From my bookshelf: What I look for in a fictional heroine

As I’ve mentioned previously, I like to read epic/historical fantasy and science fiction that features women doing cool things. Since “cool things” is an awfully vague phrase, I need to elaborate a little more clearly about what that means. What do I enjoy seeing fictional heroines do, or be? What qualities do I admire most in them?

1) Competence. I always take pleasure in encountering a butt-kicking warrior woman in the pages of an epic fantasy or a sci-fi adventure, like Sulien in Jo Walton’s The King’s Peace or Starhawk in Barbara Hambly’s The Ladies of Mandrigyn or Cordelia Naismith in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cordelia’s Honor. But heroines don’t necessarily have to kick butt physically in order to make me happy. All I ask is that, whatever they do — whether they be courtesan-spies like Phedre in Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart or rock musicians like Eddi in Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks — let them be good at it. This doesn’t mean they can’t make the occasional mistake or two, but if they’re constantly making mistakes and needing others to bail them out, they’re going to try my patience. I have little love for a heroine who triumphs through luck rather than skill or courage.

2) Kindness. The heroines I like best are not afraid to display generosity and compassion, and do not perceive these qualities as weak. The competent healer Dreamsnake in Vonda McIntyre’s novel of the same name is one of my recent favorites, because of the kindness she extends to almost all the people she meets, even those who may not deserve it. The tough warrior Starhawk in The Ladies of Mandrigyn is large-souled enough to extend friendship and help to a romantic rival. When the mystic Senneth stands up for a mistreated woman and child in Sharon Shinn’s Mystic and Rider, the hard-bitten soldiers with her are moved to reassess their views on mystics (people with magical powers) and on the value of compassion. Kindness can change worlds. My favorite heroines know this.

3) Courage. I define the word as the willingness to risk something one values highly in order to achieve something he/she values even more highly. The key word is risk. No character, male or female, who never puts himself/herself at risk in some way can be very interesting. We tend to think first of physical risk, but this is not the only kind of risk that matters. Anytime we love someone, we inevitably risk being hurt; we make ourselves vulnerable. All heroines (and heroes) who matter are in some sense vulnerable. Like kindness, this vulnerability does not undercut strength but instead adds to it. The greater the risk, the greater the courage.

4) Interests. Does the heroine have a “thing,” whether it’s literature, music, art, science, magic, or battle? Does she take an interest in, and form opinions about, the world around her? If so, she’s far more likely to win my heart than the blank-slate “heroines” who have neither aim nor ambition until a man comes into their lives. When most people think of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, they think of her tumultuous romance with the older, married Edward Rochester; I think of her talent for art, as well as her friendships with Helen Burns and the Rivers siblings. Jo March of Little Women cares more about finding her feet as a writer than about finding love (though I like that she finds that as well); another favorite of mine, the titular Anne of Green Gables, also has literary ambitions. These were characters with whom I connected when I was growing up. Some of the heroines I’ve admired with talents and interests in more recent young adult fantasy and science fiction include Harry, Aerin, and Rosie in Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword, The Hero and the Crown, and Spindle’s End; Maerad in Allison Croggon’s Books of Pellinor series; Caitlin Decter in Robert J. Sawyer’s W.W.W. series; Hermione Granger in J.K. Rowling’s justly popular Harry Potter series; Tiffany Aching in Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men; and pretty much any heroine created by Tamora Pierce. I wish I’d had the pleasure of their company in my teenage years, but I’m glad to know them now.

5) Resourcefulness. I don’t mind if a heroine needs rescuing once in a while — from time to time, we all need rescuing — but a perpetual damsel in distress, unable to lift a finger without help from a man, is not likely to gain my allegiance. My favorite heroines are as likely to rescue themselves, or rescue others, as be rescued. They may survive by the sword, by their wits, or by some awesome combination thereof; but survive they do.

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