Writing Strong Women – Helen Lowe

All About Character: Writing Strong Women in Fantasy

by Helen Lowe

For me, the key to writing strong women characters lies in the words “writing” and “character.” As authors, we must focus on writing characters who are credible and real. Male or female, we are primarily writing personalities that must be believable emotionally and in terms of their motivations. But we are also Fantasy authors, which means we have license to play around with the “truths” of the “real” world and devise our own rules. (They don’t call it “world building” for nothing, after all…) This means that the development of the characters and the role they play in the story, whether female or male, strong or weak, honorable or venal, will also be driven by the author’s understanding of both the world and the societies within it.

The Heir of Night world centres on the Wall of Night, a mountain range that is physically harsh and a bastion against a powerful and enduring enemy. The Derai, the society garrisoning the bastion Wall, are a people under arms and divided primarily into a warrior class and those with magical/supernatural powers, who largely function as priests. A not unfamiliar division in epic Fantasy and one that brings its own raft of problems in Heir—but from the beginning, I was very sure that the story I wanted to tell wasnot one about sexual politics. Everyone in Derai society is born into either the warrior life or that of a priest and is brought up accordingly, regardless of sex. Similarly, the firstborn child of the ruler of a Derai House, whether female or male, will always inherit leadership. In the Derai world, that’s just the way it is.

So when writing the characters in the Heir of Night, the primary question was not: what kind of woman is this? Or, what kind of man is that? But rather, what kind of personality am I dealing with? How does this particular character function within the society? What role doe she or he play in the story and the world? Malian, the Heir of Night, for example, has been raised to lead her House, and through that role, the entire Derai society. The Heir story could have lain in Malian being a weak and venal character, unequal to the task—but it doesn’t. Rather, she is a person who believes in the Derai cause, has a strong sense of duty, and is prepared to shoulder the responsibilities arising out of that. Malian also has considerable magical power, but it is her personality that makes her a strong character, not the powers.

Asantir, the Honor Guard captain, is also seen as a very strong character. She is from the warrior class, has trained as a soldier from birth and is adept in those skills—yet that is true of many in the Derai world. Asantir’s real strength is her tactical and strategic ability, but she is also an inspirational leader—a gift that derives from her character as much as her abilities. Asantir has authority because of who she is, not the position she occupies.

There are other women characters who have less personal power or ability than Malian and Asantir, but are still significant in the story because of their personalities and motivations, whether love or enmity, pragmatism or wisdom, bitterness or fear.

But wait, you cry, isn’t that exactly the same for male characters?

Oh dear, I reply guiltily, now I’ve been rumbled—because yes, it is. Ex-act-ly the same, if I am writing my characters based on personality and motivation. The only other thing I do, aside from that, is consciously strive not to write to sex-role stereotypes. In the case of the female characters, this does not mean that every woman must be a “kickbutt warrior” or a “mage with superpowers,” although some may be. What it does mean is that every woman character will evolve in terms of her personality, her place in society, and the constraints and opportunities that society offers, as well as the events that arise through the course of the story. And so, too, will the men.

To return to my opening assertion, I believe that writing strong women is all about writing diverse and true-to-life characters. So long as an author is focused on that, and on observing the nuance of human behaviour and avoiding cliché and stereotype, then I believe she or he will write great characters, some of whom may be strong and inspirational women and men. Others again may be weak, fearful, dishonest, vindictive, petty or self-serving—because that, too, is part of the gamut of human experience.

In terms of whether I have been successful in writing strong women, a number of reviewers have commented on the strength of the women characters in The Heir of Night and School Library Journal noted that the princess in Thornspell is “more than just a ‘sleeping beauty.’ “ So I may be on the right track. Yet sometimes it is reader feedback that says it best:

“I particularly like the way you have written such strong female characters, but without making the men sexist or weak.”

Given everything I have written above, I hope you will understand why that particular comment on The Heir of Night elicited an “Ah, yes!” response.

Helen Lowe is a New Zealand-based author, poet and interviewer. Her first novel Thornspell (Knopf, 2008) won the Sir Julius Vogel Award for “Best Novel: Young Adult” 2009, and Helen received the Award for “Best New Talent” in the same year. Helen’s second novel, The Heir of Night (The Wall of Night, Book One) is now on sale in the USA/Canada and Australia/New Zealand and will launch in the UK in March 2011. She blogs on the first of every month on the Supernatural Underground and every day on her own Helen Lowe on Anything, Really site.

