Are Kickass Heroines an Urban Fantasy Myth?

[Before I open the kickass can of worms, please visit Grave Tells today, where awesome book blogger Kimba of Kimba the Caffeinated Book Reviewer is representing me–or, rather, Susannah Sandlin–as a nominee for the website’s 2012 Reader’s Choice Award for Most Promising New Author. Stop by and join the discussion, and stay tuned for voting info!]

I’m over at the awesome SF Signal today (I love that site!), taking part in an interesting “Mind Meld” discussion on strong women in science fiction and fantasy. A number of authors are offering up their opinions, and it should be interesting throughout the day as the discussion takes place. Other participating authors are Linnea Sinclair, Jaye Wells, Lauren Beukes, Karina Cooper, Pip Ballantine, Kelly Meding, Teresa Frohock, Jess Haines, and Allison Pang.

Ask just about anyone who the typical urban fantasy heroine is, and you’re going to get answers like “kickass” or “wears leather” or “has tattoos” or “carries a (fill in the blank with exotic weapon of choice).”

And I do think there has been a lot of that, or at least there was in the early days of the genre, when Anita Blake was shooting monsters and taking names. I also think UF was one of the first non-romance areas of genre fiction where women authors became predominant, and there was a certain amount of glass-ceiling-breaking that needed doing. Sure, there have been very successful women writing sci fi and fantasy for years…but they’re in the vast minority. For too long, women characters in speculative fiction were either the damsels in distress, the weaker sidekick, or the evil queen bitches.

Until Laurell K. Hamilton kicked the door down. Sure, Emma Bull could arguably be called the “mother” of modern UF, as could Anne Rice or even Tanya Huff, but I’m looking strictly at female characters here. Anita was kickass way before she ever heard the word “ardeur.”

But now, as I look around at the heavy hitters among UF heroines, I’m not seeing much kickass. The stereotype continues…but is it real? I’m thinking it’s more habit to talk about UF kickass heroines than any reflection of reality.

Rachel Morgan. Strong, but she’s trying to survive as often as she’s kicking butt.

Sookie. No way is she kickass.

Mercy Thompson. Also a very strong woman, but she knows when to use her allies as backup and kicks ass with her brain as much as her martial arts skills.

Kitty Norville. Kitty’s gotten pretty kickass but she didn’t start that way; it has been an evolution.

What about Gin Blanco or Kate Daniels? Would you consider them kickass? (I haven’t read these series.)

Jane True, which I’m just starting to read….not kickass at all.

I’ve only read the first Jane Yellowrock book, but she’s one I’d definitely say is still in the kickass category. Am I missing others?

My impression is that the kickass heroine from a decade ago has matured–as the authors and genre have matured–into a well-rounded character who grows into her kickassitude instead of coming on the scene ready to conquer the world. I know my own heroine DJ is certainly no kickass heroine. She is a geek who tends to get her ass kicked, more often than not, although she’s growing and learning.

The Anita Blake model (bitter, tough cookie who covers her insecurity with her weaponry) seems to be dying out. Or am I missing something?

Weigh in!

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About Suzanne Johnson

Author of urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and suspense. As Suzanne Johnson, she is the author of the Sentinels of New Orleans urban fantasy series (Royal Street; River Road: Elysian Fields, Pirate's Alley, Belle Chasse, Frenchmen Street (March 2018). Writing as Susannah Sandlin, she is the author of the Penton Legacy series (Redemption; Absolution; Omega; Storm Force; Allegiance; ILLUMINATION); The Collectors series (Lovely, Dark, and Deep; Deadly, Calm, and Cold); and the Wilds of the Bayou series (Wild Man's Curse; Black Diamond).

34 thoughts on “Are Kickass Heroines an Urban Fantasy Myth?

  1. I know the Anita Blake series has been hugely popular but she never appealed to me all that much. I definitely prefer these new, more well-rounded characters.

    What about Sabina Kane? She’s pretty kick-ass from the get go if I recall correctly (Jaye Wells’s series). One of my faves was Vicki Pettersson’s Zodiac series. Joanna was a bit tough in the beginning but became more kick ass as the series continued.

    • I haven’t read Sabina Kane, but agree with you about the Zodiac series. I think that’s the more common pattern now. The characters don’t start out kickass (a la Anita) but gradually develop their strength.

  2. I don’t think Gin Blanco fits the old stereotype of a kick ass heroine. She’s an assassin and good at killing but she also has friends who help her. I actually prefer the heroines of today. They are more interesting, well rounded characters.

    • Totally agree, Sandy. I like the newer UF heroines. I was a fan of the Anita Blake series, at least until went too heavily into the sexcapades, but Anita was often a jerk and not always likeable. (The supporting cast, on the other hand, was awesome.)

  3. i haven’t read much UF lately, so i can’t say much. but i do notice characters like anita blake are seen much in UF genre lately.

