On strength and female characters

I had the privilege of reading an advance copy of Mary Lindsey’s Shattered Souls (publication date December 8th but available for pre-order right now.)  On her blog tour, she answered one interviewer’s question about what it means to write a strong female character.

Then there’s the issue of love. In my opinion, loving someone enough to make a sacrifice does not make a character weak. Love empowers as long as it doesn’t deny the heroine the ability to make her own choices or rob her of the power to act on her own.

Come to find out, there’s a segment of YA/UF readers who believe strong female characters should go out at night, kick butt, and never yield an inch. That sacrifice is weak.


In order to make a sacrifice, a person cannot be weak. A weak person wouldn’t make the sacrifice in the first place, no matter what the person loved or how much he loved it.

It’s quite possible that a weak person simply can’t love as intensely as a strong person because the weak person isn’t loving from a sense of self. Loving from a sense of your own identity as a complete person means you don’t need the other person. Want the other person — sure. Feel you’re a better person when you’re with him or her? Sure. Feel as if this person complements you or gives you a different perspective? Absolutely.

But necessary to your emotional survival? No.

A weak person attaches to someone else because he or she senses his own incompletion and becomes needy.  And that’s why there isn’t sacrifice capable with a weak character: because when the beloved is in jeopardy, the weak person might view the beloved as replaceable. In other words, “I need you because you’re strong,” leads to “Now you need me” which leads to “Now you are not strong” which leads to “I don’t need you anymore and will find someone else to fill that role.”

I have met people like this: they do not lightly set aside their own desires even when your own life gets turned inside-out. Their self-centeredness is consumed with keeping themselves afloat, and when you no longer provide that thing they crave (and it’s usually attention, although it may be affirmation or advice) they seek it elsewhere.

A strong person loves you. A weak person loves what you do for him or her.

Because a strong person would love the beloved for the sake of the beloved, he or she would be more willing to sacrifice for them. The strong person would hold onto an ideal beyond him- or herself and see the value in the action.

A stronger person may choose to make a sacrifice because of love. A weaker person couldn’t.


  1. The Sojourner

    This post just helped me put my finger on what’s wrong with, for example, Bella Swan’s “sacrificial nature.” (Disclaimer: I have read almost all of Twilight…a sentence or two at a time at Reasoning with Vampires.) The one thing she’s willing to do is die. She is not, to my knowledge, willing to make a sacrifice and LIVE. (Like, you know, not dating Edward Cullen. Moving on with her life.) I’m not saying that self-sacrifice that results in one’s own death is not ever valid, but it can’t be Plan A. If the mortal danger only came about because you were too selfish to avoid getting into a situation that you knew could lead to mortal danger…not feeling it so much. Sometimes the right thing, and the hardest thing, is giving up what you want because you know it’s not good for you or anybody you love. And then living with that.

    I have a feeling I just repeated what you said in my own words, but I’m leaving it. Conversation, right?

    1. philangelus

      I totally get what you’re saying. I knew someone one who would be so DRAMATIC about declarations of feeling. “I’d DIE for you!” But this same person wouldn’t delay gratification for anyone else. I’m like, sure the grand gesture is nice and all, but no one ever actually asks you to die for them. They do ask you to do things like pick up their mail or bring them soup when they’re sick, and strangely, that doesn’t happen. So tell me, what is it?

      Genuine people make sacrifices all the time: moving away from one place to go live in another; not getting an expensive car because you need to make tuition payments for your kid; working a second job so one’s wife can stay home with the kids; not going on a dream vacation because the children need braces. These people don’t DIE for someone else. But they’re making daily sacrifices because of love. And it’s not just for kids: people open their homes to rehabilitate hurt animals; people take in their elderly parents and assume their care; people donate money they could use on themselves because there’s a cause dear to their hearts.

      Those are not weak people. Those are people with priorities.

      Yeah, like you said, conversation. 🙂 Comboxes aren’t just for fighting. 😉

      1. Megan

        HA. Also, this post helped me mentally clarify a sticky point I’d been having in a potential future novel. I just deleted a long paragraph explaining why because my embryonic novels always need to gestate a while before they’re ready to see the light of day. So just take my word for it that a plotline fraught with Unfortunate Implications just became awesome.

        1. Megan

          (Megan is the same as The Sojourner. She just cannot figure out WordPress.)

  2. Cricket

    There’s often confusion between sacrifice and letting something be taken.

    A sacrifice is something you choose to do, with the end in mind. It is an act of strength. Letting something be taken is weak.

    A single act is usually a combination, and the balance varies with time and perspective. Like most things psychological, it’s complex. A woman in an abusive relationship can let her husband take what he wants; that’s weak. Or she can decide that she will give it to him, in order to keep the house calmer for the kids. It may not be a good choice, especially in the long run, but it’s a choice, so it’s a sacrifice.

    1. philangelus

      I just noticed my comment page is completely misformatted. I wonder what happened?

      I think the example of a woman who yields in an effort to keep the peace is doing what Scott Peck calls dishonest work. Honest work is hard work you do in order to achieve somethign worthwhile. Dishonest work is work you do that may be equally hard, but it’s in order to maintain something that should not be maintained. If you think about how hard your kids whine and rationalize in order NOT to do their chores, for example, that’s dishonest work. It takes five minutes to clear off the table but they whine about it for twenty minutes and that’s dishonest work.

      Women who sacrifice their dignity in order to keep the peace with a bully are probably not doing honest work. I’m not sure I can glorify that because a woman who does that in order to keep a calm house for the kids is teaching her kids that it’s okay for a man to abuse a woman, and her children will learn from what she’s modeling.

  3. Linda Yezak

    “In order to make a sacrifice, a person cannot be weak. A weak person wouldn’t make the sacrifice in the first place, no matter what the person loved or how much he loved it.”

    Absolutely. Sacrifice, by definition, results in pain, and the greater the sacrifice, the greater the pain. Weak people aren’t willing to experience it.

    Terrific post.

    1. philangelus

      I like that perspective. Weak people want to avoid pain and therefore would run before sacrificing. They’d rather endure the dishonest pain of losing someone they loved than the honest pain of sacrificing to keep that person.

      And probably would find a way to medicate that loss at the first possible instant…usually by using another person, and probably by leveraging the previous loss to garner sympathy. Not that I’m cynical about that kind of thing.

      Scott Peck said every so often he’d get a client who showed up in his office bawling. “I want to die, my beloved left me, I cannot live without him or her!” Peck would said, “But you don’t really love that person.” The client would cry, “But didn’t you hear me? I said I can’t live without him or her!” Peck would reply, “That’s not love. That’s parasitism.”

      Two sessions later, predictably, the person would come in, all smiles: life was great! They’d found a new lover. And they’d cancel therapy and that would be it until the new relationship ended.

  4. Pamcee

    I linked to this post on my facebook. I can’t tell you how much this resonates with me lately. You may help me save my sanity after all! 😉 Thanks for putting your thoughts out there.

  5. Catherine

    As others have said, wonderful post. I’m going backwards through your blog as I have time. Your perspective on this has clarified some things for me in a difficult time. Peaceful…but difficult. Anyway, thank you.

    1. philangelus

      Thank you — and I’m sorry about all you’re going through. 🙁