From Leia to Buffy: Creating Strong Female Characters in Sci-fi & Fantasy


Martin Leich and Isla Neal, co-authors of their book Mothership discuss the origins of their story, and the inspiration for their novel’s sass-mouthed, and courageous heroine, Elvie Nara. “It began as a joke,” Isla Neal explained, describing the genesis for the character as “Juno meets Alien.” Her co-author Martin adds his vision of the story as “John Hughs, Die Hard, and Joss Whedon.” The story follows Elvie, a junior in high school in 2074 aboard a spaceship of other teenage mothers. Like many teenage girls, Elvie has a nemesis, with whom she shares more in common than she’d like, for instance, their babies’ father. Martin and Isla go on to discuss other female protagonists that inspire them, notably, Ripley from Alien, Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Molly Ringwald in Pretty In Pink and 16 Candles, Princess Leia of Star Wars, and Ramona Qumiby, among others.

Despite being co-authors, both Martin and Isla had their own unique approaches to writing strong female characters. Martin offers an example on how not to write a strong female character, opposing the idea of someone who simply “writes the protagonist as a man, and then changes the gender.” Although gender will certainly describe a character in subtle ways, it should in no way be what defines the character, “good characters have layers,” Isla explained, gender being only one of them. When asked what makes up strong female characters, Martin and Isla agreed that strength is about responding to adversity and complexity; “what’s more progressive than making your own decisions?” Martin asks.

Speaking of choice, on the subject of teen pregnancy, Isla and Martin said such a political issue took them by welcome surprise. It was not their intent to turn Elvie’s situation into a political soapbox, but they were grateful for the opportunity to reach younger readers about such a daunting issue; “this is awesome, and we have stuff to say,” Isla explained. With Elvie’s pregnancy, the co-authors had to touch on heated topics such as choice and life. Martin emphasized the importance of finding the balance between politics and the story, “it’s about the individual versus the species.”

One audience member made an intriguing remark regarding how common the strong female heroines have become, citing various characters from television such as Xena: Warrior PrincessBuffy the Vampire SlayerCaptain Janeway of Star Trek: VoyagerDr. Joan Watson of Elementary,  Katara and Toph of Avatar: The Last Airbender among others. The audience member added that the strong female character is in danger of becoming a cliché and to this, Isla explained that this is why it was so critical to find the voice of the character. Martin agreed, adding that, “Sometimes, clichés work.” Indeed, is it not better to reinforce positive stereotypes than negative ones?

Mothership is now available in bookstores and will be followed by two additions to the Ever-Expanding Universe series.

Asia is a freelance writer at Girl Gamer Vogue.

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