    • oops, sorry. i was saying that characters like anita are not seen much in UF. but somehow the “not” is missing when i type that comment, and i just realized it now.

  4. The book I read so far (from all genres) I found that all author wrotes an incrediable hero but not the heroine, still wondering why.

    And the kickass heroine I like is kat from alien series by gini koch

    • LOL. I have a theory about that just because as an author I think I write stronger male characters than female characters, on the whole. In general, I think the heroes of books written by women (especially in paranormal romance) are stronger than the heroines, and it’s because women authors have had a lifetime of thinking about what they find appealing in a guy and it’s easier to write. Heroes can always be snarky alpha jerks (with a heart of gold) and we’ll love them. Women are harder to write. We want them to be funny and strong and likeable, yet if they’re too funny they come across as hard and unlikeable. If they’re too strong, they come across as hard and unlikeable. Women are just MUCH harder to write well.

  5. I think because I read Sookie before I read Anita Blake, my ideas about what makes up an UF heroine have always included the less-kick-ass type. And for an example of another take on the type, what about Alexia Tarabotti from the Parasol Protectorate series?

    • Yes, Sookie is definitely not kickass. Of course, I have some problem classifying that series as urban fantasy since it really delves into paranormal romance territory as well. Kind of straddles the fence.

  6. Suzanne, I think you haven’t been hitting the right books :))) Anything Lilith Saintcrow writes has kick ass heroines. What about Mortal Path series by Dakota Banks? Maliha Crane is fantastic!
    Gin Blanco is kick butt heroine and definitely Kate Daniels – she will give Anita a run for her money 🙂 Chess from Stacia Kane famous UF series? There are plenty of example like these…

    • LOL–you might be totally right! Since I began writing two series–one urban fantasy and one paranormal romance–I’ve tried NOT to keep up with a lot of the genre beyond my old favorite lest I unconsciously pick up a style or plot device. So I haven’t read any of the series you cite except Chess from Stacia Kane’s downside series. She’s kickass…but so terribly flawed that I think her character has more depth than most. Now that that series is coming to an end (I think that’s correct), I would like to sit down and read them back-to-back.

    • Both Dante Valentine and Jill Kismet are very kickass, and I think belong to that “golden age” of kickass UF heroines that seem to be changing. I noticed Lilith S. has a new series starting in January that looks to be more traditional fantasy. Wonder if those heroines will be as kickass tough?

  7. Claire from Rachel Caine’s Morganville Vampires series is fairly kick ass. Not as much as her roommates Michael, Shane and Eve, but she is picking it up quickly. Of course, if you live in a town run by vamps, you are either kick ass or dinner. I’ve really enjoyed the evolution of Claire and the other characters; they are growing as characters as the go through different trials. An excellent series.

  8. I really like Toby Daye from Seanan McGuire’s series. She’s more nuanced about her kick-ass-ness, though, and not full-tilt with it. That’s one thing that majorly bugged me about Anita, that she seemed to have a chip on her shoulder and the constant drive to prove herself to all the “super-manly-dudes” that she worked with on a daily basis. I much prefer the kickass heroines that aren’t trying to be tiny men, but rather work with ALL of their strengths and try to shore up their weaknesses so they don’t become a liability to themselves/others.

    • EXACTLY. Great way to express it. It was interesting to read all the responses on the SF Signal article. All of us started from different places, but we all ended up in the same place: that after some growing pains, we’ve reached a point, at least in theory, where our heroines might be kickass or they might not–just like the heroes. So characters should be judged by their emotional depth and complexity regardless of their gender and what kind of weaponry or skill sets they bring to the story.

  9. Hmmm…I sense a thesis paper coming here…The evolution of the Kick Ass heroine in UF and her sisters in Mystery…I keep thinking of Kinsey Millhone and VI Warshawski…kick ass? Living the High Life? Oh wait, that’s a beer commercial.

    • LOL–yes, this could be a thesis, I think. There’s twenty good years of material to work with now. Good point about the police procedurals–who’s going to argue that Kinsey Millhone isn’t kickass? And that series has been around for…well, a whole alphabet almost.

  10. Well Suzanne, a kick ass heroine of mine is Cat Crawfield from Jeaniene Frost “Night Huntress” Also I think of the character Riley Jenson in Keri Arthurs Guardian series is another kick ass heroine. I did read the first book in the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter Novels and it was pretty good, but did not quite grab me the way that the others did. Now I have to say that I have had some series that doesn’t grab me at that time, but then at a later time I will go back and try them again and have so much trouble putting them down. That is why I try not to judge a book to soon. Otherwise I would not have ended up reading what is one of the best paranormal romance series and that is JR Wards Black Dagger Brotherhood Series 🙂 yes when I fist started reading it, I just could not get into it. So I laid it down and it was almost a year before I picked it back up. However when I did, well I could not put it down. Later I may go back to Anita Blake Vampire Novels and think that it is the best. 🙂 I guess it is all in what a person is in the mood to read!
    Happy reading and writing*

    • Cat! How could I have forgotten Cat? She’s a good example of the kickass heroine who’s grown into her boots, so to speak.

