Friday, December 19, 2014

11 Craft of Writing: What Does Strong Mean to You? by Tracy Banghart

Today we welcome Tracy Banghart to the blog whose newest book, Storm Fall, released Tuesday from Alloy Entertainment. Tracy has insightful ideas about creating strong female characters that will help you consider a variety of ways to challenge your heroine toward her full potential. Tracy is also giving away Kindle copies of each of her books, both Rebel Wing, the first in the series, and Storm Fall. So be sure to check the Rafflecopter giveaway at the bottom of the page!

What Does Strong Mean to You? by Tracy Banghart

People use the phrase “strong female character” a lot these days, particularly in describing the protagonists of young adult books. But so often they seem to mean characters that embody a certain type of strong. The strong female characters listed most commonly in Goodreads’ lists and Top 10s are characters like Katniss and Tris, or Graceling’s Katsa, who are all physically strong, skilled with weaponry, and often emotionally closed off.

But I think “strong” can – and should – mean a lot more than that.

In my Rebel Wing series, the main character, Aris, has gotten some flack from reviewers for being “weak” at the beginning of the first book. She begins her journey with a pronounced limp, a dependence on her boyfriend, and a fear of life turning out differently from the perfect future she expects. A fear, of course, that’s justified. But, in writing her, I never saw her “weakness” at the beginning. I saw the seeds of the strength that would carry her through the challenges she’d face. I saw her out-of-whack priorities, sure, her immaturity. But she transforms. She grows up. She discovers her own self-worth.

What I find interesting is how many readers were surprised – and delighted - to see her change. The badasses of today’s young adult fiction have conditioned readers to expect relatively static characters. To me, the journey – the transformation – of a character, from weakness to strength, from naivety to knowledge, or from arrogance to humility – is the sign of an interesting, complex, strong character. I’m not talking the geek-to-pretty-girl makeover – I’m talking real change, real growth.

Some of my favorite novels growing up were the stories of teenaged girls who had no clue who they were. What they wanted. Where they belonged in the world. They were trapped within the predictability of their lives or beaten down by the expectations of others. Because hey, I could relate to that.

The Blue Castle, by L. M. Montgomery, features a main character who’s never spoken up to her mother in her entire life…until she receives devastating news and realizes she doesn’t want to spend the little time she has left being proper and afraid. Just because she doesn’t think she has anything left to lose doesn’t make her bravery, her strength, any less impressive. She transforms her entire life – and finds more joy and beauty than she ever hoped for.

On Fortune’s Wheel, by Cynthia Voigt, has a protagonist who begins her story inexpressibly bored with her life, chained by the limitations of being a women in a medieval world, who makes rash, ridiculously immature decisions. She’s foolish, not strong. But her experiences, the thread of steel she finds within herself in the darkest of circumstances, transform her into a mature, self-sufficient, and empathetic woman.

These two books meant so much to me as a teenager – and echo the kinds of stories that resonate most with me now. As a writer, transformation stories can be difficult. We get a lot of flack for writing “unsympathetic characters,” for asking our readers to stick with our whiny / weak / insecure / obnoxious main character long enough to see her grow up / grow into herself / become worthy of the “strong” moniker.

But I also think those kinds of stories can be really valuable, particularly at a time when “strong” still seems to mean “masculine” or “physically badass” to many. Being strong isn’t about wielding knives or a witty barb; it’s about how your characters respond to the challenges life throws at them. A girl in a wheelchair, overcoming discrimination and dismissal, is damn strong. A woman moving past bullying or rape, a girl defying stereotypes to become a scientist in a male-dominated industry – these characters are no less strong for not wielding a sword or a gun.

For me, the Katniss’s and Tris’s represent an opposition to the physical weakness and sexism I struggle with daily. I love reading about girls physically kicking ass because I can’t…those stories make me feel less helpless and impotent. But watching a girl transform – from weak to strong – whether physically, emotionally, or mentally, is aspirational. It gives me hope. I too can be strong. I too can grow into a better version of myself.

After all, even the original Chosen one, Buffy, began her story as a stuck-up, Valley girl cheerleader…and look how she turned out. ;-)

If you’d like to read more about the different opinions on strong female characters, I recommend the following articles:

“A Plague of Strong Female Characters” by Carina Chocano

“The Best New Strong Female Characters Are the Weak Ones” by Tasha Robinson

Question: What does “strong female character” mean to you? What characters do you feel best embody the moniker? What books have you read and loved with characters that embark on transformative journeys?

