The Vulnerable Female that Can Still Break You In Half

"And you would enjoy every second of it." -- mxpw

If there's anything television has taught us, besides the old Mr. Clean jingle (okay, maybe that's just me), it's that society enjoys a paradox, especially one that can smile shyly at you over a date and then go out into the back alley and single-handedly beat up six or more thugs, usually providing sarcastic commentary.  The Badass Female is a multifaceted creature: she can take a hit, she has a handy arsenal of skills not uncommon to McGyver, she's smart, she's capable, she can drive like it's the Grand Prix every day, she knows her way around guns, knives, security systems, and anything you throw at her, and most importantly, she can kick your ass.

Did I mention that she looks fantastic while she does all of this?

I know, it sounds impossible.  This sort of character just seems what the fandoms call a Mary Sue, somebody too good to be true, too perfect to actually exist.  And yes, that's part of it: if we're going to be real, there's a very good chance that 95% of the Badass Female characters would never exist, but what's the fun in that, right?  Readers and viewers want a character who can do all of the above, yet who can be relate-able and sympathetic, which sounds like an impossible task.  But, at the risk of sounding like a late night informercial, I'm here to tell you that this character is possible to write, and make it work.  In fact, I made up some handy rules to help out.

Perhaps I should pause here and state my qualifications.  I don't really have any, per se.  I've never taken a Female Empowerment in Literature course, I don't really consider myself a militant feminist, I have never gotten into a fight, or hijacked a car, or jumped out of a helicopter, kneecapped anybody from across the room.  I don't work for the government in a job I'll never be able to my loved ones about (or do I?).  My knowledge comes from watching hours and hours of TV--I do it for you readers, I really do--and a love of books with strong female characters.  Some of my favorite writers are Tanya Huff, Jim Butcher, Madeleine L'Engle, J.D. Robb, Meg Cabot, Diana Peterfreund, Mercedes Lackey, and Anne McCaffrey, just to name a few.  All of these writers give the world characters that may not be able to physically kick your ass, but they're strong, fierce, independent women, which is the basis of the badass (though Karrin Murphy and Torin Kerr WILL kick your ass, while Kitai looks on and laughs at the silly humans).

In addition to that, I've recently embarked on the world's longest story What Fates Impose, which features a version of Sarah Walker that has to routinely step up and keep her man focused and level all the while neutralizing threats left and right.  She doesn't always make the right decisions, but I've heard her called "badass" a time or two.

So how do you craft a believable badass?

After they attacked, I never... I never pined over any of my old crap. Never missed it. Stupid view of the parking lot. Broken toilet in the bathroom. You know, everyone I know... is fighting to get back what they had. And I'm fighting 'cause I don't know how to do anything else.  - Starbuck

1. Break Her

This rule sounds a little glib, but stick with me for a minute.  Chances are, to get where she's been, something in the character's life has made her deviate from the normal path toward a husband and two-point-five kids.  99 times out of 100, your badass didn't just wake up one morning and think, "I'm going to go alter everything about me drastically and dedicate my entire life to a lifestyle that's often lonely and confusing."  Something forced that change, so the first step is to figure out what that is.  This is your starting point.  It can be clear-cut (Sydney Bristow, for example, is tapped to become a "CIA" agent and starts undergoing training) or gradual (politics and her own unrelenting nature force Karrin Murphy into the unenviable Special Investigations, which handles the things that go bump in the night and forces Murphy to step up her game), but it still needs to happen.

Once your starting point is set, the ripples need to start.  This change must affect everything in your badass's life: daily choices, personal interactions, professional interactions, self-image, how others view your character.  And the more drastic the change, the greater the impact it will have over everything, and the greater conflict it will cause in your character.  Allow them to make mistakes, allow them to fumble and second-guess and doubt.  These moments, even if they're rare, are where a badass can truly shine.  A gem is unique not for its perfection, after all, but for the character in its flaws.

