Writing Strong Women – Saladin Ahmed

First of all, big congrats to Mary on Samiha’s launch!  What a neat way to mark the occassion!

Wow, there are some fascinating conversations going on here!   I don’t know that I have a whole lot more to add to it other than some questions.  I’m coming from a pretty different place in some ways than most of the writers who’ve preceded me here.  I’m a man who kind of doubts that he writes women – strong or otherwise – very well.

Let me explain.  Much of what I write is adventure fantasy, a subgenre that deals, at its very center, in types and archetypes.  And these can be hard things to deal in without being shallow.  How does one capture what’s soul-stirring about the Virtuous Paladin type without celebrating aristocratic pomposity and religious chauvinism?  How does one tap into the compelling power of the dashing Street Thief without goofily sanitizing the brutal realities of grinding poverty and criminality?

These nagging doubts become even more pronounced when one is writing characters with conspicuous, socially loaded “difference.”  Most of the characters in my short fiction are Arab or Muslim men, or their secondary world analogues.  But one of the (arche)types that has always most appealed to me is the Badass Warrior Woman.  The earliest inklings of my forthcoming trilogy contained two such characters, and my short story “Judgment of Swords and Souls” is actually the “origin story” for one of them.

I was very conscious from the beginning that I wanted to write strong women.  This is of particular importance to me as an Arab/Muslim man, because there are such misconceptions out there about Muslim women and about the way Muslim men view them.  But how do you make a female character strong? Make her good with a sword? Make her like a man? *Is* a warrior woman with no ‘traditional’ women’s concerns “like a man?”  How can one write convincing strong women without calling on generalizations about what women are like?

One solution I found was to make different women characters strong in different ways.  Coming back to types, my first novel THRONE OF THE CRESCENT MOON features two female POVs – a Proud Barbarian (a Bedouin-ish werelion) who happens to be a teenage girl, and a Wise Grandmother who’s also a fighting alchemist and a sort of veteran.  Between the two (and a third, non-POV character) I’ve tried to show that there different ways — for a woman as for a man – to be strong.  Whether or not I’ve succeeded, I think it’s an important point for writers – especially of adventure fiction – to make.

Saladin Ahmed was born in Detroit. He has been a finalist for the Nebula Award for Best Short Story, the Campbell Award for Best New Science Fiction or Fantasy Writer, and the Harper’s Pen Award for best Sword and Sorcery/Heroic Fantasy Short Story. His fiction has appeared in magazines and podcasts including Strange Horizons, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Apex Magazine, and PodCastle, and has been translated into Portuguese, Czech, and Dutch.  His fantasy novel THRONE OF THE CRESCENT MOON is forthcoming in Jan 2012 from DAW books.

His website is www.saladinahmed.com

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40 Responses to Writing Strong Women – Saladin Ahmed

  1. Tyson Perna says:

    Very nice. I enjoy the questions. Now I’ll have to go read your books to see if you succeeded. 😉

    I do have some doubts about whether the “Warrior Woman” is really a classic archetype rather than a new one. If you name some other archetypes, wise old man, wise old woman, warrior, hero, trickster, you can rattle off tons of examples from antiquity without thought. And these archetypes are present up through modern times.

    But with this warrior woman, I have to struggle to think of classical examples. Artemis is sorta an example, but she doesn’t really feature prominently in many Greek myths as a warrior. (And she was a fertility goddess in other Mediterranean cultures.) The Amazons are another, but really they hardly appear at all other than by name. So where are the other examples? I still think this archetype is for the most part a 20th century invention. That where most of the examples come from. Can anyone name even one example from the 18th or 19th century? How classic is an archetype if it can disappear for centuries at a time? But I’d love to hear some opposing views on this.

    • Kim Falconer says:

      I’ve so enjoyed your post, Saladin, and I want to read about that teenage Bedouin werelion!

      Tyson, Athene (Pallas Athena) is an archetypal warrior woman, a strategist and lover of battle. She was born from her father, Zeus’s, head, wearing full armor and screaming a war cry! She is a singularly focused goddess of wisdom and strength. Her throne is the battlefield!

