What Makes a Heroine Strong?
Strong heroines have been somewhat in fashion for a while. And so they should be! The days when fantasy protagonists were almost always male, and ladies were relegated to performing minor support roles in scanty clothing, are (hopefully) long gone and good riddance to that.
But it’s possible that the strong heroine has become something of a cliché. I sometimes get the impression that “strong” has to mean “warrior” in many cases, and if a girl isn’t wearing armour and killing people she isn’t really tough enough. I’m throwing no rocks at girl fighters here – they can be fantastic and they frequently are. But they can also come across merely as honourary men, their sole difference from their male counterparts being their physical anatomy. What about female heroines who aren’t fighters? The ones who don’t wear armour, who don’t walk about armed to the teeth, who don’t kill people? Can they still be considered as strong fantasy heroines?
In addition to all this, we fantasy fans do seem to love an underdog to root for. Heroes – male or female – are very likely to be orphans, street kids living in poverty, fallen angels, that kind of thing. And I love that, too, but I also think it can be an easy way out. Style a heroine as an orphaned street child living in poverty and she has plenty to fight against – lots of ways to prove her toughness.
What about the rest of it? Women with stable families, women with wealth or social power, women with intellect and mental strength rather than physical prowess? Even worse, what about women who have unfashionable weaknesses – shyness, fears, anxiety, phobias? Can these ladies still fill the pages as sufficiently strong female icons? I think yes. I wonder why there aren’t more of them in fantasy.
For the Draykon Series I picked two somewhat unconventional heroines. Eva is an orphan (okay, one concession to tradition there…), but she’s a mature woman nearing her 40th year and a socially powerful woman. She has money and status – but that doesn’t make it much easier for her to deal with the challenges she’s obliged to face. Mostly it is her intelligence, calm rationality and courage that will carry her through. Personally, I find those to be fine qualities to aspire to.
Llandry on the other hand is much younger – about twenty years old – with two loving parents (even if they are a bit overprotective) and a stable home. Her personal demon is extreme social anxiety. She’s terribly afraid of people, which means that even normal life is hard for her – let alone finding herself at the centre of a growing crisis. This can be controversial. It’s tempting to interpret people like Llandry as weak, feeble – anything but strong. But in truth, a girl like Llandry must find so much more courage on a day-to-day basis than someone who lacks all those fears, just to keep up with everyone else’s idea of a normal life. Put her in the middle of a crisis and that just gets worse.
Strength isn’t about being fearless, and it isn’t about having no weaknesses. Strength isn’t solely about having extreme personal circumstances to overcome, either. Personally I’m intrigued by heroes (of both genders!) who are closer to the sort of people I know – and the sort of person I am. I’ve always cheered for characters like Fanny Price in Mansfield Park; she’s often criticised for being feeble, but she’s the timid, easily frightened girl who found the courage to stand up to her terrifying guardian when he tried to force her into a marriage she didn’t want. It takes so much more sheer bravery to do something like that when you’re afraid. It takes none at all to do it when you have no fears.
I’m impressed by real courage and I like to see it depicted in literature – and not necessarily displayed by axe-wielding heroes in armour. I intend to keep dreaming up heroines who aren’t fighters, but who find the grit to fight through every challenge they encounter. It gives me hope that the rest of us can do it, too, whatever we’re faced with.
What do you think? Are warrior heroines (or heroes!) more believable in the role of strong, iconic protagonist? Are they easier or harder to relate to? Do characters with fears and phobias intrigue or frustrate you?