Writing Strong Women – Nicole Murphy

Seeing the Full Picture

I was eighteen when I first discovered romance novels. Until then, my tastes were strongly science fiction and fantasy, with a bit of the historical thrown in for good taste (I was a mad Jean Plaidy fan).

The thing about those books (apart from the Jean Plaidy) is that, well, there wasn’t a lot of action for the girlies. There was the occasional fabulous female character who was integral to the plot and held her own, but on the whole the magic and quests and monsters and so on were the stronghold of the boys. Now, I love those books – LOTR will forever hold a special place in my heart and I still dream from time to time about the Runestaff books. But for a teenage girl that wasn’t as much a tomboy anymore and was getting into girly stuff, there wasn’t a lot there that spoke to me.

Then I went to teachers college, moved in with my grandparents and discovered Grandma’s Mills and Boon collection. I was entranced with these stories in which not only were women important but could even be the ONLY point-of-view character in the whole book. And not just the occasional book like there was in my old loves – here there were thousands of these oases in the desert.

Then along comes urban fantasy and paranormal romance. Oh my, women taking centre stage and claiming the magic, the quests and the monsters for themselves! I was in heaven.

Yet not quite. It became clear that some of these women were pseudo-men. They were gaining their ability to stand tall in these books by taking on attributes normally associated with men – strength, fighting skills, lack of emotion, being the alpha.

For a while, there was a sense of wonder in this – how cool to see women kicking arse! Then came a sense of wondering about why a woman had to take on male archetypes in order to be strong and the hero of a story. Why couldn’t female archetypes – such as caring, nurturing, even being cunning – be the way these women took their place centre stage?

And so the uber-masculinity of the women started to take a back-seat to more feminine traits, but then that caused more problems. In my field of paranormal romance, the desire to not have every heroine be kick-arse ran up against the alpha heroes that populate the field. Vampires and werewolves are not necessarily going to fall for a woman whose greatest skill is cooking (although come to think of it, werewolves enjoy a good meal more than anyone …)

The nice thing is that the growth of romance, and urban fantasy, is filtering through into mainstream fantasy and science fiction as well. Sure, there’s still the old comrades on a quest and boy discovering his magical power stuff and I’m glad about that. But there’s also more of those stories being told from the woman’s point of view. Women standing alongside the men and showing us the fullness of the world they live in.

Because in the end, I think that was the failing of what used to be available. Without seeing a world through the eye of both men and women – you weren’t seeing the whole thing.

Take my great love LOTR for example. The world of the elves, and the hobbits to me seems removed, fantastical, other. The world that really worked for me was Rohan and why? Cause we actually get to see it from the woman’s POV as well. Eowyn gives us a deeper understanding of the troubles besetting the Rohirrim and the strength they have to overcome it than we would have gained if we were just seeing it all from the men’s perspective.

Now, imagine how much worse those scenes of the destruction of the Shire would have been if we knew that worldfrom the perspective of more than four young men who jumped up and left as quickly as they could. What if one of Frodo’s companions had been a girl who was struggling to have her family see her as the individual she was because she wouldn’t conform and then she returns from this great adventure where she’d proven herself, only to find …

I can’t go on – the idea is too upsetting. But I think you get the idea. We need stories of men and women in order to see fully and feel the real ramifications of the actions of a story.

Nicole Murphy has been a primary school teacher, bookstore owner, journalist and checkout chick. She grew up reading Tolkien, Lewis and Le Guin; spent her twenties discovering Quick, Lindsey and Deveraux and lives her love of science fiction and fantasy through her involvement with the Conflux science fiction conventions. Her urban fantasy trilogy Dream of Asarlai is published in Australia/NZ by HarperVoyager. She lives with her husband in Queanbeyan, NSW. Visit her website nicolermurphy.com

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23 Responses to Writing Strong Women – Nicole Murphy

  1. Sue Fitz says:

    Inspiring. Thank you!

