Women Protagonists in Fantasy Fiction

23 Jul

I recently listened to a panel of successful female writers and editors, from the fantasy genre, discuss female protagonists. As a male writer, I found it an interesting discussion. Hoping for some insight on how to make my female characters deeper and more real, what actually was discussed was a distinct dissatisfaction across the panel that most female protagonists in the fantasy genre were kickass warriors.

Hmm. Isn’t that feminist’s equality? I asked myself.

Hold on a moment. Before you all start to go off on me as being a sexist, let me continue. Everyone, myself included, was in agreement that a kickass warrior was infinitely better than the pretty pitiful princess that needs rescuing. The question became, “What other journeys are there for a female protagonist in a fantasy story beside Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’?” Campbell’s journey is by far the most popular and most recognized.

Most fantasy stories have a hero of some sort as the protagonist. It just the way things are in the genre. Maybe because the standard good vs evil convention leads itself in that direction. There has to be someone to vanquish evil or evil will destroy everything.

It made me wonder about other potential character arcs. What other female specific arcs are there? As a matter of fact, I cannot remember hearing of any other character arc being ‘named’, let alone documented. What can I say, I’ve led a sheltered life. Shouldn’t any arc that you can find in literature be used in fantasy?

What other “journeys” are you aware of? Have they been documented in detail somewhere? What have you used? Have kickass female warriors become merely a cliché? Boy, I hope not! It’s hard to beat a story about a woman who goes around kicking ass and taking names.

Your Thoughts?


Posted by on July 23, 2013 in Thoughts on Writing


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18 responses to “Women Protagonists in Fantasy Fiction

  1. C.Hill

    July 23, 2013 at 2:35 pm

    Well, I’m in the camp that the kickass female warrior is as big a cliché as the kickass male warrior. Nothing wrong with either, if fleshed out enough. But yeah, I agree with you that I would rather want a warrior woman than a pitiful princess. But both can be used to great effect if, as I said, fleshed out enough. It is when they become simply cardboard cut outs that I find a distaste in my mouth for any character.

    Not aware of any “journeys,” but just a thought: I would love to see a Hero’s Journey where there was no killing. Now that would be interesting. 🙂

    As for my writing, two of my biggest female characters (the latter of which was really hard to write) are polar opposites. One’s a cold hearted woman who makes her living as the leader of the city’s drug trade. I balance that with her position high up in polite society. As for the other one, I can’t reveal too much, (plot twists y’know!) but she’s an avid painter, staunchly independent, highly moralistic, and took lessons in self-defense so she could save the MC’s backside a few times. There’s more than just that, but I’d rather the character’s be presented by their choices than simple statements I give.

    Sorry for the essay. Hope this helps!

    • Dennis Langley

      July 23, 2013 at 3:22 pm

      No worries. I love your comments. Both of your characters sound pretty cool and well developed. Love to read it when it’s ready.

    • Dennis Langley

      July 23, 2013 at 3:31 pm

      BTW, what kind of recurve is in your gravatar?

      • C.Hill

        July 23, 2013 at 3:38 pm

        The brand is Explorer, if that tells you anything. Just a simple 40lb draw weight, easy to use, 24″ by 34″ by 58″. Though, I’ve moved on to a 120lb compound crossbow. Can’t wait for deer season this year!

      • Dennis Langley

        July 23, 2013 at 4:07 pm

        Jesus, 120 lbs! You hunting deer or T-Rex? 😉

      • C.Hill

        July 23, 2013 at 4:12 pm

        Texas deer! 😀

      • Dennis Langley

        July 23, 2013 at 4:19 pm

        Oh that’s right. Everything is bigger in Texas.

  2. Christopher Patterson

    July 24, 2013 at 1:15 am

    The kick ass female seems to really run many of the stories in which there is a female protagonist. However, I have read stories in which the women have story arcs which include things such as political maneuvering, and the strong but broken type. The last one is not the stereo typical “woman needs saved, here comes man to save”, but instead the female has a strong inner will and comes off as a strong, smart, heroic female, but at the same time exhibits weakness because of circumstances out of her control.

