“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?