Monday, October 8, 2012

Guest Post: Portrayal of Strong Characters in Urban Fantasy by Sarah from Bookworm Blues

I had a very hard time thinking about what to write for this post. I really enjoy some urban fantasy like books by Stina Leicht, or Neil Gaiman. However, if there is an urban fantasy book with a scantily clad, tattooed woman brandishing weapons and/or magic on the cover I kind of shudder and walk away really fast. If I do end up reading a book like that, I can almost guarantee you I won’t like it. I can list the reasons why – the plots are all basically the same. The female protagonist is always the same (rough past, jaded by men, tough as nails with tons of quips, gorgeous but doesn’t know it, etc).

That’s not a post, though. That’s a nicely colored rant.

Instead of ranting, I decided to take a lot of time and really think about why these books and characters turn me off so much and I think I’ve figured out why, though it will probably be a rather unpopular viewpoint.

I’ve been through a lot. I’m not even thirty yet, but I’ve already fought cancer (I’m in my second battle with it now), had a child with serious health risks (she’s fine, thankfully), been through eight surgeries, been paralyzed for nearly six months and on the list goes, and that’s just in the past two years. Oddly enough, it’s in the past two years that these kind of urban fantasy characters have started to bother me so much.

The truth is, these urban fantasy books thrilled me before I was diagnosed with cancer and I started this roller coaster ride of health issues that has mentally aged me far more than I ever thought possible. I read them quite frequently when I was working on my undergraduate degree. I enjoyed them for the strong women and their escapist tendencies and yes, I even enjoyed the romance (which is shocking, considering how much I complain about romance now).

However, if there’s one thing fighting cancer, and fighting for the life of your unborn child will teach you is that strength comes in many forms. I feel like these stereotypical urban fantasy women cheapen the real life and realistic struggles of so many people and literary characters. These characters (most often women) are all the same, and I get sick of the endless quips and the hunky men who dangle before them like a reward for some hardcore knife/magic welding. That’s not realistic, and that’s the problem I have with urban fantasy in general. So much of this is not realistic.

I feel like many of these female leads are too in-your-face and look-at-me-and-my-badassness to be really believed and the thing is, strong women surround all of us. Strong women are constantly fighting silent (and some not-so-silent) battles. Life is full of battles for all of us, but I feel like the truly strong women are rather silent forces that fight internal battles as much as external. These characters, these in-your-face women who ooze sex appeal and deadly force aren’t real, nor are they believable.

Strong characters flood literature, and books with them are well worth reading. Characters like Liam in The Fey and the Fallen series by Stina Leicht, are very realistic and hauntingly so, due to how human they are. That’s what makes them such wonderful characters – they are absolutely human. Liam lives through one horrible live in a very chaotic time of Irish history, and he makes mistakes, and succeeds. It’s heart wrenching, really, but he keeps going. That’s what strength is – the ability to keep going when all seems lost.

When I really look at the root of why urban fantasy bothers me so much, it’s because of these “strong” woman. You don’t need a weapon strapped to your leg to be strong. You don’t need cut abs, or some horrible past to be strong. Some people fight silent battles. Urban fantasy is escapist fun, but it lacks substance and realism. It tells people that strong women are gorgeous (but don’t know it), and witty beyond measure while having some incredible ability and that’s just not real. Strong women come in every shape and size and their battles cover the gamut of human trauma and books should (and many do) reflect this.

In the end, I’d rather read about a realistic character any day, than one of these scantily clad, cookie cutters that flood urban fantasy shelves. I wish people wouldn’t call these characters strong. I wish they’d say that they are fun – that’s more accurate. Strong characters are human, realistic and often haunting. These urban fantasy characters don’t reflect true human strength – in fact, I tend to think they insult it. 

And that’s why (some) urban fantasy bothers me.


Sarah is one of the strongest people I've interacted with, and you can follow her on the Bookworm Blues blog and on her Twitter @BookwormBlues.

Considering that her post focused on how strength is portrayed in Urban Fantasy, I invite you to read a series of guest posts she had on her blog about Special Needs. I think it'll give an interesting contrast to what is being talked about here.


  1. Right there with you.

    You want to write a strong woman, make her mentally and emotionally strong first. A character in her 20s-30s with teenaged levels of angst and indecisiveness is pretty much the opposite of strong.

    The portrayals of the obligatory male love interest is just as bad too. Yes, it's just as disgusting to write male characters as depthless sex/romance toys as it is to write female characters as simpering boob-transportation devices.

