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The Fantasy Feminist

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The Warrior Woman: A New Steriotype

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.

Elwen Branduir Mora by LleayheI 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.

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29 Comments

  1. Overlord says:

    Great article and I like the conclusion / premise of the article – not all female characters need to be A. Useless B. A Warrior.

    I have a character who is a female and an Angel – she wears clothes, so I’m proud of myself for breaking the current fantasy trends – type ‘female fantasy characters’ into google images. I couldn’t find a character with more than swimsuit sized armour on!!!

  2. DanielGibbs says:

    I like the fact that this article is named ‘the Fantasy Feminist’, when it is really anything but. And I have to agree with every word in this. After about the 1980′s, it seemed that writers were so afraid of being branded as sexist, that they felt the need to make their female characters act like men. What they don’t seem to realise is that is isn’t sexist to have a woman act like a normal person! They are, as said above, either useless maids or oversized, emotionally-stunted Amazons, when they need be neither. Male characters often get so much depth in modern fantasy, it’s just a shame that the same thought isn’t gone into women because writers are too afraid of the reaction.

    • Daniel, I titled it that way to be a bit provocative, but really, I believe true feminism has been sort of hijacked at some point in recent years. True feminism should recognize and applaud the feminine, not shun it in favor of forcing all women into male roles or use it as a way to show the audience that the woman can sleep with anyone she damn well pleases. I find it far more empowering to read a female character who acts like a normal person than one who seems forced into a role she might not really want.

  3. VictoriaH says:

    Completely agree with this. I read another article recently (really wish I could remember where it was now) in which some writers discussed this issue of strong women in fantasy/sci-fi and how the strong woman is too-often simply the warrior woman, as if this is the only kind of woman who can be considered strong. Quieter, more reflective women are not weak women, nor are women who resolve things without conflict or violence. There are other qualities that can be ‘strong’ – intelligence, compassion, thoughtfulness, friendship, determination, etc. I think an example of an author who writes different kinds of women very well is Ursula le Guin. Many of her women are strong, interesting characters without being warrior women. Yet the warrior woman will often get praise for being a positive and strong female character whereas others will not.

    And as you say, there is nothing inherently wrong with warrior women. I like them in stories and they can be very interesting if written well. It’s just annoying that the majority of stories seem to focus on them (although I personally think this is a much bigger issue in films than it is in books these days). I also think it’s a problem when female characters are not fleshed out enough – sometimes they can come across as too noble or saintly. Women can have flaws and quirks too, can be irritating, whiny or self-righteous, can be arrogant or overly shy, can make mistakes, can be lazy, greedy or selfish. They can be nasty people. In other words, their characters should be as deep as male characters, and stories should include different kinds of women. As with male characters, a female character should not have to be ‘perfect’ in order to still be strong. These problems are less likely to emerge (though they still can) when there are many female characters in a story. Naturally you will then begin to get different kinds of women who interact with each other in different ways. Perhaps the answer is simply not to think of a female character as a ‘type’ of woman but just as a character, a person who needs to be rounded and believable. Don’t worry about making the woman a woman; worry about making her a person.

    BUT this is also a very good point: “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.” I’m glad you made that distinction, as I think it’s an important one.

    Great article!

    • Victoria, completely and totally agree with you, and that middle paragraph is exactly what I was trying to get at–don’t worry about making the character seem like a woman, just make her a character with faults and foibles and strengths. A character is just a person on a page (or in my head, as the case may be), and every woman I’ve ever met has had a completely distinct personality. I know, shocking, right? ;-)

  4. Khaldun says:

    Great article. It’s tough to do properly as so many of the traits that readers think of when they think of a strong character are stereotypically masculine: assertiveness, strength, etc. Women can still be strong and confident, without losing their femininity (although what that actually means is another question entirely). Part of the problem for me is that I am a man, and thus cannot ever properly, realistically “think” like a woman. Just talking about this subject makes my guts squirm in fear that someone will misunderstand what I’m saying which could explain why there is so little (visible) discussion on this extremely complex topic.

