Monday, December 12, 2011

Why I love to write strong female characters by Patrice Sarath

For many readers, strong female characters conjure up Xena, Warrior Princess. But as much as I love heroines who kick butt and take names, there’s another kind of strong woman I love to write about, and she appears in all my novels.

These characters know their strengths and their weaknesses. They are not over-endowed with brawn or special gifts of magic. They are quite human and mundane. But their strengths come from within and it comes from who they are and what they have learned through their years. They are quiet, competent, and good at what they do, even when, or especially when, they are scared out of their mind.

In The Unexpected Miss Bennet, Mary Bennet starts out as a socially awkward bookworm, much as she is portrayed by Jane Austen herself. But throughout my book she begins to see that her eagerness to show off all of her accomplishments is not likely to give her the praise and adulation she seeks. She becomes less pompous, more thoughtful. But she remains essentially Mary, and so by the end, after she overcomes some trials, she ends up loved exactly for who she is – smart, bookish Mary, who entirely owns her strengths and understands her weaknesses.

In my Gordath Wood series, the two main characters, Lynn Romano and Kate Mossland, are plunged into a medieval fantasy world that is in the middle of a civil war. They use their background and knowledge to protect the people around them and in turn to be protected by their new allies. It would have been unrealistic for them to have become warrior women, especially since that takes years of training. Instead, they use their own particular strengths to succeed. For instance, in Gordath Wood, young Kate Mossland rises from captive to apprentice to the army’s doctor, using her knowledge of modern medicine. And Lynn Romano joins up with the quietly heroic Captain Crae to save both worlds.

None of the secondary female characters can be considered weak either. Lady Jessamy and Lady Sarita (and Mrs. Hunt) all run their lives and their people effectively.

Strong characters aren’t necessarily invincible, either. It wouldn’t be much fun writing – or reading – about people who never lose. Female and male characters who rise above their setbacks are far more interesting than superheroes. Warrior princesses are all well and good, but give me a heroine who can hold her own with only her wits for a weapon any day. It’s a lot harder to do, and all the more admirable for all that.


Patrice Sarath is the author of The Unexpected Miss Bennet and the Gordath Wood series (Gordath Wood and Red Gold Bridge). Her short stories have appeared in Weird Tales, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Realms of Fantasy, and several other magazines and anthologies. She lives and writes in Austin, Texas. You can find more about her work at


  1. While I agree with much of what you are saying, I think you are underestimating the possibility of women having and using military power. I mean less the ability to use a sword (although there were in history some of those) but used in other ways. There was Anges Reynolds, Countess of Dunbar who held Dunbar Castle against an English army and sent her women out to dust the ramparts in order to taunt her enemies and Christina Bruce, sister of the Scottish hero king, who in her sixties held Kildrummy Castle against another English army. A woman leading an army was much more common than one might think simply because the male historians so rarely mention it.

    Of course, as you say, what women did in managing vast estates and taking care of people around them was extremely important and made them no more weak than those who did other things.

  2. J.R. Tomlin, I totally agree. My story "A Prayer for Captain La Hire" is about Joan of Arc and her prowess as a general. She learned to joust and wield a sword, and even though she never took a life, she led from the front in her battles. And as far as that goes, modern female soldiers are no longer serving behind the front lines.

    Thanks for your comment! Patrice Sarath

  3. The Unexpected Miss Bennet sounds really good! I will have to add it to my reading list! I love that Mary is portrayed in more of a 'strong woman' light....sounds like a good book!!

  4. I enjoyed your article about a different kind of woman warrior. I have your book and think it good.

    Thanks for the post!

  5. I really enjoyed reading this post :)
    I think it takes a special skill to fashion a strong woman character who still retains a sense of vulnerability or fallibility that makes her a relatable character as well.

    The Unexpected Miss Bennet sounds like something I would like alot -- thanks for highlighting it.

  6. I like strong female characters also. Interesting post.
    The Unexpected Miss Bennet sounds really good, I do enjoy Austen related spinoffs.