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Today’s guest is fantasy writer, poet, and blogger Sara Letourneau! I’ve enjoyed reading her thoughts on books on her website and blog, and as an added bonus, we seem to share similar taste in speculative fiction (she also had a high opinion of Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, among other works I love). Because of that, I’m thrilled she’s here this month discussing some favorite fantasy heroines with a common character trait!

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Profiles of Courage: Compelling Female Characters in Fantasy Who Defy the “Strong Female Protagonist” Stereotype

I’ve grown disenchanted with the “strong female protagonist” concept as of late. It’s not a bad idea–in fact, it’s fun to see fictional women wielding weapons, summoning magic, and fighting with or against men. However, they pop up so often in science fiction and fantasy now that this type of character seems like a requirement, especially in YA fantasy.

So, does a female protagonist have to be bad-ass in order to be strong? Not at all. In fact, inner strength can make a female character (or any character, for that matter) more compelling and relatable to readers. This quality can also manifest in so many ways; and how it does so can help a character overcome her circumstances, reach her story goal, and grow as an individual.

Today I’d like to share some of my favorite female protagonists in fantasy literature who rely more on inner strength than physical abilities. And, in keeping with the spirit of Women in SF&F Month, all of the books I’ve selected are penned by female authors. See what you find as you read each character profile, and ask yourselves which female characters in fantasy (and other speculative genres) would be on your list.

The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin

Essun (N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season)

When readers first meet Essun, her son has been murdered and her daughter kidnapped–both by her husband, their father. What follows seems to be a quest to save what’s left of her family. However, The Fifth Season evolves into something more complex and profound. Through cleverly written, interwoven perspectives, it’s eventually clear that Essun’s life has been one dramatic upheaval after another. Yes, she has earth-warping abilities, and she’s potently angry at times. But Essun’s will to survive is what truly makes her who she is. She’s willing to do whatever she deems necessary to save her daughter and move on from each season of her life. And in a seismically active world like the Stillness, such adaptability isn’t priceless–it’s crucial.

Fire by Kristin Cashore

Fire (Kristin Cashore’s Fire)

Graceling may be the best known of Kristin Cashore’s work, but I’ve always connected more with the protagonist from her second novel Fire. Half-human and half-monster, Fire is painfully aware of the effect her mind-reading abilities have on others. In fact, she’s afraid of manipulating and taking advantage of people with her powers. Some readers might see Fire as sensitive–but in a world where other characters are quick to hurt or control one another, her compassion is actually a strength. She’d rather help society at large and use her talents for good. Fire’s empathy also shows in her love for children and animals, and her willingness to tend to wounded soldiers and soothe them of their pain.

Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier

Sorcha (Juliet Marillier’s Daughter of the Forest)

Like Fire, Sorcha from Daughter of the Forest is a sweetheart. She’s nurturing, thoughtful, and spiritually connected to nature. Her greatest strengths, though, are persistence and her sense of family duty. When a sorceress turns Sorcha’s six older brothers into swans, Sorcha is determined to save them. The only way to break the curse? Make shirts for each brother using fibers from a nettle plant–and stay silent until her work is done. It’s a tedious, heart-wrenching task, and one that disfigures Sorcha’s hands terribly. Yet Sorcha never gives up, not even after she’s raped by neighbors, captured by the Britons, or tried as a witch. Her love and patience is a reminder of the lengths we’ll go to for the people we care about.

The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin

Tenar (Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle)

Tenar first appears in the second Earthsea novel The Tombs of Atuan. (She’s also in Tehanu and The Other Wind.) As a child, she’s taken from her family, given a new name, and raised to become a High Priestess of the Nameless Ones, the unseen forces ruling the island of Atuan. Her life becomes one of servitude and solitude, and she believes she’s powerless to change it. One day, the wizard Ged Sparrowhawk enters the labyrinthine catacombs that Tenar oversees. And upon hearing Ged’s stories of the outside world, Tenar starts questioning everything that the priestesshood has taught her–and takes a leap of faith to make a new life for herself. It’s a terrifying choice that comes with steep costs, but thanks to her courage, Tenar finally becomes the master of her own fate.

Radiant by Karina Sumner-Smith

Xhea and Shai (Karina Sumner-Smith’s Towers Trilogy)

Who says you can’t have two awesome heroines in one series? (*wink*) In the first Towers novel Radiant, Xhea is a homeless girl who has adapted to life on the streets. Her independence and resiliency make her seem tough next to the ghost Shai, a gentle and caring soul who’s preyed upon for her magical abilities. As the trilogy goes on, the girls become friends, and their different strengths rub off on one another. Xhea learns to trust and make sacrifices for others, while Shai finds confidence and purpose. And through their unshakable loyalty, they prove that friendship can change us for the better–and compel us to become something more than what we are alone.

Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder

Yelena Zaltana (Maria V. Snyder’s Study Series)

Admittedly Yelena is a kick-ass heroine in the later Study novels. But when the first book Poison Study begins, she’s a confessed murderer on the brink of giving up. She’s then offered a reprieve from execution–to become a military commander’s food-taster. (*gulp*) Accepting that position, however, gives Yelena something to fight for. She soon longs for freedom and learns self-defense, lock-picking, and other skills that can help her reach her goal. She also volunteers for research and reconnaissance assignments to prove herself to the commander and her boss Valek. Because she’s given a second chance, Yelena regains her sense of motivation and her will to live. She also grows tremendously as a character, from a victim of abuse to a young woman with renewed self-worth.

Who are other female characters in SFF novels who have demonstrated inner strength over physical strength? How did they do this? What kinds of female characters (or characters in general) would you like to see more of in fantasy and science fiction?

Sara Letourneau Sara Letourneau is a Massachusetts-based writer who practices joy and versatility in her work. In addition to working on a YA epic fantasy novel, she reviews tea at A Bibliophile’s Reverie and is a contributor at DIY MFA. Her poetry has been published in The Curry Arts Journal, Soul-Lit, The Eunoia Review, Underground Voices, and two anthologies. Learn more about Sara at her website / blog, Twitter, and Goodreads.