      “Ah, would that flashing-eyed Athena might choose to love thee even as then she cared exceedingly for glorious Odysseus [220] in the land of the Trojans, where we Achaeans suffered woes. For never yet have I seen the gods so manifestly shewing love, as Pallas Athena did to him, standing manifest by his side. If she would be pleased to love thee in such wise and would care for thee at heart, then would many a one of them utterly forget marriage.” –Apollodorus

      Athene protects and fights beside heroic men, guards the city of Athens and was worshiped as the goddess of war-craft, strategy, craftsmanship and wisdom. But is she a wo-man? Athene is a female image of the principals of rational thinking, will and intellect. She is a representation of objectivity, fairness and justice. The power of her sword is as keen as the cutting edge of her mind and she was often called to arbitrate disputes, her impartial decisions being final. Athene takes us out of the world of raw instinct and desire, educating us to the realm of objective thought, unbiased choice and organized strategy. Pallas Athene, although regarded as femininely beautiful, is an androgynous figure, a goddess at home in the masculine realm. Athene was also adamantly chaste.

      It is almost as if to become a warrior, she must leave her sex behind. Interesting, isn’t it?

      • “It is almost as if to become a warrior, she must leave her sex behind.”

        Yes, this is the tension I allude to a it in the post. It’s all so fraught – one doesn’t want to reify the notion that martial = male, but there’s the historical fact that the vast majority of physical combat over the millenia and around the globe has been fought by men. It seems like fantasy has had a few ways of handling this:

        -Being largely unconcerned with woman warriors (much early fantasy)
        -Imagining a world where women warriors can coexist with male ones without particular comment (much modern fantasy)
        -Projecting 20th/21st notions about sexism/gender/etc. onto supposedly preindustrial cultures (also common in modern fantasy)
        -Having female warriors be exceedingly rare (as they were in preindustrial eras) and treating the challenges they face in less anachronistic fashion (rarest but perhaps most interesting)

    • Helen Lowe says:

      Tyson, I think Athena, the goddess of war as well as wisdom (‘er wot comes with the shield, helm and spear) is probably a better Greek archetype for the warrior-woman than Artemis, who was actually a fertility goddess as well as the virgin goddess of the hunt, as are the Amazons who come into thes tories in the same way as the Cenaturs do even though only a few get named, eg Penthesilea and Hippolyta. Saladin has mentioned the Valkyries and there’s also Macha and the Morrigan, the war goddesses of the Celts, and Nafunua is the Samoan goddess of war. I also understand that the woman warrior archetype exists in Chinese lore. such as Hua Mulan and the Lady of Yue.

      • Helen Lowe says:

        Just to better parse that earlier comment: “I think Athena, the goddess of war as well as wisdom (‘er wot comes with the shield, helm and spear) is probably a better Greek archetype for the warrior-woman than Artemis (who was actually a fertility goddess in Asia Minor, ie Artemis at Ephesus was very much a ‘mother goddess’, as well as being depicted as the virgin goddess of the hunt in other regions, such as, I understand, Sparta in particular), as are the Amazons who come into the stories in much the same way as the Centaurs do, ie intermittently and often in the background, but nonetheless present, even though only a few Amazons ever get named, eg Penthesilea and Hippolyta.”

        I hope that’s a little clearer now (rolls eyes at self) — typing in a hurry, ay!

  2. Interesting questions, Saladin. I guess you’ve got the double hurdle of not only trying to answer these questions, but presenting the characters in a manner that western readers will relate to and understand while remaining true to the original culture.

    One of the things that you’ll hear in popular culture (particularly in the Oprah world) is that women everywhere are the same. They have the same desires – food, clothing, happiness for their families, safety – but then that seems to be just about women who are mothers. What about women who are not? What about women who dream of other things? Does a woman in the Arab world who decides she doesn’t want to have children, as I have, face the same issues as me or is there real cultural difference in our situations?

    I think the joy and beauty of writing is that we can ask these questions, and see if we can’t come up with an answer.

    • For me both parts of the ‘same but different’ equation are always in play, and which I’ll emphasize as a writer depends on which side of the bed I woke up on. So, yes, I for instance have my teenage pseudo-Bedouin tough girl fretting (wince) about a boy in my book – but we come to see that it’s all to do with her hard-nosed unsentimental planning for her clan’s future rather than the mush-brained teen romance that even the coolest young female protags are often subjected to.

      Depicting cultural difference, though, in desires and objectives, can lead us to uncomfortable places. Is there a problem, for instance, with not passing the Bechdel Test if one is depicting a world where women’s power is most obviously wielded via intermediary men…?

      • I have a bit of an issue with the Bechdel Test myself, because I write romance. Now, when the book is ABOUT relationship (in my case between a man and a woman) and you’re trying to work that out, then you are going to have a lot of chat about the relationship. So it’s damned hard to write scenes where a woman and her friends will talk about anything else but the man.

