Soyou Want To / Write An Action Girl

Girls who kick butt are cool, right? At least, if you're reading this, we can assume you think so. Of course, that's if they're written well. This is a guide on how to have your Action Girl both kick butt and be a compelling character.

Note that all the advice here applies equally to a Dark Action Girl. For advice on the "dark" part, see Write a Villain.

Necessary Tropes

  • Fight Scene: This one is pretty obvious — if she doesn't get into fights, she's not an action girl. Even if it's a "non-battle battle series", it will still use a lot of the tropes listed here. Which specific ones depends on the work's medium, setting and style.
  • Feminist Fantasy: While not every work featuring Action Girls is feminist, many of them are created with the intention of empowering girls or examining women's role in society, especially in traditionally male-dominated fields.

Choices, Choices

  • Why did she become a fighter? Was she raised as one (and did she miss having a "normal" childhood)? Did something drive her to learn how to fight (if so, what)? Did someone else choose her path, either as The Chosen One of a higher power, or something more mundane, like being drafted into the army (and how does she feel about that)?
  • How common are Action Girls in the setting? Are almost all fighters men, an equal mixture, or is it a World of Action Girls where most fighters are women? Is there a societal expectation that a "proper lady" knows how to handle herself in a fight? (the wives of Samurai were expected to be proficient with polearms to defend their home while their husband was away). If fighters are mostly male, how accepted is the idea of women in combat? Does she have to disguise herself as a man to be in the military?
    • Women disguising themselves as men to fight has happened time and time again throughout history, for a variety of reasons: deeply-held desire to do so, a living in times when there was no other way to support herself, even getting away from a terrible situation at home. And depending on the setting, how much of a taboo was it and how strongly was that taboo enforced? In this regard, a look at female Pirates in particular might be instructive, simply because that seems to be halfway decently documented.
  • And what about women traveling along with armies? Even if a woman never takes up a sword/gun/whatever, she might still be right in the suck by being part of the supply trail following the army, in which case she may still pick up some fighting skills and keep a dagger close just in case they get overrun or a soldier gets aggressive towards her. Then there's people like Sutematsu Oyama whose story begins with her helping defend the family castle by running ammo to the cannons. An even darker take on the concept would be young German girls in the twilight of WW2 being used as Flakhelfer. And to go full modern, what about all the women in military service today? Just because a female US Marine, f'rex, might not be admitted into a "combat" MOS, that doesn't mean she's gonna be "safe" when deployed.
  • Does the Action Girl's martial prowess mean she is viewed as more or less attractive?
  • If an Amazonian society exists, why are the majority of warriors women, and how does that affect their worldview? Did they rebel and throw off the yoke of the patriarchy? Did most of their menfolk die for some reason? Are they a species or group with abilities that make women more suited for combat than men? Do they worship a deity who likes female warriors? (note that said deity need not be female - the Amazons of Greek Mythology worshipped Ares, the very male god of war)
  • How realistic do you want your series to be? If you're going for strict realism, you're going to have to deal with the fact that women are usually less muscular than men, which can be a major disadvantage in a fight. How do you plan to do that? If you're going for something more fantastic, you can pretty much ignore real-life gender differences — if your action girl is a Superhero, nothing says she can't have Super Strength equal to or greater than any of her male counterparts, and if she's piloting a Humongous Mecha, muscle power is in all likelihood irrelevant.

Keep in mind that "realistic" does not automatically mean "good", and "unrealistic" does not automatically mean "bad" - why yes, escapist power fantasies can be unrealistic. You don't have to justify a female action hero in ways not required of male action heroes. No one bats an eye when John McClane takes out a tower full of terrorists, but make a short film of a woman beating a couple of guys with cool martial arts and Youtube drowns in cries of "UNREALISTIC." Ignore them.

Women and Realistic Fighting

  • In combat, size difference has the greatest effect in unarmed and unarmored martial arts such as boxing and wrestling. For example, it is harder for a small opponent to throw a larger one, and it is more difficult for a short person to hit a tall person's head. Bigger people might also be able to absorb more hits due to their extra muscle and fat. It's going to be really difficult to make Waif-Fu like having a 100 pound unarmed girl beating a 300 pound man in a stand-up fight believable. Even in unarmed combat, however, these differences can potentially be overcome. Even in times when martial arts were almost exclusively a male activity, masters spoke of how technique could enable the Weak, but Skilled to defeat the Unskilled, but Strong. In a contest of evenly matched skill, a difference in strength could potentially decide the outcome, but this is relatively rare. As long as the rules of engagement allow the smaller party to use the techniques that would be advantageous to them, and as long as the difference in height or weight is not too outrageous, skill is usually the deciding factor in a contest between two martial artists.

