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Today’s Women in SF&F month guest is horror author S. A. Barnes! She’s also YA and romance writer Stacey Kade, whose work includes the science fiction series Project Paper Doll and the paranormal trilogy The Ghost and the Goth. Her latest book, Dead Silence, is a science fiction horror novel “in which a woman and her crew board a decades-lost luxury cruiser and find the wreckage of a nightmare that hasn’t yet ended.”

Cover of Dead Silence by S. A. Barnes

Give Me Messy Heroines

I’m a child of the 80s. I was lucky to grow up in a time with iconic characters like Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Wonder Woman (Lynda Carter) showing us that women not only had a place in science fiction but an important role to play.

Like every other child that age, I pretended to be Princess Leia escaping Jabba with nothing but guts, sheer force of will, and the very chain holding her captive. I was Wonder Woman lassoing the bad guys, deflecting bullets with her bracelets. I even had the appropriate outfits, thanks to my two sets of Underoos. (Anyone else remember those?)

I loved those characters as a little girl, and I still do. As far as role models go, it’s hard to think of better ones for truth, courage, and determination.

But as an adult, I realized that those are pretty high standards to live up to. In truth, those characters and the ideals they represent are fantasies. It’s who we hope to be on our best day. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

But sometimes, I want a story about someone who is more like me on a regular day. The person who is ambitious, occasionally short-tempered, deeply full of self-doubt, and struggling with feeling that I’m drowning under the weight of my choices, responsibilities, and a persistent anxiety disorder.

A few years ago, I was working on a draft of a SF thriller (currently on hold). This was an Earth-based story about a disgraced journalist who was chasing a lead on a missing person, a nothing story that looked like it might turn out to be the story to end all stories—confirmed contact with extraterrestrials in the 1800s and a literal blood-drinking cult that had sprung up around it in this small Texas town.

My main character was deeply damaged by her past as the secret child of a man who tried to keep his second family hidden, just one town over from his “real” family. She had, unsurprisingly, complicated relationships with men, including her married boss. She also made up a source, breaking journalistic code, to try to save a family caught in corporate misdeeds that resulted in a cancer cluster and children dying.

So, yes, she was definitely flawed, but on a journey to getting her head on straight. However, people had trouble connecting with her. And to be fair, it could well be that I was not expressing her character/arc clearly enough.

But as I struggled with figuring out how to remedy this, someone pointed out that my main character in this story more strongly resembled a thriller heroine versus a science fiction one. (Ah, the dangers of trying to write a hybrid story!) Basically, the idea was that, in the context of genre expectations, science fiction readers are perhaps more comfortable with protagonists they admire—even if they don’t always like them. It should be a character they can imagine being or wanting to be on this adventure. In thrillers, because we’re expecting the character’s flaws to play a role in their ability to solve the mystery or stay alive, we’re more accepting of someone behaving in a less-than-heroic manner sometimes.

That makes sense. But it occurred to me later to wonder if that’s a standard across the board.

It’s no secret, regardless of genre or medium, that readers and viewers alike sometimes struggle to relate to flawed female characters, casting judgment in a way that I’m not sure they do when it’s a guy.

She’s selfish.
She’s greedy.
She’s ambitious.
She’s weak.
She’s emotional.

Well, yeah. Aren’t we all sometimes?

Hence, the whole ongoing debate of what it means to be a “strong female character.” Strong shouldn’t mean just one thing, one archetype. (And it definitely shouldn’t mean “strong” in the same way we expect a stereotypical “strong male character” to behave.)

In my space horror novel Dead Silence, Claire Kovalik is a messy heroine. She’s in charge of her team, mainly because it was her only option to stay in space and do the work she loves. She is facing the end of her career, what she sees as the end of her life, essentially. And only the jeopardy her crew would be in, by attempting to rescue her, keeps her from ending her life by simply unhooking herself from the final beacon she’s supposed to repair.

She has no desire for heroics. She cares about her people, yes. But she’s not looking to take down evil corporations or governments. She’s just trying to get by, making the best decisions she can, battling her own weaknesses and inner demons (figuratively and literally, at times).

I relate to that. That’s why I wrote it. Would it have been more admirable for her to aim to take down the bad guys? For her to be selfless and committed to doing the right thing even if it meant more misery? Sure. But that’s not who she is. That’s not who I am, who most of us are, on an average day.

I’m not suggesting we glamorize our flaws or that they’re even something to be celebrated. But I think fiction is at its most powerful when it’s a mirror for reality, and that mirror should reflect everyone in their truest form.

I think most everyone agrees—women deserve to be the center of the story sometimes, to be more than the love interest, the political pawn who needs rescuing, the naïve one reminding our more jaded counterparts of the good in the ‘verse, the lesson the hero needs to learn by our death. And we’ve made progress on that front. But beyond that, women deserve to be seen as we are. We aren’t always beyond-reproach iconic characters. We are messy, flawed, and just doing our best, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

(Please note: I’m using the terms female and women to include all those who identify as such.)

Photo of S. A. Barnes S.A. Barnes is the author of Dead Silence (Tor Nightfire, February 2022). She works in a high school library by day, recommending reads, talking with students, and removing the occasional forgotten cheese stick as bookmark. She lives in Illinois with more dogs and books than is advisable and a very patient husband.