Heroines Who Don’t Kick Ass

 Don’t get me wrong.  I love heroines who kick ass.  If Buffy called on me to join her battling evil in the pits of hell, I’d jump at the chance, trusting that she’d get me home at least as safely as John Carter or Aragorn.  But I read a book the other day which was an example of everything that can go wrong with heroines who kick ass when it’s done badly (basically it was a struggle to remember she was a female character and not some guy with a gun), and it got me thinking of heroines who don’t. 

The first that came to mind is LeGuin’s The Other Wind, which I have always read as a book in which a grandmother wins the day.  What could be more opposite to the kickass heroine than the kind, wise grandmother?  Especially since, if you go back to the fairy tale origins of fantasy, the old people are usually the villains.  And they’re usually trying to steal the life and vitality of the young one way or another.  But not in The Other Wind.  In that book it’s the grandmother who, very quietly and from the back, leads the heroic company to the successful completion of their quest.  I love it. 

The other book that comes to mind is Kushner’s Privilege of the Sword.  This book is not a heroic fantasy – there is no quest, for one thing, and it’s more a coming of age story.  The heroine is the niece of a Mad Duke, who decides he’s going to train her to be a great swordsman, despite the fact that they live in what is basically Restoration Europe and such is not the normal training the niece of a duke would receive.  The book is about much more than that, of course, with the dueling as much a metaphor for finding one’s place in society as it is for slam bang action (though there’s plenty of that, too).  But the scene that came to mind after reading the very bad kick ass heroine of this other book was the moment when Kushner’s heroine, having just completed her first duel, decides she’d better quit while she’s ahead and go back to her skirts.  A wonderful moment, marvelously empowering for the character, and proof that, if a woman wants to find happiness and satisfaction in life, she does not necessarily have to emulate men. 

Not that she shouldn’t kick their asses, if that’s what’s needed. 

Anyone else have some good examples of heroine’s who don’t kick ass? 

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  1. 1. Sam

    Elizabeth Moon’s “Remnant Population” springs to mind, quiet heroicism against authority that doesn’t care about the dignity of the people it has power over.

    Not in world-shaking rebellion, just passive refusal to comply and, having done so, what comes next when you’re the last person on a planet evacuated by corporate decree, no-longer beholden to the expectations of society.

    It’s a different kind of ass-kicking, but still ass-kicking IMO.

  2. 2. Adam Heine

    I just finished reading Olivia Butler’s Kindred. It’s about a modern-day black woman transported to the 19th-century, slave-holding South where if she even tried to kick someone’s butt, she’d be killed on the spot. Really powerful book.

  3. 3. Mary

    There are plenty of wise, kind old folks in fairy tales. They may test the hero or heroine, but they are often the secret of their success. Take, say, Jesper Who Herded Hares or East of the Sun, West of the Moon

    OTOH, I particularly like young women who aren’t kickass heroines because — you know, people, upperbody strength does matter, and a woman who can fight like that is even rarer than a man who can. Besides, then she has to be clever. Hercules can drag Cerebus out of the Underworld by main force; Psyche has to spy on the golden-fleeced firebreathing sheep and notice their wool catches on branches so she doesn’t have to fight them.

  4. 4. Jessica Strider

    My favourite is Lois McMaster Bujold’s Paladin of Souls. The protagonist is a middle aged woman who’s tired of the constraints her nobility places on her. So she does the only thing a woman of her age can which will give her some freedom: go on pilgrimage. When that pilgrimage gets hijacked it’s not her fault but she’s cool under pressure, a quick thinker and is able to solve the mysteries that come her way.

    The protagonist in Son of Avonar by Carol Berg is similar. Middle aged lady helps a man on the run and ends up in the middle of a mystery that stretches back to the death of her husband. Again, she’s an intelligent woman who has no fighting or magical skills but is able to make difficult decisions, and accept the consequences.

  5. 5. Marie Brennan

    Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin — the heroine’s a college student who saves her lover from the Faerie Queen by refusing to let go of him. (It’s based on a ballad.)

    I was going to say lots of Diana Wynne Jones’ work, but it’s worth remembering there that she mostly writes for kids/YA, and the genre conventions are different there. In adult writing, this is a part of the larger tendency we have to settle our plot conflicts with violence of one kind or another: resolution through cleverness or kindness or anything of that sort is kind of rare as a general rule.

  6. 6. sylvia_rachel

    I second what Jessica Strider said above, and actually Bujold’s books are full of heroines who don’t physically kick ass but are wise, clever, determined, inquisitive, and/or brave (in the sense of being scared spitless but doing what you have to do anyway) and thus prevail anyway: Ekaterin Vorsoisson in Komarr, Ijada dy Castos in The Hallowed Hunt, Fawn Bluefield in the Sharing Knife series.

    Also Mai (I think that’s her name…) in Kate Elliott’s “Traitor’s …” books, who is small and un-ass-kicky but clever and diplomatic, and thus improves her own life and other people’s despite being in a position of relatively little power. (There are some good heroines who do kick ass in those books, too, come to think.)

  7. 7. sylvia_rachel

    Er, I wrote that wrong.

    *Kate Elliott’s “… Gate” books.

    I am a Bear of Very Little Brain today.

  8. 8. Kari Sperring

    I immediately thought of Lisa Goldstein’s Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon, and Dark Cities Underground, in both of which rather quiet, ordinary women confront and deal with extraordinary things with sense, not swords.

  9. 9. Mac

    I loved “Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon.”

