Hello humans! I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to talk about in today’s post, I pondered and pondered and eventually decided I wanted to do a series talking about some of my favourite tropes and suchlike in sff books. I pondered some more and decided that the first thing I wanted to talk about was strong female characters.
Now those three words go in and out of fashion in the book marketing world, I can remember when The Hunger Games came out and you couldn’t breathe in a bookshop without encountering a so-called ‘strong female character’. Even though I know that ‘strong female character’ is often just a term used to sell books, I still fall for it every time and I still think it’s one of my favourite things to have in a book. But I do want to talk about what we mean by the term, and the different ways it can be interpreted. This was all sparked by a recent tweet by Amanda Foody (author of Ace of Shades, and Daughter of the Burning City) so credit where credit is due, but this is something I’ve been thinking about for a while.
Firstly, we have characters that are strong physically. I’ve already mentioned Katniss and she is too often my comparison character so instead let’s talk about a more recent YA heroine (and one of my favourites) which is Lada, the genderbent Vlad the Impaler character in Kiersten White’s Conqueror’s Saga. Vlada is strong in many ways, but one of her key character traits is her strength in battle, her death count in this series is pretty high – it can’t be denied. Admittedly, female characters are rarely written with a great deal of physical strength, but you do get examples of female characters with strong powers, such as Essun from the Broken Earth trilogy by N K Jemisin. So we can talk about strength in a very literal sense, but I would argue that, where strong female characters are concerned, it is other kinds of strength that take precedence.
One such example is what I would call strength of will, tied into endurance in some way. For example, in another one of my all-time favourite books The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, the strength of Celia’s will and her endurance in maintaining the circus is the focus of the story. Similarly, in the Red Queen series, it is Mare’s willingness to keep fighting, to keep resisting and to keep revolting against her oppressors that makes her a strong character. I think it’s this kind of strength that tends to appear in the ‘revolution’ series such as Red Queen or The Bone Season. The author has to create a character with a will because the path of least resistance is to give up and then there would be no story.
Another strength you often see is strength of mind. It’s another thing that a lot of these female characters share, they are master tacticians, they are engineers, plotters and planners. You have to write that intelligence in order for these characters to succeed. One of my favourite examples of this is Amani from Rebel of the Sands. Amani is a particularly good example of a character finding that strength of mind, finding that skill as the books develop. Another good example, though the series isn’t complete yet so I’m not sure how it pans out, is Citra from the Arc of a Scythe series. I’m enjoying the fact that, in a lot of more recent publications, female characters are given more scientific knowledge. We have hackers, engineers and it is gorgeous to read.
What is clear is that there are many different kinds of strength, I think too often we equate ‘strong female character’ with ‘a character who kills a bunch of people’ which is sometimes true. Some of my favourite characters are like this, Mia Corvere from Nevernight, or Lira from To Kill a Kingdom. But we have to acknowledge that there are many different strengths and that women can have more than one. It’s one of the best aspects of the Book of the Ancestor series (Red Sister, Grey Sister), that the various characters all have different kinds of strengths, Nona, the main character, alone has remarkable physical strength but she’s also an amazing plotter, and her strength of will is second to none. But almost every character I’ve mentioned has many different kinds of strength, but we tend to only call them strong female characters when it comes to the…murdery parts.
Will I keep on reading books marketed with the three words? I don’t think there will ever be a day when I don’t. I’m also not going to stop loving characters like Mia who are murderous…maybe that’s odd but never mind. What I do hope, is that we can start celebrating the strength of other characters and that we can start recognising that when we say strength we mean more than just brute force.
I’ve waffled on for too long already, so I’ll leave it there. Comment below with some of your favourite strong female characters, and look out for more of my favourite tropes in the coming weeks!