        So I think the Bechdel Test isn’t always a good objective measure of the value placed on a woman and her role within a text.

        • Rachel Swirsky says:

          As I wrote above, the Bechdel test is best used as a sociological metric, not to describe individual works but to discuss the prevailing trends in media.

          Again, that said, aren’t romances usually about secondary things, including but not limited to romance? Does one experience a romance without any dimension, wherein one’s life has no other features, no hobbies, no characteristics, no moments when one is even, e.g., squeeing with one’s sister over traditionally feminine concerns like fashion?

          • Hi Rachel

            Good point about the Bechdel – I guess it’s limiting the purpose of it to just judge one work against it.

            Re romance – that depends a lot upon the romance you’re reading. If you’re reading single title works eg those published by people like Avon and Berkeley, then yes, there can be other things that give a context to the people involved in the romance. But particularly in category books like Harlequin/Mills and Boon, the emphasis is very much on the relationship. If there is anything external to it, then it’s only dealt with in the shallowest of ways to ensure that every act, every conversation, every scene will ultimately be about the strength or weakness of the developing relationship. So in that case, if you’ve got a woman and a best friend for example, it’s very rare that they will have an entire conversation that has NOTHING to do with the hero. Of course, the same goes for him as well. If he say goes fishing with his father, he will inevitably talk about the heroine.

      • Rachel Swirsky says:

        The Bechdel test is best used as a sociological metric, not to describe individual works but to discuss the prevailing trends in media.

        That said,

        ” Is there a problem, for instance, with not passing the Bechdel Test if one is depicting a world where women’s power is most obviously wielded via intermediary men…?”

        I think it’s a mistake to think that women do not have discussions or relationships that centered around things other than men even when men hold almost all the power.

  3. @Tyson: Good point. I think that the WW is more of a sort of ‘minor archetype’ that does pop up here and there in complicated ways in a number of older traditions (Valkyries, etc.), but I agree that it becomes as popular as it is largely in more recent times. My own woman warrior inspirations in the novel are largely drawn from contemporary pop culture (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon!), but even that pop culture has a longer history than might be apparent on first glance: http://www.amazon.com/Warrior-Women-Popular-Balladry-1650-1850/dp/0226169162

    • Tyson Perna says:

      I read over the one extensive review on the book you linked to, and from what that reader is saying, the women described by that book aren’t necessarily warriors, (though occasionally soldiers) so much as they are women participating in traditionally male roles, hunting, fighting, sailing, and traveling, for example. If these are “women warriors,” then something like 90% of all men must be warriors. 🙂 It’s interesting that when women participate in traditionally male activities, we’re quick to immediately shunt them all the way to the end of the spectrum and label them warriors whereas men don’t get that same treatment.

    • Kim Falconer says:

      Your books sound more interesting by the minute!

  4. Asni says:

    Hi, I’ve been following this discussion on and off. Though I’m not a writer, I do write about issues like that in my blog occasionally, and it’s a topic that interests me hugely also as an artist.

    So I apologize if I butt in here to state the glaringly obvious, but – following on from what Saladin writes (thanks for the thought-provoking post!) – I think the question should really be “how to write strong *characters*” – which include women, men, and variations thereupon. As long as we explicitly think about writing (or painting, for that matter) strong *women* we’re still defining ourselves by past stereotypes of women being weak and passive, I think.

    I think the solution might be to work on creating a plethora of women archetypes that match the plethora of male archetypes which are already out there in literature. I think the problem is often, lack of variety, and lack of profound characterization, coming from an understanding of what women’s life situations are really like, what motivates them, and how they would react realistically in certain situations. Speaking of the wise woman character – why is there no female Gandalf out there? (or maybe there is, and I haven’t met her yet?) – That is something I would like to read about.

    Women writers obviously have an advantage in that respect, being able to write from their own experience, and usually being more exposed to a female social context etc. But I know a number of male writers who have created absutely rich and wonderful female characters, based on observation. Every writer, male or female, is limited by their own background and horizon of experience, after all, and can only hope to ever capture a fraction of the experiences that are out there.

    I am also quite strongly opposed to equalling strength with warrior-like attitudes. There seems to be a tendency in contemporary fantasy to have a sort of knee-jerk reaction to the fainting damsels of yonder, by focusing on women who can wield swords or revolvers, and do. That doesn’t necessarily make them strong characters, unless it comes with a proper fleshed-out characterization. Without that, they’ll remain just as much cardboard cutout as your generic sexy helpless female sidekick.

