In a world where might makes right, you’d expect the protagonist to survive if he’s brawny, muscular, and can outfight and out-Machiavelli his opponents. But … what if the protagonist isn’t a brawny beefcake that can cleave anyone in twain with a battle axe or a claymore? What if they’re not in the position to be a hero? What if, because patriarchy, they’re expected to stay home and raise the kids at best, or be sacrificial pawns and slaughter fodder at worst?
The strong female protagonist needs no introduction in 2022. (I will say that I dislike the term, because I believe female already connotes strong—it’s redundant to me, but I use it for the sake of audience familiarity.) The femme protagonist has come a long way, and we’ve been along for the ride. In fantasy before the ’70s, heroines were often princesses or little girls: Cinderella, Alice, and Dorothy were great, but they were certainly more demure than the typical badass heroic men you’d encounter from Tolkien or Lord Dunsany. (Although, Tolkien did give us Éowyn. 😍)
It’s become more socially acceptable and even expected to have a sword-wielding heroine, antiheroine, and female villain. Since grimdark evolved in the ’80s and ’90s, strong female characters are expected, protagonist or not.
Obviously, the nonchalance about strong female characters is a product of our era. Stories are for readers, and we live in a world where women want and can have the same professions as men. From a purely selfish authorial perspective, more women than men read a book last year according to a poll from Statista. Since it’s human nature to want a protagonist that you can see yourself in, a badass female protagonist makes sense from a reader’s perspective in 2022. (Also, I adore them. 🥰)
That said, if the story takes place in the Middle Ages, as most grimdark fantasy series do, it has to be more believable. Many people believe grimdark fantasy has to suspend your disbelief with real stakes and real historical conditions. Meaning, women are fighting against the odds to be taken seriously and be a strong character in the first place. Not only that, but they’re also trying to survive an unforgiving world like everyone else.
Spoiler Alert: I reject the notion that grimdark fantasy must perpetuate the myths underpinning misogyny and patriarchy. It’s fine for Martin et al to dismantle or deconstruct it in their own way. For me and my world, one of the central conceits is that the cultures I create is that they are colorblind and genderblind. It’s certainly no less believable to me than necromancy or gods meddling in mortal affairs. That doesn’t mean cultural or socioeconomic prejudice doesn’t exist—it just means that people don’t need the false crutch of sexism or racism to be evil.
When you think of a strong female character in fantasy, you’re most likely going to think of the badass action girl who can skewer their enemies with a sword as soon as they look at them. Since women are often stereotyped to be physically weaker than men, they’re usually in a more roguish position, like an assassin or an archer (though ironically, being a good archer takes a lot of upper body strength, unless crossbows or short bows are involved).
The poster child for this stereotype is Arya Stark. This kid has everything: tragic backstory, revenge list to order, expert sword-level skills, and in later books, assassin’s training. However, powerful queen Daenerys has a more feminine role, and no one would call her a weak character. Similarly, Cersei wields a tremendous amount of power but in a feminine way. Dig deeper into Martin’s work and most of his female characters are traditionally feminine than not. Brienne is the exception, not the rule.
Being a strong female character should be way broader than sword-wielding badass. (But sword-wielding is beautiful!) She can actually be really feminine but have the smarts to outwit her enemies in the political arena. Or she can be a mage, or even a bard. (I have a story coming in a future series in Illyria’s grimdark world where the heroine is a badass bard. Patience. I’m not the world’s fastest writer. Yet.)
Beyond the stereotypical strong female who can skewer you with her sword, a strong female character is someone who can hold their own against her foes and doesn’t need a man to save her. Although guys may help her from time to time, she carries her own, and ultimately, can save herself. I love a self-rescuing heroine.
That said, more strong female protagonists in grimdark fantasy are the sword-wielding roguish types. Usually, they come from scrappy beginnings and build their skills to make money or avoid traditional female roles. Understandably, these were suckier than they are now: marriage for nobles was about political alliances and dying in childbirth was way too common.
Here are a couple books featuring strong female characters that aren’t A Song of Ice and Fire, plus why you’ll love them.
The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
Inspired by real historical events, mainly the 1930s Japanese invasion of China and the Second Sino-Japanese War (part of World War II for you non-history buffs). If you want a more modern grimdark fantasy set in the 20th century, this is for you.
The Poppy War follows Rin, an orphan who’s selected to train at an elite military school. There, she discovers her gift for shamanism, which turns out to be both a blessing, putting her ahead of her peers, and a curse. Rin’s gift for shamanism is the reason she’s sent into war.
Certainly, it’s one of the most unique books I’ve read, full of page-turning suspense and a lust for revenge that had me hooked. If you’re into deconstruction, the horrors of war are also taken apart and explored in a thoughtful, heartbreaking way that makes this story tragic. As the book says, “War doesn’t determine who’s right. War determines who remains.”
Granted, a lot of the plot reads like a YA novel. Case in point: Rick Riordan, author of the Percy Jackson series, gave it a glowing review on Goodreads. And even though it’s dark, some of the beats can put people looking for a more realistic fantasy off. For instance, Rin can feel a little too competent, leading to plot armor that can break the realism in the story. But don’t let that stop you from enjoying a great tale!
Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie
Joe Abercrombie’s an entertaining writer, for sure. And if you’re looking for a book full of political intrigue and some rag-tag misfits adventuring their way through a dark fantasy world, Best Served Cold won’t disappoint. Fourth in his First Law series, this book leaves off where the third book ended, with the kingdom in civil war and power-hungry nobles vying for power.
Springtime means wartime in the world of Styria. Dark, secretive powers keep the land locked in battles and blood. Meanwhile, our strong female protagonist is Monza Murcatto, the Snake of Talins, Duke Orso’s favorite employee … until she got too popular. After being thrown off a mountain and left for dead, Monza vows revenge against her ruthless old boss. (You may have noticed that I adore a good revenge story. My shrink wants me to work on that. 😈)
Her allies are a gaggle of misfits including a drunk and a serial killer. It’s them against half the nation who side with Orzo … and a new, dangerous bounty hunter tasked to take her out.
If you liked the original First Law trilogy, you’ll like this continuation. From Abercrombie’s wordsmithing and sense of humor to a cast of familiar characters, it’s a fun read full of action, intrigue, and some surprises.
The Raven Queen
My antiheroine begins trying to negotiate with a trickster god in the underworld. For the rest of the novel, she claws her way back to life and has to continuously fight to stay alive—well, less dead anyway.
I write the Temple of Vengeance series with women in mind who feel differently (and the men who love them). Women who reject convention or artificial constraints and the expectations of others. Women who believe life should be fair and the gods should be just—and are willing to put their blood, sweat, and steel where their beliefs are.
If this describes you, and you’re looking for a character to relate to, I invite you to check it out. Given Raven Queen, Arise a read.