More than one way to be a strong female character

| | 21 comments

Valor of the Healer thumbnail“Strong female characters”. It’s a phrase you hear over and over again in the urban fantasy and paranormal romance genres in publishing, not to mention in SF/F-based TV shows or movies. In honor of the release of my fantasy novel Valor of the Healer, I’d like to tell you about what “strong female character” means to me–and what challenges are presented when you want to write a character who might not fit the typical definition of “strong”.

And by “typical definition”, I mean physical strength and power. Nine times out of ten, when I hear “strong female character”, I hear “female character who’s a badass”. Maybe she’s a vampire slayer, like Buffy Summers, or a hunter of some other form of supernatural monster. Maybe she’s a soldier, or a mercenary, or a FBI agent or some other kind of spy. In all these cases, though, she’s generally physically competent. She can hold her own in combat, and she knows her way around one or more weapons. Frequently, she’ll have the attitude to back up or even surpass her physical abilities as well. Such a heroine will be outspoken, often sarcastic, and more often than not more so than is actually wise.

In Valor of the Healer, though, my character Faanshi at first glance is the exact opposite of “strong female character”. She starts the story in slavery, and she’s been brought up to be meek and submissive. Faanshi’s not even supposed to look a man in the eye, much less stand up to him. Fighting and combat are inherently frightening to her, given her powerful healing magic; her instinct is to mend pain, not to be the one handing it out. Moreover, even aside from the submissiveness drilled into her by slavery, I wanted her to be of a naturally gentle and compassionate temperament. I.e., not the sort of girl who’s likely to pick up the nearest sword and spill the blood of her enemies.

My challenge, therefore, was this: how could I write such a character to show that she did in fact have strength of her own?

The first answer to this lay in Faanshi’s religious faith. She’s been raised by her great-aunt Ulima in the worship of the goddess Djashtet, and she believes very, very strongly in her chosen deity–even though she’s surrounded by people who not only do not share her beliefs, but who also persecute half-bloods like her in the name of her own. As the story starts, Faanshi’s prayers to her goddess have arguably been the most important thing keeping her sane in the face of imprisonment by her master.

Hand in hand with this goes the second answer to the question of Faanshi’s strength: Ulima. The laws and customs of two different nations dictate that Ulima cannot help Faanshi openly, but this doesn’t stop her kinswoman from doing everything in her power to support her. And there’s a great deal of strength to be had in the knowledge that someone, even in the face of adversity, is looking out for you.

The third and most critical of all the ways I’ve tried to portray Faanshi’s strength is through giving her the power of choice in her life. To be presented with sudden freedom when you’ve known nothing but servitude is exhilirating–and terrifying. For the first time in her life, through the course of this story, my young healer must step up to the plate and learn to be the one in charge of her liberty, her destiny, and her magic. Portraying how she does this, while keeping true to her gentle nature and her strong moral core, has been one of the most satisfying writing challenges I’ve had to date. Her development as a character won’t end with the final chapter of Valor of the Healer–but I like to hope that as of the end of this part of my trilogy, I’ll have put her firmly on the road to being a young woman of agency, or, as the elven scout Alarrah calls her, “a free woman of the West”.

So how about you, readers? I’d love to hear about your favorite heroines who show their strength in unexpected ways, no matter what their genres. How is their courage tested? How do they conquer their fears?

Drop me a comment any time this week to tell me about your favorite strong female characters, and on Saturday, April 20th, I will give away a copy of Valor of the Healer to a randomly selected commenter! Or pick up a copy for yourself right here on CarinaPress.com!

And if you like the book, do please come and find me and tell me about it! Valor of the Healer is my first novel with Carina, but I also write under the name of Angela Korra’ti, and I’m Anna the Piper to my online friends. You can find me at angelahighland.com, on Twitter as @annathepiper, or on Facebook or Google+ as Angela Korra’ti. Thank you all!

21 thoughts on “More than one way to be a strong female character”

  1. One of my favourite heroines is Mercedes Thompson in the Patricia Briggs novels. As a coyote shape-shifter in a world full of werewolves, nasty vamps and powerful fae, Mercedes is decidedly under-powered. Her strength lies in wit and courage.

  2. @Nicole: Ooh, I like Mercedes myself. I’ve only read the first copy of Patricia Briggs’ novels, but I have so far quite liked her. And I’ve read quite a few of Briggs’ other novels, including just about everything she wrote in the fantasy genre before she went over to writing urban fantasy.

    She’s very, very good with the heroines who thrive by their wits. <3

  3. Justine says:

    I just read Gate to Kandrith by Nicole Luiken (another Carina Press release) so the protagonist of that novel comes to mind. Sara’s not a badass fighter with weapons. In fact, she continually gets injured physically. (Those who’ve read the book know that I’m understating this.) Sara’s strength is rooted in her determination and ability to bear and to work through what’s been thrust upon her.

  4. @Justine: Ooh, good answer, thank you! I’ve got Nicole’s work coming up FAST up my queue of stuff I should be reading, and I’m very much looking forward to checking her out. :)

  5. Justine says:

    Oh! I just noticed that Nicole Luiken commented above. I apologize for my erroneous statement about Sara’s weapons prowess. I read several books this past weekend and mixed up the heroines. (Usually I can keep them straight but these books all happened to be in the same genre.) It’s quite possible that my memory of Sara’s injuries (especially later in the book) overshadowed my memory of her weapons prowess.