    This discussion about “male women” does not make sense to me. A woman is a woman no matter what job she has. It seems to me sometimes that this extreme emphasis we place these days on the polarity of gender, and the supposed ‘male’ and ‘female’ attributes, does not help the issue at all. Why can’t we think about a character as human (or elf, or alien, or whatever) first, and THEN place them in a social and cultural context which would AMONG OTHER THINGS include their gender.

    I also believe very strongly in creating new archetypes. In fact, that’s why I, personally, think being involved with speculative fiction and art is totally and completely worth it. 🙂

    • Helen Lowe says:

      I agree with you in terms of this question, at its heart, being about writing character well, Asni, which is why I titled my post last week as “It’s all about character.” 🙂 And I believe we have all agreed, throughout the series, on the need for both diverse characters and to strive to get away from cliche, a point that as Saladin has raised so appropriately today. And I, like Kim, am longing to meet both that teenage Bedouin werelion and the veteran alchemist.:)

      • Asni says:

        Oh I do apologize then – like I said, I only pop in here on and off and haven’t read every blog post, let alone every comment. But it’s nice that everyone agrees already, that’s a great way to have an animated and constructive discussions. 🙂 I shall leave the talking about writing to the writers then, and think my own thoughts. Usually better that way.

        • MaryV says:

          I’m happy you joined us, Asni. I think the character point is a very valid one. Something to work towards… 🙂

  5. A thoughtful post, Saladin. I’d like to read something of yours – are your books available in Australia?

  6. Gillian says:

    I’m fascinated that you codify your characters in terms of the type of novel they belong in and work on them from that direction. It makes it very clear for readers. Is it a constraint, though, in writing about women? Are you limited to only writing about women previous writers have turned into types? I would love to see a novel by you where all but one character could be described by their type or archetype and that last one (the unclassifiable) totally transformed everyone else’s lives. (“I know you’re the Heroic barbarian, but it’s about time you learned to make a good cup of tea.” “Needles and pins? Sometimes I use them for embroidery, but mostly they’re handy as weapons. No need to conceal them – just stick them in a piece of sewing and no-one notices.”)

    • I should be clear that I don’t really codify my characters beforehand. They emerge somewhat organically from the process of writing itself. But, AFTER the novel is written I find it pretty easy to glibly go back and say ‘You – grumpy old wizard!’ ‘You – hidebound holy warrior!’ That said,I think/hope that each of my characters (like all characters, even in ‘literary’ fiction) exists in a tension between individuality and type. Not sure if that makes sense…

      • Gillian says:

        It makes sense. I can’t do that with my characters at all (they’re mostly women and very recalcitrant) so I was all excited about the possibilities it opens.

  7. MaryV says:

    Great post, Saladin, and great questions.

    I’m loving this discussion over the course of the series, the ins and outs of it, and most particularly the way we keep on coming back to the cry, ‘But it’s CHARACTER that matters…’ Because ultimately, that’s all that really does matter, in an ideal world.

    Of course, we don’t live in an ideal world. Outside of a privileged social set in a privileged few countries, human beings still overwhelmingly segregate occupation, pay, privilege and levels of education on the basis of sex. Life expectancy, health, relative prosperity… all are woefully skewed to women’s disadvantage IN MOST PLACES. Sorry to state bald facts. I do not come from New Zealand originally; my family does not come from this green and pleasant land with its female prime ministers and female sheep-shearers. This is a wider struggle that will take decades, if not centuries to resolve.

    Our fiction will inevitably reflect that.

    We aren’t just humans writing about being human; not yet. We are human men and women writing about being human men and women, for now. And so we grapple with what troubles us in our writing – worry over what burns, preoccupies and niggles at us, until over the course of however-long-it-takes we finally understand… something. I hope. Eventually.

    I believe strong women are everywhere, an inspiration. As I said way back at the start of this series, I take direct inspiration from the women in my family. They were and are incredibly strong, almost hard-headed, the central driving force in every generation. They did not take no for an answer, ever. And there certainly wasn’t a single katana-wielding swordswoman among them.

    Except that some wield words like swords. And here’s where the archetypes become interesting: they are symbols standing for something else. The warrior woman is the woman who is unafraid; using her words or a blade, she will tear down whatever shadowy menace is in her way.

