Last year at a San Diego Comic-Con, Star Wars: The Clone Wars voice actress Ashley Eckstein (Ahsoka Tano) hosted a panel, “What Women Want in Their Female Sci-Fi Heroes,” focusing on the roles of female characters in genre storytelling. A group of industry experts respected for their positive portrayals of women discussed the methodology of creating strong female characters – good, evil, and all shades in between. As discussed by the panelists, there are any numbers of ways to approach the challenge. Attended in roughly equal numbers by male and female convention-goers, the one-hour panel barely scratched the surface of the topic. The most important lesson I learned from the panel was that the creation of strong female characters is an art form that evolves over a storyteller’s lifetime. One of the ways aspiring artists learn from masters is to absorb the broad brush strokes of knowledge, but the baby steps toward improvement also are earned by mastering the small details. The true test for writers then isn’t whether they can successfully create just one well-crafted strong female character, but rather if they populate their stories with many female characters who each resonate distinctively.
When Del Rey asked if I would be interested in working with Star Wars Insider magazine to interview author Aaron Allston about his upcoming novel X-Wing: Mercy Kill, they had a general idea I was a pretty serious X-Wing series fan. I’m not sure, though, that they really understood just how much those books and comics influenced my fandom. Not only did I read the books and comics multiple times and dissect them in fan forum discussions, but the characters and stories involving pilots’ teamwork also inspired me to write volumes of fanfiction. Pilot-fic is a hardcore sub-genre of fanfiction that, even a dozen years after the last X-Wing book, is still active. For fanfic writers, a majority of them women, the canvas of characters, and especially the female characters, available in the squadron-centric tales were very inviting and relatable. Inyri Forge, Tyria Sarkin, and Jesmin Ackbar are just a start on the list of female pilots who graced the pages of the series. Add to the mix Imperial villain Ysanne Isard, smuggler Mirax Terrik, and intelligence operative Iella Antilles and it’s apparent that many impressive strong female characters emerged from the X-Wing series. In my fandom experience looking beyond the fanfic community, those stories appealed to male and female fans equally and for the same reasons – the most important ones being the diversity of the cast and the truth and vibrancy with which the characters were written by Mr. Allston and Michael A. Stackpole.
As I interviewed Allston for Insider, we had plenty to discuss about strong female characters. Our chat inspired a trip down memory lane, back to the original X-Wing books that had cemented my Expanded Universe fandom. As I reread the series, one of my all-time favorite characters, Tyria Sarkin Tainer, captured my attention once more. Now, though, I was also experiencing the stories with a critical eye toward examining how these female characters become memorable and what makes them resonate still.
Introduced in Wraith Squadron, Tyria was a young woman whose strength in the Force was not deemed suitable for full Jedi apprentice training by Luke Skywalker. Though not a superheroine of Mara Jade’s or Jaina Solo’s caliber, Tyria proved a valuable team player within the squadron dynamic. Over the years, Tyria has persevered through harassment, the ravages of war, and long separations from family to continue to fight alongside the good guys. Just like the Solo-Skywalker clan, retirement and defeat don’t register on her horizon. Heroes, after all, don’t fade away into obscurity. While she hasn’t made the same mark as the primary heroes and heroines of the Star Wars saga, Tyria has made a lasting impression on many fans. Her life story is sprinkled throughout the New Jedi Order, Legacy of the Force, and Fate of the Jedi series of novels – sometimes as an active character, other times mentioned in passing by her husband and fellow Wraith, Kell Tainer. From those little nuggets, fans learned that after years of long-distance communications with the Jedi Grand Master and self-taught discipline over her Force talents, Tyria was granted the status of Jedi Knight by Luke Skywalker.
I don’t bring her in to name-drop or throw a sop to Wraith Squadron fans, but whenever I have need of a pragmatic, mid-level, dependable, well-rounded (I’m talking about skills here, guys) Jedi, naturally I’m going to return to an old favorite.
~ Aaron Allston on Tyria Sarkin Tainer
Ultimately, I could write a term-paper’s worth of words about what Tyria has accomplished and why she is a great example of a strong female character. She brings something unique to my understanding about building heroines, not just at an epic level but also for the secondary characters. That is the reason I was inspired to write about her.
