My books often contain characters who might be defined as strong women. In fact, I like a balance of the sexes in my novels, so there are very few of my novels that lack that element. I was trying to work out where my influences were the other day and was struck by how few of them came from the novels I read as a child.
The first strong female character that features in my consciousness was Cathy Gale, the original television female Avenger. I remember Honour Blackman (who played the part) giving an interview where she explained that she complained to her husband that it was the usual screaming female part and he suggested she played it as if she was a man. She went on to say that once the writers got it, her storylines became much stronger. When she left the series, Emma Peel was created in the same mould and a legend was born.
In children’s books there was ‘George’ from the Famous Five and Darrell Rivers from the Mallory Towers books, both written by Enid Blyton. After those I’m damned if many others come to mind, perhaps Monica Edwards’ books about Tamsin and Rissa. There were more such characters in children’s books published after I grew up. Phillip Pullman, for example, has made a hobby of it.
There were strong female characters in comic books and adult fiction. Wonder Woman specialised in making men look stupid as opposed to looking at her breasts. Patricia Holm in the early Saint books and the incomparable Modesty Blaise come to mind in adult novels. I have a deep suspicion that Modesty Blaise was the core model for Buffy, who essentially created the mould for all future television fantasy females. Yes, Joss Whedon, it’s your fault.
The essence of a strong woman in fiction is that she must never be a man in disguise. She acts with her heart as much as her head and is emotionally intuitive. She is more into vengeance than men, but is equally more forgiving when the crime isn’t against herself.
My writing career started in verse and it was there that I created Jalia al’Dare. Adrift in a sword and sorcery world she is perfectly adapted for it. She started killing people in her early teens and never has a moments regret about it. If someone attacks her, she will kill them without a second thought, even if the one attacking her is a child. I teamed her with Daniel, a young man always willing to give someone a second chance, but brutal when he has no choice. With time, they rub off on each other and Jalia uses the mantra ‘What would Daniel do?’ to curb her instincts. Daniel becomes inured to making terrible life and death decisions because he knows he will always be more merciful than his other half.
Women, and especially girls, need to be empowered in western society. Our stories should not portray them as weak, because if that is what they are told they are, then that’s what they will become. And it is a man’s world they live in, make no mistake. Girls are emotionally vulnerable and some men love to exploit them before they get old enough to know better. Unlike boys, they do not seek to form gangs that offer them some protection from exploitation.
So I like to create strong role models in my stories. I don’t claim it’s easy to be strong and many of my female characters have been damaged or abused in childhood. That is often the motivator that makes them strong, able to be tough because they have suffered from being vulnerable.
It seems to me that this issue is ongoing. We are all responsible for changing the society we live in. Some years ago, my eldest daughter was attacked by a handbag snatcher outside a railway station. She looked pretty weak and vulnerable as she was dressed for an interview at the time. She responded by kicking him in the back of the leg, leaving him writhing in agony on the ground while she used her phone to call for the police. They arrived promptly, and when they stopped laughing, arrested the guy. But that’s one thief who will never look at a woman as a victim again.
My kind of hero.