Why female protagonists are important in the fantasy genre

One of my loves of fantasy is seeing so many lady heroines kicking ass and taking names. Not all of them are the typical “warrior” archetypes, but each of them has their own type of strength which really impacted upon me when I read it.

My current WIP has a number of female protagonists. A purposeful decision on my part – I wanted to write a story that shows the nuances of what it means to be a woman, whilst layering it up with some typical high fantasy drama and magic. My favourite childhood stories were those that showed me that ladies could be heroes too, and they didn’t all have to be warriors to be “strong” characters.

As a child, and especially within the fantasy genre, female characters used to be a rare sight. When I did find a story that had a lady who was a protagonist, I would engage with the story more.

Why female protagonists are important

Characters are broad and varied, coming from different races, sexualities and genders. To make them interesting, you must both challenge the readers preconceptions of the character and make them as rich and varied as real people.

To do that, you need to have variety in your characters, and this is needed ten-fold in your protagonists. To avoid your protagonists being a collective of assumptions and stereotypes, you need to present the reader with a number of protagonists who share some of the same traits, but them give them the opportunity to demonstrate that they are also completely different people.

In the context of this article, we’re talking about female protagonists, so for the purposes of this article I’ll be using their gender as that “shared trait”.

By having more than one female character, you have an opportunity to demonstrate how varied a gender can be. You can have women who are tall or short, strong or weak, feminine and unfeminine, all of whom are given equal space within the story to demonstrate their own strengths. Maybe you have a lady who is feminine but feisty, and another who hates dressing feminine but is a soft romantic at heart. Now you give both of them the opportunity to go on a magical adventure, to save the day, and those traits are not how they are defined, but how they are made more real in the reader’s eye.

But the traits are not just about how the characters are different. You can then utilise their shared experiences from their shared traits to build in further depth into the story. Maybe there are aspects of your story that are gender specific, which allows both women to engage with a dialogue about their gender, and how it affects them.

Why your story themes are important.

Another aspect of writing is what themes you are weaving throughout your story. What are you trying to tell the reader – are you trying to inspire them? Show them inequality? Challenge their preconceptions of the world? Show them a better world?

Once you nail down the themes of your story, you can then go back to the traits in your characters and decide which ones you want to pull on. Are you writing a story that is about adventure and magic? Then your traits are likely to be in the background only, complementing your main storyline. Are you writing a story to comment on society & how gender is wrapped up in that society? Then you might want to pull on the gendered traits more, and put the characters into situations which challenge the reader’s preconception of those traits.

I think the majority of the time, where “female” characters fall down are when their sole defining trait is the fact they are female. Not their personality, attitude, history, likes, dislikes or other drivers. Everything happens to them because they are a woman. Not that everything happens to them because they’re the chosen one who must save the day from the looming evil on the horizon.

Some of my favourite female characters in the fantasy genre

Wheel of Time

When I was writing this list, I realised just how much of an impact the Wheel of Time had on me as a child. Is it perfect? No, it’s not – there are a lot of bustling skirts and heaving bosoms describing multiple ladies. But it is an example of how to create multiple lady characters both defined by their gender (through the magic system), but given the depth that exists in every human.

My favourites in this series are:

  • Siuan Sanche –she is my all time favourite character, and my all time heroine. She only really comes into the fore as a protagonist in the latter half of the series, but she has a sheer stubbornness and resolute attitude in the face of adversity.
  • Nyneave al’Meara – one of my other favourites. She is incredibly passionate, outspoken, stubborn, but also selfless and caring. She is a great example of a complex female character.

Stormlight Archive.

Does everything come back to Brandon Sanderson? When it comes to naming my favourite characters, yes it does. He has created some fantastic female characters throughout this series. My favourites are:

  • Shallan Davar – her story is one of determination and overcoming her fears.One of the themes of the Stormlight Archive is that the Radiant achieve their powers by overcoming something in their past. She’s feisty and brave, but creative and kind at the same time.
  • Jasnah Kholin – another protagonist of the Stormlight Archive, her defining traits are her scholarship and her bravery. She’s as capable a warrior as she is a scholar and makes for a rather excellent ruler too.

Image Credit: Photo by Larm Rmah on Unsplash

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