Is There a Strong Woman Character or Are We Being Fooled?

Did urban fantasy excite you when it first came out because it was about women in something other than romantic roles?  I found one of Laurell K. Hamilton’s early books, and it was the greatest, marvelous thing.  This was a woman who knew her strengths and weaknesses, and better still, actively participated in the action scenes.

Woman in ghi uses her hands to defend herself from a high kick from another woman.

But something changed.  We have more women characters in books now, and especially as lead characters, and it still doesn’t feel like we’ve made progress.  I think that’s because of three reasons:

Heeelllppp meee!

Maybe you’ve read a few books with women protagonists — main characters — and yet been vaguely dissatisfied, though aren’t sure why.  I’ve found this consistently with thrillers.  Women protagonists are “in” now.  The writer gives her the starring role but doesn’t make her a star.  She’s smart enough to get into trouble, but not smart enough to try to figure out a way to get out of trouble so the male detective has to come to the rescue.  Yet, I can read a Clive Cussler book, and his male lead doesn’t have to be rescued by someone else.

Urban fantasy seems better with the kick-ass heroines, but when they get into real trouble, they still fall into the same pattern of needing the male sidekick to come to the rescue.   I think the most problematic part about this is that these books are being written by women.

Lone Woman

This one’s so insidious it’s hard to see because it’s common.  It’s in the movies, it’s on TV, and it’s in books.  The woman character might be the protagonist, but she’s often the only woman.   How many women do you work with?  Probably more than one.  I was in the army, a male-dominated place, and there were still more women than there was in the last book I read.


Do the way the women look on the covers reflect the women you see every day?  They sure don’t for me.  I don’t know anyone who dresses in such skin tight clothes that they need perfect proportions or serious airbrushing help.  Yet, it’s common on covers. The publishers are appealing to the men because they know the women will buy the book anyway.  But the message it sends is: “Women are objects.  Look.  Enjoy.”  Coupled with the other elements above, one more disturbing element gets added: “They can’t do anything by themselves.”

I think indie books are going to offer a big opportunity for women readers who want to see better roles that reflect who we are and not what everyone wants us to be.


19 thoughts on “Is There a Strong Woman Character or Are We Being Fooled?

  1. I think first of all it depends on your definition of strong. When I was young (and very influenced by Tamora Pierce’s Alanna books *grin*), my definition of a strong female character was one who could swing a sword and beat the guys. Now that I’m (a lot) older, I don’t see strength as just being able to beat the bad guy in a knife fight. To me strength is so much more than that: it’s being able to change a flat tire & manage your finances; it’s working a fulltime job & coming home and being a great mom to your kids; it’s trying something way out of your comfort zone, falling on your bottom, laughing, getting up, and doing it again.

    Sure, many of the kick-ass heroines of urban fantasy can swing a sword or do a mean karate chop. But their relationships are often a mess and they’re barely holding their lives together. They’re strong in one aspect, but really really weak in another.


    1. I’m with you all the way on this one, Rabia. Well said. Many of life’s real tests of strength (both for men and women) come in the quiet, behind-the-scenes ways. I also detest skin-tight pleather outfits.


    2. I really liked what Tamara Pierce did with Kel. Not for her sword fighting — though the action scenes are great — but because there was more to the character than that. She wanted to be a knight. She knew what it was going to be like as “the girl,” and she was determined not to fail. One of the most memorable scenes was when she had to climb down the outer staircase of the tower. She was afraid of heights, and could have waited for help to arrive to unlock the door to the inner (and safer) staircase. But she had another person and an injured dog with her, and they might have been in danger if they had waited, so took the lead and climbed down anyway. Facing a fear like that makes for a strong character.


  2. PS: I’m totally with you on the “women as eye candy” covers. You really expect me to believe that a demon-hunter is going to take on the Big Baddies in high heels and skin-tight mini-skirt? Riiiiiight.


      1. Oh, you don’t have to wait till the next demon outbreak. Just get in your demon hunting gear and have a friend take the pic. 😀


      1. Yes! Unfortunately, my 5yo daughter is very intrigued by high heels (dunno where she gets that from, I’m a flats girl). Hopefully she’ll realize how awful they are when she gets older.


  3. I find your posts on female characters in fiction really interesting for a couple of reasons. One, I like reading stories featuring strong women and get annoyed when they are relegated to the status of “rescue object.”

    Two, the main character in my WIP is not only a woman, but she actually leads the band of martial artists against the darkness that threatens their world. I’d like to do a great job writing female characters, so it’s nice to get insight from people as how I might approach it.


    1. Thanks! 🙂 I think stories as a whole work better when all the characters participate to the best of their abilities. I’m an equal opportunity person: Get all the characters into big trouble, regardless of gender.


  4. livrancourt

    “…and there were still more women than there was in the last book I read.”
    Ouch. Painful, but true. Even Anita Blake is pretty much the only girl on the stage. She does have one girl friend – and after reading all of the 20some books in the series, I can’t remember the womans’ name, which will tell you how marginal this character is. Or else it’ll tell you that I’m getting forgetful in the old age.
    Great post!


    1. And it’s not that hard to change the gender of the characters. I had five in mine, but after discovering how few women are in books, I added one new one and changed a male character to a female character — and both played very nicely into my theme.


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