Writing Strong Women – Glenda Larke

For one week back in 1970, I found myself alone in a kampung house with my parents-in-law. Back then, I spoke about as much of their language as they did of mine – i.e. not much. Conversation was limited, yet the only reading matter in the house was sixty-two Mills&Boon romances dating from the 1950s and 60s.

Book after book of rich, hunky doctor/executive/engineer/lawyer meets beautiful, poor, chaste but keen-to-get-married nurse/secretary/governess/companion. I sooo hated those books. I loathed them. If they’d been mine, I would have made a bonfire under the rambutan tree and become a gleeful book-burner.

So, of course, the first book of mine that headed off to publishers had as its main protagonist a sword-wielding, intelligent agent who happened to be female. She was tall and strong, not pretty, but she did have a magnificent head of hair. Blaze Halfbreed was fun to write, and I thoroughly enjoyed developing a marvellous role model for those silly M&B females.

Then one of my friends asked me after she’d read it: ‘How much of you is in Blaze?’

I blinked, wondering how to answer that. Me? A short, dumpy middle-aged woman whose hair was thinning? Unlike Blaze I’d never handled a sword, let alone leapt off a roof, been tortured and had sex with a priest in a rowboat. ‘I think,’ I said at last, ‘that she’s more what I’d like to be: a tall, long-legged athlete with loads of hair!’

But the question set me thinking, and those thoughts simmered for years through another female sword-wielding protagonist, through much reading of other writer’s books about muscular, highly-skilled woman with tattoos who wore skin-tight leather and had lots of sex. I’ve never had the courage to pick up another Mills and Boon after my 1970 overdose, but I understand even they are now filled with educated, opinionated female executives and great sex.

But I’m never going to be a doctor or a high-powered company executive, and I’ll never rage across the room roaring at the villain while swinging my two-metre long broadsword. My smart repartee is non-existent and I can’t even click my magical fingers and turn the idiots of the world into weeping willows or nude statues with permanent erections.

So in the Stormlord trilogy, I wrote of an ordinary woman. She’s nothing much to look at. She’s seriously short-sighted in a society that hasn’t yet developed eye-glasses. For years, she’s been in love with a rogue who’s never given her a second glance. Her magic powers are weak, so she’s not much of a rainlord, either. She’s twenty-eight and unmarried.

But is she moping at home? Nope. She’s happy. She has a sex life. She’s a teacher with many interests…but then she gets caught up in a war.

Suddenly eveything goes catastrophically wrong. Pregnant, enslaved, wounded, betrayed, in horrible danger, she has only her wits to keep herself alive. She gives birth in the middle of a battle, surrounded by the enemy. Her heroic nature has nothing to do with swords or magic; it’s there in the strength of her character, in the tenacity of her love, in the rage of her maternal instincts, in the cunning of her common sense. I’ve finally written a truly strong woman.

Forget the weaponry and the magic, ignore the leather and the karate; you don’t need any of it to write a strong woman protagonist.

Glenda Larke was born in Western Australia, and grew up in Kelmscott on a farm, then in the suburbs of Perth. She’s lived in Tunisia and in Vienna, Austria, now lives in Malaysia, and is looking forward to moving back to Australia. She started off as a teacher, then moved on to environmental work in rainforests and to writing fantasy. Her 10th book, ‘Stormlord’s Exile’, is coming out August this year, worldwide.

Author of The Isles of Glory trilogy; The Mirage Makers trilogy; The Watergivers trilogy (aka Stormlord trilogy); Havenstar.


http://glendalarke.com


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13 Responses to Writing Strong Women – Glenda Larke

  1. Amen, sister!

    *cough cough splutter*

    Your post has something going in my brain, Glenda – I wonder if maybe for all of us, going the sword-wielding karate-chopping roof-jumping woman was the first natural step because when your read a lot of fantasy and SF, that’s what the heroes tend to do. When they’re not shepherd who are the long-lost king…

    But maybe it was natural for us to see being the hero of a book as having these qualities but in writing women, we started thinking more about what is heroism and then things started to shift…

    Perhaps something that needs to happen as well as the growth of women of all cuts of cloth is that we look at ensuring the male heroes also run the gamut of male experience and personality?

