In fiction, authors sometimes struggle with writing a bad ass female character that isn’t a Mary Sue.
Most authors assume that to create a bad ass female character, she only needs to be great at fighting. Or they make her so physically resilient that even getting hit by a truck won’t keep her down. But what actually ends up happening is that the author accidentally creates a boring character.
Due to the popularity of this blog post, I have decided to update the original 2015 content with 2019 writing experience and knowledge. Therefore, I’ve simplified the message and added more references to help you on your writing journey.
This is how to write a bad ass female character redux.
One of the most important things I’ve learned between now and 2015 is that bad ass female can have a variety of definitions. The most common definition is that the woman can fight, but this is only a superficial layer (and quite honestly played out). What truly defines a bad ass female character is the woman’s ability to pursue her goals no matter what.
For instance, would you consider Katniss Everdeen to be an amazing fighter? No.
She’s extremely handy with a bow, but that’s not what makes her a bad ass. Katniss became a bad ass by sacrificing herself as tribute for the Hunger Games instead of her sister. Then once she entered the Hunger Games, Katniss managed to inspire a revolution after being nothing more than a player in a game.
Although being a great fighter is not a requirement in creating a bad ass female character, it is the easiest starting point for new writers. If you want to see the literal definition of bad ass female character in action, watch this video.
The character in question was Zan from Wu Assassins. She is one of the villains in Wu Assassins and is one of the most bad ass female characters I have ever seen.
Pay attention to what specifically makes her a bad ass. It’s not just her awesome fighting moves, it’s her attitude when executing action.
Zan treats her opponent Jenny like a non-threat. She doesn’t care or have an interest in killing Jenny. All Zan wants is to grab her target and leave.
The way Zan walks with cool composure represents all the elements that exude a classic bad ass female character. She has nothing to prove. She knows she can crush the little girl blocking her way. Her attitude is what makes her a queen bad ass.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have this travesty.
(Update: I see the CW realized how awful their trailer was so they made the video private. Luckily, another youtuber managed to upload a copy to his channel. Nice try CW!)
There are so many things wrong with the Batwoman trailer, most flagrant being that cringe-worthy song of “I am a WO-MAAAN!”
My biggest issue with the Batwoman trailer on CW is that it disrespects the definition of a bad ass female character.
The writers on CW want you to believe that Batwoman is a bad ass female character without actually showing you why she deserves to be bad ass. In fact, Batwoman is a textbook example of why I wrote The Silver Ninja. In my universe, Cindy doesn’t have a male counterpart and she doesn’t steal her identity from a male Silver Ninja. She is the OG. If anyone is going to be copied, it would be her.
Having Batwoman say, “The suit will be perfect when it fits a woman,” causes me to roll my eyes. Not because I don’t believe in empowered women but because it is a phony way to make females feel more empowered.
If Batwoman was building her own suit without having someone else modify it, then that line would make sense. But it’s clear that the man protecting Bruce Wayne’s gear is going to make the modifications.
Then there’s the whole “I’m not letting a man take credit for a woman’s work.” Well . . . she stole Batman’s suit, stole his tech, stole his cave, and now she wants credit for what Batman accomplished. This is a classic example of terrible, political writing.
If Kate (Batwoman) had been a crime fighter before or during Batman’s reign, then yes that line would make sense. If she had put a kingpin behind bars instead of Batman that would doubly make sense. In the context of this trailer, the dialogue makes Kate seem whiny. “How come everyone’s calling me Batman and not Batwoman? It’s not fair!”
As a writer, you can totally write something along the lines of I am woman hear me roar. If you want to see a great example of this, watch this scene from Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.
This is how you write a bad ass female character. She doesn’t need to insult men or degrade their achievements. You can see that Eowyn is terrified of the witch king and her helmet even poorly fits on her head. And yet, despite knowing she is outmatched, she bravely stands up to the Witch King in order to protect her father.
She EARNS the right to say, “I am no man!” Before impaling him with her sword.
