Women in Fiction, with Lindsay Buroker

So, I’m a huge Star trek fan–and of course, I loved the new movie. I thought they did a clever job with the material, the characters…but this isn’t a review. I wanted to touch on an issue that several blogs have picked up on: the way women are presented in the movie.
Star Trek has always had (relatively) strong female characters–Uhura is an excellent example. But although the two female leads in the new film have a decent amount of screen time–and they’re set up to be strong and confident–they come off as “damsels in distress” (to quote the above articles). It’s unsettling…and it got me thinking.

When I saw the film, I was reading Lindsay Buroker’s Beneath the Surface (reviewed last week). Buroker has always impressed me with her strong female characters; it’s refreshing to see women portrayed on the same level as men, something you don’t see in a lot of fiction. Generally–and yes, this is a generalisation, and likely a controversial one–it’s my experience that women in fiction tend to be represented as people to be saved, helped, or pursued. Even strong women characters like Uhura or Beatrice from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing* tend to play second string when a strong male character comes along. We could debate the whys and hows of this, but it’s an enormous topic–and I’ll freely admit that I’m not well versed in it. But I did want to get Buroker’s perspective, so we had a brief interview. My questions are in bold:

Your books tend to have very strong female lead characters, something not exactly typical in popular fiction. Was this an intentional choice (i.e. filling a perceived gap), or did it grow organically (it’s just the way you like to write)?
Thank you. I’m glad they come across that way. 🙂

I didn’t set out to make any statements or try to say, “This is how you write strong women, peeps–pay attention!” For the most part, I just like to write protagonists who drive the action. Even if my heroines are kidnapped and tied up in an enemy warship bound for who knows where, they’re going to try and take charge of their destiny rather than simply waiting to see what the world drops in their laps. I think those wilful types of people who make things happen have a tendency to be seen as strong characters. They’re naturally leaders instead of followers.
It is something of a challenge to make those kinds of people likeable–women in leadership roles are often seen as bossy or bitchy, even by their own sex–but by being in the character’s head, it’s possible to show all their vulnerabilities as well as their strengths. That goes a long way toward humanizing someone, and it’s a shame we can’t look into people’s heads that way in real life to see where they’re coming from.What would you suggest in ways to improve the way women are represented in fiction?

I actually think there are quite a few people writing “strong women” for television, books, and movies, but what gets to me is that these are often one-dimensional Xena-like-characters with superhuman abilities to kick everybody’s butts. I don’t know about you, but I know plenty of strong women and none of them do that. 😀
A lady I know always comes to mind for me during these types of discussions. She’s the middle child of 8 or 10 kids, paid her own way through school, built up a successful business from scratch in a male dominated field, ran a marathon after kicking breast cancer’s butt, and is fair and generous with everybody. That’s the kind of “strong woman” I’d like to see more of in fiction, and I think these are the kinds of role models young women need when they’re growing up.

I tend to see stronger female characters in Indie Fiction than I do with traditionally published books and entertainment (in general). Is this your experience, and if so, why do you think this is?
I have to confess that I haven’t read nearly as much independent fiction as I should have (I’m getting most of my “reading” done via audiobooks these days, and it’s still mostly traditionally published authors on Audible), so I’ll take your word on that. I’d guess, though, that indies don’t have to get past gatekeepers who tend to play it safe by buying more books like the ones that are already selling. Hey, those urban fantasy novels with the warrior women kicking vampire butts sell. Let’s print 50 more this year!

Can you point to other writers/artists that serve as an example of strong female characters in fiction that were inspirational? 
Lois McMaster Bujold always has strong female characters, and they’re rarely those brawny butt-kickers either. 😉 (I am realizing that I’ve used variations of kicking butt at least four times in this short interview… I assure you that such words rarely come up in my fantasy novels–maybe that’s why I’m unleashing them so often here!)
On TV (warning: I am a geek who has many SF series on DVD), I was always fond of Samantha Carter from Stargate SG-1. Sure, she’s a Mary Sue, but I loved that she was an astrophysicist and that her smarts were often critical to plot (I confess that one of my pet peeves revolves around characters who are described as smart but who never actually do anything smart :P).Thanks, Lindsay!