"Something’s not right. Aeryn doesn’t even shower without a pulse pistol."  - John Crichton

2. Image is Everything

Okay, I'm going to get this rule out of the way early.  It's shallower than the teenagers at the Wienerlicious, but it's still an important part of your badass character: she has to have her moments of cool.  There have to be times where another character looks at her and goes, "Okay, that's hot."  It's just part of the game.  These reactions can come from supreme confidence (whether it's real or just a front), competence (ditto), or the fact that she's standing on a mall kiosk with a rocket-launcher.   This rule is really a matter of "Give the readers what they want," which some writers rebel against, but c'mon, what's cooler than a rocket-launcher?  She has to do badass things, and she has to look badass doing them.  Isn't that right, Ellen Ripley?

"But the truth is, it affects me. Never knowing who to trust, learning to expect betrayal, plotting in secrecy and hatred and anger. It's becoming a part of me. I am becoming what I despise." - Sydney Bristow

"Sarah's just bluffing with Beckman, right. She'd never arrest her own father?"
"Why not? The guy's a criminal. Been in and out of jail her whole life.
" - Chuck Bartowski, John Casey
3. Throw in a Little Destiny

Rule #3 ties in pretty strongly with Rule #1, which would seem like cheating if your character were a rigidly defined series of traits and characteristics.  But she's not.  One important thing about the badass is that even though she can compartmentalize with the best of them, things need to bleed over.  As much as your badass wants it to be, the world will never be shades of black and white.  Things have to be messy for her.  She has to have that conflict propelling her throughout the story.  Which brings us to Rule #3, deep-seated issues.  A few of these can be from the Rule #1 (heretofore known as the Break), but more often than not, the case of the deep-seated issues likely started long before the Break forced your character on her alternate path.

Most of the women in the graphics for this post were predestined to be different, or situations early on in their lives altered them.  Buffy Summers became the Chosen One as a teenager, Sarah Walker grew up as the daughter of a conman, always traveling and changing her identity.  Sydney Bristow could disassemble and reassemble a gun before she even had braces.  Aeryn was genetically designed to be a soldier/killing machine since birth.  Olivia Dunham was doomed the minute Bishop and Belly took an interest in her.

And what messes us up better than parents?  Cliches become such for a reason: there is an inevitable truth behind them.  Before we're old enough to make choices for ourselves, our parents make them for us.  Who says they made the best decisions?  A parent's choices, a volatile home environment, even something so simple as income tax bracket can all affect the outcome of your character's deep-seated issues.  Really, a good way to ensure that your character will indeed become a badass is to start the traits and causes in the baby version of the badass.  Start 'em young, really, but remember when you're crafting the tyke version of your character: the potential has to exist for great things, even if the character's not aware of it until after a trial by fire.

"Spike, my boy, you really don't get it, do you? You tried to kill her, but you couldn't. Look at you, you're a wreck! Force won't get it done, you've gotta work from the inside. To kill this girl... You have to love her." - Angelus
4. Emotions Suck

So you know what the coolest thing about James Bond is?  He's a spy, a killer, he's intelligent, and fast on his feet, and he can woo any beautiful woman in a matter of seconds.

Yeah, that won't work for your badass.  Sorry.  One of the greatest draws for a believable character that can skydive in to save the day is that something has to trip this woman up.  And in most cases, it's going to be matters of the heart.  Before she met Chuck, Sarah Walker was an agent at the top of her game.  Buffy's myriad boyfriend problems have nearly destroyed the world--multiple times.  Hell, even logical, driven Olivia Dunham crossed into another dimension for a guy.  Willow put it best when she said, "Love makes you do the wacky."

There are, of course, many different emotional situations that could potentially hamstring your protagonist--reconnecting with a parent, a sibling, a child, extending the hand of friendship, accepting help from a partner at work--but invariably, the most popular situation is romance.  Even when its inexplicable, readers want the romance.  It's part of the human condition, after all.  Beneath the surface, most of us are romantics, hoping for the characters we love to find that One True Love and happiness.  We cheer when they do, but if there is no tension and it's all smooth sailing, readers/viewers grow bored.