Photos courtesy of Peter Fitzpatrick

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29 Responses to Writing Strong Women – Helen Lowe

  1. Pingback: Helen Lowe Says Writing Strong Women Is “All About Character” | SFFANZ News

  2. Oh yes, the holy grail – making the women strong without making the men weak. Well done, Helen 🙂

    I’m intrigued by the idea that there’s no gender stratification at all, particularly on the warrior side of things. Are the men in your world generally physically stronger than the women or not? If not, does that have any impact?

    • Helen Lowe says:

      Hi Nicole,

      Given that the Derai are ‘alien’ to the world they occupy, there is no male/female differentiation of strength. (It will gain some ‘coverage’ in Book 2 in relation to another warrior society–but no spoilers.) But given that all those from the warrior class train as such from birth and have done since time immemorial, I don’t believe gender-based differences in strength would be as much an issue as they are in our society. I base this speculation on two things–the exponential extent to which the achievement gap between male and female athletes has closed in the past century since women have been actively training in and competing in sport. Secondly, my own experience in martial arts, where yes, many/most men were stronger than me when slogging it out toe to toe (although of course the whole point of a martial art is not to do this) but not “all” men were necessarily physically superior in strength–and of course there are relative differentials between the men as well. Some guys are an awful lot stronger than others and the physically weaker guys, like the gals, have to find other ways to use the martial arts to adapt. And believe me, they do, as did I. And yes, I have hurt guys in training (as well as being hurt by them)–on at least two notable occasions (as opposed to small incidents and accidents thata re just aprt of the territory) simply becasue I was going for it and ‘assumed’ that my psarring partners were necessarily ‘stronger’ and could weather the storm. So I suspect if women were trained from birth in the rough and tumble and this continued through generations then the differential in physical strength would change. My other major observation from martial arts is that women ‘tend’ (not always, but 75% plus in my experience) to shy away from either dishing out or receiving pain and that this puts them at a considerbale disadvantage with males who have grown up learning that it is ok to be physical.

      Anyway, long answer to short question, but yes, I decided that gender differentiation of strength would not be an element in the Derai warrior class. Does this make Asantir and Nerys and Lira just men with breasts? Not to me, becasue I have written them as (martial) women from the ‘ground up’–there was no sense in which I wrote them as men first and just changed their names.

      • Gillian says:

        That’s a really intersting observation about the martial arts. It applies equally to intellectual pursuits. I so need to think about this! Thank you.

        • Helen Lowe says:

          Gillian, I think the martial arts are similar to any discipline one does intensively: they tend to bring the practitioner face to face with her/him self, as well as with others, and in so doing one learns a great deal about the strength and weakness in one’s own nature / human nature. In my case, it has lead me to believe that it is the ‘human’ element, which at its most negative encompasses prejudice, ignorance and fear with all their negative spin-offs, that is what we are really all dealing with, no matter how much other ‘stuff’ we load onto that one chromosome’s difference in the genetic makeup between women and men.

          Of course, even half a century, but definitely a century ago, I would almost certainly not have been ‘permitted’ the privilege of learning this through practicing martial arts, simply becasue of my gender. So I’m in no sense ignoring the fact that there’s a huge amount of the ‘human’ stuff loaded onto that one small chromosome, and that it’s real and needs to be dealt to.

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  5. Tyson Perna says:

    I haven’t commented on these posts about strong women because I felt I didn’t have anything to say on the subject. Then I realized that the fact that I felt I had nothing to say was what I had to say.

    For me, I don’t care about the gender of the people I’m reading, so when I read a book that contains almost all male characters, such as The Lord of the Rings, I don’t mind. I wonder if that’s a more typically male reaction?

    When I do read strong female characters, I often wonder how much the author trumped them up into kick-ass chicks simply to fit some definition of strong. To me, Xena wasn’t a strong woman because she could kick everyone’s ass. She was strong because she was able to forge a life for herself while bearing the guilt of all her past misdeeds. And she was strong enough to accept redemption when she found it.

    I wonder now if it will become a reverse stereotype to make women all bad asses in fantasy novels. I hope it doesn’t come to that. I enjoy reading about weak and flawed people as well, even as protagonists. (Try Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series on for size to see what I mean.) I hope that in an effort to write strong women, we don’t start getting flat cliche’s. Helen’s post implies that this won’t be the case on her end at least, but will publishers start cranking out mass produced Sookie Stackhouses because they think they sell? There is a new cliche amongst us of the warrior woman, and it will be used and abused like any other cliche.

