Jennifer Williams is a fantasy writer and Lego obsessive who spends much of her time frowning at notebooks in cafes and fiddling with maps of imaginary places. She is represented by Juliet Mushens of the Agency group, and is partial to mead, if you’re buying. Her debut fantasy novel, The Copper Promise, is published by Headline and available now, with the sequel The Iron Ghost to be published on the 26th of February.
There’s always a lot of talk around the idea of “strong female characters” – not just demands for more of them, but discussion around what we actually mean by “strong”. Do we mean physically strong, the sort of bad ass female character who can decimate an army with a sour look? Where does that leave all the other women in books who aren’t rippling with muscles but are equally capable of being interesting, awesome characters? Personally I take strong to mean “well-written”; that is, a character who has depth, complexity, and exists as a single, believable entity.
What I have a fondness for within that category are female characters who exist independently of men. Not that their stories don’t intertwine – books would be bloody boring if that never happened, after all – but that they have desires and needs outside of their male colleagues. They are not there to provide a reward for the male character when he has completed his quest, or as a catalyst when she gets murdered in a suitably squicky fashion. Strong female characters have their own lives – after all, that’s how it works in real life. Women don’t pop into existence when in contact with the Male Matrix, and then vanish when they leave the room.
In The Copper Promise my main female character, Wydrin Threefellows, the Copper Cat of Crosshaven, has strong ties with two men – Sir Sebastian is her dearest friend and partner in almost-crime, while she shares a more antagonistic relationship with Lord Frith, their employer. In the second book, The Iron Ghost, both of these relationships have deepened and changed, but Wydrin is not defined by them. Her independence is her defining characteristic, and this combined with her loyalty to her friends and a huge sense of recklessness, make Wydrin the person she is.
So, women in fantasy who don’t take any shit. Women who know what they want, or at least, know what they want to do while they’re figuring it out. Here are a few of my favourites:
Granny Weatherwax, the Discworld novels
For me, Esme Weatherwax is almost the queen of strong female characters. She is the leader of the Lancre witches (although of course no one would ever dare say it) and dispenses wisdom and common sense with a terrifying efficiency, whether people want it or not. Granny is the living embodiment of “what you need, not what you want”. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and at the very heart of it she is selfless, putting herself between other people and the darkness, time and time again. Is there a more independent female character than Granny Weatherwax? Except that Granny is too wise even to fall into the trap of relying solely on herself – in the end, she needs Nanny Ogg and Magrat (and latterly, Agnes Nitt) as much as they need her. One of my favourite things about the Discworld novels, and particularly the Witches series, is that the importance and complexity of relationships between women are highlighted again and again. Fantasy as a genre could do with a bit more of that.
Arya Stark, A Song of Ice and Fire
Arya Stark, youngest daughter of the Starks and therefore doomed to live in “interesting times”, has been going her own way from the very start. It’s true that thanks to the machinations of the Lannisters and Ned Stark’s inability to get the hell out of Dodge at the right time, Arya Stark is thrown out into the world and pretty much left to deal with things herself. But even before life got complicated for the Starks, Arya was building her own path; she didn’t want settle down with a husband and do lady-like things, she wasn’t interested in embroidery and sitting around. Arya wanted to learn to fight, she wanted to have adventures and, in short, to do whatever she wanted to do. When the Stark children received their direwolf pups, Arya named her Nymeria after a warrior queen. Damn right, Arya.
And when things did go wrong, Arya dealt with them like a boss. When Jaqen H’ghar offered her three deaths, she manipulated him into helping her release the northmen kept prisoner at Harrenhal (weasel soup, anyone?) and when Westeros offered her nothing but endless dead relatives, she sailed to Braavos and took up training in the House of Black and White, where it is clear that Arya will make huge leaps along her path to badassery. In ASOIAF, she is the character most able to shed her identity and make herself what she needs to be to survive, and she never loses sight of what she wants. Ser Gregor, Dunsen, Raff the Sweetling, Ser Ilyn, Ser Meryn, Queen Cersei… Valar morghulis.
