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.”
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