Friday 8th March is International Women’s Day, which is both an annual celebration of women’s achievements and a call for greater gender equality. As the mother of a son, I am very aware of the fact that he is growing up in a world which still treats men and women differently, and that his voice is crucial in helping to change that. Feminism isn’t just for women, and I am determined to help him understand that we all have a part to play in creating a better world. One way I can do this is by sharing books with him which have strong female characters, and I’d love to share some of these with you today.
Why strong female characters?
I’ve always been an avid reader, and during my teen years I could be found with my nose in a book most days. I’d read whilst having breakfast, during the lunch break at school, and in the evenings too. I loved immersing myself in other worlds, and literature was one of my strongest skills at school. There is just something magical about reading a book in which the characters become real, and in which you feel like you are right there with them. But even more exciting is when you find a character with whom you can relate, or who inspires you in some way.
When I was around the age of maybe 14 or 15, I randomly picked up a book from my sister’s bookcase called “Wild Magic“. The title really caught my attention, and I was hooked from the very first page. The protagonist, a teenage girl called Daine, was such a fascinating character to me. She had survived the loss of her family, gone through a time when it felt like she had lost her entire identity, and then through sheer stubbornness and willpower she found a new home.
The book was the first in a quartet (The Immortals series), and throughout the series Daine finds herself in the company of so many other strong female characters. There’s Onua, the Horse Mistress, who first gives her work. And there’s Alanna, the first female knight for centuries, who became the King’s Champion. And there’s the Queen herself, who set up The Queen’s Riders, who defend the land and go into battle just as frequently as the King’s Own guard. As an incredibly timid teenage girl, these characters were fascinating to me, and I longed to have their courage and strength, as well as their humour.
Introducing Tamora Pierce, my favourite author
The Immortals series was my first discovery of Tamora Pierce‘s work, but I have since read several other works by her, all of which have strong female characters (and almost always as the main protagonist). Her first series, The Song of the Lionness, follows Alanna as she swaps places with her twin brother and pretends to be Alan, in order to complete knight training.
One of the most intriguing parts of this series, for me, was how many male characters supported her, once they found out the truth. First there was Corum, her manservant, who was in on it from the start. Then there was George, the King of the Thieves. And finally there were Prince Jonathan and his cousin Gary. Whilst Alanna was more than capable of completing the knight training (even though physically it was harder for her in many ways), the support of others made a massive difference. There’s even a brilliant scene in which she has her first period and panics as she has no idea what is going on. She sneaks into the city to ask George’s mother what she should do, and it’s really sweet to see her find a maternal ally in such a male-oriented world.
Strong female characters in a man’s world
Alanna and Daine are not the only strong female characters Tamora Pierce has written, either. There’s Beka Cooper, an ancestor of George, who joins The Provost’s Guard in order to uphold the law. The work is dangerous, but the combination of her tenacity and intelligence help her to crack the toughest cases. And in Trickster’s Choice (and Trickster’s Queen) there’s Aly Cooper, daughter of Alanna and George, desperate to prove herself a capable spy. She ends up being abducted and sold into slavery, and yet still manages to earn trust, create a spy pack of her own, and uncover a threat.
But the one I found most intriguing was Kel, who in The Protector of The Small, becomes the first female to enter knight training since Alanna’s gender became known. In many ways she finds it harder than Alanna did, because knowing she is a girl from the start means that people are just waiting for her to fail. Alanna isn’t allowed to support her, in case people think Kel only succeeds because of additional support. And some of Kel’s teachers consistently choose not to see how talented she really is. She has some supporters along the way, but it isn’t until she is left in charge of what is thought of as a “safe space” away from the fighting, that people truly accept her importance. Because when that “safe space” becomes a key target, Kel keeps everyone safe.
What I love most about Tamora Pierce’s female characters is that they are all living in what it very much a “man’s world”. Over time they begin to change perceptions, but there is always resistance from some people, and even when the law is changed to create more equality (e.g. in allowing girls to train as knights), equality is still a long way off. This is true in our world today, but exploring it through a different lens somehow makes it seem clearer in many ways. It’s so easy to become accustomed to “the way things are” in our everyday lives, so seeing these themes in fiction always reminds me to look again.
The importance of strong female characters in children’s and young adult literature
As I mentioned before, I first came across the idea of strong female characters as a teenager. My childhood reading had consisted mostly of Enid Blyton books, and as lovely as they are they don’t have the most modern concept of what it means to be a woman, do they? So it really helped me to find these amazing characters during my teen years, when I was first discovering who I was as a girl, and who I wanted to be as a woman.
But as important as it is for girls to have these strong female characters they can relate to in the books they read, it is just as important for boys to see them too. As I mentioned at the start of this post, feminism isn’t just for women, it’s for men as well. We all have a part to play in creating a better world, in which men and women are equally valued. In fact, this year’s theme for International Women’s Day is Balance for Better, focusing on this very idea that we all need to work together on this.
Which is why I love the fact that there are some brilliantly written female characters in a wide range of books these days. I asked some friends and family if they could share with me their favourite female characters, and here’s who they came up with.
Tiffany Aching (from Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett)
I asked my wife, Thea, if she could share any strong female characters she’s come across, and this was the first one that came to mind. Tiffany Aching is a young witch, who is befriended by the Nac Mac Feegle, who are a right rowdy bunch of tiny, blue men, who help her to go into Fairyland to save her little brother. She fights off the Queen of the Elves with a frying pan, of all things, and gains the approval of Granny Weatherwax, which is quite the accomplishment!
It’s interesting that the Tiffany Aching books were also the ones she recommended I read when first exploring Terry Pratchett’s Discworld – she obviously knows how much I love a good female character.