  6. @Justine again: No worries! Isn’t this always the problem with chugging through books too quickly? So many good books, so little time to CRAM THEM ALL INTO YOUR BRAIN AS FAST AS POSSIBLE, because there are always more books! *^_^*;;

  7. Glenn Stone says:

    Am into the new Dave Weber series concerning Junior Ranger Stephanie Harrington, the first Sphinxian to discover – and bond with – a treecat. Stephanie is sixteen, so no space battles for her! Instead, she’s faced with storms in her hang glider, deadly forest fires, and deciding between loyalty to a potential boyfriend and to her boss, the head of the Sphinx Forest Service. She’s not your average giggly debutante, though; she’s definitely an outdoorsy girl, far more comfortable tromping through the woods – or 1,000 feet above them – than she is at some old party. Oh, and there are also bullies to face down, both her own age, and adults…

    Weber has partnered with Jane Lindskold for the second book in the series; this affects how Stephanie is presented in several ways, which I think makes her a richer character.

    There’s a whole heap of trouble a headstrong teen can get into on a mostly-unsettled planet full of peak bears, hexapuma, forest fires, breathtakingly violent weather… and it’s also very attractive to people with less than noble motives about the planet and its denizens. I’m looking forward to seeing how Stephanie gets into trouble… and gets out of it.

  8. Guess I shouldn’t call out characters in my own books. :-) I like Tarma and Kethry from the Mercedes Lackey from Vows and Honor. I guess they are badass warrior women, but that isn’t what sticks in my memory as making them ‘strong’. It’s more their principles and focus.

    There’s also Jane Eyre, from an entirely different genre and era. I don’t really love the book, but the lady is pretty much a poster child for integrity and strength of character.

  9. Dara says:

    Eleanor of Aquitaine, from The Lion in Winter. Strength through wit and cunning and a sharp, sharp mind for politics and intrigue. I mean, sure, everyone in the play is an awful person, but welcome to medieval European court politics: here is an exhibition on how to do it.

  10. If you’ve seen Game of Thrones (or read the books), I think that Lady Olenna owes more than a little to Eleanor of Aquitaine.

  11. @Glenn: Stephanie sounds like great fun. :)

    @Chrysoula: Hey, I won’t hold it against authors who want to mention their own characters! Especially if you also found it challenging to figure out how to portray your characters’ strengths in ways besides “when faced with an obstacle, beat it over the head with sarcasm and the nearest biggest weapon”. ;)

    But that said: Ooh, Tarma and Kethry. They stood out for me too as a very strong team, each complementing the other.

    And you are absolutely right re: Jane Eyre as well!

  12. @Dara and George: Oh god yes Eleanor of Aquitaine. Especially as portrayed by Katherine Hepburn.

    And I’m only one book in on Game of Thrones, but I absolutely was impressed by Daenerys. I don’t remember who Olenna is (or if she showed up in Book 1), but I do have the other books queued up to get to, so I will definitely keep an eye out for her.

  13. Pete says:

    The first examples to come to mind for me are from Lois McMaster Bujold. Neither Ekaterin Vorsoisson nor Alice Vorpatril are waving guns around or getting in fights, but looking at what they go through, and not only survive, but triumph, they really can’t be called anything but strong.

    Bujold also gives us Fawn Bluefield, from The Sharing Knife, who’s also no kind of physical fighter, but gets through some world-shaking events, and by the end of the series, is part of the force that’s changing her world.

    ElfQuest also comes to mind. Many of the female characters there are physical fighters, in the mode that’s become the default for strong female characters, but there are also women like Savah, Leetah, and Moonshade, who aren’t warriors, but can’t be called weak by any stretch of the imagination.

  14. @Pete: Oh, _beautiful_ answers! Especially the Elfquest; I very, very happily cite Elfquest as a huge influence on my own character development.

    I’ve got a LOT of Bujold on my To Read list. :)

  15. Kaye Mason says:

    In modern fiction, I’d have to pick David Weber’s Honor Harrington. But as a big Jane Austen fan, I can’t help but mention Elinor Dashwood, who pulls her whole family together after they lose their father and become impoverished. And Fannie Price, who after being more-or-less sold off to her her horrible aunts at Mansfield Park wins pretty much everyone over with her good nature, courage of conviction, and strength of spirit.

  16. Kaye Mason says:

    D’oh. And how can I forget Livia, wife of the Emperor Augustus in Robert Graves’ _I, Claudius_ and _Claudius the God_. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a stronger female character.

  17. Carl Baumeister says:

    There are several, but one comes immediately to mind: the character of Rolery from Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Planet of Exile”.

    http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/201882.Planet_of_Exile

    Though she sometimes seemed not to know her own mind, Rolery was very much aware of what was going on around her (insightful), and at every turn she demonstrated the will to follow through with any decision she had made. This seems to be a common trait among Le Guin’s ‘strong’ female characters.

  18. Kaye Mason says:

    Another one — from a short story this time. The Woman. Irene Adler, one of the few people to ever outwit Sherlock Holmes. Not the film portrayals, but the actual short story Irene Adler who is intelligent, has a solid moral code, and isn’t going to let anyone (including Holmes) get the better of her.

  19. @Kaye: Excellent answers all around. Especially Irene Adler. One of these days I’d like to see a version of the Holmes mythos on screen do her serious justice.

    @Carl: It does not surprise me that your choice comes out of LeGuin, though I have yet to read the story you’re talking about! Thanks for the pointer towards something unfamiliar and hopefully awesome! :)

  20. And now, I’d like to announce the winner for a copy of Valor of the Healer: Nicole! Nicole, you shall be contacted. :) (If Nicole declines I will choose again from the commenters on this post!)

    Thank you very much for commenting, all, and I invite you to come visit me over at angelahighland.com, especially for ongoing further chances to win the book!

  21. Ha okay! Nicole informs me she has already _bought_ a copy!

    Drawing a second winner gets me… Glenn!

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