The damsel in distress days are over. Women are more than capable of solving (and creating) their own problems. A female character no longer has to wait for rescue from prince charming, she can save herself and kick the bad guy’s ass in the process.
Gender equality, while not perfect, seems to have reached a level of acceptance where strong and flawed feminine characters are being recognized in popular culture. People want to view and read about these characters because they are relatable. Aspects of these heroines exist in reality, their attributes plucked from the personal and collective milieu. The bones of fantasy and sci-fi elements mirror those from our day to day lives and many of our lives are filled with complex, independent women.
When I began writing Daughter of Shadow there was no doubt in my mind that the story revolved around a strong female character. Her name is Melea and she bucks the classic tropes of a fantasy protagonist. I don’t want to give too much away but when the story begins she’s certainly not a hero and would kill anyone who labeled her as villain.
A recent reader review of Daughter of Shadow described Melea as a “tragic, Don Draper character.” This comparison blew my mind—the manliest guy on a show where the word men is even in the title (Mad Men) was legitimately compared to a young female character in a fantasy novel. There are similarities: an outwardly successful individual with a carefully managed persona who is constantly being disrupted by a haunted past. In Mad Men, Draper drinks and humps his way through the 1960’s as his way of coping with this internal conflict, a cliche usually reserved for men. This is not always the case as the motif is flipped in the new Netflix series, Jessica Jones.
Jones is a foul mouthed, hard drinking, fiercely independent woman working as a private investigator. A childhood accident made her the recipient of superpowers and she’s caught in the struggle of what to do with this unwanted power. The first season is fantastic and Jones is one of the most interesting new characters I’ve come across.
Then there’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the most hyped movie of all time. The saga finds Rey, an intelligent, persistent, caring, resilient woman whose role in the Star Wars universe increases exponentially from her humble beginnings (No spoilers I promise). It’s no accident that Star Wars & Disney teamed up to place a strong female character at the forefront of the biggest movie series in history (Harry Potter and James Bond are in the conversation).
In Paolo Bacigalupi’s, The WIndup Girl, the near future is given a harsh, realistic, breathtaking portrayal and Emiko, a New Person, is the ultimate survivor in a world of hustlers. Emiko is not human, not in the eyes of those around her, so she must overcome the kinds of abuse usually reserved for females as well as what it means to be human. Bacigalupi crafts the story expertly and Emiko’s transformation is a powerful statement about some of the obstacles faced by women in a rapidly changing world.
The Worldbreaker Saga by Kameron Hurley has entire continents of strong women—some nice, some not so nice. The first installment, The Mirror Empire, struck me as a truly modern fantasy novel. The way she bent and broke all the cliches of classic fantasy with seeming ease to create matriarchal societies is a thing of beauty.
I’ve watched an interview with George R. R. Martin where he is asked about his “complex and well-rounded female characters.” Martin chuckles and smirks, looking like he’s about to give a retort that Tyrion would use but then calmly conveys his bewilderment at having to constantly express that women are people. Why shouldn’t they be complex and well-rounded?
Women are tough. It’s not that woman are changing to fit the definition but the other way around.