  10. 10. warriorofworry

    I value the ass-kicking urban romantic heroine, but like you, I don’t like thinly disguised adolescent boys being sold as female. My favorite female characters are from books I call “not a sweet young thing”: Cherryh’s Bet Yeager in Rimrunners; Elizabeth Bear’s Jenny Casey in the Hammered series; and Lynn Abbey’s Out of Time series are three which come to mind immediately, though there are many more.

  11. 11. Andrew A. A.

    Gonna do a series out of my usual realm of fantasy reading that I absolutely adore, where the characters have become more like people I know as oppose to people I’m reading about:

    Sharon Shinn’s Twelve Houses series. Now most of the women can and do kick butt, but a couple of characters do fit the description in this topic, Ellynor comes to mind. Her powers are defensive, powers she never even considered more than just the way she lives.

    And Mr. Butler I think you do well with Ferris portraying strength and confidence, a force to be reckonned with, without actually kicking butt…

    But I will say that I’m still most attracted to female characters who do Kick ass. R.R. Martin’s Arya is one of my favorites and to me not any more farfetched than an orc, dwarf or elf. I knew girls who not only handled themselves but… Well lets just say I married a woman who I watched knocked out a ex-boyfirend with one punch… And anyone who has rolled in Jujitsu with a female knows that upper body strength only goes so far against flexibility, skill and training.

  12. 12. dameia

    I have to say, I’ve always loved Marion Zimmer Bradley’s heroines, especially Morgaine in Mists of Avalon and Kassandra in The Firebrand. Neither one is particularly powerful physically, but rather than try to change that they accept it and use what talents they do have, and prove themselves the equals of men like King Arthur and Hector of Troy. That said, while I did not finish reading Ravens of Avalon, her telling of Boudicca was pretty kick-ass; but at the same time, she was not only a man with breasts.

  13. 13. dameia

    Oh, and let’s not forget Anne Rice’s Claudia–not only does she NOT kick ass physically, she cannot, being trapped in a child’s body. Like MZB’s heroines, she uses her not inconsiderable mental prowess to achieve what she wants.

  14. 14. S.C. Butler

    Sam – As you point out, there are different kinds of ass kicking. Some of the best are the ones where the ass kicked don’t even realize it’s happening till it’s over.

    Adam – Excellent point about Kindred. Great courage just to live through something like that.

    Mary – I have a fondness for the clever as well, of either gender. Though Buffy and Aragorn will always have a place in my heart too.

  15. 15. S.C. Butler

    Jessica – Paladin of Souls is a great example. I’ve never read any Berg. Shall have to take a look.

    Marie – Resolutions by kindness – now there’s a great idea. Definitely want more of those. You have a new assignment.

    Sylvia – Prevailing is just an old-fashioned way of saying, “kicked ass.”

  16. 16. S.C. Butler

    Kari – Sounds like I need to check out those books.

    warriorofworry – It’s much easier for heroine’s to kick ass in with guns and magic than it is with swords (for the reasons Mary points out, above).

    Andrew – Thanks for the plug about Ferris. I kind of like her myself. And remind me to be very polite if I ever meet your wife!

  17. 17. S.C. Butler

    dameia – The fact that the writer seemed to forget the fact that the protag had breasts was what bothered me, not the kicking of ass. It did not help that the writer is male, though bad writing will always be bad writing regardless of gender.

  18. 18. Elias McClellan

    Mr. Butler, an excellent topic. I would offer for your consideration any of Jacqueline Carey’s “Kushiel’s …” series. Phedra doesn’t kick ass, is absolutely mortified the single time she takes a life. Added to that, Carey’s sword-swinger is a melding of Jesuit discipline and Buddist regard for life.

    Neither character is blood-thirsty. I really appreciated the humanity of these books, having discovered them amid the rah-rah-rah of ‘The 300′s,’ oh-so acceptable facism and blood lust.

  19. 19. Jack Tingle

    The Miscellaneous Aunts in Elizabeth Moon’s “Familias Regnant” books. Not an ass-kicker in the bunch, but whoo-eee, you do not want to disappoint them.

    Regards,
    Jack Tingle

  20. 20. S.C. Butler

    Elias, Jack – Never read either of those series, but they both sound good.

  21. 21. Marie Brennan

    I actually think I’ve done a bit of “resolution through kindness” . . . in short stories. But it’s hard to crank that up to a sufficiently pulse-pounding level for a novel — at least in SF/F, where the conflicts are usually expected to be more than just personal.

  22. 22. S.C. Butler

    Marie – I think resolution through kindness probably works better in short fiction, for exactly the reason you mention.

  23. 23. Elias J. McClellan

    I don’t know that a heroine that doesn’t KA automatitically relagates the story to resolution through kindness.

    In ‘Herritics/Chapterhouse’ Frank Herbert’s BG employs men to do the grunt work rather than expend BG sisters on the field. And I over simplify with that as he has heroines that KA and some who do not. To each there is a skill and speciality that does not render them inferior (far from it) to men. Just different.

    In ‘Kushiel’s Dart,’ niether the heroine nor the antagonist lay a hand on a dagger or sword but the resolution is on the field and bloody to say the least. Each character is fully actualized and their talents are profoundly wrought. Far from an ABC after school special.

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Author Information

S.C. Butler

Butler is the author of The Stoneways Trilogy from Tor Books: Reiffen's Choice, Queen Ferris, and The Magician's Daughter. Find out what Reiffen does with magic, and what magic does with him... Visit site.

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