There are few tropes in literature that are more enduring than the damsel in distress. This story line goes back a thousand years and more. Although it has evolved in its permutations and details, it has been a fundamental element of the genre to this day.
Much of the genre’s history reads like an episode of Dudley-Do-Right – where ol’ Snidely kidnaps Nell—the feinting female stereotype—and straps her to a train track, only to have Dudley—our perfect and pure (if somewhat naïve) white knight—swoop in and save the day. Designed as a parody of so many of the films made in the silent film era, it still represents a sizable block of many story lines in genre fiction.
Although saving the downtrodden and weak is an admirable goal, I like to read about women that are strong, varied and complex. Sometimes, perhaps it should be the woman who is saving the day, or at least fighting like a mad dog, if she is indeed the victim. Human beings are three dimensional. Two dimensional characters do them a great disservice –worse, they do the reader a great disservice. They have strengths and weaknesses and they are filled with all the same need for self-determination and will power that men are. Their characters should reflect this. And so, I try to write those women. Weak, wilting women do not a strong character make, unless it is part of a deeper characterization that allows her to be a real human and not a cardboard cutout. The story will be more interesting to write. The story will be more interesting to read.
My wife is one of my inspirations. She is, in some ways, the traditional American woman (if there is such a thing, and one were to believe in such stereo types)—except that she isn’t. Ethnically, she is Japanese and she speaks a second language, which is becoming more and more than norm in this incredibly diverse nation. She is the first woman in her family to earn a Master’s Degree—(bilingual and multicultural education). Further clouding stereotypes, she also trains in Krav Maga religiously as well as being a strong practitioner of Muy Thai. What’s more, she enjoys a trip to the shooting range now and again too. Adding to all that, she happens to be an excellent, caring mother of two well-adjusted children. She challenges almost every bogus female trope out there–whether the weak willed Nell stereotype, or the hard nosed feminist stereotype.
When I think about strong women with complex characterizations, I often times think about her. She was my inspiration when I wrote the character Schade Lee, in my book, Schade of Night and Edweene in Blue Eyes at Night. She continues to be my inspiration every single day. So why not write about what makes her strong and special and heroic.
It seems that we must remind ourselves that men are not the only heroes in the world. Every day, women perform deeds and undertake missions every bit as heroic as men, often times more so. Courage and Duty are not defined by a gender, it is about being a human being, with all of the complexities that come with that.
In March 2005, Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester was involved in actions in Iraq that resulted in her receiving the Silver Star –the US Army’s 3rd highest award for valor. On that day, “Hester’s squad of two women and eight men in three Humvees they were shadowing a 30-truck supply convoy when approximately 50 insurgent fighters ambushed the convoy with AK-47 assault rifles, RPK machine gun fire and rocket propelled grenades (RPG). The squad moved to the side of the road, flanking the insurgents and cutting off their escape route. Hester maneuvered her team through the kill zone and into a flanking position, where she and her squad leader, Staff Sergeant Timothy F. Nein, assaulted a trench line with hand grenades and M203 grenade launcher rounds. Hester and Nein assaulted and cleared two trenches. During the 25-minute firefight, Hester killed at least three enemy combatants with her M4 carbine. When the battle was over, 27 insurgents were dead, six were wounded, and one captured.” For their actions, Sergeants Hester and Nein were awarded the Silver Star.
When asked about it, Sgt. Hester said, “It really didn’t have anything to do with being female. It’s about duties I performed that day as a soldier.”
Because you see, she WAS a soldier that day – a soldier that happened to be a woman—and all those troops in the convoy that she was protecting and all those insurgents she and her squad mates killed and drove off didn’t give a rat’s ass about her being a woman when the reckoning came.
The same applies to dragons and demons in Fantasy Fiction.
Do you like reading about strong female lead characters? Leave a comment below!
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