So what does that mean?  Bumps in the road!  Your badass must encounter conflicts, both internal and external, on her road to love and/or self-actualization.  As always, you have to be careful here, not to make the problems too  large, for fear of making the character unsympathetic/unrealistic, or too small, lest you be accused of letting her off easy.  Chances are, if your badass has devoted her life to this path she's on, love will often seem like a deviation and a sacrifice to her.  She may not even want it, which makes it oh-so-delightful for those along for the ride.  Make her work for it.  Enjoy the fun neuroses this sort of situation can inspire, even. 

"So is Agent Dunham, like, your girlfriend?"
 "No. No. She's like a friend who's a girl. And who carries a gun." -
Lisa, Peter Bishop
5. She's a Badass Because She's the Best

Okay, I know Rule #5 seems like a gimme rule.  After all, that's the definition of badass, isn't it?  The word is even in the dictionary: distinctively tough or powerful; so exceptional as to be intimidating.  Even while your character is suffering from these crazy emotions you've pumped into them, and the stumbling blocks you've dropped along the road she's traveling, she got to where she is today because she was good at something.  Don't forget that.  In fact, feel free to celebrate it every once in awhile.  Sometimes, you can lose sight of this when you're mired down in the problems you're throwing at her, but when the situation calls for it, it's perfectly fine for her to jump out of a car speeding down the highway, roll, and take out the cabal of Russian spies with nothing but a pea-shooter and Krav Maga.

If that's in character for her, I mean.

My favorite badass on the graphic above is Olivia Dunham, for example, because the woman is so good at her job.  Even when her job is off the wall ("Does that seem weird to you?" "No, but give it ten minutes."), she excels because of the life choices she's made.  She's driven, she's curious, she's dogmatic, observant, and resourceful.  Granted, she can be impulsive and she can fixate on things in a way that leads to trouble, and the rest of her life is kind of a mess, but it's nice to see a character so consistently kick-butt at her chosen profession.  She doesn't necessarily have to carry a gun and shoot an impostor in the head to have what the Tropers call "A Crowning Moment of Awesome" (though she does, and it's cool every time; see Rule #2).  Olivia Dunham is badass because she uses her head, and she uses it consistently.

So, while you're writing this strong-willed, badass woman, don't forget why or how she got to be where she is.  It's details like these that will make her spring off the page in a way that makes readers cheer, or fist-pump, or dance.  Your badass is complex.  She's tough and yet fragile, strong and yet emotional.  Difficult to write, but oh-so-rewarding.

Please bear in mind that all of these are suggestions, and there are, of course, exceptions to every rule.  These are merely observations I've had upon making a study of "What makes women like Sarah Walker tick?"  And being a badass doesn't necessarily mean having a black belt in ninjutsu.  It could be something as simple as being fantastic at your job like Olivia, or having the fastest mouth on the West Coast like Buffy.  I hope you enjoyed my little post about how to write the effective, vulnerable, kick-butt badass.
Glossary of characters:
Captain Kara "Starbuck" Thrace - Battlestar Galactica
Officer Aeryn Sun - Farscape
CIA Agent Sydney Bristow - Alias
CIA Agent Sarah "Samantha Lisa Who" Walker - Chuck
Buffy Summers, Chosen One - Buffy the Vampire Slayer
FBI Special Agent Olivia Dunham - Fringe

Honorable Mentions:
Ellen Ripley - Alien
Kitai - Codex Alera by Jim Butcher
Karrin Murphy - Dresden Files by Jim Butcher
Torin Kerr - Confederation Chronicles by Tanya Huff
Chuck Bartowski - Chuck
John Casey - Chuck
Peter Bishop - Fringe
John Crichton - Farscape 


  1. Somebody's got a cruuuuuuuush!

    Also, this was the most...stimulating post you've ever done. Great job! Glad I got to be a part of it. :)

  2. JohnClark4.8.10

    I certainly agree with your points about being damaged or having mommy/daddy issues. I've always felt that the damaged anti-hero is always the most compelling of characters, male or female. In most cases the more damaged they are the better, I think people find that kind of internal struggle to be more fascinating.