I’d considered breaking this interview into two posts, but thought better of it and posted the whole thing. I’d like to follow up with some discussion and thoughts on Wednesday, and I’d welcome your input–leave your thoughts in the comments!
In the meantime, I’ll invite you to check our Buroker’s work–it’s a great example of how women should be presented in fiction. And they’re just plain good books! Find them here on Amazon, and on Kobo. You can also check out her blog, Facebook and Twitter.
*Edited to correct my own mistake–I got the wrong play!
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11 comments on “Women in Fiction, with Lindsay Buroker

  1. i8brenna says:

    Nice interview with one of my new favorite authors. (Negative points, however, for not knowing that Shakespeare’s Beatrice is from “Much Ado About Nothing”!) I think that one of the challenges in finding good, strong female characters is that there often aren’t as many female characters, period. Even in the Emperor’s Edge series, by the last book we have two ladies vs five guys in the core group. That’s an unfortunate ratio for a story that’s driven by an admittedly strong female character.

    • James J Parsons says:

      Glad you enjoyed it! And you make a really good point–a lot of fiction is dominated by male characters, which is certainly a big part of the issue.

      Nice catch with Much Ado–I should have known that!

    • Ashley says:

      Indeed. What the Emperor’s Edge series does really well is maintain a dynamic in which the women, though outnumbered by the men in the team, do not change roles and defer leadership to the men. Buroker consistently carries out this dynamic between the characters in a believable, respectable, and likeable way.

      • James J Parsons says:

        Absolutely–in fact, one of my favourite scenes in the series is from the short story Ice Cracker II, where Sicarius tells her she’s a good leader because she makes the team “look like better men than [they] are.” She’s the natural leader of the group not because she’s a woman, but because she’s a natural leader.

    • I think the fact that Amaranthe and the rest live in a male dominated society is the reason this is true in this story. She actually points this out in the very first book, saying that it’s only been recently that women have even been let into law enforcement. The fact that there are TWO strong female characters in the group is actually a good way to show the reader that times are starting to change, but have not fully yet.

      Personally I think trying to add another female character into the EE series would be difficult. You couldn’t do it the same way she added Yara and the majority of women in the world are business owners. It would almost feel forced to have added another main female character into this world. The only reason Yara worked is because she was the foil character to Amaranthe.

      Bah, I feel like i’m back in college doing an essay on what each character represents in the works of Lindsay Buroker! =D

      • James J Parsons says:

        Good points! I think it’s also worth noting that the villains aren’t all men–there are some powerful women there too. The gender equality is certainly getting better in that society.

  2. Nice interview! I love the Emperor’s Edge series and I think one of the main reasons is because of the main character being a strong female. The best part is it’s not thrown in your face (as Lindsay has pointed out is all too often done).

    I’d like to throw out there that another very strong female character in indie fantasy is in the book Luthiel’s Song. Great book from a really cool author. He actually does write the character to break the stereotype, but it works.

    Oh and on another note, the term “kicking butt” may not come up, but between Maldynado and Akstyr plenty of very similar phrases are found throughout the series!

    • James J Parsons says:

      Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed it! And thanks for suggesting Luthiel’s Song–I’m always on the look out for good Indie Fiction, so I’ll add it to my list. Maybe you’ll see a review here soon enough!

  3. […] Monday, I posted an interview with one of my favourite Indie authors, Lindsay Buroker. The focus was women in fiction, and when […]

  4. Buroker’s characters and her badinage between characters are superb. Agree that Amaranthe is not “strong for a woman” – Amaranthe is strong, period! I’ve read nearly everything Buroker has published and am eagerly awaiting the grand finale to her Emperor’s Edge series.

    • James J Parsons says:

      Indeed. Amaranthe is becoming one of my favourite characters in literature, just for that reason.

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