“The queen waited.”First line in The King of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner
I’m starting a new discussion series here on my blog all about tropes that I want to give my opinion on. It will mainly be from a fantasy perspective because that’s what I mainly read but that’s not to say that the tropes can’t appear in a similar way in other genres. I’m starting out with a rather broad one and that is the infamous strong female character. How have I seen it done? What works and what doesn’t when authors assemble such a character? What do I personally expect from such a character? Those are some of the things I’ll be covering in this post.
I’m not going to spend too much time on defining the trope because I’m guessing we’re all pretty much on the same page here. The strong female character has especially been given center stage in YA fantasy for many years now in a response to the growing societal pressure for gender equality. Younger generations are often the driving force behind such changes so it is not surprising to see this character so often in YA. Not that there haven’t been strong female main characters in adult fantasy, but they haven’t taken over the market in quite the same way they have in YA where it’s rather difficult to find a book where a male character is the only main character.
But what does it mean that a female character is strong? Different things, of course. There was/is a tendency for that strength to come across as physical strength or a general ability to do well in a fight, which I think was very prevalent at some point, but might be dwindling down a bit nowadays. That kind of strength is often coupled with a certain arrogance and feistiness, and examples of that can be found in Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunter Universe (almost every female character is like that) and in The Remnant Chronicles by Mary E. Pearson. The female characters in both of these series also seem to get a lot of attention from boys for their physical strength
and maybe not much else. If you couldn’t tell, those sorts of characters aren’t exactly my favorites. Maybe because they’re often balancing on a knife edge in terms of slipping into the “not like other girls” trope. Some doesn’t even balance but just take the plunge like Lila Bard from Shades of Magic by V. E. Schwab, and that’s when it becomes obvious that being strong means you have to act like a man. Femininity and strength can’t be combined.
It’s also sometimes like the authors have forgotten to give these characters a personality outside of being strong because the characters themselves and those around them keep harping on that one trait. I also think that is very evident in another version of this character, the one who can do nothing wrong (often written by men). They’re perfect in every way, and that tiny flaw they need to have is quickly turned into an advantage (that other characters will point out constantly), showing no true repercussions for the character. Brandon Sanderson is especially fond of this character-type but I’ve also seen it in books by Scott Lynch and Patrick Rothfuss. In most cases I think the author has a good intention but the result just is that the complex male characters appear a lot more interesting than the flawless female ones. I think it comes from a sort of misunderstanding of feminism because feminism isn’t about putting women on pedestals but rather about showing them as real people, just like men.
So how does one do that? Well, as we’ve already covered, it isn’t actually portraying women as men but instead giving women their own kind of power. My favorite women in books are the ones who are empathetic, attentive and intelligent with a quiet confidence. They have no need to constantly assert themselves, and they’re brave without being reckless. And yes, I do like an introverted heroine if that wasn’t obvious by now, and I do feel they’re very underrated. Some of my favorites are Vasya from Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden, Circe by Madeline Miller, and all women from The Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner. I think all of these possess that quiet strength that I highly admire. They never think of themselves as strong but simply show it through their actions and their love for the people around them. Their flaws continue to be flaws, but the books show the characters drawing toughness and resistance from those flaws and making them a part of who they are. I’ll admit it requires some good writing to truly accomplish that, but when the author succeeds it’s tremendously inspiring.
That was the first entry in my new discussion series, so let’s see if there will ever be a second, but until then, please share your thoughts on the strong female character trope. Do you want to defend the physically strong character after I kind of trashed it? Who is your favorite strong female character and why?
8 thoughts on “Trope-Discussion #1: The Strong Female Character”
Awesome post. Agreed I’ve def seen a lot of flawless women in Brando Sando (and especially Rothfuss). I feel like Sanderson has come a long way though and I’m curious if you still feel this with protags like Shalan (Stormlight) and Spensa (Skyward).
I love that you brought up Vasya. I just finished The Bear and the Nightingale. There’s so much in that book to enjoy, but vasya’s introverted confidence is something I don’t feel like gets talked about enough!
Thanks for the post!
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Thank you! I haven’t read Skyward so I can’t say anything about Spensa, but I actually thought about Shallan when writing this and didn’t really know what category to put her in. I have to say that I really don’t like Shallan as a character so I might be a bit biased, but I think she definitely starts out as this perfect character. Everything just works out for her and there are barely any consequences to the risks she takes. It changes a bit around Oathbringer I guess, but I think she spends two books feeling very sorry for herself from that point on, so I don’t know what to think. Maybe she’s just a female character and not a strong one.
However, I’m very happy to hear you love Vaysa too. She’s just awesome and personally, I think she gets even better in the rest of the series.
I think what irks me most about this trope is what you said about authors forgetting to give their female characters a personality outside of their “strongness”. If these characters are strong, arrogant, and snarky strong for no apparent reason, never let others see their more vulnerable side, and don’t have any interests apart from their bad-assery, I usually end up hating them. (Seriously, if you think Lila Bard is annoying, you’re really lucky you haven’t read Throne of Glass 😅)
But there are also characters with physical strength that have worked well for me, even if they were more tomboyish and had personality traits that could be considered masculine. Alanna from Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness Quartett or Vin from Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy are some of those, and I’d actually argue that Vasya’s love for roaming around in the woods, going horseback riding, and her general wildness are also things that are often attributed to men 😁 It’s just that she also has loads of other character traits apart from that, which is what I think makes all the difference. You need to make me care about these people, and not just have them do lots of really flashy stuff!
But yes, the female characters who are strong in their own way, by being intellegent and empathetic, are also my favorites! Like Kestrel from The Winner’s Curse series 🥰 If it didn’t have such a heavy romance focus, I’d tell you to read it immediately, because the characters and the world are just so awesome! And of course, the ultimate cool female characters are Hermione, Ginny, Luna and Professor McGonagall 😊
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I knew I made a good decision when I chose not to go near those Throne of Glass books 😂
I’m very conflicted about Vin because while I do see that there are perfectly good reasons for why she is the way she is, I felt Sanderson ruined her a bit in books two and three, although I can’t completely explain why. It might have been her relationship with Elend that suddenly forced her to appear more feminine (or that’s what Sanderson at least thought was necessary), and it felt weird to me.
And I like your point about Vasya because I hadn’t thought of that. I think she’s just framed in a way that is not “I want to do what the boys do” but instead “I want to choose what I do”, and I think that might be what makes the difference for me. And like you said, she has so many other character traits that I would consider more feminine. Like how much she cares for all creatures and her family.
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I also don’t like the latter two Mistborn books as much as the first one, but I don’t think it was Vin’s character that bothered me. I actually really liked her relationship with Elend and getting to see Vin open up more. I think what I wasn’t a huge fan of was how “spiritual” the ending felt, but obviously, that didn’t bother me enough to stop this from becoming one of my favorite series 😊
And I agree about Vasya! It’s a very different feeling when a character does something because she wants to and not because the author is framing it as “wow, look how tough this person is, please see her as a strong female character”. I must say that I don’t usually think of any traits as particularly female or male when reading – like, for example, there are also plenty of guys who love animals, such as Burrich – but I really start noticing once the author sees it as necessary to excessively point out how unusually strong, arrogant and bad-ass their protagonist is, and how she’s not like other girls 🙄
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That must be the conclusion: Authors, stop forcing female characters’ badassery down our throats 😂
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