The women of Darkhaven
When Sammy Smith kindly agreed to let me write a guest post for the Kristell Ink website, I knew straight away what I’d write about. I’ve read many of Kristell Ink’s own books, so I’m well aware that they’re full of interesting, complicated and believable female characters. And since I hope my own female characters are equally well rounded, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to talk about them.
The problem I often find with writing women is that people seem to approach them with a whole bunch of preconceptions about what makes a good female character. The answer to that is, of course, the same as what makes a good male character. People are people – complex, contradictory, fascinating people – before they are male or female or anything else. But we’re dealing with history, here. The fantasy fiction of the past often wrote women as trophies: a male hero’s prize for overcoming the obstacles of his story. Then the pendulum swung too far the other way, and we got Strong Female Characters who took the word ‘strong’ incredibly literally: ass-kicking warriors who never needed anyone’s help, particularly not a man’s, thank you very much. Yet although these approaches may seem poles apart, they come from a similar reductive approach to what women are or should aspire to be. Really, the point is that it’s impossible to say what ‘women’ – as a collective noun – are or should aspire to be. All women are different. All men are different. We’re individuals, not stereotypes.
I still struggle with this issue, sometimes, because it’s easy to hear that ‘should’ in your head. Female characters should be like this, or they’re not strong enough. So you have a woman on the page who’s not able to wield a sword or punch her way out of a tricky situation, and you think, Is this wrong? Should she be beating up everyone who stands in her way? Are readers going to call her (horror of horrors) weak? But of course, those concerns come from a very narrow view of strength. Being a strong character doesn’t mean you never need anyone’s help. Being a strong character doesn’t mean you have to be the last one standing in a fight. Being a strong character isn’t about physical strength at all.
I wrote Darkhaven before I was really aware of this question of Strong Female Characters. I didn’t set out to create certain kinds of characters in order to make a certain kind of point. I was barely even aware of whether they were male or female, other than it being another characteristic like eye colour or height or distinguishing scars. In that respect, I didn’t write any of them differently from the others. They’re just people: the people who make up my story. Whether they’re well written or not (and that’s a matter of reader judgement), they are at least at a consistent level.
The women of Darkhaven are the reluctant heir to a throne, accused of murder and seeking to prove her innocence; a priestess who has to step outside the safety of her temple in order to see justice done; a mercenary wielding a rare and deadly weapon; and a homesick country girl with a secret. Some of them wouldn’t dream of asking for help. Some of them could probably kick your ass in a fight. But that doesn’t matter. Whether tough or shy, independent or needy, they all have their own kind of strength. They’re all trying to make their own lives, in or around the constraints of the society they live in.
In short, they’re all people first and women second. And when you think about it that way, the only surprising thing about the question of how to write good female characters is that there is a question at all.
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A.F.E. Smith is an editor of academic texts by day and a fantasy writer by night. So far, she hasn’t mixed up the two. She lives with her husband and their two young children in a house that someone built to be as creaky as possible – getting to bed without waking the baby is like crossing a nightingale floor. Though she doesn’t have much spare time, she makes space for reading, mainly by not getting enough sleep (she’s powered by chocolate). Her physical bookshelves were stacked two deep long ago, so now she’s busy filling up her e-reader.
What A.F.E. stands for is a closely guarded secret, but you might get it out of her if you offer her enough snacks.
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DARKHAVEN by A.F.E. Smith
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Release date: 2 July 2015 (ebook), 14 January 2016 (paperback)
Price: £1.99/$3.99 (ebook)
Ayla Nightshade never wanted to rule Darkhaven. But her half-brother Myrren – true heir to the throne – hasn’t inherited their family gift, forcing her to take his place. When this gift leads to Ayla being accused of killing her father, Myrren is the only one to believe her innocent. Does something more sinister than the power to shapeshift lie at the heart of the Nightshade family line?Now on the run, Ayla must fight to clear her name if she is ever to wear the crown she never wanted and be allowed to return to the home she has always loved.