  2. I bow down and worship at the altar of Sarah. You have just articulated each and every complaint that I have with a lot of these "strong" female characters. Thank you, ma'am.

  3. Sarah, I hadn't even thought of this issue when I wrote my post--but I think your point is even more poignant than mine in many ways. Realistic Characters Matter.

  4. Nice. And er... I couldn't agree more. Well, I'd agree even if you hadn't mentioned my books. :)

  5. Bravo Sarah! This has been Urban Fantasy's weakest point and ironically its strongest suit for selling books. Hopefully this perception will change soon but I'm not holding my breath for it.

    Until then we will have to bear more and more women who are supposedly bad-ass and are depicted standing awkwardly on the covers of UF books


  6. Wonderful post! Well said, I really like what you say about strong characters and agree completely that a lot of the ones that are supposed to be strong aren't.

  7. Wish you were in charge of a publisher, to make some better decisions.

    One example of a strong woman character I've recently read is Mariko in "Shogun." In one scene she wields a sword, and yet she knows she won't win, but her honor and integrity leave her no choice. That's strength.

  8. I read a bunch of urban fantasy novels several years ago. Suddenly I stopped reading them - after 3 or 4 books in a series and couldn't bring myself to pick up new ones. It took me a while to discover why I didn't like them anymore.

    Like you I found these 'strong' women becoming cookie cutter characters. More than that though, they acted like teenagers. As The Mighty Buzzard mentioned in the comments, they're all angst and 'I don't need help to do stuff'.

    Going it alone isn't strong, it's generally stupid (and doesn't work, as most of the 'strong' women in these books end up needing help after all). I just found as a woman in my late 20s, I couldn't relate to so called 20 somethings who acted like 16 year old girls. I wanted them to grow up. Adults ask for help when they need it. Adults make decisions and don't string 2 guys (or more) along for fun. Adults have faced hardships that have helped them grow as individuals.

    Great post. :)

  9. Yes! So much yes! I know I've had my own rants and posts before about the issue of strong female characters in novels and how strength comes in more forms than people like to realize, but Sarah, I think you said it better than I ever could. This was an awesome post to read, and I thank you for writing it.

  10. thank.


    SO much for this. If only I was able to articulate my awkwardness towards the "strong women" of UF as elegantly and thoughtfully.

  11. The woman are over done in many of these books. I don't have a problem with a tough chick, but the attitudes sometimes are overboard.

    You are one of the strongest around here, knowing of some you've been through. Hope you are getting through this second round. Take care dear. ((hugs))

  12. When I'm reading books, how "strength" is portrayed is not something I care to look for. I guess part of it the women aspect of it doesn't resonate as much to me as it would female readers. But how strength is portrayed via male characters will highly influence how I feel about a book.

    That said, completely agree with what you say here Sarah. The only thing is that I can't fault books for having a hot main character. I do have a problem though with how somehow they need to become the uber-bitch in order to be called strong at times. But more than that, I have problem with the portrayal of side-characters and the effect this main character has on them, and them on her.

    For example, on friendship... sometimes I find it hard to believe how many people start surrounding this character with a personality that I personally couldn't stand around for more than 5 seconds. Yet somehow people start gravitating towards them. Of course, when she's out saving lives, risking her live (for you) then it makes some sense, but I'd like to see side characters do a bit of a bigger stink about how much of a turd of a personality the character has. As it stands, it's like they're enablers.

    But my biggest problem is when this same characters meet the hot dude potential love interest and how the characters do a 180, particularly on an emotional level. It's like hot men are their kryptonite, and it just ruins characters in favor of making the main character more "vulnerable" hence heightening the drama.

    Few handle that situation to my liking.

    But in all, I agree with how the portrayal of strength can be a problem. I do think though that it's more of a problem of reader perception than the novel itself. As you mention, they can be fun reading, and that's how I usually evaluate my urban fantasy. Fun is usually one of my top criteria. I have no problem with female characters kicking major ass, and if they're hot, well bonus :) But I'm not going to hold that against them, but I understand why some would have issue with it. I know these Abercrombie model male characters that are often found in UF usually rub me the wrong way, usually they're the ones who ruin my reading.

  13. I just found this post & I have to say I absolutely adore it.

    "Strong women are constantly fighting silent (and some not-so-silent) battles. Life is full of battles for all of us, but I feel like the truly strong women are rather silent forces that fight internal battles as much as external." So true.

    My MC is a therapist & I think some of these "heroines" need appointments, stat.


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