Wednesday, December 22, 2010
Most of the readers who reviewed Before the Storm said they liked the strong female characters. I'm happy about that, and it made me think about how strength is expressed in fictional female characters.
I’ve always liked books with tough heroines, even when they're in the middle of an all-male cast – Hyzenthlay in Watership Down and Petra Arkanian in Ender's Game. A female character doesn’t have to be the star of the show to be strong, and she can make mistakes, as Petra does after Ender depends too heavily on her at the end of the book.
In fact, it’s much better if she makes mistakes and gets hurt for it. Invulnerability means the readers are never going to care about her as much as if she really gets hurt. While I enjoyed Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel's Dart otherwise, I soon realized that the heroine, Phedre, could get raped, beaten and burned with a hot poker without this detracting in any way from her beauty or having a psychological effect on her.
Strong also doesn’t mean unfeminine. There are novels where the heroine is so focused on being intelligent or being in charge that she ends up frumpish and unattractive. It’s one thing for a woman not to be interested in fashion, or to not have the time and money to take care of her appearance if she’s got other priorities. But that’s not the same as the stereotype that a woman can be clever or pretty, but not both.
And I prefer heroines who are strong rather than feisty. Feisty always makes me think of someone who stamps her foot while claiming she can take care of herself. The really brave characters, like Melanie in Gone with the Wind, don’t need to tell anyone that they’re strong. They just do what it takes, whether that’s giving their wedding rings to a cause or struggling up after childbirth to defend their loved ones.
And what made Melanie so three-dimensional and realistic was that she followed her society’s norms otherwise – she was modest and shy, deferred to her husband and loved being a mother.
Especially in fantasies set in medieval lands, overly feminist women will stand out. It’s more believable to have them challenge one norm than several. If a woman supports her family, is the head of a business, is single but has several lovers, and beats up an assassin, it’s going to be very unrealistic.
What are the ways in which your heroines are strong?