Two weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about the sappy male hero, the protagonist who is can be brave without being too macho and who is in touch with his values and feelings. The post generated considerable discussion and debate, and since I am in the appreciating mood, thank you for your feedback.
But it also got me thinking about my female protagonists. With well over 70% of readers apparently girls and women, it would seem daft to ignore them. In truth, my inspiration for strong female characters comes from less altruistic motives. I am blessed to have been surrounded with strong women all my life, none more so than Mrs. Elfwriter, who continues after two decades together, to amaze me with her strength, vision and principles. I have come through a tough summer and she has been my rock throughout.
Yesterday, a dear friend told me that it would have been his and his deceased wife’s 25th wedding anniversary, had she not succumbed to cancer a few years ago. My mind reeled back to her struggle, to the elegance with which she continued, right up to the end, to be a source of strength and inspiration, to her family and friends.
These thoughts are relevant to my female protagonists because I realize that I am creating similar (albeit female) stereotypes of common heroes and heroines. Ilana, Sellia, Mhari, Pyre and Mharina are all brave warriors. Fearsome with bow or sword, they might seek to solve a conflict without resorting to violence (as Seanchai did, to be fair), but nonetheless are not females you would want to pick a bar fight with (not that you are that kind of person, of course).
When I began this post, a couple of days ago, I had hoped to pat myself on the back for my strong female characters. In Sacrificial Flame there is almost an absence of strong males (unless they are evil antagonists). In Book 5 (sorry for the tease) there emerged two males who are not warrior-types. As I begin writing Book 6, I realize that I have not given them much space in my initial plan. I will address this. Likewise, I have not given thought to the non-warrior, strong female protagonist.
Do any strong female protagonists who are not warrior-type come to mind from your reading of epic fantasy? Is it even compelling to have female who is not beautiful, thin, brave, and wicked with sword or bow? Would love to hear.
Have a great week. Read something epic!
Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of Galbrieth, and five other Wycaan Master books all released by Tourmaline Books. The link above takes you to the Kindle versions. For all other eReaders, please click here.
More at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@elfwriter).
You stare there are no male characters in your books like that’s a good thing….
Thanks for responding. That was not my intention. I do have strong male characters (the protagonist, Seanchai, is one) and discuss them in the previous week’s blog post. To only have strong female characters is, in my opinion, just as bad as the typical scenario of total male domination. Appreciate you pointing this out.
I think that in this day and age, where being different is becoming celebrated, we should be seeing more heroins (heroines? Not the drug lol) who may be kick ass warriors, but not beautiful or skinny. Honestly, even women who stay at home to take care of family should be celebrated and written about in fantasy more than it is.
Reaching back a number of years, Mara was a heroine in the Rift Wars saga who didn’t fit the stereotype–she won her battles largely through politics and by earning the loyalty of the people around her.
Didn’t realize it until just now, but Mara had a fairly large impact on the main female character of my first novel. Of course, the political focus means neither Mara’s trilogy nor my book really fits the strict definition of ‘epic fantasy’.
Thank you, Jess. Please provide the name of your novel and eBook link so we can all check it out.
Finally found this post again after most of a year. That’ll teach me not to follow the comments!
My novel is Glamourhai, here’s the Amazon link: http://www.amazon.com/Glamourhai-Jess-Mahler-ebook/dp/B00H12XKN4/
I saw your link on Twitter and had to read your post. I write epic fantasy as well (not yet published), and I struggle with (and object to) the stereotypes often found within the genre. This is especially true with “strong” female protagonists, which to many means they must be the equal of the stereotypical male warrior with breasts and hips. I dislike that we fall into the modern (US, may I say) gender role distinction, as if it’s a given that this is what strength is. Is a Navy Seal stronger than a Martin Luther KIng, Jr? Is a Katniss stronger than a Mother Teresa? In fairness to Katniss, she did retain a compassionate and caring side in the midst of brutality. Isn’t strength more than an ability to fight with weapons? (I think we agree on this from reading your other post on “sappy” males.)
When I think of strong female protagonists, I think of Juliet Marillier’s Sevenwaters Series. All of her women are strong and none are warriors. They are strong in integrity, faithfulness, self-sacrifice, justice, etc. Qualities I love to see in both male and female characters, traits that transcend gender, in my opinion.
I agree with Shayna, that we need more average looking women (and men), as heroes, which is making me rethink some of my characters.
Thank you for writing this, and I will be checking out your characters in your novels. Write on. (And don’t be swayed by your writers’ group. Be true to what your heart knows!)
Thank you so much for the thoughtful comments. I would like to think that many Navy Seals look up to Martin Luther King Jnr and his inner strength as a source of inspiration. It is tough to break these moulds, but should not be as difficult as it appears when you consider that 70% of our readers are female.