  2. Kim Falconer says:

    Nicole, I completely agree about the role of ‘strong women’ falling into the category of ‘men with breasts’. It isn’t adding to the whole picture if we take a male character and give him a female body and say we’ve got equality of the sexes. It doesn’t fool anyone, nor does it bring balance to the expression of gender. Strong women are strong because they possess qualities that give them power, or allow them to ‘stand for’ or ‘stand up against.’ They must be strong with or without the performance of gender. And, they must be women. In a society that is still evolving in their perceptions of women, especially in relationship to men (how long have we had the vote?) Spec Fic is a rich medium for exploring the possibilities.

    Great post! Thank you for bringing this up!

    🙂 Kim

    • Thanks Kim. It was interesting to me as I was writing it that I actually had to stop to think about feminine traits that could be considered strong, because it’s so banged in by the culture that there’s nothing (except the old ‘a woman will have the strength to move mountains if her child is in danger’ thing). Sad.

      • Gillian says:

        This is where genre can borrow from literary fiction (stop frowning at me!) – literary fiction has a wider choice for women. All we need is that, plus our magic and adventure and we have it all. OK, so we don’t have it all, but we’re closer.

        • That’s interesting – what sorts of things do you mean?

          • Gillian says:

            I’ll lend you some books, I think. The books tell it better than I can. Especially as my brain has melted in this heat. I ought to go mop my brain up…it’s all over the floor and terribly, terribly messy.

          • Bahiyyih says:

            Dare I suggest that Gillian could be pointing towards the nuances of the old classics like Isobel Archer (Portrait of a Lady), Dorothea (Middlelarch), Anne Elliot (Persuasion) – ? – none of whom are in the least “men with breasts” and all of whom have inner spiritual/ psychological muscle, rather than physical or even intellectual strength only. Although Shakespeare achieved magnificently “strong” women in terms of their credibility and range, and although there are still these grand old 19th century giants who wrote women so strongly that they remain unforgettable, even when reduced to Merchant Ivory dimensions, I’m not sure that we have arrived at a firm grasp of a really “strong woman” in post-modern literature as yet. Perhaps this is because our criteria of what constitutes strength has shifted so dramatically in the world. Perhaps it is also because our definitions of what is credible in fiction is changing, which is why I think the fantasy genre has a lot to teach us. I’ve noticed that “strong women” in today’s literary fiction tend to be crippled or maimed in some way; they often end up and usually start out by being outcasts or marginals, precisely because of their inner strengths. I’m thinking of Marilynne Robinson’s women and perhaps Toni Morrison’s too, as well as Ian McEwan’s and more recently Herta Muller’s tragic characters from a totalitarian Eastern Europe. There has to be a degree of speculation/fantasy about how a woman can be defined as strong in current fiction simply because we don’t quite know what kind to believe in anymore. Maybe that’s why the fluid mysteries of Ursula LeGuin’s ”The Left Hand of Darkness’ still captivates, at least conceptually if not in the actual reading. And yet to conform to androgyny is clearly something of a cop-out, don’t you think? I’d love to know what all you genre writers think of this, when your brains have been mopped up and the ice is tinkling in your glasses!

            • I hadn’t considered that – yes, certainly within literature there’s some wonderful female roles. I’m a big Jane Austen fan myself and she does some wonderful female characters (some wonderful men too :))

              I agree that there’s an interesting debate going on about what being female/male/human actually means. Are there differences? If there are, are they gender-based or societally-influenced? So perhaps it’s a bit harsh to thump on folks for not portraying women’s POV and stories when it’s something that’s society as a whole hasn’t got a handle on yet. But then, I think nah – is still valid that this interesting time for both men and women needs to be documented as we generally and personally work out who we are and what the hell that means.

              So I don’t think androgyny is a cop-out – I think it’s a valid tool to look at these issues. If we just remained there cause it’s too hard to keep going – well that IS a cop-out.

