We bandy around the phrase ‘strong female protagonist’ (SFP for short) quite a bit. Now, this phrase has a lot of meaning to it and is often taken at literal face value, focusing on physical prowess (literal physical strength in one way or the other) instead of the truer, broader meaning. This isn’t necessarily bad, not at all as long as it is handled well (though I prefer the deeper interpretation of strength myself). I bring this thought of physical strength up, though, because it lets us talk about a pair of character tropes closely connected to that and the overall ‘SFP’ discussion: the Action Girl and the Faux Action Girl.
The Action Girl is pretty much what it sounds like: a female character who shows strengths in all the action-hero realms that are usually attributed to male protagonists. The action-heroine in every way, the Action Girl is often used as a trope/archetype to quickly establish a woman as a SFP. At first blush, it’s as simple of a trope to use as can be. You create a female character, show her as top-notch in action scenes, and keep that competent demeanor in non-action scenes. Easy as pie!
The biggest pitfall, of course, is one common with male action heroes as well: weak characterization. In an effort to establish those action credentials, there is the chance of missing out on the actual person behind the trope. While this can happen when you utilize any archetype, it tends to happen more when using action-oriented ones such as this. It’s easy to loose the character behind the scenes of butt-kicking and tense drama. The answer is simple: Focus on the character, dammit!
The other big pitfall is the opposite of the Action Girl, the Faux Action Girl. You see, the Faux Action Girl is a female character who has gotten a nice big dose of Informed Ability, someone who gets plenty of exposition and talk about their abilities but who never matches up in an actual action scene. While this is a general problem for any character, it can be especially problematic to have an Action Girl in a story that never succeeds at the actual action.
Let’s not mince words. The Faux Action Girl is a hold-over (USUALLY) from the last century, an effort to nod towards the growing need for equality in media while still holding back enough to soothe damaged male sensibilities. It’s a dying trope, to be honest, but it’s still possible to fall into it accidentially by creating an action heroine then constantly having them set back for reasons that might seem logical to you, the author, but may not seem so cut and dry to your readers. Think of this as Informaed Ability made even more problematic by the possibly toxic social implications.
Now, oddly enough, you can use a Faux Action Girl as a useful trope, simply by making that false front of competence the actual story to explore. Much like a false Ace or an ‘Invincible Hero’ whose story is all talk, an action heroine whose legend is not the truth and the implications there of could make for a fascinating story. However, as you can tell, this is an intentional move, a way to create drama and a character arc. It’s something much different than the pitfalls and missteps we’ve discussed above.
So if you want to make your next action hero a woman, go for it! Just don’t lose sight of the need for characterization and avoid the stumble of the Faux Action Girl!