I’m happy to welcome fellow fantasy, paranormal and science fiction writer, Tara Maya, author of The Unfinished Song, as she tell you how to correctly write stories with believable kickass heroines.
In a piece in The New Statesman provocatively entitled “I Hate Strong Female Characters”, Sophia McDougall complains that male characters “get to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius. Female characters get to be Strong.”
McDougall has cinema in mind, where the ratio of male to female characters is 3:1 or worse. It’s hard on a female character when she’s the only female in sight and therefore represents All Womanhood for that piece. What about in literature, though, especially in genres like Urban Fantasy, where Kickass Heroines are Du Jure? The complaint has been made that for the UF Heroine, cussing and kicking are used in place of characterization. Epic Fantasy and Romance Heroines are accused of “Plucky Princess Syndrome.”
There are plenty of excellent stories with “strong heroines” whose strength is not only kicking butt. I’d also have to challenge the completely bizarre notion that male characters are not expected to be “Strong.” And by strong, meaning cussing and punching other dudes in the face. Particularly in certain genres. Because yes, YES, sorry, but YES that is the entire criteria for Manliness in several ENTIRE GENRES. Who punches more in The Avengers, the female superhero or every single male superhero in the film?
Not to mention The Action Hero of the Thriller, the Western, the Noir Detective, the male-hero Urban Fantasy is entirely about a dude who rejects help from anyone and solves problems by cussing and punching. Not ALL the time, but certainly not more than Spunky Princesses or Kickass Chicks. I’d say, in fact, that female leads still cuss and kick less than their male counterparts and the fact that it is annoying and often comes off as fake is…. well, because we all still have a double standard.
Yet, undeniably, there is more to writing a Strong Female Character than just showing her hit some guy in the face. There are three pitfalls in particular that less well written books fall into, that as writers, we need to try harder to avoid.
1. Badass Bitch vs Bitching Badly
One of McDougall’s main points is absolutely true: rudeness and brutality are turn-offs in any character. This is a problem for heroes too. The writer is trying so hard to show the hero is a badass that instead what we get is a Jerk. When the Heroine is rough, rude and boorish for the sake of it, she’s not a pleasant character to spend time with, unless she has a whole lot of other good qualities.
2. Gender Stereotype Swap
One trick to check out whether your character is trapped in a gender stereotype is to reverse the gender and see if the character still works. That’s one reason the Heroine of Aliens was so awesome. Her character was written as a standard Male Hero and switched to a female at the last minute. But there is one time this doesn’t work: when there is a romantic couple, and to be “progressive” one simply reverses each gender. The Princess rescues the swooning Prince…. ugh, the stereotype that physical strength is the only kind of strength is left intact, with just the assigned gender reversed. It’s better to show how they each save one another’s lives than to have strict roles of Rescuer and Rescued.
3. Rescued Anyway
Here’s the biggest mistake of all, and unfortunately, I see it all the time. The so-called Strong Female Character makes a huge fuss about how independent she is and how she doesn’t need to be rescued by the Hero. Only she gets herself (or, even worse, herself and those around her) into heaps of trouble by doing some Too Stupid To Live thing. Then the Hero has to rescue her after all. No, no, no, just no. Instead of showing an independent heroine, dear author, you are proving just the opposite: Women need to be rescued. The more they assert they don’t, the more they need to be slapped down by their own stupidity and shown how much they need a man to save them.
You know what would make a much better story arc? A heroine who starts out thinking she does need to be rescued, only to face circumstances where she has to save not only herself, but others. And then she rises to the occasion. Because that is what being a Hero is truly about, for boys and girls.
The Unfinished Song (Book 1) Initiate by Tara Maya
A DETERMINED GIRL…
Dindi can’t do anything right, maybe because she spends more time dancing with pixies than doing her chores. Her clan hopes to marry her off and settle her down, but she dreams of becoming a Tavaedi, one of the powerful warrior-dancers whose secret magics are revealed only to those who pass a mysterious Test during the Initiation ceremony. The problem? No-one in Dindi’s clan has ever passed the Test. Her grandmother died trying. But Dindi has a plan.
AN EXILED WARRIOR…
Kavio is the most powerful warrior-dancer in Faearth, but when he is exiled from the tribehold for a crime he didn’t commit, he decides to shed his old life. If roving cannibals and hexers don’t kill him first, this is his chance to escape the shadow of his father’s wars and his mother’s curse. But when he rescues a young Initiate girl, he finds himself drawn into as deadly a plot as any he left behind. He must decide whether to walk away or fight for her… assuming she would even accept the help of an exile.
Blue-skinned rusalki grappled Dindi under the churning surface of the river. She could feel their claws dig into her arms. Their riverweed-like hair entangled her legs when she tried to kick back to the surface. She only managed to gulp a few breaths of air before they pulled her under again.
She hadn’t appreciated how fast and deep the river was. On her second gasp for air, she saw that the current was already dragging her out of sight of the screaming girls on the bank. A whirlpool of froth and fae roiled between two large rocks in the middle of the river. The rusalka and her sisters tugged Dindi toward it. Other water fae joined the rusalki. Long snouted pookas, turtle-like kappas and hairy-armed gwyllions all swam around her, leading her to the whirlpool, where even more fae swirled in the whitewater.
“Join our circle, Dindi!” the fae voices gurgled under the water. “Dance with us forever!”
“No!” She kicked and swam and stole another gasp for air before they snagged her again. There were so many of them now, all pulling her down, all singing to the tune of the rushing river. She tried to shout, “Dispel!” but swallowed water instead. Her head hit a rock, disorienting her. She sank, this time sure she wouldn’t be coming up again.
“Dispel!” It was a man’s voice.
Strong arms encircled her and lifted her until her arms and head broke the surface. Her rescuer swam with her toward the shore. He overpowered the current, he shrugged aside the hands of the water faeries stroking his hair and arms. When he reached the shallows, he scooped Dindi into his arms and carried her the rest of the way to the grassy bank. He set her down gently.
She coughed out some water while he supported her back.
“Better?” he asked.
She nodded. He was young–only a few years older than she. The aura of confidence and competence he radiated made him seem older. Without knowing quite why, she was certain he was a Tavaedi.
“Good.” He had a gorgeous smile. A wisp of his dark bangs dangled over one eye. He brushed his dripping hair back over his head.
Dindi’s hand touched skin–he was not wearing any shirt. Both of them were sopping wet. On him, that meant trickles of water coursed over a bedrock of muscle. As for her, the thin white wrap clung transparently to her body like a wet leaf. She blushed.
“It might have been easier to swim if you had let go of that,” he teased. He touched her hand, which was closed around something. “What were you holding onto so tightly that it mattered more than drowning?”
Tara Maya has lived in Africa, Europe and Asia. She’s pounded sorghum with mortar and pestle in a little clay village where the jungle meets the desert, meditated in a Buddhist monastery in the Himalayas and sailed the Volga river to a secret city that was once the heart of the Soviet space program. This first-hand experience, as well as research into the strange and piquant histories of lost civilizations, inspires her writing. Her terrible housekeeping, however, is entirely the fault of pixies.
Check out her site links:
Tara’s blog: http://bit.ly/MtlSRJ
Tara’s Twitter: http://bit.ly/162sCtE
The Unfinished Song on Facebook: http://on.fb.me/1400mMq
Barnes and Noble: http://bit.ly/13yM5Dr
Initiate is free everywhere except on Barnes and Noble (where it’s $0.99). You can download a free .epub version via Smashwords.