            • Gillian says:

              I as thinking about them, but also about 1000 others. What I do is walk down my books and look at them and use them as my memory-guide and say to people “This is the book you need to read.” With strong women I do this rather than discussing because the truth is in the reading. The novels contain nuanced and complex women taht are simply, much better understood in their own worlds.

              It’s easier to explain a strong woman if she comes from a low point in her life (I”m afraid I ddi this with “Life Through Cellophane”) – it’s easier, I find, for readers to accept her as she is, if they think she’s flawed from the outset and has a fight on her hands. The books I need to read are, I suspect, stories that give strong women postiive plot arcs, without the despair, and do it well. I need to see it done to be able to do it myslef.

              Nicole, one of my biggest influences is Geoge Gissing’s The Whirlpool. Full of despair, but one of the best-written women in English literature. I fell in love with Gissing when I was about 20, and have never fallen out of love.

    • MaryV says:

      I agree – and though there definitely is a place for that hard-as-nails female warrior in fantasy fiction, she isn’t the be-all and end-all of strong femininity. I want more variety!

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  4. Glenda Larke says:

    Oh, Nicole, this is so strange – I sent my post for the blog to Mary and then came here and read yours – and boy, do were we thinking alike. My angle is slightly different, true, maybe because I am considerably older and my first contact with Mills & Boon was appalling…Lol!

    I am so looking forward to sharing a room with you at Natcon50, and all the discussions we will have! Mary, we will all have to get together…

    I too had an amazingly strong woman as a role model, my own mother who was born in 1903 and died 3 years short of the Millenium.

    • MaryV says:

      Here’s to the getting together, Glenda! And to the yakking galore. 😉

      Your two takes might disagree about M&B, but have much else in common! (And I’d hazard a guess that many thoughtful people would be of the same mind on the subject of men-with-breasts…) This is turning out to be a most fascinating series of posts…

    • Great minds think alike 🙂

      There were aspects of my Mills and Boon contact that weren’t overwhelmingly positive. I look forward to chatting about my theory that romance is the best genre in terms of reflecting societal changes to sexuality and women’s power 🙂

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  7. Helen Lowe says:

    Interestingly, I have recently read a book where the central female protagonist, a young girl making it in a man’s world, reads really strongly to me as a character who was written first as a boy and then given a name change–there’s something that just doesn’t “ring true”… which takes me back to one of our WorldCon panels (nods to Mary and Gillian) where we agreed that for characters to be successful/authentic they have to be written ‘true to character’ (which I acknowledge can include many qualities in addition to sex and sexual orientation) from the “ground up.”

    Great post, Nicole!

    • Thanks Helen.

      Yeah, I’ve been meaning to see the movie Salt because the same thing happened – main character was male, then Angelina Jolie was cast in the role and they made the decision to not make any real changes (apart from some language that had to be dealt with).

      The whole idea of what male is and what female is and how they fit into being human is something I’m still trying to work out.

  8. Jenn Dunkley says:

    Given how much writing we have in the world, from thousands of years ago until now, has been written by (and i presume, for) men it’s not surprising that the uniquely powerful heroic female characters and historical figures who have been written about are just that, unique. It’s about time to redress this imbalance!

    Whether it’s socially learned or biologically ingrained in some fashion, we do see, think and interpret in terms of a duality of gender. I land on the side of socially learned – there is a lot happening in the world around people being able to define their gender in other ways (even though so far we’ve only got silly terms like ‘transgender’ or even ‘other’ but at least there’s sometimes that third box that can be ticked!) and I have had many a thought around a world where people really think and see in terms of spectrum, rather than either-or. It’s hard to sense and sort out how to describe something i have no cues or clues to describe!

    • The language aspect of this is very interesting – most of the words we’ve got will only allow for one option or the other and not for a spectrum, and when you try to change or address it it often ends up false, or not working because there’s no ownership.

      I guess this is one of the reasons why I’m getting more and more to thinking that taboos suck and even if it makes us uncomfortable, we need to talk about everything in order to form the language so we can understand.

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