Female Character Archetypes and Strong Female Characters

I’m about two thirds finished my upcoming novel, Confessions of a Failed Environmentalist, to be released in early June, and was thinking about my main character, Alana. She is excessively concerned about the environment, at the cost of her own sanity sometimes (and the sanity of those around her), and yet somehow manages to screw up in many of her well-intentioned environmental endeavors. It is more comedy than my previous works and is intended to exploit those uncomfortable intersections of trying to do the right thing for the planet, but discovering that sometimes it isn’t clear what the right thing is, or that it is just so darned inconvenient.

Photo Credit:  Kim Scarborough  / flickr /  Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Kim Scarborough / flickr / Creative Commons

One thing I am very aware of is trying to make my characters distinct across novels. Since I often, but not always, have female POV characters, I decided it was time for me to familiarize myself with the female character archetypes to better understand what type of women I am putting on the page. Although good characters should be truly multi-faceted and not simply conform to an archetype, understanding the archetypes that many of us have in the backs of our heads helps to shape characters.

Female Character Archetypes

After some research, I decided that there are basically nine archetypal female characters, with several sub-types or variations (and I am happy to debate some of my groupings of the general types as there is certainly crossover and no hard and fast rules). Each archetype has their rough male equivalent, and for the most part only the “positive” side of each archetype is presented, as I am focusing on my protagonists (and I generally prefer my protagonists to be on the good side). Each of these archetypes could be inverted to be villainous as needed. Be sure to check out my references at the bottom of the post.

The nine main female archetypes, with examples, their male equivalent, and descriptions are:

1) The Amazon/ The Crusader

Examples: Wonder Woman, Buffy, Merida, Xena, Katniss Everdeen

Male Counterparts: The Warrior

Description: Powerful woman who is competitive and still identifies with feminism and nature; Independent, quirky, confident

2) The Father’s Daughter/ The Librarian/ The Spinster

Examples: Hermione Granger, Anabeth Chase from Percy Jackson, Scully from The X-Files

Male Counterparts: The Professor/ The Recluse/The Computer Geek

Description: Studious and intelligent woman who aligns herself with powerful men but may not get along with women; Likes to be in control; Data oriented introvert who doesn’t know how to connect with other people; Used to looking after herself

3) The Nurturer/ The Good Wife/ The Martyr

Examples: Mrs. Frisby from Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Molly Weasley

Male Counterparts: The Protector

Description: Tied up in caring for others particularly children; Sacrifices self to help others; Often a supporting character

4) The Boss/ The Matriarch/ The Queen Bee

Examples: Janeway from Star Trek, Murphy Brown, Jean Grey from X-Men

Male Counterparts: The Chief/ The Boss/The Businessman/ The King

Description: Decisive leader, sometimes inflexible; workaholic; Sometimes arrogant; If character is a mother and most of her management revolves around her family, then can be called the matriarch

5) The Spunky Kid/ The Plucky Girl/ The Girl Next Door

Examples: Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island, Kaylee from Firefly, Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle

Male Counterparts: “Everyman”/ The Best Friend/ The Sidekick

Description: Has a good attitude and is always ready to roll up her sleeves to help; Team player; Supportive and reliable; Often in best friend role, but also often protagonist

6) The Seductress/ The Femme Fatale

Examples: Samantha on Sex in the City, Daphne on Scooby Doo, Ginger on Gilligan’s Island

Male Counterparts: The Bad Boy/ The Woman’s Man

Description: Sexually driven and attractive to men; Can be manipulative; Not often main character

7) The Mystic/ The Free Spirit/ The Quirky Misfit

Examples: Luna Lovegood, Phoebe from Friends, Ally McBeal, Pippi Longstocking

Male Counterparts: The Fool/ To some extent The Artist

Description: Free spirited, calm and gentle, creative; Can be the crazy and the comic relief; Original and playful

8) The Maiden/ The Troubled Teen/ The Waif/ The Damsel in Distress/ The Princess/ The Victim

Examples: Bella Swan, Snow White, Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, Jane Eyre

Male Counterparts: None

Description: Childlike woman who lets others handle the details of life; Often in danger and in need of rescue

9) The Survivor

Examples: Scarlett O’Hara

Male Counterparts: The Survivor

Description: Distrustful, and charming; Will do whatever is necessary to come out ahead including run away

References at bottom of post

This definitely helped put to rest my concern that all my characters are the same. I realized that Abbey from my middle grade series is definitely a Librarian, Natalie from In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation is a Boss, Sasha from Reversal is a Plucky Girl, Sarah from The River is a Survivor, and Anna from my upcoming story in the Tinfoil Anthology is a Free Spirit. They all tend to straddle archetypes a little though. For example, Natalie is part Boss and part Nurturer. Anna is part Free Spirit and part Plucky Girl.

Evidently I am not yet in to writing Maidens, Warriors or Seductresses, which may be in part because I feel these archetypes are not as well rounded as the others, and in the case of Maidens and Seductresses, not as positive a role model for women.

So what does this mean for Confessions of a Failed Environmentalist? Upon review, I have decided that Alana is a Plucky Girl crossed with a Nurturer. To make her a bit more edgy, I am going to push her a bit more in the direction of being a Crusader.

Strong Female Characters

In doing the research for this post, I also came across a lot of discussions regarding the new trend in “strong female characters” and Sophia McDougall probably says it the best in this New Statesman article. Chuck Wendig of course, as always, has a good take. Instead of the traditional weak females in need of rescue, who have dominated many of our stories historically, writers, particularly screenwriters, are now electing to create female rocket scientists, who look like models, are trained in hand-to-hand combat, can fix cars and fall in love with the plucky, but mediocre, “everyman” in the opposing role. While the writers may have had good intentions in creating these “strong female characters”, they feed male fantasies and create unrealistic images of women. While “strong”, they are not good female characters. Good female characters are nuanced, flawed and real, like good male characters. Good female characters are interesting and have agency i.e. they have motivations, make decisions, take action and affect the story.

This advice should be kept in mind in relation to the archetypes as well. While they can serve as a useful guide in shaping female characters, real women are often a combination of archetypal characteristics or are different archetypes in different settings. A woman could be The Boss at work, The Nurturer at home, the Crusader when it comes to issues of importance to her.

So go write good female characters, and badass female characters and young and old female characters, with cats, and babies, and bad habits, and passions, and hang ups and attitude, and whatever it takes to make them real, make them talk to each other about something other than men (the Bechdel test) and for God's sake, give them something to do.

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Archetype references