      You make a really good point about different books/series appealing to us at different times. One of my favorite series now is Kim Harrison’s Hollows, but I had to start Dead Witch Walking three times over a couple of years before it finally hit me at the right time. I’d just finished writing the first draft of River Road and one of my critique partners said my writing reminded her of KH’s, so I figured I better read it. I sat down with Dead Witch Walking again and read it through…and loved it this time. Then I devoured the whole series!

  11. My first UF heroine crush was also Anita Blake, and I still love the first several books in the series. I’ve kind of always thought the main reason her story went so off track was because she started from such a strong place and had little room to grow (esp. since she was only like 22yo. in book one, I think). Maybe that’s just me trying to make excuses for a series that opened a new world of reading and writing for me, LOL. (Still have mad respect for LKH, just really can’t get into her stuff these days.)

    Could be the trend is changing for a similar reason. Personally, I enjoy both the kick-ass version and the newer, subtler model of UF heroine as long they are thoughtfully developed and well-written. I have to agree that Anita’s personality could be on the jerky side, as you said, and I like so many of the new breed because they are decidedly not that way (DJ included). I don’t care how bad-ass a girl is, if she can’t get over her snarky attitude for five seconds and be a generally nice person on the whole, I don’t want to read about her.

    • Really good point…Anita really didn’t have any room to grow in terms of her kickass skills; I hadn’t really thought about it that way. All of her growth had to be in terms of her accepting the monsters she proclaimed to hate.

      I think one reason it’s hard to write heroines, as I mentioned in an earlier comment, is that it’s okay for the hero to come across as kind of a macho jerk with the heart of gold, but as female readers it’s hard for us not to dislike a heroine who’s so snarky that she comes across as hard or mean-spirited.

      I worry that DJ comes across as too much of a snarkbunny sometimes–it’s her defense mechanism. I always end up in final revisions dialing her back a few notches to soften her edges.

  12. I think the great heroines like the original Anita Blake got lost when romance became dominant. I stopped getting action books with monsters and started getting romance novels with monsters. My speculation, but I think the romance really started to come into the stories when ebooks started — maybe as a publisher defense/rebellion against them.

    • Hmmm…that’s an interesting theory about the ebooks and the romantic elements. I’m not sure. Even ignoring Anita and her sex storyline, there was always a romantic component (although not the focus) of, say, the Mercy Thompson series…to some degree the Hollows series…Sookie.

      Now, setting urban fantasy aside and looking at paranormal romance–I’m not sure. What would have been the first modern PNR? Maybe Christine Feehan? Those were print-first. I think ebooks have definitely spurred the growth of PNR in a big way.

      As someone who writes UF with a touch of romance and also another series that’s PNR with a strong UF storyline (as Susannah Sandlin), I can say the genres are very different, at least to the writer.

  13. Haven’t read a lot of UF, but it seems like the paranormals heroines I’ve read are smart and use weapons.

  14. Since I’ve only been reading UF for the past 3-4 years, I guess I’m not really sure what the “old” heroine model is/was. I also haven’t read Anita (ducks and hides). I do love strong “kickass” heroines that are well-rounded and the story as a little romance. I do think of Kate and Gin as completely kick-ass, but they do rely on help from their friends from time-to-time. I also love Vicky Vaughn from Nancy Holzner’s DEADTOWN series… she’s kicking demon ass big time. And also Janet Begay from Allyson James’ STORMWALKER series. She’s got magic and a big bike!

    However, I’ve also read a couple of UF series that are really new, and the heroine is flawed – not really that kick ass and is coming into it over time. I’m enjoying those as well.

    • I think the old stereotype is the kickass chick who’s hard and inflexible and not so well-rounded. Anita was like that in the early books, although she had a deep insecurity that gradually came out and made her more three-dimensional. I don’t see many of those anymore, and I think that’s good. The genre as a whole is maturing.

  15. Not sure if I have anything new to contribute. Most often all the heroines can do, is try to stay alive. Like Cassie Palmer by Karen Chance. And how about Merry Gentry by Laurell K. Hamilton? Love that series as well.
    I am still not sure if I even like the heroine in the books by Suzanne McCloud, that is a dark UF series. But the books are very good. And I love Secret McQueen by Sierra Dean. If you want really different, try Lyn Benedict’s series or Katharine Kerr’s Nola O’Grady books.

    • I think you make a good point–the heroines, even the most kickass ones, get into such trouble that they need those mighty skills just to survive. I was never able to get into the Merry Gentry series, but it’s been a while since I tried it. Maybe should give it another go.