Influential Fantasy for Heroines

victorian illo

Okay, so I’m old, and have been reading a long time. People sometimes ask, What fantasies were you reading before . . . [Harry Potter, before Hunger Games, before whatever-is-popular now]. This discussion sometimes evolves into influence, and popular tropes.

This is especially true when people ask what fantasies do I think have been influential for today’s readers? Sometimes that influence seems obvious–Terry Brooks had clearly read Lord of the Rings before he wrote Sword of Shanarra–but not always. I believe that literature is in constant conversation with itself, and that conversation changes as we age and a new generation of readers comes up.

As that literary conversation ricochets back and forth, it’s interesting to see what patterns become an accepted part of the framework of tales—and then change. For example, after JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings first became popular in the mid sixties, during the seventies, when fantasy was on its enormous rise, it seemed that every fantasy had to feature the good guys off a vaguely European map to the west, evil guys to the east, and ugly and evil orcs versus super-pretty (pointy-eared) elves. Terry Brooks leading the pack.

The discussion of influence sometimes turns too quickly into pejoratives. This is not new. The term “Tol-clones” has been around since the days when Lester del Rey enthusiastically marketed Sword of Shannara, though I have met young readers who (this is before Peter Jackson’s films) were astonished to hear Terry Brooks, or David Eddings, just to name two, called Tol-clones. These authors might have been their first encounter with fantasy, and their stories read fresh and new to them. Of these, some tried Lord of the Rings just to disparage it as old-fashioned and fusty.


The era of “Tol-clones” seems to have passed. Of late I’ve heard complaints about fantasy going to grimdark rape-fests, which is about as far away from Tolkien’s ethos as one can get, and also about fantastical or superficially sfnal dystopias  (the sciences being as rubbery as the world building). These latter are constructed around an evil government that for murky but story-compelling reasons forbids teens to do X, forcing young people either into the coliseum as blood sport or requiring them to submit to some dire law X as our doughty heroine discovers her special powers and angsts her way between the good bad boy and the bad bad boy.

Much as all these stories have been scorned as commercially motivated pablum, I think there’s something interesting about what tropes become so popular that for a while they seem standard. I think they say something interesting about our cultural development, as our government, whatever else you think about it, is not forcing people to buy and read these books.

One of the aspects that I wanted to touch on today was the evolution of the heroine. Even the heroine and her bad boys (who have become so common they are satirized, as in this example above and to the right here) demonstrate something: we’re seeing females not just gaining agency, but assuming it as part of their birthright.

Even when angsting all over the landscape about her bad boys, today’s heroine has come a long way from her foremother who was relegated to waiting passively for a suitable hero to choose her for her purity and beauty.

witch world

So. I picked four novels whose elements I think have ramified out through fantasy, and which I think have been especially influential for female readers and writers. The first two masqueraded as sort of science fiction, but the fantasy elements were very strong.

The first is Andre Norton’s Witch World. It came out first in 1963. I read it as a junior high student–and reread it several times, checking that same well-thumbed copy out from the library.

Like all Norton’s early work, the main characters were men, and Norton wrote under a seeming male name, but her heroines became increasingly more prominent as they gained more agency, their powers usually defined by telepathy. Norton was the first that I was aware of who mixed medieval elements with sf, and explored shapeshifters as well as telepathic impressment, which gave her heroines more agency though they had little physical strength.

I don’t know how these books read to the under thirty crowd—too often when I bring up Norton’s name I either get “Who?” or “I’ve heard of her, but haven’t read anything by her.” She still has stalwart fans who might be graying, but reread these books faithfully.


Like many later writers, Anne McCaffrey, in her Dragonflight, picked up on the impressment and telepathy theme, tying it to dragons in her mix of sf and fantasy elements set in the world of Pern.

This book has undergone an interesting evolution over the decades, specifically with the question of non-consensual sex: when the dragons mate, their riders are drawn into the experience with one another. For Lessa, the heroine, this was her first introduction to sex–and she had no idea what was happening.

As I recall, no one talked about this aspect back in the seventies. We were so used to books that required “good” heroines to be virgins without sexual feelings (the anguish of attraction was okay as they waited for the hero to discover their worth)–in so much literature women were regarded as objects, but all the sexual feelings were reserved for men. For many young female readers in the seventies, it seemed stunning that Lessa actually enjoyed the experience—and was not afterward discarded, but held her position and respect. It was guilt-free sex, because she hadn’t chosen it, which was a trope often found in romances at that time.

