Strong Female Characters Who Fight Silent Wars

When I was in grade 5 or 6, I read a young adult fantasy novel entitled The Woman Who Rides Like a Man.

This book was the third of a quartet by the wonderful Tamora Pierce about a girl named Alanna who disguises herself as a boy in order to enter training to eventually become a knight of her kingdom.

I loved this book – loved the entire series – and from that moment, a obsession with female fantasy characters who could fight was born.  I couldn’t get enough of stories where women wielded swords, shot bows, fought empty-handed in any sort of martial art, worked as mercenaries, commanded soldiers, and never had to fear for their safety or worry about being disrespected, for they knew how to put jerks in their place.

Stories featuring – as they’re often portrayed within the genres of fantasy and sci-fi – strong female characters.

My first (incomplete, shelved, someday to be re-conceptualized) fantasy novel contained such a character.  Albeit, she was still growing into her abilities – was only just learning how to fight (from a strong female character fighting instructor, no less) – and was something of a reluctant heroine to boot.

But had I finished the planned trilogy, she would have in due course become a lean, mean, sword- and staff-fighting machine.

Then, I started writing my second (current) novel….

And suddenly found that although Obsession and Eternity are both perfumes from the same designer line, in real life, one doesn’t necessarily beget the other.

That is to say, I started becoming interested in the other “women men don’t see”, to borrow from the sci-fi short story by the same name – the women that are increasingly being overlooked by other women as well.

What we’re told we experienced

Last week, I read a excellent essay by sci-fi/fantasy author Kameron Hurley entitled “‘We Have Always Fought’: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative”.  It is a bit long, but well worth reading.

In this piece, Hurley writes particularly in regards to the speculative fiction genres.  She describes how stereotypical female tropes and accepted “feminine” narratives and plot devices employed under the guise of art imitating life and the reality of history is an act of erasure of everything that real women are and have always been.  Or in her own words,

[I]f you think there’s a thing – anything – women didn’t do in the past, you’re wrong.

It’s so true.  There’s so much we don’t know about the lives of women throughout history, and may never know.  For history has been recorded by men, for men, with the “manly” portions of it attributed solely to men.  There have been strong female figures throughout history whose stories are barely – if ever – told.

In this regard, it’s vitally important that the spec fic genres, in seeking to imitate life through their art, include female characters who can fight and put jerks in their place.  Because we always did fight (among other things), and as is quoted in the (highly recommended!) Sundance documentary, Miss Representation, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

And yet…

And yet, another aspect of all this that’s as troubling as the erasure of female history and character complexity is the implicit notion within spec fic that strong female characters are best exemplified by women who are, indeed, physically strong.  Women who are kickass, and aloof, and don’t hesitate to resort to violence.

There was compelling comment on Hurley’s article by a writer by the name of Kay Camden, who reposted her remarks on her blog:

I often struggle with this masculine filter that obscures our view of our world. To write strong heroines, we often give them guns….  We give them a “male” role. We make them single and childless and tattooed and badass.  In real life, we often gain respect by joining the boys….  And in doing so, we’re declaring our roles to be worthless. Our playhouse to be inferior.

Our definition of heroism lives in a man’s world.  How do we overcome that without undermining the value of our own roles?

This is what I meant above by the other women that men and women don’t see.

Womanhood, much like any other socially-constructed concept (e.g. sexual orientation, political inclination, intelligence, etc.), exists on a spectrum.  Some women identify with what society has come to promote as the more “feminine” end of the spectrum.  Others identify more with the “masculine” end.  Most fall somewhere between the two extremes.

All deserve representation in all genres of fiction.

Yet a casual scan of the sci-fi/fantasy section of a bookstore reveals a far greater number of “masculine” strong female characters.  Just like a casual scan of any element of pop culture reveals that, as pointed out in an article from the Sydney Morning Herald, “[S]ociety doesn’t like girls very much…. ‘Girl’ is an accusation that’s used against boys to humiliate them.”

The article goes on to say that,

The fierce determination to distance ourselves from anything perceptibly “girlie” only furthers the stereotype that women who like “girlie” things are stupid and one-dimensional – and indeed that girlieness itself is stupid and one-dimensional.

If the dearth of strong, three-dimensional female characters in speculative fiction is a problem, equally problematic is the lack of balance in the portrayal of feminine strength.

Women who ride like themselves

The avatar of my WIP’s protagonist in Edmund Leighton’s The Hostage is best represented by the woman with her head covered; the one staring directly at the viewer.

When I was in grade 12, I was obsessed with the Middle Ages (particularly the roles of women during that time), to the point that I willingly conducted independent study to write my history term paper on the lives of medieval women.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, this early research would lay the groundwork for my second (current) novel.

