A couple of months ago I wrote a post about Glinda the Good Witch (and other female characters) from L. Frank Baum’s Oz series (the books, not so much the Wizard of Oz movie). I discussed why I thought Glinda was a strong female character – an actual woman of strength, not just a tough, masculine character in a woman’s body.
In today’s world, readers and movie-goers want strong, well-rounded female characters in their stories, not just beautiful damsels in distress or rough-and-tough chicks who want to be one of the guys. There are a lot of popular characters right now that I could point to for my examples, but instead I’m going to continue with the thread started by Glinda, and discuss not only a lesser-known character, but a not-so modern one.
Aravis of Calormen
The Chronicles of Narnia (written a good 60+ years ago, in case you didn’t know) features several strong female characters, most notably the sisters Lucy and Susan Pevensie, who with their brothers, first find their way into Narnia via a wardrobe.
But because I enjoy writing (and reading) about the underdogs and the less popular characters, I’m going to highlight Aravis as another example of a strong female character that C.S. Lewis wrote. In The Horse and His Boy, the main characters (besides the two horses) are an escaped slave boy from Narnia and the daughter of Calormen nobility. They escape the evil land of Calormen and head for the freedom of Narnia.
Escaping a cruel, enslaving society is a noble goal, but that doesn’t automatically make for a strong character – or even merely a well-rounded, realistic character.
Here are some elements that I believe go into making a strong female character:
Bravery or boldness. Yes, Aravis has both in spades. She’s boldly running away from her family and her country because she disagrees with the cruel customs and traditions (most notably her arranged marriage to someone she dislikes). She’s not afraid to engage in a physical fight if needed.
Intelligence or creativity. A strong woman character should be a nice blend of brains and brawn. She can lean more to one rather than the other, depending on the personality of the character and the needs of the story; but any well-rounded character should be more than just big muscles or brilliant brains. Aravis, in addition to being very educated, has a strategist’s mind, and despite her occasional impulsiveness, she thinks things through logically.
Faults and weaknesses. Wait, what? We want our strong women to have faults and frailties? Of course we do, if they’re to be realistic. A female character (or a male character) who has no faults and makes no mistakes is flat, unrealistic, and in danger of being a Mary Sue. Readers can’t identify with a faultless character, male or female.
So what are some of Aravis’ humanizing faults? She’s arrogant, impatient, and selfish. She looks down on Shasta, her fellow escapee, as stupid and beneath her, even though they’re both fighting for the same thing. She always thinks her plans are the best, and sometimes they’re not.
Character development. A strong character (male or female) needs to change and grow throughout the story; based on their decisions and circumstances throughout the book, the character should be different (for better or for worse) by the end of the book. Without character development, you have a flat person merely observing the events of the story.
Aravis does change and grow. She learns to overcome her weaknesses of arrogance and selfishness. She learns about humility, and trusting others. Not only does she achieve her goal of freedom (yes, spoiler, but you’ve had 60+ years to read this story), but she becomes a mature young woman who can truly value her freedom, rather than just an angry youth running away from home.
Femininity. Ah, now we come to it – the elements that make this character a strong woman, as opposed to just a strong character who happens to lack boy-parts. (Yes, I just said that. Trying to keep this blog mostly G-rated).
Anyway. In Aravis’ culture, women have few rights (hence the arranged marriage thing), and so sometimes her boldness and arrogance are an attempt to act masculine. This shows her feminine side, because a male character acting masculine would be, um, normal, or at least expected. And he would probably pull it off better than she does. Aravis learns to appreciate her own femininity by the end as she finds herself in a country that actually treats women as people instead of objects, so she’s able to relax and be herself. And she falls in love.
No, falling in love is not a requisite for a strong female character – but neither should it be a no-no. Women fall in love in real life, so why can’t they do so in a book that’s not specifically a romance? (Guys fall in love, too, by the way, in real life and in books). Aravis loses none of her strength by realizing she loves Shasta; in fact, it makes her all the stronger and more mature, because she realizes that the boy she used to look down on has grown and changed just as she has, and they’ve learned to trust each other. True love, that.
So if you’re looking for strong female characters in the fantasy genre, don’t neglect the Narnia books, even if they’re “old” and were originally written for children/teens. And if you’ve already read some Narnia, look past Lucy and Susan (who are strong women and great characters) to see that strong female characters are everywhere, even in Calormen.