For fantasy, at least in my experience as a reader who talked to other women about reading, Dragonflight was a real game-changer. And it was another real eye-opener when younger women during the past decade or two read it and were squicked out by the heroine’s lack of choice! Attitudes toward heroines’ agency had completely changed, heroines choosing partners rather than waiting with maidenly modesty to be chosen.


Elizabeth Marie Pope: The Perilous Gard.

This one came out in the mid-seventies, and it still reads really well today, I think. The Tudor culture is beautifully rendered, the prose excellent, the characters complex.

It had a tremendous influence on young writers who afterward reflected Pope’s version of the Sidhe, and how they could not create, but only could glamour. Pope’s doctoral work had been done in literature and philosophy of that period, but during conversation once she told me that this book was influenced by Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles. The heroine has great moral agency, using her wits to outsmart a compelling (female) adversary.

Finally there is Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword, which, printed in 1982, is the most modern of the set.

I think of this one as pivotal: it shows the influence of these earlier novels in the telepathy and powers, and also Georgette Heyer’s influence, but it strikes out in new directions. At least I see McKinley’s blue sword Harry was the first kickass heroine, who not only gains powers but trains in the art of the sword, becoming a formidable fighter.

It’s surprising how many people I have spoken to who list this as one of their top comfort reads, and I believe it holds up well with younger readers—at least so far, I haven’t heard it take any hits in the way that McCaffrey’s Pern novels have. 

These are my four. What novels do you think have been influential–what threads or connections do you see across time?





Influential Fantasy for Heroines — 57 Comments

  1. I’d say Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci books have been strongly influential (along with everything else she’s written. :). And Joan Aiken’s Wolves series.

    Another big influence on me was Ruth Manning Sanders’ fairytale collections (not least for the fantastic illustrations!).

  2. It’s been years since I re-read this, so I might be remembering incorrectly. As I recall, Lessa reacted so badly to what happened to her in that mating flight that she and F’lar don’t have sex again for most of the book. He feels very badly about this when he realizes what happened — with the help of the dragons? — and is patient, though yearning, during the rest of the story. This vulnerability of Lessa’s reaction to the no holds barred sex of mating flights balances her seeming harshness — for a female, especially a romantic lead — psychically manipulating F’lar to challenge Fax, her family’s destroyer to a duel, in which F’lar kills him.

    • It’s been a while for me, too, but as I recall her reaction was more positive than the standard horrified virgin of days of yore. At least, so it seemed in discussions, which I recall better than I do the book. (I haven’t dared revisit it!)

  3. Dragonflight had a powerful effect on me when I first read it in the mid-eighties. I’m pretty sure I read it at least twenty times in a single year, mostly because Lessa was such a compelling character. I was young enough that I didn’t think in terms of non-consensual sex, so Lessa’s experience seemed sort of romantic–swept away by passion, etc. But mostly it was that she never waited for someone else to solve her problems for her. And it’s funny how many stories there are like that in fantasy literature, for all we (still) have all these books centered on men, books that marginalize women. I never had trouble finding books with powerful female characters all through my teen years. (Devoured the Witch World books, for one, and Year of the Unicorn is still one of my favorite books.)

    • Yes–once female writers began selling in numbers in genre, we were given interesting women who had complexity as well as increasing agency.

  4. The first several times I read Dragonflight any lack of consent issues flew (teehee) over my head. Reading it again in my 30s, many years after the first time it was much more problematic for me. F’Lar actually muses that he had assumed she would have been raped as a child, and that unless the dragons were involved “he might as well call it rape” – but with no suggestion that he *doesn’t* have sex with her without the dragons.

    The Blue Sword I read for the first time a couple of months ago – and I don’t know why it took me so long because I read The Hero and the Crown when it came out. Absolutely wonderful. The ex-pat/colonialist world feels so fresh and Harry is brilliant.

    • Yeah–these issues are why I haven’t revisited Dragonflight in all these decades. Whereas I can still reread, and delight in, The Blue Sword.

    • ” F’Lar actually muses that he had assumed she would have been raped as a child, and that unless the dragons were involved “he might as well call it rape” – ”

      I recalled that as well, and having been rather horrified at some point in the re-reads. On my first readings, being very young and inexperienced, the very idea that someone would rape a child went right over my head.

