Writing Strong Women – Philippa Ballantine

Women we all want to be

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).

Physically strong

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.

Magically/psychically strong

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.

Womanly talents/wiles/bravery

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

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7 Responses to Writing Strong Women – Philippa Ballantine

  1. Helen Lowe says:

    I remember reading a 1970s novel where the heroine basically had 3 lines: “Yes, Johnny”, “No Johnny” and “Oh, Johnny” (Johnny in case you haven’t got it already, was the hero.) The disconnect between the world of the page and the world of reality ran to light years and I think genre has suffered from being pigeon-holed as ‘only for that one very small demographic’–but it’s changing, thank goodness. Mind you, you only have to see the cover still being used on CJ Cherryh’s Gates of Ivrel (which bears no resemblance to how the character of Morgaine is depicted within the book in terms of –lack of– clothing/armour etc) to think that maybe the demographic is still holding up. Here’s a link, btw: http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/c/c-j-cherryh/gate-of-ivrel.htm

    • Gillian says:

      I now want to see someone write a novel where all the central strong female protonigst says is those three things but each time they have impact and everything she does has consequences for the plot.

  2. Janette says:

    I love that you mention the “traditional” strength of women – the strength that holds families together when adversity strikes. I sometimes think that we haven’t yet got comfortable with exploring that in fiction. I do love me a sword-wielding heroine, but the fierce homebody can be inspirational too.

    For years I thought my grandmother was a typical old-fashioned pre-womens-lib woman. She moved in with us when I was five, as her son (my father) saw it as his responsibility to provide for her. She was soft and round and cuddly and made the most fabulous puddings.

    In later years I found out that when her husband died young, leaving her with three small children, she initially moved back in with her parents. But arguments about how to raise her kids surfaced and – with little money and no training or profession – she defied the family, moved out, got herself work and managed to get all three kids an excellent education. That toughness and determination had to see her through years and years of hard work, never knowing if they’d make it. I see it as the ferocious strength of the mother lioness, battling the odds for her pride.

    You’re right, there is much yet to explore in the arena of women’s strength!

  3. Wholeheartedly agree, Phillipa. I love the idea of your book Weather Child and the keeping together of family. That sort of feminine strength needs to be celebrated more often.

  4. KD Sarge says:

    Last week I was in Barnes and Noble in the SFF section and I was amazed at how UF has taken over the shelves! And every one with a kick-butt woman on the front. I loved it, though UF is not my first choice.

    The library where I usually get my books does not seem to reflect the huge uptick in UF. I usually think my library is pretty good at keeping up, so I wonder why that would be. I think I’ll ask.

    My fondest hope with this trend is that it spreads beyond UF. I could help, if I rearranged my plan to get to that grandma-goes-on-quest BFF I’ve been pondering…

    Thanks for a thought-provoking article!

  5. Just loving this series, and it was fun to contribute. I’m writing this from the San Francisco Writers Conference, where I had the pleasure of being on a panel with Katharine Kerr. After spending some time with her, I need to add her to list of fabulous strong women. And we spent some time talking about this very topic.
    Thanks for making this series happen Mary Victoria.

    • MaryV says:

      It was lovely to have you over, Pip! And SFWC sounds like loads of fun. Wish I could see you in action. 😉

      I have had a blast with this series… Totally the way to go for a release party, I have vowed to do it again, bringing together folks to yak on another subject in September (because I’m a nut this year and doing two releases…)

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