    • Khaldun, I totally understand and relate. My stomach gets in knots when I try to write men, which is why I have my husband read everything I write. He’s been known to say, “that’s not what a guy would say. That’s what a girl WANTS a guy to say.” LOL

      I think you’re right about why there’s so little visible discussion on this topic–it *is* uncomfortable. Also, I have been told that most fantasy readers are still men, so if it’s still mostly men who are doing the reading and writing, the women they read and write might not seem “off” to them because they don’t really understand. But I find this argument of “well, it’s only men who read fantasy, anyway” as a rather pointless one–does that mean we shouldn’t strive to write strong characters of both genders? Does that mean we should encourage weak, masculine, or un-feminine female characters because “that’s what men want”? Um, NO! Raise the standard, y’all! Besides, I’m a girl and I read fantasy, and I know a lot of girls who read fantasy. Perhaps New York is sort of missing a market, you know?

  5. Evie Manieri says:

    Certainly some excellent advice here for writing characters of any stripe, male or female.

    To your point about motivation, I find that too often an attempt to portray a nuanced female character is scuttled from the outset thanks to a backstory loaded with gender-based cliches (she was forced into marriage, she’s the ugly sister, she’s been sexually abused/victimized, and so on.) Those can be powerful motivators, obviously, but surely we can come up with others?

    In regards to biology, obviously your caveat is true if you’re writing about humans, but you’re writing your own rules when you’re making up fictional races. It’s hilarious to me when someone points to a green-skinned, four-armed telepathic girl with a pet dragon and says, ‘She could never beat that guy in a fight! It’s not realistic!’ As long as the relative size and strength of females is consistent for that race, I say, anything goes.

    • Yes, exactly, Evie! And why is it that a female character who is brought up in a loving environment with both parents and no history of abuse can’t be portrayed as strong? One of my characters was brought up in an in-tact, traditional, nuclear family. She’s royal, but the family is very loving and close. Her biggest issue is trying to find a place in a world where women don’t have a lot of options, but rather than become masculine, she instead embraces her femininity while at the same time being assertive enough to both demonstrate her skills and ask for the positions she wants. Her motivation isn’t a backlash against a horrible upbringing–rather, her very healthy upbringing makes it possible for her to be strong, assertive, and well-rounded without losing her femininity. I hope that makes sense.

      And regarding biology, that’s exactly the point I was trying to make. We just need to have a reason to believe that the female character can beat the male character. Often, we only need a line or two or some other brief scene to explain this kind of thing. And you’re right–in fictional races, anything goes!

      • Quillet says:

        “I hope that makes sense.”
        Yes! I think it’s a common trope in literature that characters have to be tested in some way before they can be judged strong — but in real life a person often needs to be strong *already* in order to survive serious testing or trauma. So a character with a healthy, balanced background totally makes sense to me as someone who would have the strength to stand up and fight for her convictions (and her weapons can be words rather than blades, yay!).

        • Yes, Quillet! That’s a great way to put it–she’s strong already, which is good because there’s a whole big bunch of ugly coming her way soon, and she’ll need to be strong to survive it. And her weapons are DEFINITELY words–she’s a lawyer at heart, so she argues with the best of them, but she still loves dressing up and looking feminine, and other than a small knife, she’s not usually armed. :)

  6. Jennifer says:

    Evie that’s a great point. If we’re in the realm of fantasy, where we believe that toothpick thin elves can beat regular warrior humans, than anything goes. But I think Amy’s point still stands. Anything goes, but you still need to explain this to the reader (by noting that elves are surprisingly strong, for example).

    In response to DanielGibbs and AmyRose earlier in the comments thread, I think that this is properly titled. This is a feminist piece. There are a variety of feminist positions out there, for sure, and this may not be a piece that all feminists agree with. But one main point of this article is that women shouldn’t be represented as one-dimensional in fiction. Women are people too. And this is a point that I think all feminists, regardless of their other views or goals, would agree with.

