Lowri looked comically surprised. “I didn’t ‘allow’ her to do anything. She’s a grown woman, capable of making her own decisions. But aye, she went to Rontha by herself this morning. What of it?”
“But, Lowri… she… she’s only a… And she’s old! Something could happen to her, travelling by herself!”
Lowri’s eyes narrowed, and she wagged an accusing finger. “Now, that’s enough of that, Just Plain Rhissan. It matters not whether you be prince or commoner, there’s no reason for arrogant rubbish! It’s plain you have never seen a Castellar in a scrape... For your information, my Lord, they’ve a thoroughly well-earned reputation for dealing efficiently and ruthlessly with any threat to their persons… and it matters not whether we speak of male or female Castellars. So have a care. I don’t know how things happen in your country — I’m told it’s a far ways from Arrinor — but you’ll find in this land, many women are just as capable of wielding sword or bow as men. And age has naught to do with anything.”
-excerpted from Gryphon’s Heir by D.R. Ranshaw
Poor Rhiss, protagonist extraordinaire. We see him here being thoroughly castigated by a strong female who very definitely has a mind of her own. But before we condemn him as just another hopelessly incurable chauvinist, we need to bear a couple of things in mind: at this point in the story, he’s just arrived from 1920s England, which as I noted in my last post, was hardly a bastion of gender equality; and second, as you’ll see when you read the novel, he’s actually very teachable on a number of issues, including gender equality.
In one sense, talking about ‘writing strong female characters’ does the entire issue a disservice. Why should it come up at all? Well, in an ideal world, it wouldn’t. But the practical answer is that we live in a world far from ideal which has, unfortunately, been highly patriarchal and at times extremely misogynistic ever since Eve took the fall (no pun intended) for eating of the tree of knowledge. Our society is sure messed up, isn’t it? Never mind. Rhetorical question.
How to write strong female characters? I’m acutely aware of writing this as an OWG --- Older White Guy --- so I do so with trepidation, knowing we’re entering a minefield. And I need to stress that I didn’t write Gryphon’s Heir with the following list mentally or physically present beside my trusty old Dell Inspiron. I just tried to write real people, which is what you should do, too, and gender be damned (by and large). But in retrospect:
- Don’t make women helpless or force them into stereotypical roles. Please. The last thing good literature needs is yet more soft-spoken, submissive females, just because the author thinks women must act like that. Unless it’s naturally a part of who a specific woman is. By the way, there are men like that, too. Gender as an explanation for character motivation is such a tired old cliché that it really shouldn’t enter the discussion at all. Like I tell my students, it may be hard to believe, but civilized, intelligent life has got to revolve around more than just hormones. Yes, I know hormones are a big part of what we do, but... dream higher, folks. Literally as well as figuratively.
- Give women their own voices. Every character needs his or her own individual voice. I’m not necessarily talking about a physical voice, either, but about temperament and intellect.
- Make them real, as I said --- which applies, of course, to every character. How? Well, to start, don’t say, ‘I Will Make This Character A Strong Woman Because It’s Politically Correct That I Do So And I Will Score Points With The Feminists.’ If that’s your mindset, perhaps you should return to the 1950s along with Marty and Doc. Rather, could you realistically see yourself talking to your character? Having lengthy conversations with them? Having a relationship --- platonic or romantic --- with them? Hating them with white hot intensity? Do their actions smack of real-life interactions you’ve had, or might have, with actual people? Do you talk to them when you’re staring into the bathroom mirror? Now they’re real. (One thing I did periodically was consult the women in my life to make sure the women in my story were speaking and acting authentically.)
Finally, it’s 2015, people. Leave gender stereotypes and misogyny on writing’s ash heap. Just because you write fantasy with a medieval bent doesn’t mean you have to include medieval attitudes. Free your world from those stereotypes. You might be pleasantly surprised by what you discover. I was.