  6. Helen Lowe says:

    Thank you for commenting, Tyson. I agree—I think it’s really important to strive to look outside stereotypes, whether old or new, although of course the ‘warrior woman’ is (I think) really an old trope, extending from (at least) Penthesilea and the Amazons down to Xena. I, too, didn’t really notice the absence of women in “The Lord of the Rings” the first time I read it, because I loved the story so much I was just totally absorbed–but I do recall how much I liked the characters of Galadriel and Eowyn when they appeared. I have always loved them both, but the thing I loved most about them was their ‘humanity.’ Galadriel is wise and compassionate, as well as a bearer of one of the three elven rings (ie a great ‘power’); she is tested by the offer of the One Ring, but self-knowledge and strength of will allow her to pass the test. Similarly, what we see with Eowyn is not just another wannabe, sword-wielding chick: we see her vulnerability as well as her strength, her love and ‘fidelity’ (faith keeping) as well as her courage. So although there may not be many women characters in LoTR but for me these two have always shone brightly and in doing so inspired my own writing. (Plus little back stories like that of Luthien, who we understand rescued Beren rather than the other way around.)

    With regards Sookie, as she appears in the novels, I find her quite a strong character and in a positive way–she stands up for herself, usually gets herself out of trouble, rescues the guys at least as often as they rescue her, but without any notable superpowers beyond the telepathy, ie she uses her smarts. For me, she is a stronger and more interesting character than the Sookie of the tv series.

    • MaryV says:

      I agree re Galadriel and the much-maligned Eowyn – with regards to Galadriel, she is the only (repeat – only) bearer of a ring of power who confronts the temptation of the One Ring head on, and resists. Neither Gandalf nor Elrond are willing to take the test.

      Go Galadriel!

      OK, Lord of the Rings geek moment is over.

      • Helen Lowe says:

        Actually, I believe two other characters were ‘offered’ the ring and resisted: Faramir in Ithilien (he was in a posiiton to take it by force), who resisted for much the same reasons as Galadriel, strength of will and self-knowledge, and Sam after Cirith Ungol/Minas Morgul–both two of the strongest characters in LoTR (imho) for all their quietness, compared to others, eg Faramir to Boromir, Sam to Merry and Pippin etc.

        • MaryV says:

          Yes, that’s right – I was just thinking of the ring of power trio – ie, Galadriel, Elrond, Gandalf – but yes, the characters you mention have the same qualities.

        • Kim Falconer says:

          Actually Helen, good point. And Sam also carried the ring for a time and gave it up willingly, back to Frodo. Sam and Bilbo!

          • Helen Lowe says:

            Yes, Bilbo and Sam–with Galadriel and Faramir each/both refusing what lay within their power to have/take. One of the reasons I still like LoTR: it has dimensions and layers and it’s not all happening just with the ‘main’ characters.

            With respect to Frodo though, he is the person who has carried the thing for longest in terms of physical contact “and” while its power is waxing; Sam only carries it for a short time and although Bilbo has had it for many years he has not used it a lot.

      • Kim Falconer says:

        This is so true, Mary, though Bilbo was the only one to use the ring and give it up of his own free will. Even Frodo couldn’t do that and at the end Gollum bites it off his finger the moment he claims it for himself (fails) . . . old Smeagol inadvertently falls into the cracks of doom and saves the day . . . full circle. But Galadriel feared to take the ring because she didn’t think she could resist the temptation. It was a beautifully heroic act when she says, (after the fantasy of how she would use it for good and not evil) ‘I will diminish and be just Galadriel.’

        Helen, this is a wonderful post. Thank you for what you have shared.

        Tyson, good point. I think as long as we are having to say ‘strong women’ we are not ‘there’ yet with non-cliched gender portrayals. I’m optimistic that spec fic will lead the way and model more and more authentic characters for all genres.

        As for Sookie, in the books and TV her motivations are very ‘female’, very maternal. She does what she does not to win a prize or become something better or even save the day. She is heroic (when she can pull it together) for reasons of love.

        • Helen Lowe says:

          Kim, I think that is what ‘speculative fiction’ allows us the freedom to do, to model alternative realities and see how things play out—in terms of just about everything, but including gender. I have finally read Malorie Blackman’s ‘Noughts and Crosses’ series recently, and loved the way she addresses race through her speculation therein. If we’re serious about being ‘speculative’ fiction authors then I think we really do have to strive to ‘think outside the square.’

