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.