Browse your bookshelf for a moment. How many of the fantasy books there have male leads? Almost all of them? That’s what I thought. Where are the female protagonists?
I didn’t get into fantasy until I started reading books by Tamora Pierce. She was the first fantasy author I found in my young years that was not afraid to give us a strong, female lead (and one that was still incredibly realistic). I don’t think I’ve ever read a single fantasy book written by a male author that had a strong female lead and, in unhappy truth, most female fantasy authors write male leads too. I have nothing against male leads. My favorite book trilogy is the Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb (a woman) and the main character is a boy/man. I’m just saying that we need more well-written female protagonists.
Examples of well-written female protagonists:
-Alissa in Dawn Cook’s Truth series. In these four books, Alissa sets off to become a keeper (basically a sorcerer) and discovers that she has the key to defeating the bad guy. She isn’t afraid to be cunning – namely by making the villain think that her male companion is the sorcerer – and she fights back when her friends are threatened.
-Magiere and Wynn from the Noble Dead Saga by Barb and JC Hendee. These two female characters are as different as can be, and yet they are both characters that I love. Magiere is the (stereotypical) “warrior-chick” (a sexist term and character type) that won’t let anyone in, but as the series progresses she develops and becomes a much more well-rounded, interesting character. Even more interesting is Wynn, who isn’t introduced right away. She is a scholar, and she is by far my favorite character of the series because she shows that the “strong female lead” doesn’t have to be the sorceress or the warrior.
-Mel in Sherwood Smith’s Crown Duel. Sure, she’s a teenager that is presumptuous and takes stupid risks, but what teenager isn’t? Mel is determined to defend a Covenant that the king wants to break, and she isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty to do it. She’s loud and her assumptions get her into trouble, but she’s also normal. She gets scared, she makes mistakes, and she learns that she isn’t always right.
Those are a few of my favorite female protagonists. In addition, the heroines of Tamora Pierce’s novels are some of my favorite, especially for younger audiences.
I avoid calling these female protagonists “strong” not because they aren’t (for sure, they are the strongest) but because of the connotation that goes along with “strong.” Too frequently, a “strong female character” is really just a (pardon my language) bitchy character. She doesn’t have any strength, she just yells at everyone around her. A temper doesn’t make your female protagonist strong, neither does lack of feeling. And seriously, I hate it when a female protagonist starts out as unfeeling and grows to care or let someone in – to me that screams that the only thing women are good for is to find romance. Seriously, that kind of subplot only drowns out the primary plot. (As I have said before, I am sure that there are examples that prove me wrong, I am painting in broad brushstrokes.)
On that note, I’d like to share something. A friend of mine recently asked “Does having a female protagonist automatically mean the story will have romance in it?” My gut reaction was NO, because obviously that is the answer. I’ve thought about it. While I stand by my answer that having a female protagonist doesn’t mean the story has to have romance, it is important to look at the reasons my friend thought this.
Female protagonists tend to deal with romance, it is true. But that may be because women authors focus more on life issues rather than warfare and “manly” things. (I could be wrong, of course.) In addition, men who write a female character in might only have her there as a love interest or a plot initiator. (Again, I am sure there are books that counter this assumption, and by no means am I saying that male writers do this on purpose – it is culturally reinforced in the United States and many other places around the world.) In addition, many female readers are young adults and they crave the romantic aspect. Perhaps many authors just go with it, since they know it sells.
But here is the issue. Female characters are dehumanized by authors – and not just male authors. I’ve done it, I’m sure all of you have. My latest rewrite of Quest for Salvation involves giving my main character back her agency. I took it away without even realizing it, and the story has suffered for it. She became reactive rather than proactive. That won’t work.
To me, it’s all the worse when a male author dehumanizes the female characters. When they are only tools or props or scenery, I want to vomit. It’s sexism, plain and simple.
So here’s the thing. Next time you’re itching to pick up a pen and write that next novel, think about your protagonist. Think long and hard. What message are we sending readers?
Take care, fellow travelers.
P.S. Maybe you’re wondering why I didn’t include Katniss from The Hunger Games. Simple reason: that’s sci-fi and not fantasy. If we were talking sci-fi, I’d have a few more names to add to the list. Also, the second “related article” is excellent. Please read it.
- Strong-female protagonist game jam kicks off in Vancouver to fight industry sexism (business.financialpost.com)
- I was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (newstatesman.com)
- In Praise of Unlikable Heroines (paranormalunbound.com)