Like many Lord of the Rings aficionados, I think Peter Jackson’s greatest travesty was swapping Glorfindel’s role in Frodo’s rescue to Arwen??? (Yes indeed, a full three question marks of horrification.) I’m not sure if the offence was downgrading the greatest living elven warrior to a mincing monosyllabic snob, or the clumsy attempt to hammer character into the vaguely drawn princess.
As a fantasy-reading British male, raised on a diet of dragons, elves and dwarves (Tolkien spelling,) I should only consider women as the romantic interest to hang on the arm of the real hero. The fact is that for me, strong women make great central characters.
It’s a long time since the first female hero slapped me into paying attention - Cirocco Jones from John Varley’s Titan, Wizard, Demon series. Bi-sexual, Rocky staggered from substance abuse to demi-godhood. Starting life as the child of a rape victim, she’s described as hawk-nosed, wiry haired and standing over six feet tall. I found her powerful both physically and mentally, always teetering on the edge of magnificence or failure.
Although not a lead, William Gibson’s fabulous Molly Millions cropped up in many of his stories. Paying for her physical enhancements by prostitution, she is portrayed as an emotionally cold, efficient killer. Rarely exposing vulnerability, her history hints at a trail of abuse. When she loves, it is cautious, expecting to be let down.
As a secondary character, we initially meet Molly as a leather clad street-ninja. Off-screen she ages. The last sight of her is slightly more ‘matronly,’ but still with the physical enhancements - a middle-aged ninja with razors claws retracted under her fingernails. Maybe because I grew older, I still adore her.
These examples are now over thirty years old. Fast forward along my bookshelf, David Weber - Honor Harrington, Trudi Canavan – Sonea, all the way up to Suzanne Collins - Caitlin of the Hunger Games. These are female leads I can (and do) read over. None of them decided to be magnificent, but circumstance thrust it upon them.
Studying what works for me as a reader, it isn’t the physical prowess, or dominance that brings the character to life. It is the flaws. Of course, I enjoy the physical descriptions of action, adventure and love, but it’s the breath taking anticipation of whether they can they overcome their inner struggle that keeps me coming back.
As a writer, my first female hero was Amara, the Ultimate Warrior. She hacked through my parody of high fantasy like a female Conan. When I reviewed her as a role model, her daughter struck me as much more interesting. Most people can identify with the fears of adolescence. Our body isn’t as developed as our friends, our weight is wrong. Height, hair colour and suspicions regarding our intelligence all eat into our self-esteem. Add on top of this a high-achieving parent to finish the ego-battering.
When the ultimate warrior’s daughter can’t hold a sword, we have the start of a flawed person.
Where my first-loves, Rocky and Molly arrive on stage fully created, I wanted to take Amara’s Daughter, Maryan, through the forging process. The intended audience dictated this decision. From the first word hitting the page, Amara’s Daughter was aimed at a 16-20 year old female. She was going to demonstrate her growth from adolescent uncertainty into a powerful maturity.
The core theme for Amara’s Daughter was that good and evil are not dictated by gender, skin colour, or orientation. These are important principles for me. That said, I didn’t want a ‘moral-fest’ it had to be wrapped in a fast-moving, single volume of good, old-fashioned sword swinging fantasy.
Each of the planned volumes stays true to the theme and each presents a different female character, possibly capable of facing what life is throwing at her.