Tamora Pierce and what it means to be a “strong female character”

I very clearly remember the book that made me want to become a writer.

For my ninth birthday, my best friend gave me a book called “Wild Magic,” by Tamora Pierce. She hadn’t read it, but the cover had horses, so…you know.

Those horses are a nine year old girl’s dream

I read it cover to cover. And then again. And again. I quickly discovered that Tamora Pierce had written not just “The Immortals” series – of which “Wild Magic” was the first installment, but had several other quartets of Young Adult novels set in the same world. The Tortall universe seems like your generic medieval world, complete with knights, magic, and monarchs. But for its target age group, the books are shockingly feminist, with deep political themes.

Pierce’s first series, “The Song of the Lioness,” is about a young woman who disguises herself as a boy in order to become a knight. The “Protector of the Small” series, which takes place a couple decades later, is a surprisingly deep examination of masculine culture and the turbulence of social progress as the first girl is officially allowed to join the knights’ academy. It’s rare for me to find books that offer not only that level of continuity and world-building, but also strong female characters.

In fact, the phrase “strong female character” has been tossed around a lot in the last ten years. A TedX talk by Tavi Gavinson went viral last month, where she suggested, “What makes a strong female character often gets misinterpreted and we get these two-dimensional superwomen. They’re not strong characters who happen to be female. They’re completely flat.”

On hearing this, I immediately thought of “Doctor Who,” one of my favorite TV shows, and cringed when I thought about the women who accompanied the Doctor on his adventures. In “Doctor Who,” the writers fall into the trap of equating strength with spunkiness – but in the end, many of his companions were glorified damsels in distress, existing only to further his character arc and facilitate audience engagement in the story.

We need more female characters with flaws and multifacted backgrounds. Characters who reflect our own insecurities and contradictions, and who are strong not only in personality, but in their story arcs and their dialogue. Anyone who’s watched  Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” or “Firefly” can tell you that these characters do exist, and are not to be feared. (EDIT: I had an interesting conversation with a friend the other day who pointed out that Joss Whedon also will equate strength with spunkiness, but is usually better at fixing these problems.)

Joss Whedon – the patron saint of strong female characters

Tamora Pierce’s Beka Cooper, Alanna Trebond, and Keladry of Mindelan are great role models for teenage girls. They’re idealistic and driven to do something important with their lives, encountering failure as often as success. Their love lives are often confusing, and sometimes they struggle to balance the desire for success and independence with the pull of a romantic interest. They get beaten down physically and emotionally, and fight back against societal norms.

Even today, as a confused, twitchy, often insecure twentysomething, I re-read Pierce’s novels because I remember how they inspired me when I was younger. They help me remember that I’m still a dreamer. That I still wish I could talk to animals. That I still wish that I’d received my letter to Hogwarts when I turned eleven.

From lady knights to sixteen-year-old street cops.

From lady knights to sixteen-year-old street cops.

I meant to use this post to talk about how I just finished listening to all three audiobooks of Pierce’s “Beka Cooper” series, the latest in her Tortall universe, but clearly got sidetracked. Thanks, Tamora, for making me the writer and the woman that I am today.

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