        • “It had surprised him to be first, considering that her adolescent years had been spent drudging for lascivious warders and soldier-types.”
          So, not quite child rape, and, maybe, not even rape – though there is the implication of coercion and or violence.

            • NP. Your discussion had started me thinking about McCaffrey again and Alicia F’s remark made me think I’d missed something, too. It seems neither of us had, quite.

              As a non sequitur, McCaffrey was where I first came across the ‘bathing’ trope 🙂

                • Well, that’s how I think of it – a scene where the heroine, usually, get’s to indulge in a bath – often in an unusual or exotic room. This can just be a point in the plot for some quiet reflection between chases. And or it can mark transformation – so Lessa takes a bath, and ceases to be a drudge and becomes a weyrwoman.


      • Actually at that stage in my life I really was blessedly ignorant that there was such a thing as “rape” all together. I don’t think I got it at all.

        As smart and well-read a child and adolescent that I was, with an enormous range of interests — and I grew up on a farm with breeding animals — I was remarkably ignorant of sex (not that I’m trying to say that rape is a part of sex, though it is among many animal species, it’s not supposed to be for humans I am convinced) — and remained so, for far longer than most kids, as I belatedly realized. Though when I did learn I was a very fast study, as surely are most of us when we do. 🙂

        Love the “bath trope!”

  5. I absolutely loved both The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown as a teen. And I still re-read and enjoy them now, all these years later. They really have held up well.

    Actually, when I read Naomi Novik’s Uprooted earlier this year, it reminded me strongly of McKinley’s books, most specifically the The Hero and the Crown. (Poking around online, I see I’m not the only person who saw a resemblance to McKinley’s writing.) I wonder if Novik also read McKinley as a teenager?

    • Good question! I saw a lot of Patrick O’Brian and Georgette Heyer in Novik’s work, but McKinley might very well be there as an influence as well.

  6. I often think that C. L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry cycle is in many ways an ur-story for women warriors in fantasy.

    And much later on (in the early 80s), Charles R. Saunders’ short stories featuring Dossouye, set in a fantasy world based on Africa rather than on Europe and based on the historical women warriors of Dahomey, and Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s Tomoe Gozen novels, were the first women warriors of colour I remember reading about. For me, that was influential, seeing heroines from other cultures.

  7. I grew up in the 80s and 90s, and one of my favorites is Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series — it’s not an alternate world, but there’s a complex magical system and the characters are addictive.

    We also read a lot of Tamora Pierce, whose heroines always have agency.

    • They are after my cutoff point (I should really do a post for influential writers for the eighties and after) but oh yes, definitely!

  8. I devoured every Andre Norton I could get ahold of at every library I knew. I liked science fiction–there was not a lot of YA fantasy back then–but most of it was all rockets. I remember how thrilled I was to learn that “Andre” was really a female!

  9. Interesting pick of The Perilous Gard as pivotal. I’ve always loved it but thought of it as a bit under the radar. The historical significance of Dragonflight is also fascinating. Things certainly have changed a lot since it was first published. I have not personally read a lot of Tamora Pierce but see her mentioned a lot as an influence on younger writers.

    • Tamora Pierce has indeed been very influential, though she started publishing after I cut off in the early eighties. Her work also shows a strong influence from those above, I feel.

    • I’ve been delighted to discover how many true fans of that book there are–it’s like we’re all The Chosen Ones or something.

      It was so well written and so engaging on so many levels. And Richard Cuffari’s illustrations were great.

  10. There are so many fabulous writers who gave us strong women in the 70s and 80s. Course CL Moore started it with Joirel of Joiry but my favorites have to be from Jo Clayton. She wrote both fantasy and science fiction novels with strong female protagonists who didn’t need male side kicks. She passed away sadly and her books mostly have not been made into ebooks. She was very worth reading and were a go to book series for me when ever I was between new reads.

    • Thank you for mentioning Jo Clayton. Indeed, she wrote strong female heroines!