Although my novel-in-progress is historical fiction, it did start out as a fantasy story, and my objective for the story has been the same throughout both genre incarnations.  Rather than write about a strong female character is who a fighter, I chose to write about a lady whose job it is to run the castle household alongside the various men in her life.

I did this because I was convinced that if I could portray the full extent of such a role – the aspects I learned about through my research that we’re not exposed to in popular media – I’d succeed in creating a female character who is multifaceted, resourceful, active, exciting, and strong without her ever having to wield a physical weapon.

I still believe this is possible.  This is my peace offering to all types of women, and to men as well.

(A/N: A longer post than usual, but this is the story I wanted to tell.)

(Image source #1, #2, #3, and #4)

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12 thoughts on “Strong Female Characters Who Fight Silent Wars

  1. Very good points here. I clicked on this when I saw the pic of Sansa from Game of Thrones. While I agree she is naive and haughty, I also think there is a strength to her, just not in the kick-ass kind. I think the fact she is still sane after all that she went through – her father’s unexpected execution, tormented by Joffrey and Cersei, etc. – is a sign of her own personal strength. She may not be like Arya or Daenerys, but Sansa is not entirely weak either.

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    • Yes, I think Sansa is quite well-rounded as a character. She possesses the flaws you mentioned, yet she also has great inner strength. Plus, she’s become a lot more likable (at least to me) since the early episodes of season 1. Sansa’s kind of strength is often more relatable to readers/viewers as well compared to the kick-ass kind. I’ve only read/watched as far as season 2, so I’m interested to see what is done with her character.

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  2. I’ve always wanted to write a novel about Boudica – I think you’ve inspired me to start it, Janna! Hers was not a silent war, but a truly amazing story of what a woman can do when she is pushed too far.

    What a great post 😀

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    • Yes, Dianne – start it! From the little bit that I know about Boudica, she was an amazing historical figure. I still do enjoy tales about fierce fighting women, and it would be neat to learn more about her.

      Glad you liked the post. I really felt called to write it.

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  3. “Girl” is indeed used as an insult to humiliate boys and it needs to stop. These same people have daughters, yet they continue to do it. I overheard this just today. Don’t people hear themselves? If people were honest, and grounded in reality, and thinking for *themselves* for once, they’d see that calling someone a girl is the biggest compliment of all.

    Thanks for the pingback. I’m often hesitant to open my big mouth on the internet but this time it paid off–I’m so glad to have found your blog.

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    • Hi Kay. I’m really glad you posted that comment, for I was so inspired by it. I really felt called to write this post. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, and something I really wanted to redress when conceiving my WIP.

      Looking forward to your next blog post. 🙂

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  4. My favorite female characters in the fantasy/sci-fi/adventure realm are those who use their girl qualities to overcome adversity. I can certainly understand the appeal of physically strong women who can fight and so on, but realistically, most men are bigger and more muscular than most women. Without a magical/Jedi/alien element, a female sword fighter is going to meet her match pretty quickly. The writing is dated and corny, but I always liked Nancy Drew better than the Hardy Boys books because Nancy used her wit to outsmart the bad guys, her flexibility and slight build to wriggle out of a bind and squeeze into a tight space, and her balance to make a daring escape over some kind of ledge or beam. To me, it’s boring to simply overpower your opponent physically. The idea of defeating someone more physically strong with less obvious powers is intriguing.

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    • I have nothing against women fighter stories, but you’re right – there may be a bit of disbelief suspending that needs to take place depending upon how the woman in question is portrayed. I’m a thinker sort of person anyway, so I’ve always liked reading about brains triumphing over brawn and weak over strong, both with male and female protags. Go underdogs!

      I used to love Nancy Drew in my youth. It’s actually funny you bring up the idea of her vs. the Hardy Boys. There’s a bit of dogma within the literary world that states young boys will only read books with male protags while girls will read about either males or females. I remember disliking the Hardy Boys intensely (I tried reading a few of them and was so bored, I couldn’t get through any one book), so this girl at least wouldn’t read just any old book about boys.

      I don’t subscribe to this belief of youth reading preference in any case. Or better put, I attribute it more to socialization and boys’ lack of exposure to diverse types of stories rather than an inherent quality of boys themselves.

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      • I agree that the Hardy Boys are dull. Their resolution is usually a fist fight. My favorite show as a kid was the original Star Trek (in reruns. I’m not THAT old), because over how many ways Kirk and Spock were able to defeat technologically or physically superior opponents by outsmarting them.

        My son loved the Nancy Drew books when I read them to him at bedtime. Hopefully that will help him to be a more open-minded adult reader.

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      • Keep exposing your son to books about girls, and encourage him to choose those as well as books about boys for himself. This idea that boys are inherently disinterested in girls/women is complete BS: barring mistreatment, little boys all come up loving their mothers, don’t they? Boys who dislike women have most likely been socialized into that by men who dislike women, and it doesn’t have to be that way.

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