About the Author

Award-winning author, Army wife, and mom, Tracy Banghart has an MA in Publishing and an unhealthy affection for cupcakes. Her quiet childhood led to a reading addiction, writing obsession, and several serious book boyfriends. She writes novels featuring strong women, realistic romances, and tight female friendships because she believes in cultivating worlds where women support rather than compete with one another, and first kisses happen en route to new adventures, instead of in lieu of them. Her fourth novel, Storm Fall, the sequel to Rebel Wing, was just released by Alloy Entertainment.

Website |  Twitter |  Facebook |  Goodreads

About the Books

In the action-packed sequel to Rebel Wing, Aris battles for life and love . . . and not everyone will survive.

Aris Haan gave up everything to join the Atalantan Military: her family, her boyfriend, even her identity. In the end, though, it didn’t matter that she was a war hero. When the all-male Military discovered that she was actually a woman, she was sent home and erased from history.

Now she has a chance to go back to the battlefield—as herself. But as hard as it was to be a soldier in disguise, it’s even more difficult now. The men in her unit undermine her at every turn. The Safaran army has spies everywhere, perhaps even on Aris’s stationpoint. And she’s falling for her mysterious superior officer, Milek. But their relationship is forbidden, just stolen moments between training sessions and missions. There’s no room for love in war.

Then Aris discovers that Safara’s leaders have set their sights on her, Atalanta’s hero. And she must find them before they find her . . .

Storm Fall on Amazon  | Goodreads

The Dominion of Atalanta is at war. But for eighteen-year-old Aris, the fighting is nothing more than a distant nightmare, something she watches on news vids from the safety of her idyllic seaside town. Then her boyfriend, Calix, is drafted into the Military, and the nightmare becomes a dangerous reality.

Left behind, Aris has nothing to fill her days. Even flying her wingjet--the thing she loves most, aside from Calix--feels meaningless without him by her side. So when she's recruited to be a pilot for an elite search-and-rescue unit, she leaps at the chance, hoping she'll be stationed near Calix. But there's a catch: She must disguise herself as a man named Aristos. There are no women in the Atalantan Military, and there never will be.

Aris gives up everything to find Calix: her home. Her family. Even her identity. But as the war rages on, Aris discovers she's fighting for much more than her relationship. With each injured person she rescues and each violent battle she survives, Aris is becoming a true soldier--and the best flyer in the Atalantan Military. She's determined to save her Dominion . . . or die trying.

Rebel Wing on Amazon  | Goodreads

a Rafflecopter giveaway


  1. Such great points! Thank you, Tracy. I think that the physically badass female characters that have been so popular lately are a cry from women who feel the need to prove they are as strong as men. But characters like Katniss are so great because, even though she's physically strong, in so many ways, she has been stunted: emotionally, mentally; she's had to be the adult her whole young life. That is her weakness. It's almost like a warning to young females: that strength doesn't mean being able to wield a weapon. And I don't think that these characters are a bad thing. The female characters that are more normal, more human, are still there. But these characters like Katniss are opening up a whole new world for lead females in different genres. It's not just men anymore. I think it means we, as authors, just have all the more freedom to write the kind of female characters we want to write.

    1. Amanda, that's a great point! I guess I've been feeling that there's been a push towards the more physically strong, badass female characters lately, kind of to the detriment of other types of "strong." But it sounds like you feel it's been giving writers MORE freedom to write different kinds of female characters, which is awesome! I really hope that's true.

  2. Oooh, great perspective! I've been chewing on the "strong woman" trope for a while. I really dislike the "emotionally closed off" women, but I hadn't been able to articulate it to myself. I mean, if emotionally damaged is "Strong", then gosh, there's a lot of "Strong" people walking around. I like your angle better--that it's about growth and overcoming. I'm attracted to a protagonist who grows and changes--whether male or female.

    1. thank you! i'm glad you enjoyed it. i found it difficult to articulate how i was feeling about it too...but i realized as i was writing that it really came down to the idea of "transformation" for me. i'd love to see more of those kinds of stories, especially in YA scifi/fantasy. I think The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson is a great example of this, actually. I loved that book!

  3. I really like this post!! It's true, nowadays, we do think of strong female characters as the Katniss variety, but those that transform can be just as powerful given the right catalyst.

  4. I love this post! It takes so much strength to allow yourself to grow and change as a person, and I love reading about characters that do.

  5. Strong female characters to me are the ones who think for themselves, accept blame for their mistakes (and they make lots of them), and are willing to look beyond their faults and learn. Thanks for the thought-provoking post and giveaway.

    1. That is a GREAT definition of strong female characters! Love it!!


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