    • Asni says:

      I think if you are engaged in writing speculative fiction, you *are creating* an ideal world. “Ideal” as in a world that exists as an idea. I find the genre so fascinating precisely because it offers the chance to write things that do *not* reflect a social reality.

      I come from a country where self-determined women are taken for granted, and I find New Zealand quite backward in that respect. It all depends on perspective, that’s true. Which is precisely why I think it is important to keep in mind that gender is only one among a large number of factors that determine a person’s life choices.

      There are many ways to be strong, and not all involve cutting someone else down. It is a bit of a cliche, but raising children, just putting up with the whole mess and stress of family life, has got to be one of the things that require the most strength. And a thing that to this day, many men flee from, into their jobs or whatever quests they are on. So why don’t we seem to have a whole bunch of hero mothers in speculative fiction? That, I think, would be writing from a truly female point of view, rather than continuing to be determined by what a male dominated society likes to define as “strong”.

      Two of the strongest female characters I can think of are Tenar, in “Tehanu”, and Ree, in “Winter’s Bone”. They are also two characters who are deeply and strongly rooted in what is traditionally regarded to be a ‘female role’, without being limited to or defined by it.

      • MaryV says:

        A resounding YES to the Rampaging Mother Hero! I can see her now: striding to do battle with her nemesis using nothing but the back of a frying pan and her scalding wit. 😉

        Actually, Angela Carter does some fabulous mother heroes in her classic ‘Bloody Chamber’ fairy tale anthology. Who can forget the mother riding in to rescue her foolish daughter from the Bluebeard husband? Dig a little, and the wily woman surfaces in many myths and fairy tales: take Oonagh and the giant Cuchulain.

        I also love Ursula Le Guin, who often gets that balance right, creating characters who are both nurturing and strong (Tenar was great from the word go.) And I’ve enjoyed discovering ‘Walking the Tree’ by Kaaron Warren recently, and yakking to her about just these questions in a previous post: http://maryvictoria.net/?p=882

      • Helen Lowe says:

        Re “I think if you are engaged in writing speculative fiction, you *are creating* an ideal world. “Ideal” as in a world that exists as an idea. I find the genre so fascinating precisely because it offers the chance to write things that do *not* reflect a social reality.”

        –Hear, hear. Otherwise we would be writing either historical or contemporary realist fiction, both genres which I love, but it’s the opportunity to speculate beyound the realities which define our “real” world that are what make SFF/spec fic “rock” (imho.)

        • MaryV says:

          I agree Helen – though haven’t you noticed how often (including in ‘Heir’!) one world-idea is set out and explored in contrast to others? So UKL, in describing her utopian, woman-friendly culture of ‘Always Coming Home’, set it out in contrast to the destructive, misogynist warrior culture the protagonist travels to and lives in for a while. And in Heir, the cut and dried attitudes of the Derai are nicely weighed against the more holistic attitudes of the Winter people. I believe Kim Falconer also contrasts a dying, technologically overloaded Earth with a more environmentally-friendly Gaela.

          Somehow that weighing and balancing exercise in story is so very satisfying.

  8. As long as we’re talking about strong women and how they exist as individuals vs. fantasy types, I should point out my favorite fantasy protagonist of recent years – Amat Kyaan from Daniel Abraham’s amazing book A Shadow in Summer. “Old Asian lady accountant has the fate of the world on her shoulders,” might not be the most familiar plot tag for high fantasy, but man, does it work in that novel!

    • Helen Lowe says:

      I have just read ‘A Shadow in Summer’ recentl. I found the whole book very original and with a great cast of characters, but Amat Kyaan was definitely a standout.

    • Tyson Perna says:

      The entire Long Price Quartet series has amazing female characters. Definitely a must read for anyone who wants to engage with strong women. My favorite was probably Idaan as a girl in book two. Her only crime was acting as the men in her family did. But who can forget Kiyan, the emperor’s wife? Or Eiah, his daughter, who may be the empire’s last hope in book 4?

  9. Tarran says:

    @Mary haha I have a mother attacking a bandit with a small knife to protect her daughter in the second chapter of my novel. A mother is one of the strongest women I could think of really. This is a great post!! I have loved reading these over Feb!! I will try and order Saladin’s books for the store next year if I can.

    • MaryV says:

      Frying pans, kitchen knives, rolling pins: all deadly weapons in the Rampaging Mother arsenal.

      …Not to speak of Biting Sarcasm and Guilt spells. (Attacking an ogre with +5 to Guilt and Shame rolls! Cowing evil overlords with threats of her great disappointment in them…)

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