I’m often asked why my novels are helmed by female characters: Jenni and Katie in the As The World Dies zombie trilogy, Maria in The Last Bastion of the Living, Amaliya in Pretty When She Dies, Mackenzie in my latest release Dead Spots just to name a few. The answer is pretty simple. I write about what I know (I’m a woman!) and what I love (horror and science fiction).
Traditionally, the roles of women in horror haven’t been that liberating. More often than not, in literature, film and TV, women in horror end up the victim. The image of a woman screaming as she runs away from the monster is ingrained in our psyche. The fleeing woman has adorned plenty of movie posters and book covers. You know exactly what I’m talking about, right?
When women weren’t fleeing the monster, they often played the love interest…who ended up fleeing from the monster later on. It was pretty much one of two roles women played in the genre. The other role, of course, was the monster. Female vampires, sirens, demons and ghosts were sometimes the villains, but more often than not, the primary role of the woman was to be in danger so they could be protected and/or rescued by the hero, or end up being killed gruesomely.
Slowly, as the roles of women in society changed, so did the roles of women in fiction. Horror has taken a little bit longer in finding its female heroines. Though in most horror movies everyone is fair game for the monster, the leading lady slowly evolved into being the lone survivor. The fleeing woman slowly evolved into a fleeing woman who eventually outwitted the monster/killer and escaped. Yet, that didn’t mean she ended up with a happy ending. One popular slasher series in the 80’s always had the main female character escape, only to be killed at the beginning of the next sequel.
It can be argued that the first true powerful female character in horror was Ripley in the sci-fi/horror classic, Aliens. She was tough, intelligent, and formidable. And when it came to defending her “adopted” child, she was absolutely ruthless even though you could tell she was afraid. She was not a raving beauty dressed in a sexy outfit, and we loved her for it. She didn’t run screaming through the forest with her boobs falling out of her dress, but instead strapped on her weapons and went to war with the alien queen. I remember the first time I saw Aliens I was not only terrified out of my mind, but thrilled that the female lead was competent and strong. Like many young women, Ripley became an iconic female role model.
Of course, tradition held firm when Ripley was killed in the sequel.
But Ripley had a major impact on the female action hero in not only mainstream movies, but in genre as well. Urban Fantasy novels are filled with kick-ass leading woman. Genre films like Resident Evil and Underworld have tough women at their helms. It’s hard to think of Alice or Selene filling the traditional role of women in horror.
The evolution of the woman in horror is still continuing. When I wrote the AS THE WORLD DIES trilogy (The First Days, Fighting to Survive, Siege) in 2005 as an online serial, strong women were still not the standard in the zombie genre. In fact, a lot of times women had to be rescued or ended up being zombie fodder in most tales. Though Fran in the original Dawn of the Dead and Anna in the remake were capable of women who demanded to be treated as equals, in zombie fiction women were still often secondary characters to the male leads.
Though it may surprise people, I did not deliberately make Jenni and Katie the protagonists of the AS THE WORLD DIES universe to bust a cliché. Like most writers, I wrote what I knew about. In my life I am surrounded by very strong, intelligent and capable women. I can’t imagine any of the women in my life waiting for a man to come save them. I wanted to write about realistic women. Jenni and Katie were born out of my own life experience.
Though I do believe a strong female presence in the horror genre is important, I don’t feel that female protagonist means the end of their male counterpart. If anything, I enjoy a book where both sexes are treated fairly and realistically.
Now female characters are moving center stage in many horror novels as female writers have started to make their mark on the genre and male writers recognize the need for well-rounded characters of all sexes. These female characters are often not stereotypical characters from the old days, but reflective of the continuing evolving role of women in society.
It’s nice to know that a female character may flee from the monster, but chances are she might just be waiting for the moment to turn and kick its ass.
Rhiannon Frater is the award-winning author of over a dozen books, including the As the World Dies zombie trilogy (Tor), as well as independent works such as The Last Bastion of the Living (declared the #1 Zombie Release of 2012 by Explorations Fantasy Blog and the #1 Zombie Novel of the Decade by B&N Book Blog), and other horror novels. She was born and raised a Texan and presently lives in Austin, Texas with her husband and furry children (a.k.a pets). She loves scary movies, sci-fi and horror shows, playing video games, cooking, dyeing her hair weird colors, and shopping for Betsey Johnson purses and shoes.