Kick-Ass Female Characters

Last week, I mentioned that, while Hilary Estell and I were playing with her new I Am Elemental action figures, I asked her what sort of fiction she was drawn to these days.  Her immediate reply was “Anything with kick-ass female characters.”

Kick Ass Females

Kick Ass Females

We went on (with Jim and Hilary’s Mom, Sue, chipping in from time to time) to explore exactly what that term meant to us.  Rather quickly, it became apparent that “kick-ass” can mean a lot more than the sort of female character who solves – or at least has the option to solve – problems by means of physical force.

We eventually broke “kick ass” into three general categories: overtly kick-ass characters, less overtly (but no less) kick-ass characters, and, finally, becoming kick-ass characters.

Overtly kick-ass characters include just about any character Tamara Pierce writes about, but especially Alana, Keladry, and Becca.  Honor Harrington and many of her associates, including those whose battlefields are political.  My own Firekeeper and Adara.  Garth Nix’s Sabriel.  Alana in the graphic novel Saga.  Overtly kick-ass characters start out with some knowledge of how to fight and no hesitation about using that knowledge.

As for some less overtly kick-ass characters, the top of the list for me is Miss Marple.  Jane Marple isn’t afraid (despite being old, physically fragile, and without a man to back her up) to act as Nemesis.  I admired Jane Eyre’s steady strength – and more importantly, her ability to walk away from the men who claimed to love her, but really hoped to treat her as an adjunct to help repair their own messed-up lives.   Herminone Granger from the Harry Potter books kicks ass through brains, not brawn.  The witches Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg show that wisdom is definitely power.   I’d like to hope that Mira of my Child of a Rainless Year belongs in their company.

These ladies replace a knife (or sword or battlecruiser) with a knife-edged tongue and lots of smarts.

Becoming kick-ass characters often provide the best story, because they’re still feeling their way into believing they can handle problems on their own.  Garth Nix’s Lirael climbing from the library into life.  Eddi in Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks. who has attitude and to spare, but who takes most of the book to believe that she can fight on her own terms, not those set by other people.  Magrat Garlik, who is the weakest of the three original Pratchett witches – not because she doesn’t have knowledge, but because she doesn’t believe in herself.  My own Brenda Morris and Elise Archer.  Bella from Twilight and its sequels.

All of them learn they have the ability to kick ass, if only they can get over their belief that they’re destined for the second string.

There’s not one story arc for any of these types of kick-ass females.  Usually they get stronger, but sometimes an overtly kick-ass character can be crushed by challenges she can’t hit, precisely because she’s used to being on top.  One of the most moving examples of this story is the anime Revolutionary Girl Utena.  From the time she was a little girl, Utena wanted to be the prince who would save people – rather than princess waiting to be saved.  Belief in cultural constrictions of romance is her undoing…  And love is quite possibly her salvation.

The sort of character none of us particularly liked were those female characters who won’t even try to solve a problem themselves.  Passive princesses of the “someday my prince will come” model.  Females whose only goal is getting a guy, any guy, as if that’s the only proof that they’re real.  Stupid females – or worse, females who aren’t in the least stupid, but pretend to be so rather than alienate that oh, so valuable guy.  Whiners and manipulators.

Okay…  Having said all of this, I have a confession to make – a confession that may prove shocking to some, given that my fiction has developed a solid reputation for being built around strong female characters.

When I started writing (not publishing, just writing), my stories usually featured male protagonists.  Why?  Because I’d been programmed by cultural elements too numerous to name to view males as the “real” people and female characters as, at the very best, support (nurses to doctors, secretaries to lawyers, useful girlfriend to hero), or, at the very worst, a handicap or limitation when solving any problem.

Sarah, in my earliest draft of Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls was a boy named Sam.

Sure, even by the time I was in high school, there were more depictions of dynamic female characters, but often they had a male partner or mentor, such as Emma Peel with John Steed. Charlie’s Angels (original version; I haven’t seen any of the remakes) answered to the mysterious (and a bit creepy) Charlie – and turned all giggly and gooey whenever they thought they might learn something about their mysterious mentor.