I tried to make Seanchai special by being so believable, showing his fear, indecision and immaturity. I wonder if that is why I think he resonated with my YA audience more in the earlier novels. This is why I decided to move ahead a generation for the next trilogy and keep my main characters young. But I realize now that this is because I (sub consciously perhaps) felt the pressure to make him and his colleagues more heroic as they grew older.
Lovely response. Thank you. I continue to struggle with my female characters. While I have no problem with them as strong, warriors and commanders, you are absolutely correct – I am guilty of making them all attractive. Will continue to struggle with this.
Funny, I had written a similar post at my blog on the “strong female character” stereotype a few weeks ago. I’d feel awkward posting it here, though; it would seem rude to draw attention away from your article like that.
Personally I don’t have a problem with strong female characters – as long as they have a balance of attributes and flaws that shows their vulnerability and dynamism. But like you were asking, is it necessary for those women to have magical powers, wield weapons, or fight? I say “no.” A great example of a female character who doesn’t is Tenar from Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle. (Have you read those books?) She’s a priestess taken from her family at a young age who has since grown weary of and disillusioned by her profession and the dangerous political games her fellow priestesses are playing. She has no magic, no weapons, and no fighting skills. However, she’s courageous, resilient, resolute (to the point of stubbornness), and in the end willing to change for the better. Those qualities make her a strong character in general. Maybe a better word choice here would be “compelling”?
The story I’m working on right now (high / epic fantasy novel) is led by a strong female character. I was afraid for a while that I was making her into the “ultimate” example of that kind, because she fights and uses weapons and magic. But she’s not a full-blown alpha female; I’ve always envisioned her to be empathetic and compassionate, and she becomes emotional and vulnerable at a few points because of the journey the story will take her on. I don’t think I would change much about her at this stage of writing, but the articles I’ve read about “strong female characters” are definitely making me think ahead to female characters I may write about in the future and how to make them compelling or dynamic in different ways (i.e., without the “strong female character” hat-trick).
Sounds great, Sara. Good luck with your novel. When you are finished, you are welcome to promote here – a few writers have written a guest post and used it to announce their book. Let me know.
I read Earthsea years ago. I think I might revisit now you mention it.
That’s very kind of you, Alon! I’ll keep that in mind. 🙂 And yes, definitely revisit Earthsea when you have a chance.
Cress in The Lunar Chronicles is not much of a warrior. Neither is Scarlet — she likes to butt heads, but she has a strong tendency to lose. And Cinder may be leading a revolution, but until the end of the third book her fighting skills were pretty much limited to shooting people with tranquilizer darts.
I think having a variety of female and male characters makes things the most interesting. I think the strongest types of female characters aren’t always the skinny, pretty, fighter types, but the ones that are the most well rounded (which many skinny, pretty, fighter types are).
I’m surprised no one has listed A Song of Ice and Fire yet. Martin’s series has a large female cast compared to most and some are warriors and some aren’t. Some are beautiful and some aren’t. I love the series for having so many different types of women.
On another note, why do we always question the female characters who are pretty, skinny, and fighter types. How many ugly, not-skinny, non-warrior male characters are there? I think it’s interesting that we analyze female characters over and over, but leave the males alone.
Great points, Victoria. There are many empowered women in GoT – often not in ways we (men) are comfortable with.
It would absolutely be compelling to have a female protagonist who isn’t stereotypically beautiful or brave, or a warrior. On the contrary, as a female growing up I stuck to a few authors who could write females, but eventually avoided female protagonists or any females portrayed in fantasy, since a good percentage of them were two-dimensional stock characters. Only in recent years did I realize I avoided reading about females in fiction and why. These kind of characters do little credit to both females and writers in general.
In short, having a variety of female and male characters with the kind of strengths that are less common would be wonderful.
Appreciate your comment. I would interested in how you perceive the females that lead through the Wycaan Master series. They are heroines but certainly not perfect. Then again, who among us are?
Like jdabbas mentioned, Juliet Marillier is very good at portraying strong females through a variety of ways. The Sevenwaters series glorifies the strength of the housewife, while her Caller series has a better blend of roles for women to play in the rebellion taking place in that world. The key is of course variety. If all the strong women are warriors then that implies fighting is the only way to demonstrate strength. It’s the same as when they’re all housewives, it sends the message that there’s only one right way for a woman to show strength and that strength means the same thing for all women.
Thank you, Alicia. Your point about only portraying heroines as warriors is a very good one. I will check out the series you mention.
Loved this blog very well-written. Girls are greatly encouraged to become empowered, strong young women. This contradicts the views of the past, where females are seen as weak and lesser than males. Times are changing, and many are using their voice to empower females, demanding equality. Check this out The Do's in Developing a Compelling Female Protagonist Hope this will help. Thank you.
Blah blah blah
All we do is Empower females. Usually at the sacrifice of the male character. Who is now usually relegated to wimpy idiot or Macho bastard that needs to be taken down a peg. It’s funny how female empowerment can only occur when it tears down men