The Fantasy Feminist
In my last article, I mentioned that I needed some more ideas for my next several columns, and once again, Fantasy-Faction readers came through for me! I’m starting with a subject that’s near and dear to my heart: writing the strong female character. The question posed on Twitter actually asked how to write a strong female character who isn’t a warrior.
I’m going to begin by talking about how to write a warrior woman. I know—this is not the question. But I feel like writing strong female characters is actually a very big topic, and since there’s a current trend in fantasy toward female warrior characters, I want to get this one out of the way first.
While female warrior characters have always been around on some level, I think a lot of the recent trend toward more and more warrior women has a lot to do with the popularity of urban/paranormal fantasy. Just glance around a bookstore. The shelves are heavy with bare-midriffed, leather-clad, tattoo-covered women with guns, swords, spears, and various other weapons.
I want to make it very clear up front: I have no objection to female warrior characters. I have a female warrior in my own work, though she’d cringe at the thought of baring her midriff in public. My objection isn’t so much toward the proliferation of those characters. It has more to do with creating a new female stereotype—one that suggests women must be warriors to be strong.
Warrior characters are necessary and empowering, but my concern is that we’re creating a whole new level of one-dimensional female characters that really aren’t any better than the one-dimensional virginal doormats of old fantasy. I see the same problem with another female character—the woman who has to be promiscuous to be strong. I’m not objecting to the promiscuity in itself, but rather the one-dimensional treatment of it.
These issues are, at their core, character issues. The problem isn’t the warrior or promiscuous personality in itself; rather, it’s the idea that to be a strong character, a woman must act like a man or shun feminine things or use her body to manipulate people or some other misconception. And even then, it’s really only a problem if the writer believes that the character must act that way to be strong. If the character believes it, then the writer has taken a first step toward creating a multi-layered person.
So what makes a strong female character? How do we write the strong feminine without necessitating that she walk around heavily armed and perpetually pissed off? In order to answer that question thoroughly, we have to look first at what we mean by a “strong” character. To me, these are the hallmarks of a strong character of either gender:
Makes choices in response to internal motivations. It’s okay to react and respond to external forces, but I want to see the character occasionally act on his/her own motivations.
Pursues different interests. A character who only ever talks about any one thing becomes boring very quickly. While it might be fine to have sidekicks and minor characters who are more one-dimensional, main characters should be more than just one thing and have more than just one interest.
Uses a clear, distinct voice when compared to other characters in the story. When a strong character talks, I often don’t even need a dialogue tag to know who’s speaking. I like characters whose voices stand out on the page.
Drives the plot. Fantasy often easily falls into plot-driven traps. If you want your plots to be more compelling, let the characters drive them. Plots that arise from character decisions, actions, and choices are far more compelling than plots that just feel like a long string of Events That Must Take Place.
A strong character doesn’t have to be a warrior, and a warrior isn’t automatically a strong character. If your female character makes her own choices, has a variety of interests, speaks with a distinct voice, and drives the plot, then it doesn’t really matter too much if she’s a warrior. But I do think there are a few things to think about as you create your female warrior:
Where did her warrior side come from? Are you forcing a woman into a role you think she should have because you think that’s what people want to read? If you’re a woman, are you writing a warrior because that’s what you wish you were? If you’re a man, are you writing a female warrior because she’s your ideal woman? Does her warrior side tie into past experiences, training, culture, or upbringing? I suppose a poetic way to ask it is, “does she say she’s a warrior, or is she fighting you every step as you try to write her?”
What else does she do? No one in real life is just one thing. Does your warrior woman have other interests? Don’t force the issue, but show us who else she is besides just a badass. Is she a wife? A mother? Does she care about animals? Does she knit? Does she hate cooking? Is she a terrible slob? We want to see the other aspects of her character.
How does she feel about being a warrior? Get us into her head a little. Is she a lone female warrior who’s struggling for equality in a patriarchal world? Or is she a reluctant warrior in a society of women warriors? Is she really good at killing people, but secretly, all she really wants is to study poetry?
Can you make her warrior skills believable? This is a tough one, but if we see her constantly fighting men and winning, we need to believe that’s possible. If she’s shooting them from afar, it’s not too tough to believe she can kill a man. If she’s engaging in hand-to-hand combat, we need to believe that she has some reason to be stronger than the man she’s fighting. Is she bigger? Better trained? Does she have supernatural strength? It’s just biology—most men are bigger and stronger than most women. Don’t fight biology—give us a reason to believe that your female warrior has overcome her biology somehow.
Next week: The well-rounded fantasy female and why I wish we saw more of her.