Armed martial arts, in comparison, are even more of an equalizer. If both parties have weapons with similar weight and reach, then the differences in their capabilities will be vastly leveled. It does not take much strength at all to kill someone with a sword, dagger, or spear, and any attempt to use brute strength to overwhelm the opponent can easily be thwarted and turned against the attacker using the most basic of techniques. The most equal of all is a contest with firearms, since the strength of the user is irrelevant to the power of the bullet, and in fact a larger individual will have the disadvantage of presenting a bigger target (pre-gunpowder, crossbows also produce power independent of the weilder's strength). Granted, a stronger individual might be able to carry a heavier weapon, or wear heavier armornote  than the weaker, but this could potentially be compensated for by the smaller one's agility. As long as you are physically fit enough to use the weapons and fighting style that you are trained in, then you can potentially be a match one-on-one for any opponent of similar skill.
  • It's also been said that the more rules a fight has, the greater the advantage the man has. A woman has much less of a chance to win a formal boxing match against a man than if the same man and woman were in a street fight where she can do things like Groin Attacks, eye gouging, and grabbing items to use as weapons.
  • Especially if you're writing a historical or fantasy story, one way a woman can compensate for sexual differences in musculature is by fighting on horseback. If the horse (or other mount) is moving, most of the power behind the strike will come from the horse, not the rider, and a horse, especially one bred for battle, has far more weight and power than any human. A lighter rider also means a horse can run faster and farther. This is one of the reasons many historical examples of warrior women were Asiatic horse nomads. Perhaps if women serve in the military, they are directed toward cavalry units for this reason?
  • A lot of the time in media, female warriors are depicted as archers because they're percieved as too small and fragile for front line combat and give two-handed swords to the big muscular dudes. That's wrong. Bows (excluding crossbows, as mentioned above) need a lot of upper body strength but two-handed swords don't. A real two-handed sword doesn't weigh twice as much as a one-handed sword, but you do wield it with twice as many hands and with a lever arm three to four times as long for much greater power and leverage. (On a one-handed sword, your leverage is based on the distance between your index finger and little finger; for a two-hander, it's the space between your top index finger and your bottom little finger on a longer hilt.) Two-handed swords and polearms almost entirely negate a woman's disadvantages in strength and reach. If you've got a small woman and a man who's a big mountain of muscles, it's better to give the two-handed sword to the woman and give a bow to the man.
  • All this having been said, the differences in musculature between men and women are often overstated, and a woman who is a trained fighter will probably be above average. This may mean that there are fewer female fighters than males, but do not assume that just because a fighter is female she is automaically weaker.

Pitfalls

  • First of all, make a person who happens to be a warrior who happens to be female, NOT a female who happens to be a warrior who is a person. Do not ignore the necessity of characterization.
  • A female warrior doesn't need more justification than a male warrior. You often run into the assumption that warriors are male by default, and you only have female warriors if there is a specific reason for it. Try to avoid that.
  • Faux Action Girl: The most obvious pitfall - don't rely on Informed Ability. While it's okay (and probably even good) for her to occasionally lose a fight or need help, having her get rescued all the time will quickly get old.
  • Chainmail Bikini: Even in a none-too-realistic series, this and similar Stripperiffic fighting attire (Combat Stilettos, extremely tight Spy Catsuits with the zippers down, etc.) will make Suspension of Disbelief difficult. Like most tropes, it can be gotten away with, but it's difficult. Red Sonja gets away with it due to Grandfather Clause, Dirty Pair due to both that and not being too serious to begin with, and Kill La Kill because it runs on Crazy Awesome, although none of these have escaped criticism.
  • Real Women Don't Wear Dresses: Being an Action Girl doesn't automatically make a woman better than other women. Related to this, an action girl doesn't have to eschew anything that identifies her as female. You know the type: she walks around armed to the teeth, hates men and the patriarchy with a burning passion that easliy turns violent, and generally suffers from a worse case of Testosterone Poisoning than the men in the cast. And god forbid she should be emotional, or get into romantic relationships (unless they're with other women!), or have any of the other concerns that real women deal with on a daily basis.
  • Use Groin Attacks sparingly, at most. Groin attacks can be very painful, but they aren't magically more effective when a woman uses them. If you wouldn't have a male warrior try for a nut shot in a particular situation, don't have your female warrior do it either. Groin attacks are quite effective, but they aren't very dignified, so they don't come up much in heroic action fiction except for slapstick comic relief. When a male warrior strikes a guy in the groin, it's "funny". When a female warrior does it, it's "haha, nut shot!" funny, but also tinged with "haha, you got beat by a girl!" (funny to immature boys) or "haha, take that, evil penis!" (funny to immature girls). Also keep in mind that groin shots are not easy, as the groin is one of the areas humans have automatic reflex protection. In a civilian situation they're useful because they are a surprise. They're a poor battlefield target.
  • One of the biggest screw-ups that people keep making to divide male and female warriors is having their actual fighting styles read as stuff that has no reason to coexist in the same setting. There's obviously going to be some differentiation between characters depending on stuff like size, equipment, personality, training, etc (a 130lb fencer is generally not going to fight like a 250lb bar thug, medieval or modern, male or female), but a lot of people fail to keep any sort of verisimilitude with this. If your fight scenes between guys read like a film noir beatdown and your fight scenes involving women read like a gutter ballet, there's probably an issue. This isn't to say that any particular feel to fight scenes is right or wrong, just that you need a certain amount of consistency. Nothing wrong with a setup where everyone She Fus around the battlefield lithely, but it comes across badly when your heroines don't seem to be working in the same genre as your heroes.
  • Having one really bad ass woman in your story, who can beat up all the menz, doesn't mean that your setting isn't a misogynistic crap hole. Lots of guys are surprised that their setting can be read as misogynistic just because every role for every woman can be summed up as "sexing or cooking", when they have that one badass Baroness Murderdeath who can murder everyone to death with awesome Baron-fu. One over-competent woman doesn't solve the rest of the problem. In fact, she kind of enhances it. If you want your setting to come off as an equal-opportunity Crapsack World (or whatever) make sure to have women serve in all sorts of roles, including militia guards and Lord Evilskull's Elite Ninja Kung-Fu Monks. Not to say that you can't design your setting as a misogynistic crap hole if that's the story you want to tell, but avoid doing it by accident.