  3. Anonymous4.8.10


    Great article and kudos for the fantastic accompanying graphics as well!

    You know, this got me wondering if the primary difference in the degree of damage sustained by Sarah vs Chuck in their childhoods was the presence of Ellie during Chuck's adolescence. I know, it's an odd angle, but there it is.

    Also, I think a number of people find Sarah's journey more intriguing than Chuck's, myself included. Is it just this obsession with bad-ass females or is it something else? Any insights? ;)

  4. John - definitely agree. The antihero will always be fascinating psychologically. Flaws are infinitely more interesting than a happy, well-rounded individual bopping through his everyday life.

    Aardie - The primary reason people want to know about Sarah's journey more than Chuck's is a rule I really should have included in this article, but is large enough to have its own article, really: the mystery of it all. She's an enigma, wherein Chuck is a pretty straightforward guy whose emotions are usually well-known because he rarely stops yapping about them.

    In fact, we like Sarah Walker for precisely the same reason we love lavish magic tricks. The trick is shiny and it's pretty and it's mysterious and we immediately, immediately want to know what makes it work. And sometimes we're disappointed with the actual mechanics of the trick when we discover how it truly works (of course, other times the sheer brilliance of it wows us, so there's always that).*

    And I've always felt that Ellie is given a hugely bad rap in fanfiction and on the show precisely because of what you mentioned. Authors tend to make her shrill or stupid, and even on the show, Chuck doesn't seem to trust her with a single thing, which is just SO. FREAKING. DUMB. because this is the woman that made sure he is as well-adjusted as he is. Guh. Sorry for the mini-rant. Ask mxpw about my love for Ellie sometime, he has all the fun stories. Okay, my conditional Ellie love. I love her when she's not hijacking Fates, I should say.


    * mxpw: And she's hot. That's why we like her.

  5. mxpw5.8.10

    "In fact, we like Sarah Walker for precisely the same reason we love lavish magic tricks."

    This. I love when Sarah's clothes disappear. Ba dum bum.

  6. That was epic enough to earn a Picard facepalm, mx. You make Picard's head hurt.

    (though: hee. Yes, I'm twelve)

  7. Frea, one thing (amongst so many others) that I love about Fates: how you write Ellie. I'm so glad she gets to know about Chuck and be a part of it. We can see how cool and smart she is. And we get to have her in a cool relationship with Sarah which is a big bonus!

    She really is a badass! And maybe one of the most impressive, 'cause she's a "normal life" badass!

    Somehow I think Fates do her justice in a way the show doesn't.

  8. Anonymous5.8.10

    So, I agree with the disconnect fanfic has with Ellie. I'm not sure I can explain it, maybe most authors want to reserve Chuck's expressions of trust for Sarah.

    As for our kick-ass ninja girl, I think the mystery *is* a large component in our attraction to her, but I was trolling to see if you'd identify a different factor that I think is in play here, or at least it is for me. And no, it's not the obvious one that mxpw promotes at every opportunity (and, you know, who can argue with his logic?).

    It's just that, while Sarah's hotness and kick-assedness push a number of buttons on us guys, a whole different set of buttons gets pushed when this formidable fighting machine pops a spring trying to say three words about how she feels. She becomes a wounded bird. Okay, more like a bird of prey than a starling, but you get my point.

    And depending on what kind of guy you are, that display of vulnerability is going to affect you strongly in at least a couple of ways. If you're a rotten SOB, you're trying to figure out how to take advantage of that broken wing and have her for dinner (think Shaw). But if you're a decent guy, you're drawn to try and wrap a bandage on it and nurse her back to health.

    I think the latter is a powerful attractor, and it's formed the basis for an entire category of fics on FF.net, the "hurt/comfort" story.


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