Developing strong female characters in fantasy novels

A couple of weeks ago I knocked 80,000 words (yes, eighty thousand) out of my manuscript. Now, at 174,000 words the tome was very, very heavy so it could certainly bear this loss. What I cut, however, was my female lead, Agnes.

I didn’t cut Agnes out because she was a weak character, or because she was female I cut her out because her journey was essentially running in parallel with the main storyline. I was bringing her through childhood to a point where, at the end, she’d be primed for action in book two. I love her and certainly want to revisit her, but when I took a step back I saw there was just no need for her. I felt upset to have lost Agnes, but pleased with myself for having been so brutal.

Now I have a book full of men. I like men. I especially like the men I have created, but I can’t bear to carry on with a book with so skewed a bias. I do have three female characters, one of whom was crying out to be developed, but I want to be careful as to how I do develop them.

Often you find that in films and some books strong female character = ‘bitch’ or ‘plucky but ultimately ineffective’. (I mean Keira Knightly in  Pirates of the Caribbean, did anyone even notice she wasn’t in the last one? Sorry, I’m not keen on Ms Knightly)

I’m not a feminist, or at least I don’t think I am. Come to think of it I’m not sure what one is anymore, so perhaps I am, but I do think it’s important to consider what stereotypes you reinforce or reflect when you write.

Any recommendations for fantasy books (or any genre) with good female characters who aren’t bitches, overly masculine, or just a tragic love interest would be greatly welcomed – I know there are many out there.

16 thoughts on “Developing strong female characters in fantasy novels

  1. ahamin says:

    Hunger games, I forgot the name of the main character, but she wasn’t bitchy nor plucky… Maximum ride by James Patterson is another example.
    Good luck, and who knows, maybe Agnes will find her way back one day 🙂

    • plantageneta says:

      Thanks for the recommendations, Hunger Games has been on my ‘to read’ list for a while so I must get to it. I’ll check out Patterson’s book as well. Oh yes, Agnes will be back!

      • Tina Cleary says:

        I am currently reading Hunger games, it is very good and the leading lady or girl is really interesting. It was on one go my lists at book club 🙂 . I must arrange soon to get the next two in the series.

        • plantageneta says:

          Hi Tina, thanks for your comment. A few people have mentioned hunger games to me and I regret now that we didn’t choose it at book club, think we got wrong impression of what it would be like. I think its a must read and will definitely get onto it asap.

  2. How refreshing to find someone else who isn’t keen on Ms Knightly!

    Well, you’re going to regret asking the question about female characters because I’m going to suggest you read my novel, Tribes. I reckon Vida is just about right (Tribes will only cost you £1.91). At least go to Amazon and read the free bit (the plot moves on four years after Chapter 8, making Vida and Isaac ideally suited as hero and heroine).

    • plantageneta says:

      LOL Yes hollywood’s fascination with Knightly has always confused me, must be something to do with the chin, Americans do have a thing about big chins. Anyway enough Keira-bashing.

      No regrets, I will download Tribes and have a read – though still ploughing my way through Sunne in Splendour! Looking forward to discovering Vida.

  3. EM Vireo says:

    interesting post. I’m thinking of examples off the top of my head (right now) … how about Peppy Miller in the Artist, Kate Winslet in Quills, or maybe, even some of the female leads ion the series Lost.

    • plantageneta says:

      Thanks for you suggestions. I haven’t seen the Artist or Quills yet – so will give them a go when I get time. Yes Lost did have some good female characters I seem to remember.

  4. Shelly says:

    If you’ve ever read the Uglies serious I’d consider Tally to be a good example. A lesser known series by Andrew Butcher, time of the reaper has a vast assortment of very different female characters and is a wonderful read. I’d also recommend Jacky from the Bloody Jack series, though she may come across as a little plucky.

  5. jakiedwards says:

    I just have to put forward Patricia Briggs – She has two series running – Mercy Thompson and the Alpha Omega series. Mercy isn’t a bitch and she really kicks ass in a non-butch way and the alpha omega thing (can’t remember character names right now grrrr) but the female lead is the opposite of kick ass – scared, damaged etc but very brave… can’t get enough of it.
    Back to your tome – can I ask is it realistic to have an all male cast – thinking you are writing fantasy/historical – so maybe a woman would be contrived in that mix anyway???? Just an idea

    • plantageneta says:

      Hi Jackie, thanks for more great recommendations. I’ll add to my reading list.
      Oh no, its completely unrealistic to have an all male cast. Part of my prob is that I know the whole story (ie trilogy) and in books 2 & 3 the female characters really come to the fore. Originally the first book had Agnes as a major character (now she’s cut out, but would be in bk 2) plus a couple of not so significant women.
      Since writing this I’ve decided to change one male character (a soldier) into a woman, develop the ‘love interest’ to be a more complex character, even though she is killed before the end. And a third woman is also coming through much better now.
      Certainly I want to ensure there is a balance in the novel.

  6. […] Developing strong female characters in fantasy novels ( […]

  7. Stacy says:

    I liked Sonea in the Black Magicians Trilogy by Trudi Cananvan.

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