Althea Vestrit, the Liveship Traders trilogy
Althea is a complex choice. In one way, she knows exactly what she wants: her family ship the Vivacia back in her possession. She will stop at nothing to retrieve her beloved ship, and it is undoubtedly her chief concern throughout the entire trilogy. On the other hand, Althea spends a lot of time not really knowing what she wants, even when it’s right under her nose. She is compelled to be loyal to her Bingtown roots, to help her family claw back its status as one of the most respected Trader families, and it seems that to do that she must behave herself, marry a sensible man, work hard, and put her own dreams aside. But what Althea wants in her heart is something quite different. She longs to be independent, to go where the sea takes her, and above all not to be constrained by society (by which I sort of mean go off and be an awesome pirate with her awesome hunky partner at her side). The fact that Althea struggles with this, and takes time to come to terms with who she really is, makes her an incredibly interesting and compelling character.
Althea deserves extra points for being absolutely tough as nails. Like a lot of Robin Hobb’s characters, she sees a lot of adversity through the Liveship Traders trilogy – she gets beaten up, burned by serpent venom, half drowned, spends months on a hunting vessel freezing cold and miserable – and always comes back from it ready to do what needs to be done. Althea Vestrit, I salute you.
Morrigan, Dragon Age
To start with, Morrigan is voiced by Claudia Black, who also played another of the baddest ladies in SFF, Aeryn Sun of Farscape, and Black’s dry tones give Morrigan an immediate edge. She’s a “witch of the wilds”, caught up with your quest to unite Ferelden against the Blight and defeat the Archdemon. She can turn into a spider and perform other bloodcurdling spells, and does most of this whilst wearing a spectacularly gravity defying top. But what Morrigan does better than almost anything else is point out what a plonker you are, or how ridiculous your companions are, or even just how messed up the world is, at a moment’s notice. Morrigan is the glorious voice of cynicism in the game, and Dragon Age: Origins owes a lot of its fresh take on fantasy to the withering, no-nonsense, “are you really going to do that?” input of its best witch. If you get to know her through the game, she mellows a little and you can find her to be a fiercely loyal friend (or lover, if you’re playing that way) but even so, Morrigan has her own best interests at heart, and with a regretful raised eyebrow, she will leave you heartbroken in the dust.
As a side note, Morrigan also has that rarest of things in fantasy – a relationship with her mother. Okay, so Morrigan and Flemeth have an unusual life together, but there is a mutual respect at the heart of it. And some crazy dragon shenanigans.
Korra, Legend of Korra
People who know me well are probably tired of listening to me bang on about how great Korra is. It’s true that I love the cartoon, and will talk about it endlessly given half the chance, but I think it’s important not to understate how important the series is, and how important Korra is as a character. When I was a kid, I was very drawn to action cartoons – Thundercats, He-Man, Defenders of the Earth – and as much as I loved them, there was a tiny part of me deep inside that was always vaguely disappointed that you’d usually only have the one woman in them, and she didn’t get to do very much. These aren’t really for you, this seemed to say. You can watch these cartoons if you like but they aren’t really for you. These days, we have Korra. She’s the main character, and more than that, she’s incredibly important to the world – she is the reincarnation of the Avatar, a being able to bend the four elements to her will. At the time of the cartoon she is a teenager, a young woman just starting to figure herself out, and she goes through the conflicts that young people face – all amplified by being the Avatar. Korra is hot-headed, passionate, physically strong, occasionally reckless, and compassionate. She agonizes over her failures, and resolves to do better. She learns, comes to terms with her mistakes, and then opens a can of epic whup-ass on anyone foolish enough to threaten her friends.
And that’s the other thing that’s important about Korra – not just the main character, but ALL the bad ass ladies in the series. The Beifong sisters, Asami Sato, Jinora, Eska, Zhu Li, Opal, Kuvira… not content with giving us one of the greatest female protagonists ever, Legend of Korra flings excellent female characters at us with abandon, as if it’s the easiest, most natural thing in the world… and why isn’t it, exactly? Bring on more fiction with the ideas of Legend of Korra at its heart, I say.