  11. I haven’t done much thinking about influential novels, but I wanted to say as an under-thirty diehard Andre Norton fan, the Witch World books were something of a revelation to me. They were the first high fantasy books I ever found where women mattered, where they meant something and what they did changed the world. More than that, women were allowed to not like men, to close themselves off (eg the witches) without necessarily being evil or super religious. Witch World is still a real favorite of mine, and I reread my copies until they’re falling apart, and beyond. I’ve already had to replace Year of the Unicorn twice.

    • That is so awesome to find out that Norton still reaches readers of all ages! Thanks for speaking up.

  12. For me the most admirable sf/f heroine was the Bene Gesserit Lady Jessica.

    Where have we ever seen the mother perilously adventuring with her son? So calm, so collected, so very well trained, and having learned her lessons so very well — so very different from me!

      • Is that the one that praises “concubines” and sneers at wives?

        When I read this first I took it as something cool, if I remember correctly what that so very young and inexperienced self thought and felt. Later, I wondered why it was so important for the author to make Paul’s wife and concubine hate each other. Herbert wrote this pre-feminist era — just barely. There is so much in Dune that is terrific and innovative — and, yes, these days feels prescient. So why not have the wife and concubine join forces?

        This joining of forces is implied in the SyFy channel’s series, I think — or at least Irulan is portrayed in much more positive way, without taking anything from Chani.

        Am I the only one who likes that extended series, Dune and the Children of Dune?

        Love, C.

        • Well the concubine didn’t know the wife, the thing that disgusted me was Jessica soothing her by saying that “History would call us wives”–as if that was the highest achievement a woman could have.

          I never could get into the sequels. (In fact, I can’t read Dune anymore, but wow, it really had an effect when I was fourteen!)

          • ” “History would call us wives”–as if that was the highest achievement a woman could have.”

            Yah, on that. Exactly. And mothers too, of course.

            Which is why Alia of the Knife must be insane . . . . making me think in my recoil to Dune Messiah, whatever, that he’d read too much American Southern Literature which invented what is now called the someting or other pixi blahblahblah.

  13. I certainly have reread all of the above, though I think I would choose Pern as a whole rather than Dragonflight as influential, since I think that Menolly and the Harper Hall have had as much impact as the dragon component of their culture. (The fact is, that I didn’t really find the characters in Dragonflight likeable, so it gets reread mainly as part of the series.) The Blue Sword is still one of my very favorites, though I think the first kickass heroines, if one must use the term, came out of what was technically historical fiction, the main place strong heroines were allowed at the time (if you don’t count Nancy Drew and her ilk). Jade, by Sally Watson (1969), was possibly the best swordswinger of her generation.

    • Oh, Sally Watson did terrific heroines. But I seldom came across people who had read her. I was trying to pick a handful who I have heard mentioned over the years as influences–or whose influence I could see in their work. (Like Norton and impressing/telepathy animal companions. Wow, did that trope take off. And Pope’s version of the Sidhe, ditto.)

  14. Oops! I also meant to add Raederle, from Patricia McKillip’s Heir of Sea and Fire (1977). When I think of earlier fantasy with true gender equality, the Riddlemaster series is way up there.

  15. 20-something speaking here, and the first fantasy I read that wasn’t Harry Potter was Tamora Pierce’s Lioness Quartet. I was maybe 10 or 11 at the time (Alanna’s age in the first book), and it was awesome because the book was so candid speaking about menstruation and birth control and sexual desire that it was totally normalized for me when I grew up. Looking back, I know I was lucky to have read those books when I did not only for getting to deal with those themes before my high school health class butchered them, but also for letting me grow up thinking that good female heroines in fantasy weren’t something that I had to WISH for.

    As for influence, I think anyone my age writing fantasy now definitely went through a “fiery red-head knight” phase. I know I did.

    • Thanks, Jackie! Tamora Pierce has had such a strong, positive effect on the younger generation of women readers of fantasy, indeed!

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  18. Ursula le Guin! Although le Guin later was chagrined to realize she’d made the first protagonist a male without even thinking about it, she more than rectifies that with the character of Tenar. The Earthsea books were huge to me in the 70s/80s. Lloyd Alexander also wrote great girls, although again, the POV was the male protagonist.

    I devoured the Dragonriders books in 6th grade (and Agatha Christie), but remember very little about them. Singing…crystals…dragons…spaceships. I’ve never read any Norton, and always assumed the author was male! I’ve never even heard of The Periles Guard, but adore much of McKinley’s work.

    Really interesting post and discussion; thanks!