We've come a long way, baby, but why are good heroines still so hard to find? And how do we, as authors, write a heroine that speaks true to the reader?
The problem with “traditional” female characters in epic fantasy, as I see it, is that they fall into one of only a few roles: the goodly matron, the healer, the love interest, the witch, the prostitute, and the victim. Sometimes they fulfill more than one of these roles at a time. She’s a witch AND a goodly matron! She’s the prostitute AND the victim AND the love interest! 5x bonus for a character who manages to meet all of the stereotypes at the same time! Unfortunately, she doesn’t play much of a role beyond that prescribed for her by the genre. Our “heroine,” even when she wields a sword like a badass, still swoons over our hero and falls apart like bad toilet paper whenever the going gets tough.
Heads-up, people: these are not real women. In order to write a proper heroine, the author has to respect the characteristics that make women strong and use those to advantage instead of trying to force the heroine to occupy a stale stereotype or squish into the role traditionally occupied by the hero.
So what, then, defines a great heroine?
For starters, she’s going to use her words. A woman’s need to communicate is generally much stronger than that of her male counterpart. We talk, and talk, and talk. We problem solve, talk through tricky situations and share stories. Thus, even if our heroine isn’t a chatterbox, she will still most likely attempt a little parley before jumping into that bar fight. She’ll try to talk herself out of—or into—a situation. She’ll use words as a delay, as a diversion, as a weapon, or to make up for what she herself may lack in physical strength.
Which leads me to another problem: women are not equal in strength to men. Yes, I’m going to have my feminist card revoked. But it takes a lot of brute strength to lift that two-handed broadsword over your head like Conan and split your enemies in two. Forensic archaeology argues that the English archers of Agincourt had such overdeveloped chests and shoulders that their bone structures and musculature were physically altered. Just to pull the bow those men had to train from an early age, and even then, a particular body type was required or they wouldn't succeed past a certain point. Unless your heroine has a gym membership and has been working out with her weapon of choice since the age of five, I have a hard time believing that she will ever be able to equal her male counterparts in battle.
So what’ s a girl to do? Pick up a smaller weapon. A short sword. A dagger. A small bow and arrow. Or—my personal favorite—use her brain. The brain is an oft-overlooked tool in the sword and sorcery genre (unless it’s being used to cast spells or figure out how to bed the hot guy in the party). In Song and the Sorceress, Ki’leah’s memory is the most sought-after commodity on two continents. The knowledge she carries is far more important—and more dangerous—than she realizes. Learning to use that to her advantage gives her more power than a lifetime of sword lessons could ever do.
Perhaps one of the most important characteristics of a heroine is that she, unlike the lonely hero, thrives with a support network. A good heroine realizes she can’t get the job done all by herself. If she’s lacking strength, she’ll bring the muscle. Does she need information? She’ll bring a spy, a scholar, a big-ass book. She’s not afraid to delegate or ask her friends for help. Why? Because that’s what strong women do. Anyone who has ever been to a PTA or a Girl Scout convention knows exactly what I’m talking about. Strong women acknowledge their weaknesses, then find a way to overcome them. They work together to get the job done. They also connect, on a much deeper level, with other women, who are always ready to jump in and spackle up the cracks in their friend’s emotional armor, buff it, shine it, give her a hug and send her on her way with a “good luck” and a “don’t forget your gauntlets.” A strong network of friends and associates is essential for any heroine worth her salt.
Which brings me to my last point, which is that we seldom see too many of these women in fantasy even though we have moved beyond the gold-bikini-as-armor era (thank goodness—it’s so unsafe to be fighting naked). Nevertheless, even though one can glance at the SFF section in Barnes & Noble and see rows upon rows of covers featuring women in tight tank tops and leather jackets, very few of these creatures are actual heroines. They are simply male characters who’ve been dressed up as women. These girls act like men, think like men, ride Harleys like men, fight like men, have sex like men. They don’t act like real women at all. And while we women can pretend that we’re making all kinds of progress in the genre, the reality is that those covers aren’t so far after all from the gold-bikini-armored warriors that made Boris Vallejo famous.
The best way I’ve found to tackle the problem is to just keep writing the kind of heroines I admire. Women who have dreams, hopes, fears, friends, enemies, brains, and wit. Women who care deeply for their families and would do anything to help a friend, even if it means giving an edge to the enemy. Women who laugh, cry, make mistakes, then problem solve ways to fix them. Women who need men as companions, as friends, as lovers, but who don’t need to be rescued. Women with depth of character, spirit, and passion. These are real women; these are the true heroines of fantasy.
Now, speak: what do you all think?