it logically, it makes me crazy how many passionate love interests are killers or shallow. And we wonder why girls end up stuck in abusive relationships… I love Kai, though. He’s definitely my favorite. 🙂

      • I guess when I step back, too, it does make sense. But I just loved Wolf’s vulnerability when he wasn’t tearing people to shreds. Literally. Thorne is a rake.
        I do like Kai, though his and Cinder’s relationship wasn’t my favorite. I think I liked Wolf and Thorne so much because they’re not at all the kinds of guys I’d want for myself. Kai is exactly the kind of guy I’d want, though.

  2. I agree with this on so many levels. I think that’s why Harry Potter and Percy Jackson are still popular today. While boys are the main characters, there’s also strong female characters as well. Maybe they aren’t main characters, but at least they are there.

    I think books as a whole need a balance of strong male and female characters. However, at the same time, I think they need to be realistic. I love strong male and female characters, but I can’t stand a character that picks up a skill automatically without any practice and are suddenly better than those who have trained for years. I also can’t stand it when there’s almost no explanation for why a character is the way he/she is. Not every person whose family members have died are going to be broody and mean-spirited. At the same time, not every person who has all their family surrounding them is going to be happy. I feel like there’s a lot of extremes in characterization when there doesn’t need to be.

    • Yes, yes, and yes! I totally agree! I think there’s this misconception that “strong” means “able to kick butt at the drop off a hat.” Strong characters are so much more than that. Strong characters have flaws and weaknesses, but they deal with them. Strength is not just about physical prowess, but the ability to reason and to act. And, like you said, characters need to have depth. There needs to be a reason they are who they are. Thanks for such a great comment!

      • Exactly. I can’t think of any books recently that have had some of that kind of strength (where they’ve had more strength of depth rather kick-butt strength) off the top of my head. I tried to write a character like that and her story is currently being edited so maybe soon I’ll have written one? Maybe? Now I have to think back over everything I’ve read lately and see if they build up their characters as such…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s