Eowyn is not a great fighter and she doesn’t have to be. The fact that she chooses to fight in order to protect her family is what makes her a bad ass female character.
Don’t write like CW’s Batwoman, that’s politicized writing and it will only serve to infuriate potential fans.
Anyway, to write a bad ass female character, one needs to do three simple things:
- Have her focused on accomplishing her objective no matter what.
- Don’t allow her to be helpless unless she has run out of options and cannot fight back.
- Make sure she can defend herself and outsmart her opponents. She doesn’t always have to win she simply needs to be capable.
Think about what makes Batman a bad ass male character. The reason other heroes take him seriously is because of his relentless pursuit of accomplishing a goal.
In the Justice League episode Only a Dream all of the Justice League heroes have fallen asleep, except for Batman. Alone and without backup, Batman must stop Dr. Destiny before he himself falls asleep.
Remember that Batman is only human and needs to sleep like the rest of us. What makes this episode compelling is the variety of tactics Batman uses to keep himself awake. He punches out the windshield of his batmobile so that the wind keeps him awake, he drinks coffee, and he hums Frère Jacques to keep Dr. Destiny out of his mind. Batman’s level headed demeanor and ruthless pursuit of beating the villain, easily made him a bad ass in that episode.
Now imagine if a woman did the same things Batman did (and not like CW’s Batwoman).
If you need more examples, let’s refer to bad ass female characters in films: Sarah Connor (Terminator 2), Ripley (Aliens), Imperator Furiosa (Mad Max Fury Road), Yu Shu Lien, (Crouching Tiger), The Bride (Kill Bill), Eowyn (Lord of the Rings), Domino (Deadpool 2), Katniss Everdeen (Hunger Games), Trinity (Matrix).
All of these bad ass female characters share the same trait Batman has. They relentlessly pursue their goals no matter what. What’s also important to note is that these characters are not invincible. They get hurt, they die, and they lose loved ones. They don’t always win their battles and sometimes they suffer huge setbacks. Even Zan from Wu Assassins eventually tastes defeat.
The reason I didn’t add Rey (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) to this list is because Rey is a Mary Sue. As soon as she receives a lightsaber, Rey is able to use her force powers and defeat her enemies without any issues. The force . . . a skill which took Luke weeks to learn in Dagobah, Rey masters in hours. Rey never gets hurt, doesn’t lose any of her friends, and she remains a sweet, innocent orphan without evolving as a character.
Rey is boring.
A real character, one who has been through trials and tribulations never remains the same. They are changed from their experience. They are not perfect. If they can master difficult skills in hours then they must have a severe character flaw to balance out their talents. For instance, if Rey was blind or deaf or had a vice, then her being able to master the force quickly would balance out her negative traits.
Zan’s negative trait in Wu Assassin’s is that she’s an antagonist. (But maybe they’ll turn her into a good guy? Fingers crossed!)
Sarah Conner’s negative trait is that she’s a loner and doesn’t want to accept help from anyone.
Ripley’s negative trait is that she’s traumatized by what happened to her crew and has nightmares of the alien creatures birthing from her body.
You cannot have a bad ass female character without flaws, plain and simple. Always remember that perfect heroes make for boring heroes, which make boring stories.
Don’t want to take my word for it? Check out these interesting articles on writing female characters.
So, do you want to read how I incorporated this blog post into my books? Check out my version of a bad ass female character in The Silver Ninja: A Bitter Winter. Link is available below.
She thought a prototype suit would turn her into a superhero. It did. But now the suit is taking over her body. Can Cindy Ames regain control before she takes another innocent life?
A Bitter Winter – The Silver Ninja [Vol. 1]
A disgraced cop takes matters into her own hands when the murderer who killed her partner comes after her family. To stop him, Cindy Ames fuses with a prototype suit and transforms herself into a superhero.
But the suit has a mind of its own and is determined to execute its hidden agenda.
The puppet has become the master, and the hero has become the monster.
Super powers can save a city but break a hero.
A Bitter Winter is book 1 of The Silver Ninja series.