Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Strong heroines

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?


Shawn Lamb said...

In the first book of my YA fantasy ALLON, the female mortal lead, Shannan, has a quiet confident strength than is nearly unshakeable no matter the circumstance. Upon her stalwart nature, the hero, Ellis, finds a great measure of liberty to do what must be done.

A. Shelton said...

In my current main fantasy WIP, I've got a very strong female MC. She's only about twelve or thirteen, but she's already getting tastes of how people will treat her based on her unattractive appearance (she has facial birthmarks that are scars from magic being cast on her when she was a mere fetus and common mythology claims they mark her as an imbcile). She's already lost one opportunity for the romantic love and care she wants, so the next time she gets a chance, she's going to go after it, even though it the boy courting her won't want to make their courtship public.

This is not going to go well, but it will strengthen her further in the end.

Marian Perera said...

Shawn - I like such characters, where their strength isn't in-your-face. I'll be sure to check out your website and see if there's a little more information about your book. :)

A. Shelton - That gave me an idea for a blog post on facial marks. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Merry Christmas, dear lady! Joyous New Year!

Anonymous said...

Seems that female characters are the victim of a recursive double (or is it triple) standard. They must be strong, but remain desirable/attractive, must be tough without loosing emotional vulnerability.

I had one character consciously shifting her public persona to fit what others thought of her, from preppy cheerleader in HS to party girl (with good grades) in college and then tough as nails b!tch when she became an FBI agent. She knew what was expected of her and acted accordingly.

Whether that makes a strong character or not, I'll leave that to the audience/readers to decide.

A. Shelton said...

Ralfast--this problem with strong female heroines is why I decided to make the main character of this particular story female. Not only can I afflict her with a social disorder (the birthmarks) I'd already worldbuilt, but I can rip her up emotionally in such a way that she becomes stronger while the things that happen to her actually *help* the plot.

I did consider making her male, but I decided that people would expect the character to be as "strong" as necessary to do what must be done later (basically, cold-blooded murder in defense of her country). I actually want my readers to be a little horrified that a female who's been through the difficulties she's been through would do what she does despite the fact that most of her society discountes her native intelligence and capabilities, and I wanted to start her off in the hole so to speak, so I slapped her with a condition that comes not only with unattractive birthmarks but a weak heart (she could die at any point during the rigorous training she undergoes).

I personally think that a successful heroine doesn't have to be stunningly attractive, and the plethora of such heroines in current fantasy fiction, particular urban fantasy, turns me off books that include them. If the story that this particular character is in ever makes it to publish, I will resist any demands to make the heroine more attractive, not only because of my personal belief but because I doubt I could make her story work as well if she starts out attractive.

Marian Perera said...

Hey ralfast,

I think this might apply to male characters too : "...must be tough without loosing emotional vulnerability." Conan types just don't seem to work for a lot of readers.

But I hear you on the attraction factor. There aren't many heroines who can get away with being ugly.

gypsyscarlett said...


I liked what you said about your female lead having a "quiet confident strength." It reminded me of what Marian noted about Melanie in GWTW.

In real life, I admire men and women who have that inner strength. I figure if one is strong, they don't feel the need to go around shouting it out to the world.

In certain genres, there's been a plethora of "kickass females in leather with snarky voices."

I think it's good to remember that physical strength does not equate with inner strength.

Marian Perera said...

Tasha - excellent points. I get tired of "action Barbies" as well. It's great if a woman can stand up for herself physically and verbally, but this can be overdone.

Why not one or the other instead? I wouldn't mind seeing a female bodyguard who couldn't be flippant if her life depended on it, or a woman with paraplegia who was cleverly snarky.