When I was a kid, I wanted to be a knight.
I used to drag my dad around English castles and study up on medieval history. Warwick Castle was my favourite because it’s largely intact and felt like a castle should feel. I wrote my own code of honour, rules to live by. I played with plastic swords and would duel other kids. I visited antique shops because some of them contained swords, shields, and suits of armour. My first major purchase as an adult was a duplicate sword. A bit too big and heavy for me. And my favourite video game was the Soul Blade/Edge/Calibur series because the character of Siegfried was a knight with a massive sword. Yes, he was my first video game crush.
I owe this obsession to Tamora Pierce and her Song of the Lioness series.
Hiding in the school library and reading Alanna’s adventures was pretty much all I did in school. I absolutely loved Alanna and would count that first series as one of my biggest writing influences. Picking up those books and devouring them time after time feels like coming home. Cosy and welcoming. Alanna wasn’t just a kick-ass heroine with a short temper that could handle a sword, but she handled other stresses in her life, such as overcoming her own weaknesses, dealing with periods, juggling a rather hectic romantic life, and appeasing supernatural gods that acted as busy-bodies. To me, of course, it was all about kicking-ass with a sword. I wanted Alanna to earn her knighthood, and I wanted to follow in her footsteps. I settled for writing instead!
Alanna was a strong female character. Not because she fought bad guys and saved the day, but because she had normal, human problems and dealt with them in a normal, human way. I continue to believe she, and the rest of Tamora Pierce’s female characters, remain excellent role models for girls like me who hide in the library pretending to be knights.
The term “strong female character” gets thrown around a lot and is often misconstrued to be the kick-ass heroine who can tough it with the boys and show no vulnerability. Thankfully, Young Adult fantasy has grown to embrace what “strong female characters” means and offer a wide range of female protagonists that don’t go running around with swords. Laia from An Ember in the Ashes, who is by her own admission a bit meek, overcomes her fears to help save her brother. Feyre from A Court of Thorns and Roses is no traditional warrior by any means but uses her power to save kingdoms. Tamora Pierce herself has expanded her cast of strong female characters to include Daine, whose power lies in natural magic and the friendships she forges with humans and animals, Aly, whose strength lies in wit and cunning, and good old Keladry, who, like Alanna, takes up the sword and trains, but I’d argue her strengths aren’t purely physical.
All these “strong female characters” have one thing in common. Their determination.
It’s not physical strength or masculine traits which make a female character strong. It’s their bravery and determination to see their story through to the end, no matter what that is. And without that, you wouldn’t have a main character or story to begin with. It’s what gives a character their agency. Of course, there is more to building a multi-dimensional character than just being brave. But it’s a good start.
When I set about writing Sand Dancer, originally I wanted to write a story about a kick-ass knight with a bit of romance thrown in. I wanted my own Alanna, my own George Cooper. The story evolved, as stories do, and I created a main character who wanted to be a warrior, who wanted to fight the bad guys and save the day. But over time, that journey will change for her. She loves her sword, she loves to duel, but learns to hate the fighting, the killing, the dark side of becoming a warrior. She abhors the sight of blood and fire and death and comes to regret her choice. Her strength then comes in dealing with these realities and her determination to see her own story through to the end.
Some of my favourite characters are kick-ass fighters. Alanna, Eona from the Eon Dragoneye books, Amani from the Rebel of the Sands books. Characters that are determined to use their strengths, face their fears, and who are human enough to completely mess up and admit it.