    I think that too often female heroes are written like a male hero. Even when written by females themselves. It would be refreshing to really read a female hero that experiences the emotions from a females point of view. Often times I feel like writers tend to make the females overtly strong, in some form, in order to compensate for the physical weakness that females generally have. Why not have a woman who is dependent upon someone else, while still being independent? Isn’t that closer to the truth for all heroes, male and female?

    • Dennis Langley

      July 24, 2013 at 1:45 pm

      I think you are right on. I can think of one instance where this was handled very well. It was some of Elaine Cunningham”s stories with WOTC publications. A very strong woman who could take care of herself but, grew to rely on a male friend. All heroes need someone to bounce off of once in a while.

  3. Matthew Wright

    July 25, 2013 at 2:02 am

    Seeing as I live in the country that generated Xena, I suppose I shouldn’t complain about female kickass warriors, but it seems to me that they HAVE become cliche of late. The issue for me isn’t the kickass aspects but the fact that – like the male equivalent, Conan – these characters tend to be rather one-dimensional. My thought is that all characters (male or female) should be – well, characters, or as Hemingway put it, real. If kickass is a part of that – well, it’s a part. If it isn’t, then it isn’t.

    • Dennis Langley

      July 25, 2013 at 7:28 am

      Xena and Gabrielle…Hmmm…Sorry got sidetracked for a moment. NZ must be a nice place. 🙂

      Absolutely, real is what we should be going for. I think Chris is correct that in an effort to counter the “weak woman syndrome”, writers tend to swing too far the other way and make them too strong and as such move beyond real. I’ve always been of the opinion that, in fantasy, heroes should be larger than life, stronger than the average bear, etc. However, I have been backing down from this stance and leaning toward ordinary characters thrown into extraordinary circumstances.

  4. ltownsdin

    July 25, 2013 at 11:39 am

    Hi Dennis, I like your thought about ordinary characters thrown into extraordinary circumstances. My protagonist is a crusader and tough physically, but she’s socially challenged. I’m having a lot of fun developing her in my mystery and trying not to make her too much of a cliché. Thanks for the great topic!

  5. Dennis Langley

    July 25, 2013 at 12:51 pm

    Socially challenged is good. I like that. I have a female protagonist that is loosely based on a person I used to know quite well. She had an unusual background and unusual tastes…perfect for my story. She was a strong woman but had all the flaws, attributes a well-rounded character will have.

    I’m glad you enjoyed the topic. The post was short as I was hoping to get some discussion going.

  6. Sara Kjeldsen

    July 25, 2013 at 6:39 pm

    Great post. I think of Game of Thrones, which contains some amazingly strong female characters – some are kick ass warriors, but most are not. I like to think of Sansa, she seems like the helpless princess in the beginning, but the way that she grows as a person and becomes savvy with politics is just phenomenal.

    • Dennis Langley

      July 26, 2013 at 10:00 am

      It is the character growth that is important whether the character is male or female. Everyone is capable of anything, if placed in the right circumstances. Controlling the circumstances to move the character along is the job or the writer. I just think it is a shame that some of the character arcs we are describing have never been fleshed out like “The Hero’s Journey”.

  7. Erica

    August 12, 2013 at 10:37 am

    Super, suuuuuuuper delayed response here, but I finally found the words (someone else’s, but ah well!) to express my thoughts on the matter!

    “I am often annoyed by stories including ‘strong women’ who are labeled such only because they can punch someone or fire a gun or whatever, but still are emotionally-dependent or incompetent. ‘But she’s totally a strong female character because she yells at people!’ is not a valid character argument.”

    That’s from my friend Laura’s recent blog post about “alpha” behavior in fiction – definitely worth a read!

    Sorry, nothing on the character arc aspect, but this might explain a lot of the dissatisfaction with the “kickass female warrior” trope. 🙂


    • Dennis Langley

      August 12, 2013 at 11:46 am

      Nice to hear from you on my blog.

      I agree strength does not have to mean physical. My current WIP has a female character who is the SUPPORT for the rest of the cast. Without her the household would fall apart. Does she need help from the protagonist? Yes. Is she the helpless female who needs rescuing? No. She is right in the middle of the fray and ultimately forces a real badass to back down by being solid on her convictions.


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