Potential Subversions

  • Being an Action Girl is associated with tomboyishness, so adding some feminine traits can be a surprise. If you have a Tomboy and Girly Girl pair, maybe the girly girl is the fighter, while the tomboy has the healing magic?
  • Lady of War: What if her veneer of refinement slips during a stressful battle, and she lets loose with a few curse words?

Writers' Lounge

Suggested Themes and Aesops

  • The Action Girl having to struggle to prove herself and earn the respect of her peers, especially in a male-domiated society, is a classic one.
  • More generally, do men and women have different views about combat, and how does that affect such situations?
  • If an Amazonian society exists in a mostly male-dominated world, they might fear potential conquest and subjugation by men. Of course, this fear might lead them to oppress their menfolk just as badly as women are oppressed in the outside world.

Potential Motifs

Suggested Plots

  • A young warrior-in-training, learning the skills she will need for battle.
  • The action girl seeks revenge on someone.

Departments

Set Designer / Location Scout

Props Department

Costume Designer

Casting Director

Actresses famous for Action Girl roles include:

Stunt Department

Extra Credit

The Greats

Anime and Manga

Comic Books
  • Wonder Woman is probably the best-known superheroine worldwide. She's had her ups and downs over the years, but George Perez and Greg Rucka's runs on her book are the best-regarded.
  • Chris Claremont's run on X-Men from 1975 to 1991 saw several women join the team and play important roles.
  • Birds of Prey, particularly Gail Simone's first run, much of which was devoted to reestablishing Black Canary's Action Girl credentials.

Comic Strips
  • Modesty Blaise is unfortunately slipping into obscurity these days, but this spy strip (and the novels) are worth it to examine the woman Jennifer K. Stuller called "The most complex, sophisticated, skilled and intelligent of all action heroines".

Literature
  • Tamora Pierce's heroines, starting with Alanna in Song of the Lioness, a fantasy heroine to inspire girls from a time when they were near-nonexistent.
  • The Deed of Paksenarrion follows the title character as she becomes a warrior, and eventually a paladin. Author Elizabeth Moon served in the US Marines, and it shows in her depictions of military life.

Live Action Films
  • Ellen Ripley of Alien and its sequels, most famously for her Mama Bear turn in Aliens. All together now: "Get away from her, you bitch!"
  • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has three action girls who are great in different ways. Jen Yu is the quintessential young upstart fighter: strong, stubbourn, full of herself, yet also fragile and confused. Jade Fox is a superb villain who became what she was due to the sexism of her teachers and has a lot to say about how a woman might feel in a male-dominated world. But it's Shu Lien, the aging warrior who gave up love and stability for battle and adventure who is one of the best, truest-to-life action girls ever portrayed in a movie.
  • Chocolate stars Jeeja Yanin as an autistic martial arts prodigy, with some spectacular fight scenes that demonstrate how a smaller fighter can use their size to their advantage.

Live Action TV

Pro Wrestling

Video Games

Western Animation

The Epic Fails

  • WWE's Divas for approximately a decade following the retirement of Trish Stratus and Lita did much to damage the reputation of women's wrestling, and their time in the ring was often viewed as a "bathroom break". Even after the women of WWE NXT were called up to the main roster, it took time and effort to get them over. The turning point came at Wrestlemania 32 in 2016, with the retirement of the Divas title to be replaced by the new women's title, contested by Charlotte, Becky Lynch and Sasha Banks in what was arguably the match of the night.
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