Princess/Doctor Pearl (from Zog by Julia Donaldson)
When I asked in a blogging group for recommendations of strong female characters, Jules from Pondering Parenthood reminded me of how much I love Princess Pearl from the Zog books. Here is a feisty female, who refuses to accept her role as a princess, and instead befriends a dragon and chooses to be a doctor instead.
“Don’t rescue me. I won’t go back to being a princess and prancing around the palace in a silly, frilly dress. I want to be a doctor and travel here and there, listening to people’s chests and giving them my care”. – Princess Pearl
I was delighted to discover the sequel, “Zog and the Flying Doctors,” and how even when forced back into her role as a princess, she still refuses to submit to what others think she should do. What a fantastic role model to find in a book aimed at the youngest of children. It’s never too young to start showing children that they don’t have to conform to outdated gender roles.
Jane Eyre (by Charlotte Brontë)
My friend Amanda told me that her favourite female character is Jane Eyre. I have to admit that I’ve never read this book, because I tend not to enjoy more classical literature. So I looked it up on Goodreads, and discovered that Jane is a character who has an indomitable spirit, in a time when women were generally expected to simply accept their role in life.
Amanda says that Jane is her favourite character because, “she’s forgiving, and kind hearted but strong enough that she doesn’t give up on her beliefs or morals for a man, even the one she loves.” Now if that isn’t a role model for what it means to be a strong woman, then I don’t know what is!
Jo March (from Little Women by Louisa M Alcott)
My sister-in-law, Amy, shared that her favourite female character is Jo from Little Women. This is another one of those books I’ve never read (see, I’m getting as much value from researching this blog post as anyone). But at least I know a little bit about Jo, because she’s one of those characters that people seem to really remember from their childhood!
Amy tells me that Jo is, “defiant and bold. She challenged expectations and was fiercely loyal.” These are all traits which inspire us to be uniquely ourselves, especially in a world which often demands that we stay within pre-defined expectations. And they also remind us that it is more than possible to be fierce and bold, without losing our love, compassion, and loyalty to others.
Katniss Everdeen (from The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins)
My Jen, describes Katniss as, “similar to Jo March – fiercely loyal to her family, willing to do the things she is afraid of doing to protect them, and clever enough to take on any challenge.” I’ve got to admit, I haven’t read the Hunger Games either (I know, I have a lot of reading to catch up on, hey?) But having read the synopsis, I can see why she is considered a strong female character.
She volunteers to replace her sister in a televised fight to the death, only to then team up with another contender to defy attempts to make them kill each other. Who doesn’t love a character who finds a way to turn a potential enemy into an ally, and in doing so takes on the establishment which is the real enemy?
What about female characters who stick with us, even if not necessarily “strong”?
One of the more interesting conversations that came out of my request for favourite female characters, was that our favourite characters might not always appear to be “strong” in the conventional sense of the word. And yet, there is something about them which sticks with us. My friend Cheryl reminded me of this, when she chose Fuschia Groan from The Gormenghast Trilogy as her favourite female character.
I’ve not read the books (or seen the TV adaption), so had no idea about the character, or her background. I did a little research, and it sounds as if she was terribly neglected as a child and, as a result, struggled with the relationships in her life. In many ways this makes her more compelling, because often fictional characters overcome odds which many of us would struggle to deal with. Perhaps characters like Fuschia Groan remind us to question what “strength” looks like, to see it even within those who may appear at first glance to be quite weak?
As Cheryl writes, “I’m not really sure whether I’d describe her as strong or not, it’s just not the first thing that comes to mind when I think about her. Peake describes her as strong in a physical sense several times, but I think emotionally she’s quite vulnerable. She’s a very lonely person with depressive tendencies, who has been chronically neglected. I like that she doesn’t really fit in to any conventional female archetype. She’s very eccentric, passionate, loving, sometimes bratty though she grows up quite a bit. She lives in her own head a lot of the time. She’s not smart, but has more common sense and emotional intuition than the damn TV show gave her credit for.”
Creating my own strong female character(s)
All of this has me thinking about how the characters I have loved have inspired the characters that I create myself. When I first started writing The Brethren (way back in 2010, before pregnancy and then the early years of parenting put it all on hold), I knew that I wanted to create a story with a strong female character as the protagonist. I particularly wanted it to be a strong teenage character, because that was what I found most influential in my own teen years.
When I read through that first draft, I can see that I had begun to develop a good lead character, but she still needed some work. She was a little too patient and, whilst she had moments of annoyance, she was far too forgiving of those around her. She was a bit of a pushover, to be honest. So as I work through each chapter, making edits, I am rewriting her with a bit more strength of character. And in some ways I think this reflects how I have personally grown over the past few years.
Back in 2010, I was still living a reasonably privileged life. I hadn’t experienced the financial insecurity and poverty that austerity would throw upon us. I hadn’t known what it was like to become so debilitated by health issues that I had to learn to find strength in my weakness. And I hadn’t experienced what it was like to lose friends over standing up for a cause that many would like to ignore. I was at best naive and at worst ignorant of the challenges faced by many in society, and seeing some of these first hand has made me all the more determined to explore them in real depth.
The importance of strong supporting characters
Which also means that some of the supporting characters in my novel are getting rewrites too. The female friend who has health issues is being rewritten to show strength in weakness. The male friend who refuses to follow in his family’s military footsteps is getting a more fully-formed backstory. The military friend is becoming an unexpected ally. And the bad guy is being rewritten into the story in a charming and unexpected way. Because, at the end of the day, life is made up of so many different interesting characters, and nobody is simply a supporting character without a distinct story of their own.
I’m reminded of the supporting characters in the stories I love so much, and how it is they who help the strong female characters to grow into who they are meant to be. Often it is the friendships formed between characters which are the most compelling parts of the story. Just as it is the support that we give each other in life, which makes the world a better and more balanced place to live.