Discussing gender and its attributes always seems to be a touchy subject. And yet, I still think it’s something we need to talk about. I’ve read a lot of books, and it’s clear that certain genders both write and are portrayed in particular ways in particular genres.
A lot of fantasy books, particularly the older ones, are written by white Western men and often have a male hero, struggling with a quest or challenge in their world. Often this world is a medieval-style setup. But in more recent years, there has been increased focus on changing the environment and the lead characters to introduce diversity into the genre.
I have no issue with white medieval fantasy, but I think it’s great that fantasy has become more diverse and relatable to today’s multi-cultural societies. The world has become smaller with resources like the internet at our fingertips. We can use that to our advantage, researching and learning about people and places different from ourselves.
I’ve always enjoyed reading about strong female characters, and so when I came to write my own novel, it was a natural choice. But it can be difficult to get the balance right. Just because a female character is strong, doesn’t mean she can’t have weaknesses, and it doesn’t mean she can’t have any romance. A character who is too strong can become a caricature if your main intention is simply to write a strong character. I feel the key is to look at your character as an independent individual who reacts to the circumstances around her in accordance with her own nature.
Here are a few pointers to consider when writing a unique strong female character:
Consider what physical skills your character has. Where did she acquire them? What is her past history? If she had manual labour jobs of any kind, physical strength will be more believable.
Does her strength exceed the men around her? If so, consider if this is realistic. She may need to have genetic advantages or have had special training for this to be the case. As a general rule, women are naturally less inclined to muscle than men, but there is a range of strength over both genders which will overlap.
Magical powers are a key concept in most fantasy novels, and you have a lot of scope for creating powerful female characters here because generally these skills do not correlate to the real world.
However, power or ability shouldn’t come from nowhere. It’s important to consider how your character’s backstory leads her to acquire magical skills.
You may have a character who is physically weak but has inner strength. A woman trapped in an unpleasant relationship or a misogynistic society, for example, can still exhibit strength of mind. She can be optimistic, hopeful, faithful, and loving. She can be intelligent, cunning and resourceful. A powerless woman can still be strong if the forces outside cannot reach her inner mind and control her thoughts.
Obviously, all these characteristics are not exclusively female, but it’s more common for women to get the rough end of the stick in terms of society, because that has historically been the case in the real world.
Resourcefulness and independence
When times get tough for your female character, let her show self-reliance and take control. Active characters draw the reader in, but so often a female character will turn to the male characters to be ‘saved’ when something bad happens. Let your characters work together to solve their problems, irrespective of gender, and using their own particular strengths.
This doesn’t mean your female characters shouldn’t ask male characters for help, nor does it mean there shouldn’t be romantic aspects between them. It means that they should all be treated as the individuals they are, rather than the man automatically taking control simply because he’s the man.
A well-drawn strong female character can inspire and empower her readers.