    • Jennifer, that’s absolutely the point I’m trying to make–women are people, and there’s as much room in fantasy for the quiet, studious, strong female scholar as there is for the kick-ass female warrior as there is for the dainty, proper, highborn lady.

  7. [...] around the blogosphere recently. Oh, I just said blogosphere. I’m sorry. Anyway, for example, “The Fantasy Feminist” by Fantasy Faction (say that five times fast), points out some of the most common gaffes in writing [...]

  8. Quillet says:

    Fantastic article on a very important subject, and you could easily write ten more on this topic…no pressure! ;)

    I’m noticing a theme in the comments, and it can’t be said often enough: female characters, just like male characters, are *people.* They should have *human* feelings and complexities and flaws. They should have depth like a real *person.* Because — wait for it — women are *people.* (Go figure.)

    Many thanks for this article. Can’t wait for more. Er…no pressure, honest!

  9. Kirstie says:

    I love that you ask us if the character wants to be a warrior or not. Its so true that sometimes a character seems to decide their path lies down a different road to what you originally plotted.
    On a side note somewhat related, today I finished reading a book with strong female characters none of whom were warriors (one was a writer though), Kate Forsyth’s ‘Bitter Greens’, so it was quite interesting to find this article in my feed only an hour or two after putting the book down.

    • Kirstie, I think sometimes we start with a picture of a “market-perfect” character who’s loosely based on what we currently see in bookstores, but when we try to write that character, he/she balks.

      I’ll put “Bitter Greens” on my TBR list–thanks for the recommendation!

  10. I just wanted to say thanks for the insightful and inspirational article. Choices and traits, even unfavorable ones, can be perfectly valid if they derive from character and are written from an honest place, and not from unexamined stereotypes.

  11. karen says:

    Awesome article.

  12. [...] So, after coming up for air from the major revising/editing I’ve done on what may or may not be named Shining Armor (more on that later) I visited Fantasy Faction again and discovered Amy Rose Davis had written a brilliant article on that topic. [...]

  13. Amy Keeley says:

    I was hoping for an article as good as this when I submitted that topic idea. I love how you examined the whole warrior woman concept as well, including the physical aspect. Thank you!

  14. It’s been a flash-point on the internet for some time now. Thanks for a great and informative outlook on female characters. Cultural approaches aside fantasy ‘armor’ has gotten out of hand. Even if the character is wearing partial coverage armor there is little motivation for them to not cover body and upper legs with leather or at least cloth.

    When armor is being designed for a character men or women practicality needs to take a front seat. When it comes to a warrior, their armor is their first impression. If your character is wearing ‘hooker plate’ it’s very hard for the inhabitants of your story to accept them as a serious character let alone the reader.

    I try to counter the fantasy stereo type in my own work in both the novel I’m developing an my short stories I currently publish on a weekly basis. I think I speak for a lot of male writers that sometimes it’s hard to toe the line between making a good, believable female character and making them excessively vulnerable at points in the story. A phenomenon some call ‘chickification’.

  15. [...] are male or female. The original post was specifically talking about feminism in fantasy, parts one and two are well worth the read. In order to answer that question thoroughly, we have to look first [...]

  16. Vreni says:

    I was looking for some reference pictures of warrior women – mostly for the pose, since I am not quite agreeing with the dress code of most ;) – and I came across this article of yours. And I just wanted to say that it was a great read and I think definitely worth reading by anyone who wants to create such a woman. Now I’m not going to worry too much whether or not my own main character (who could be defined as a warrior woman) has enough depth like described here for the first draft, but I will definitely keep this article next to me when I start rewriting. :) Once the whole story is written down, this article could be – in my opinion – be of great use when examining your own main character, especially if she is a woman and fights for a living.

    So thank you once again for writing such a clear and great article about warrior women!

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