Guest Post: “Friendships Between Strong Female Characters” by Karina Sumner-Smith
As you may recall, last month for Sci-Fi November I reviewed Radiant, a brilliant and unique speculative fiction novel debut from Karina Sumner-Smith. What also made this book stand out for me was its focus around a remarkable friendship between Xhea and Shai, two young women from very different walks of life. Hence it is with great honor that we welcome Karina here at the BiblioSanctum today to talk about this very topic!
FRIENDSHIPS BETWEEN STRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS
by Karina Sumner-Smith
It’s okay, I understand the reaction. I think many of us are tired of the cardboard characters presented as “strong”. We all know the type: the attractive, kick-ass girl with a sarcastic comeback for every statement; the one who inevitably catches the eye of nearly every man in the story … and the one who usually ends up needing to be saved, no matter how many guns she’s toting. (Adjust details as required for your genre or medium of choice.)
For me, the idea of a strong female character really means an interesting female character—ideally, a woman who is the protagonist of her own tale, not just a sidekick or a victim or a helpless damsel waiting to be saved. A female character who has her flaws and quirks and bad days, yes, just as she has her intelligence and humor and moments of brilliance.
In other words, a character who reads like a real person.
Yet somewhere along the way, I think the wires got crossed. The typical understanding of a “strong female character” conflates the idea of emotional resilience with physical strength, and autonomy with extreme independence. As frustrating as it is to see the capability for violence stand in as a catch-all symbol for strength, it’s the latter that bothers me most of all.
Why, to be strong, must a female character stand alone? What happened to family and friends? Where are her colleagues and classmates? I wince at the possible subtext: that a smart, capable woman is destined to be alone.
As a reaction to the stereotype of the helpless damsel, or the female character who can’t seem to get anything done without male support, I can understand the appeal of a character who can handle everything just fine on her own, thank you very much. Yet true isolation makes one hurt and brittle, not strong; and collaborating with others, or accepting help when it’s needed (or appreciated), shouldn’t be made into weaknesses.
But if it’s irksome both to have female characters exist and act in isolation, and others who ultimately rely on male help to get the job done, where’s the middle ground? The more I thought about it, the answer seemed simple: not one, but two strong female characters. Women who work together. Women who—dare I say it?—are friends.
When I struggled to find more than a handful of SFF novels with a friendship between women as the story’s core emotional driver, I wrote one. Radiant is about two young women from opposite ends of their society who are thrown together by circumstance and must learn to understand and trust each other if they want to survive.
In many ways, my protagonist, Xhea, is a reaction to that too-independent stereotype. Homeless, desperately poor, and abandoned, Xhea has learned that she can only trust herself. Lacking size and physical strength, her only weapons are her wits, the edge of her too-sharp tongue, and the speed at which she can run away.
Sheltered and gentle and massively powerful, Shai presents a different kind of strength. She is careful and intelligent, and is caught between fear, responsibility, and the creeping realization that she’s been raised to believe a lie. (She also happens to be a ghost—and not even death has saved her from the pursuers on her trail.)
In writing a novel in which the central relationship is not a romance but the development of a friendship between two very different young women, I knew that I was taking a risk. There’s a market for romance, and for kick-ass female loners—but friendship? Never mind a publisher’s marketing team; I wasn’t sure how to connect with the audience for this novel. Who raves and cheers about two women working to trust and understand each other?
Me, I realized. I was that person. I hope that you are too.
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Karina Sumner-Smith is a fantasy author and freelance writer. Her debut novel, Radiant, was published by Talos/Skyhorse in September 2014, and in audiobook by Audible Studios. The second and third books in the trilogy are scheduled to follow in 2015. Prior to focusing on novel-length work, Karina published a range of fantasy, science fiction and horror short stories, including Nebula Award nominated story “An End to All Things,” and ultra-short story “When the Zombies Win,” which appeared in two Best of the Year anthologies. Visit her at karinasumnersmith.com.