Eventually, I woke up to the fact that in my daydreams, I had never been a guy nor had I wanted just to win the hero for my very own.  I’d wanted to be Captain Kirk, not be his girlfriend.  I’d wanted to run the Mission Impossible team, not have a token role.  I found myself wondering if the three princesses of Amber were as uninterested and unsuited for ruling the multiverse as their arrogant brothers believed.

So I shucked off the shell and started telling others the stories I’d been telling myself for a long time.

This wanders me back to the I Am Elemental figures, where this tale began.

Action figures that tell girls that they’re real, that they can save the day, that they can kick-ass, are important.  But, most important is the message that when doing so girls don’t have to be guys or solve the problems the same way a guy would.  They can incorporate Bravery, Energy, and Enthusiasm – but they don’t need to give up on Industry, Persistence, and Honesty.  I love the lesson that Fear isn’t an enemy.  Fear is not the mind-killer.  Fear is a guide, showing you whose ass you need to kick next – even if, especially if, that ass is your own!

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5 Responses to “Kick-Ass Female Characters”

  1. Nicholas Wells Says:

    You could have a blend too. The not-so overt that has a VERY overt side should the situation need it. Someone who is very supportive, or very smart/clever, or smooth in finding another way to solve the problem. But when the chips are down, watch out! Somehow Rue from the Hunger Games comes to mind. I bet that little girl could be quite dangerous, but she was not so overt in the times we saw her. We just never saw the overt side of her.

    Though to me, and slap me if this is too much of a make perspective, but having a female co-lead who is the one really holding the lead together is in some ways her own kind of kick-ass. She’s the one that keeps the others from getting themselves killed, or falling too deep into the dark places. Perhaps they are the lead, but without the female partner, they’d never last past chapter 5. Oh yeah, they can fight too, in whatever way is required.

    Herminone Granger fits this to me. Without her, Harry (and SOooo many others) would never have made it. Be it her wits, ideas, or her even temper, she made their exploits possible, and this ability was far from unseen. She could also handle herself in a fight, so she wasn’t some smart cheerleader either.

    It’s actually refreshing to have these types, so long as it isn’t overdone. There’s a difference between a tom-boy who’s every bit as good as a man (or even better than some), and a “male” character forced into a female body. Even the most kick-ass girls are still girls in their own way. To take a quote from the Avatar TV series.

    “I AM a warrior *kiss*, but I’m a girl too.”

    I find that blend awesome!

    • Jane Lindskold Says:

      No… Not too much male perspective. I think that coordination of viewpoints is a valuable female trait. The sad thing is that so many women I’ve worked with in all-female groups become immediately submissive when a guy shows up.

      As for Herminone… My mom and I once had a long discussion about the series that concluded that if it had been “Herminone Granger” not “Harry Potter,” the story would have ended in no more than two books, because she wouldn’t have done so many stupid things!

  2. Chad Merkley Says:

    Wait…Sarah was originally Sam?

    I think changing that was the right choice.

  3. CBI Says:

    Love the Dragons/Owls book: still one of my favorites.

    From my growing up in the ’60s and early ’70s, I remember a fair number of both male and female central characters, at least in the SF and Mystery stuff that I read. As long as they seemed “real” — and the story was good — I didn’t see much in the way of sex-based expectations, at least on my part. Then again, Identity theories didn’t have that strong of an attraction to me, so I may’ve missed it, and wouldn’t notice until it got overly silly — which it started to do even in the ’70s.

    Re a “Hermione Granger” series, I suspect it would’ve been just as long, but would involve *different* “stupid things. The errors made by a “goody-two-shoes” are still errors, they’re just different. (Yes, I was more of “goody” type as a kid, so I don’t think it’s really a sex-based trait.)

    Then again, of the three main characters, Hermione’s seems to me to be the flattest and least “real” — although Ron’s comes close. (Fitting they got married. 🙂 )

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