Writing strong female characters

I was reading some fiction this morning and recognized another reliable tipoff that an author doesn’t know how to write a strong female character: the book’s female lead only exists to prevent the male lead from looking insane every time he delivers exposition.

For instance:


Carson drifted into the empty living room. He settled into its second-most-comfortable chair and fussed with a loose seam on the armrest.

Darla entered, drawn by the palpable aroma of Sulk that had been wending its way through the air conditioning system ever since she heard the front door close. “What’s wrong, honey?”

“I’m worried about Omega,” Carson said.

“Oh, no.”

“Yes: Mark’s back. And he┬ápromises, absolutely insists, that he’s either going to terminate the whole project or die trying to get credit for it.”

“Can’t you just, you know…have him killed? It’s not as though anyone at the office would ask too many questions. Particularly if it happened on a Friday morning and gave everyone an excuse to start the weekend early.”

“I can’t kill Mark.”

“Well, then, just exploit his tendencies towards idiocy. Water flows downhill. Mark sees a Reddit video of someone almost jumping over a speeding car and thinks ‘I bet that didn’t hurt nearly as much as he’s pretending it did’.”

Carson stopped fussing with the upholstery and snort-smiled. “I’m not going to kill Mark, nor indirectly get him injured.”

“Ah,” Darla said, pretending to be disappointed. She shooed the pile of unread magazines and supermarket circulars off the sofa as though it were an indifferent and entitled cat, and took a seat.

“Is the project really that important? How do you know this isn’t just another dead end?”

Carson rose and crossed to a table. “One, two, three, four binders,” he said, picking up each one and theatrically dropping it to the floor. “Each one represents four hundred pages of dead ends. But it’s not like we wasted our time. Three years of proving what won’t work has absolutely, categorically proven to us what will work.”


“Omega. We have a completely linear path ahead of us for the first time since we launched the company.”

“You make it sound as if all you need to do is follow the dotted line and dig at the ‘X’. You’re that certain?”

“Arrrr, matey!” Carson said, hopping around on one foot.

“A real pirate would just tell Mark ‘Don’t fuss with the #3 cannon; it’s got a faulty fuse’ and then hand the problem over to Darwin.”

“A real pirate wouldn’t have any problems finding financing.” He looked at the floor, listlessly.

“True. So, really, honey…what are you going to do?”

“Ha,” Carson said. Not laughed…said.

“Thank you. I stole that line from a Mitch Hedberg video. What?”

Carson transitioned to a satisfied little chuckle as he picked one of the binders up off the floor and turned to face the chair. He patted its spine and held it with the same air of pride and promise as a new father holds his first child.

He kissed one of its corners, theatrically.

“Mark is an idiot. He’s an even worse enemy to himself than he is to any of the rest of us, if such a thing is even possible. And Lord knows he has no idea what we’ve been working on for the past four years: note the word ‘work’ in that phrase.”

He worked a finger underneath the binder’s spine and removed its label card. It read EPSILON – PHASE IV – *** FAIL ***.

He tore the card into four pieces.

“I think I’m about to mislabel my project files. I think I’m going to leave my desk unlocked tomorrow. And I think the day after that, Mark will ask to make a special presentation to the board of directors. Each of whom remembers our past failures only too well.”

Darla laughed and rose to leave. “I think that’s brilliant,” she said, making for the doorway. “And I think there’s no reason for us not to keep our 6:30 dinner reservations. And I think you’re not leaving the house in those muddy trousers. I can throw them in the load of laundry I was about to run,” she said, leaving to fetch the basket.

“And if your plan doesn’t work?” she called, from the hall.

“If it doesn’t work,” Carson said, dropping his pants, “then we use the cannon.”


If the woman is there just for a male protagonist to bounce exposition off of…that’s not a great character.