  2. Rowena says:

    I love the way you describe your heroine, Glenda!

    ‘Suddenly eveything goes catastrophically wrong. Pregnant, enslaved, wounded, betrayed, in horrible danger, she has only her wits to keep herself alive. She gives birth in the middle of a battle, surrounded by the enemy. Her heroic nature has nothing to do with swords or magic; it’s there in the strength of her character, in the tenacity of her love, in the rage of her maternal instincts, in the cunning of her common sense. I’ve finally written a truly strong woman.’

  3. MaryV says:

    I agree completely with Rowena’s comment above: the description makes me want to read the book immediately. A truly strong protagonist needs neither swords nor sorcery – her strength is spiritual, interior, and has to do with how she deals with what life throws at her. Wonderful character sketch.

  4. Kim Falconer says:

    ‘Forget the weaponry and the magic, ignore the leather and the karate; you don’t need any of it to write a strong woman protagonist.’ That is so true and in the male counterparts I thought immediately of Forrest Gump. (He may not have been a smart man, but he knew what love was).

    As speculative fiction broadens its horizons (as the readership expands) cliched heroes of either gender dissolve and we start to ‘get away with’ a much wider range of human experiences expressed through our heroes.

    Thanks for your wonderful post. I have very much enjoyed all the female characters in the Watergivers Series!.

  5. I’ve loved all your female protags, Glenda. They’ve all been strong women in different ways. Even the early ones were real women, not dickless men. If a women is big and strong enough to wield a sword, let her do it, sez I, but let her do it as a woman, not as a wannabe male.

  6. Helen Lowe says:

    I “like” (to use Facebook ‘speak’) a heroine (or hero for that matter) who uses her wits to not only keep herself alive, but save the day. Something that I suspect women have been doing for centuries, only unsung given that the ‘forlorn hope’, the Battle-of-the-Pelennor-fields-charge and the duel of honour are what makes all our hearts beat faster. I still love all those elements of fantastic fiction, but it’s heartening to see much wider concepts of “strength”, in both women and men, being written.

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  8. Bahiyyih says:

    Have just been re-reading, after a gap of some thirty years, EMForster’s uncertain classic: ‘Aspects of the Novel’, and despite all the caveats necessary in taking him tooooo seriously there were a couple of sentences that leapt off the page in relation to this subject (Writing Stonrg Women) in general and Glenka Larke’s wonderful post in particular. Consider: “A mirror does not develop because an historical pageant passes in front of it. It only develops when it gets a fresh coat of quicksilver – in other words when it acquires new sensitiveness; the novel’s success lies in its own sensitiveness, not in the success of its subject matter.” It is of course the “sensitiveness” of the novelist rather than the novel that achieves this extra layer of ” quicksilver” which may be why so many of these fascinating contributions to Mary’s blog necessarily contain autobiographical elements. And Forster’s lectures were given in 1927; techniques of mirror-making may have changed since then. But it seems to me that we are gauging the precise nature of “quicksilver” here and not only what defines a “strong woman” in fiction…

  9. Ben Payne says:

    Wow. This is a fantastic post, Glenda.

  10. Glenda Larke says:

    Sorry I’m late to the party! Was off at a kampong wedding today, and then trying to get back home in the Chinese New Year traffic jams. Thanks for all the comments! You’ve all said very perceptive things…

    Nicole – yep. Maybe that’s where it started: we were jealous of the heroes!
    Thanks Rowena – & Mary thanks for inviting me.
    Kim, I think you’ve touched on something there – the difficulty of writing a sensitive male hero and still making him appealing to men readers.It’s perfectly possible – as with Gump – but not easy.
    Satima – absolutely.
    Helen – the art is to get both elements in the mix, the heroism and flags that makes the heart beat faster, as well as the wits to win in the end. I wonder if that is why Pat Rothfuss’s Name of the Wind is so popular?
    Bahiyyih – An extra coating of quicksilver gets added every book, I hope… Life experience should never be underestimated, as well as the experience of completing another story about a number of fictional people. Maybe, in the end, what makes certain real woman and/or characters resonate as “strong” to each of us is more our life experience than anything else. After all, at five, I thought my mum was strong and wonderful – because she was never wrong!

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