Strong Female Characters

Lots of them in A Hymn for the Dying

Posted on Sept. 14, 2018 by Jim

In my latest novel, A Hymn for the Dying, I included a number of strong female characters. I’ve always done that in my writing. In The Gods Within, Rhianne, the female lead, appears to be a flighty young girl whose greatest ambition is to marry a wealthy and powerful lord. But by the end of the story she kicks some serious demon butt, and saves the hero a couple of times. In The Dead Among Us, Katherine McGowan is a city girl who likes designer clothes and expensive shoes, and as far as she is concerned, camping is practicing being homeless—she and my wife agree on that. But she proves to be one heck of a powerful and strong witch—Katherine, not my wife.

The story in A Hymn for the Dying starts out with a young boy named Mathius scrounging for food and water on a war-torn planet ravaged by a five-way civil war. I modeled the setting after what it must be like for the poor civilians in Syria, caught between the government and rebel factions. Like all children of his time, Mathius has heard tall tales of the legendary Kelk, a race of humans that are reputed to look like blue-skinned demons with blood-red demonic eyes. Supposedly they steal children in the night and eat them.

After a horrible tragedy, Mathius is orphaned and evacuated from his home planet. He joins the Commonwealth Security Corps as a raw recruit. ComSecCorps is the military arm of the Commonwealth of Allied Interstellar Systems, and he aspires to one day become one of the elite Blackswords.

On his first mission as a ComSecCorps soldier, he gets caught up in a firefight with soldiers of the Kelk Supremacy, and learns they are nothing like the legends. Nikaela Vreekande is the Kelk leader, a young, female, junior officer only a few years older than him. And one by one, all of Mathiu’s preconceived ideas of the demon Kelk are shattered as he and Nikaela try to kill each other, and nearly succeed.

I decided to make the Kelk Supremacy a highly matriarchal society, and I reversed many of the roles of men and women, putting more women in executive and command positions. So I populated Kelk society with a number of alpha females. Nikaela, while very junior, is nevertheless a combat soldier. But if that’s all she is, then she’d just a caricature, not a fully developed character, and that gets boring.

I find the most interesting characters are those whose strength comes from tenacity, stubbornness and smarts, not from pure physical prowess. Mathius is that way. One of his instructors tells him, “If you have to swim a race you’ll probably come in fourth or fifth. But if you have to swim for your life, you’ll be the last one with your head above water, and no doubt you’ll be helping a couple of your comrades stay alive as well.” My female characters aren’t physically stronger than the men, but they come out on top because they are smart, or stubborn, or all of the above. To me that is more like the real world today, and that makes a story much more entertaining and immersive.

In A Hymn for the Dying, the first book in the Blacksword series, we only see snippets of Kelk society through Nikaela’s point of view. In the second book, the reader will learn quite a bit more about the Kelk. And some of the women are going to be really strong villains. I’ll have to be careful to make sure they’re not one-dimensional. It’s easy to create a diabolical villain who is evil to the core, with no redeeming qualities. It’s much more interesting if the villain has some characteristics with which we sympathize. I try to make sure my bad guys—or gals—are not all bad, and my god-guys are not all good. Furthermore, not all my bad-guys die, and not all my good-guys live.