          With Sookie I would add ‘and for reasons of being her own person’–in the books anyway, that’s one of the things I like most about her: she’s always her own person, no matter who she is in relationship with.

  7. Tyson Perna says:

    Why do you call Eowyn much-maligned? I always thought she was a wonderful character. True, she wanted fame and glory more than doing her duty, not exactly the definition of strength, but she learned by the end. She is one of the very few examples of personal growth in LotR outside of the hobbits.

    Galadriel has always been a favorite. I loved how Cate Blanchett portrayed her in the movie – perilous and almost sinister. Galadriel came to Middle-Earth seeking her own dominion, and then found redemption by rejecting the ring. (Tolkien later wrote that she wasn’t allowed to return to Valinor until she had passed that test.)

    Hm, seems like Tolkien wasn’t much of one for allowing his women to actually obtain power and glory and instead preferred them to do their duty and work behind the scenes. Two is a small sample though, but it makes you wonder.

    • MaryV says:

      Ah, I was thinking with ‘much maligned’ of this link posted by Kim earlier: http://www.cracked.com/article_16587_hollywoods-5-saddest-attempts-at-feminism.html

      Check out #5

      Yes, Tolkien liked his women strong and humble. But to give him some credit, he preferred most characters strong and humble. The hobbits are a prime example – they don’t really gain ‘earthly dominion’ with the success of the Ring quest. Only Aragorn obtains earthly glory, and it’s a bit of a pain in the neck by all accounts, though everyone is glad to have a Good King. For almost all of the primary characters, success means allowing themselves to ‘fade into the West’.

      I’m fine with that… it has a satisfyingly Taoist edge, though poor JRR would probably spin in his grave at me saying so.

    • Helen Lowe says:

      I agree with Mary–I think that doing one’s duty in a quiet way is a Tolkien characteristic, ie Faramir is the model, not Boromir, who pursues military fame and glory–Faramir is more like the Roman Cincinnatus, who only takes comamnd and goes to war ‘because he must.’ Although I’m not sure that I agree that Galadriel is ‘behind the scenes’, any more than Elrond, for example … and she had power and glory, but was preapred to give up the offer of me, knowing it for ‘vainglory’–and this is aslo true of the other ring bearers, Elrond and Gandalf. (I am assuming on this topic that these are not spoilers!)

  8. Tarran says:

    I have noticed working around books that there is definatly a trend these days to have the ‘kick arse’ women in paranormal eg. romance/urban fantasy books especially.

    One thing I liked about Stacia Kane’s main character is that she has a drug habit – one that interfers with her life greatly. Reading about the so called flaws of characters makes them more real to me because I can feel affinity for them.

    Women have had a great gap to climb and this shows by people trying to over compensate. You don’t have to be a man hater to be strong, I find reading books like that to be offensive and to be truthful, a lot of the time it is women who put the knockers on the activites of other women.

    I actually found Gabrielle to be more stronger than Xena in a way, she went from naieve teen, bitter woman, warrior amazon, then guru. She found her inner peace at the end of the series. Not only did she help heal Xena’s wounds, but she helped a lot of other people while dealing with her own demons. Very strong Character.

    • Helen Lowe says:

      Tarran, I like a story where characters evolve as well, especially in response to the things that happen to them in the story! In terms of the whole “man hater” / “woman hater” scenario–people like that do exist, so they will always have their place in story because of that–but I always try to remember that from a purely scientiifc point of view, ie genetics, men and women are pretty much identical apart from that one chromosome! And the basic human emotions of love, fear, anger, joy, wonder, delight and disgust etc are not gender-specific at all–which gives a strong basis to draw on when trying to steer away from stereotype when writing character.

  9. MaryV says:

    Look what I just found over on Fantasy Literature: http://www.fantasyliterature.com/giveaway/tt-epicgirlyness/

    Someone needs to go over to the site and yell, ‘Malian!’ ‘Samiha’ 😉

    Just kidding, but it’s fun to see people are having parallel discussions on these very questions.

  10. MaryV says:

    …Actually, looking down in the comments section, I see that someone has already mentioned Glenda’s WSW post in the context of that discussion. I’m going to add a link to the whole journal so that people can read other entries.

  11. Sharon S. says:

    The equality of the sexes was something I noticed right off the bat in Heir and one of the reasons I like it so much. I was drawn to Asantir’s character. I look forward to seeing how her story plays out.

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