By Philippa Ballantine
We should all celebrate! There are as many different strong women role models these days as there are books on the shelves.
With the rise of urban fantasy you’d be hard pressed to find a weak willed female in the bookstores, but it wasn’t that long ago (well within living memory) that women were mostly depicted as subservient secondary characters-or barely mentioned in the annals of genre fiction.
It was men that had adventures, and it was women that either came along for the ride or were merely the objects of sexual desire. However, with the rise of women writers in the genre, that balance started to tip.
I recall reading novels as a teenager that reached me as a young woman–told me girls could have adventures too, be strong, and have their own sexual desires. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover, and Elizabeth Moon’s Deeds of Parksenarrion series were some of my favourites.
It was a revelation to me, because up until then reading my Dad’s store of books, I wasn’t feeling much love for women- and nor were they reflecting the women who were around me in my everyday life. My mother, grandmother, aunts and friends were all strong women, in a variety of ways- so for me there was an immediate disconnect between most genre fiction and reality.
One of the most popular pieces of advice that writers get given is ‘write what you know’…so for me writing strong women has always been easy. It’s a real joy to write heroines as a tribute to those women in my life, and I borrow shamelessly from their stories when and where I can. I love giving them situations where they would have flourished and shown how great they really are.
But of course, you give them a genre twist just to see how they would react. (Imagining my Mum with the power to control the weather is quite mind-bending).
Who hasn’t dreamed of being a sword-wielding powerhouse and teaching the menfolk a lesson or two. Often when injustices have been done to woman, the role of the kick-ass heroine is particularly attractive. (The novel that springs to mind if Ironhand’s Daughter, by David Gemmell). These kinds of heroines have been kicking about since ancient times (I’ve always been partial to Norse valkyries). My first ever Dungeons and Dragons character was indeed a red-headed sword wielding warrior woman. These days, with urban fantasy a wide variety of firepower is available to the heroine.
Not everyone has the physical strength and discipline to be a traditional warrior, but fantasy is full of women who have power that comes from their magic. The women in the Mists of Avalon are typical of this. This draws on the ancient mystical power of women even before Morrigan in the Arthur legends, back to the ancient earth goddesses. There are so many ways this can be used from mystics, to psychics, to women holding a great big ball of flame.
These are the more traditional ‘strengths’ attached to the female of the species- but that doesn’t mean they are any less important.
When I was thinking of writing a book set in New Zealand, and I began thinking of my great aunt. I began to realise there was a special strength in women that is often overlooked. I began thinking of all those women who kept their families together while their menfolk were off fighting wars. Those that kept keeping on when they were denied the vote, or told they couldn’t run a business.
And so I wrote Weather Child as a way of exploring another facet of strength. The main character Faith, does have special gifts, but she is also charming, sweet and kind-things that my great aunt was. She will fight for her family, but it is done in an understated way.
Also wily female characters who use their brains to work around situations. These are often portrayed as villains- but why should they be? I long to see more of these type of women in genre fiction.
But I do look forward to seeing more and different types of strong female characters. They should reflect the women we know in our real lives- their personalities should be as diverse as all of them. I think there is still plenty of room to develop. Though I confess, a woman with a sword is still one of my favourites!
Philippa Ballantine is the author of Geist and Spectyr with Ace Books, and the co-author (with Tee Morris) of Phoenix Rising from Harper Voyager. She is also New Zealand’s first podiobook author. You can find out more about Pip at pjballantine.com