Welcome to our weekly guest post on what makes a kick ass heroine tick in science fiction and fantasy. This week’s author Alma Alexander highlights what really makes a kick-ass heroine tick…
It is perhaps unfortunate – at least from where I am sitting – that the trend for books featuring the textbook definition of “kick-ass heroines” tend to come packaged with the Headless Cover Trope. You know – THOSE covers – the women shown with their rears encased in tight leather, the briefest possible excuse for a top which serves to showcase, er, curves, as well as a wealth of “ink” in the shape of tattoos which wind around taut biceps, wrists which look entirely too fragile to carry (never mind point, shoot, or cope with the kick of) the kind of firepower that they are depicted as toting in the cover image, or fetchingly situated in the hollow of the lower back, just above the point where those tight leather trousers cling to hips seemingly by the power of invisible skin Velcro (because there’s nothing ELSE obvious that’s holding them up…)
I say unfortunate because I think the best attribute of a kick-ass heroine is actually what’s between her ears. Yes, she can excel at karate, and hunting vampires with a crossbow armed with silver bolts, and unerring and precise target shooting with a sniper rifle – all of that, and more. (Well, perhaps not at the same time. Let’s give the poor girl SOME space.) But the most important thing of all is that she needs to be able to THINK.
One of the poster girls for kick-ass heroines, albeit in movies rather than books, is Alien’s Ripley. There’s very little about her that is soft or gentle. But she has a mind, and a spirit, and her most memorable moment was the Giant Waldo Suit scene and her fierce protection of that little girl. Motivation. There is a reason for the violence. Another iconic kick-ass heroine is Whedon’s Buffy (I never really glommed onto the whole series but I do remember one line, uttered with complete seriousness, which made ME take it seriously and believe the whole conceit: “They have no clue what a slayer is.” There is a world of hurt and potential in those few words. A world of confidence (born not of hubris but of a simple knowledge of what one is capable of). And yet… there have been entire episodes of Buffy where the heroine exhibits… actual… VULNERABILITY. Hey, kick-ass heroines can get hurt, just like the rest of us. That’s a revelation, to some.
Getting in the head of a strong woman like this can be tough, no less for female writers than for the guys. Because, well, in a kick-ass heroine the fact that she can DO pertinent and successful violence is a given. It’s very easy to stop there, and have her wreak havoc for the couple of hundred pages of your book, and never get beyond just that. But what makes it for me, is WHY.
An unlikely literary kick-ass heroine, for me, despite the fact that she never wielded a sword, is Dianora from Tigana – because she is steely inside, where it matters. And because she finds herself unexpectedly betrayed by her emotions, in the end, in a manner that was a crushing weight on her. And because she still makes her own choices, her own decisions, in the end. A kick-ass heroine isn’t one who whacks everything standing until she is the last one left on her feet. A kick-ass heroine is the woman who faces her troubles, can deal with them physically if she needs to, but who can also deal with them in more difficult and more subtle ways. A kick-ass heroine, in other words, is a well-rounded character with strength and convictions, somebody willing and able to stand up for her ideas and for the things that she holds dear, whether wielding a sword or her tongue or her intelligence.
Perhaps this is not the classical definition of what a “kick-ass” heroine is, or does. I wrote one, myself, in the person of Xaforn from “The Secrets of Jin Shei.” I don’t think anybody who has ever read that book, met that woman, could have any doubts whatsoever that she was amongst the most kick-ass of the kick-ass. But her strength, for me, wasn’t in that she could beat down a baker’s dozen of trained warriors and make enough of a dent, enough damage, to make her presence felt. Her strength was steel core of her honor.
A kick-ass heroine should be more than a female thug. In other words… the “kick-ass” is secondary to “HEROINE.”
About the Author: Alma Alexander is an internationally published novelist whose work, from YA fantasy to far more “grown-up” books, appears in 14 languages worldwide. She is currently at work on more books featuring the strong female protagonists for which she has become known. Alma Alexander lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two cats.