During my re-readings I was struck by one particular scene. When Del Rey offered Chris Scalf to illustrate it, how could I say no? A picture, as the saying goes, is worth a thousand words. As I wrote up the scene description for the artist, I realized that the details of the scene – about a thousand words long in the novel – illustrated in their own way the finer details of creating a strong female character.
Thinking it would strengthen the post to go straight to the source, I tapped on Aaron Allston’s virtual door and asked the professor for some of his own thoughts. I only asked him two questions, and yet I gained a lot of insight into Tyria’s character. The answers also show that, as an author, Aaron Allston has a clear vision of the character. His insightful reply offered me a chance to dig into one scene and expand on the ways words can bring a strong female character to life while still exposing her weaknesses and making her relatable to almost any reader.
Writing Strong Female Characters 101
Highlighted Scene from Fate of the Jedi: Backlash, pages 123-129
The setting is the Jedi Temple. Jaina Solo, Sword of the Jedi, has a covert assignment. As the point of view character, she enters the Temple hangar to sign out a shuttle and runs into Tyria, who is taking a break from her mechanic duties. Jaina internally notes, “Tyria would never make Master owing to deficiencies in her command of the Force, but she was an excellent flier.” This establishes a second-tier character quickly – Tyria isn’t the uber-Jedi Jaina is, but Jaina respects her abilities and contributions. Jaina is a known quantity to readers of the series – she respects (and loves) non-Force users and has a special regard for fantastic pilots – so her internal monologue is the perfect place for this rapid context on Tyria’s character.
Tyria simply demonstrates the roles played by ordinary Jedi. As a Jedi Knight, she really is ordinary, and will probably never be a Master. Naturally, people want to see the really exceptional and exotic Jedi at work — Luke, Mara, Kyp, Jaina, Leia, Corran, Saba, and so on — but I think we need to be reminded of the rank and file, their own efforts and sacrifices.
~ Aaron Allston on Tyria’s role in Legacy of the Force and Fate of the Jedi
As Jaina goes about her shuttle requisition, Tyria recognizes a loop in the news feed. Jaina extends “her senses into the Force” and feels “eyes trained on the Jedi.” She immediately notifies Jedi Master Kenth Hamner of a possible attack. Tyria degreases her arms, soiled by her mechanical work, and prepares for battle. Within seconds the Jedi Temple is attacked by Mandalorians.
What is key to this sequence is that Tyria, while not a superheroine of the Star Wars saga, plays a critical role because of her situational awareness. Her non-Jedi experience as a Wraith and Antarian Ranger serve her well, and buy all the Jedi valuable time to prepare.
As the attack unfolds, Tyria doesn’t simply defer to Jaina and Jaina doesn’t expect her to. Instead, Jaina relies on Tyria’s observations to reinforce her own suspicion that the hangar will be a critical position to defend. Jaina orders a Jedi apprentice, Bandy Geffen, to hardwire into the intercom away from outside walls. Soon after, the attack commences in the hangar when five Mandos blow their way inside.
The battle that follows also could serve as a good example for aspiring writers of how to create great action sequences. Allston crafts concise moments in time that draw the reader along quickly. As I was writing the image summary for Chris Scalf, it was very easy to “see” the scene unfold with very little detail on the page. And in the heat of the moment, that is exactly how a point of view character would experience an attack.
When Bandy offers to assist our heroines in confronting the Mandos, Tyria reminds the apprentice of his orders: “Abandon your post and you’ll be tasting my boot from a direction you never expected.” This smart-alecky remark might seem more like Jaina’s style, but it actually makes sense coming from Tyria given what we know about both female characters.
Tyria took Doran as her apprentice, despite misgivings but not actual opposition from Luke Skywalker, and volunteered for long-term Jedi missions well away from the war zones.
~ Aaron Allston reveals behind the scenes details on Tyria Sarkin Tainer
Jaina hasn’t yet trained an apprentice or been a mother, so she’s at a disadvantage in relating to youths and less-experienced Jedi. Tyria, on the other hand, has trained an apprentice, who also happened to be her son Doran. Jaina is the daughter of Han Solo, the man who charged headlong at stormtroopers on the Death Star, so it’s actually in character for her instinctively to be less sympathetic of others who might let fear rule their actions. After a lifetime of coping with less raw Force power, Tyria is in a better position to understand how to deal with the apprentice’s fear of the incoming Mandalorian commandos quickly and decisively. She simply gives him something – her boot up his behind – to be more afraid of.
True to her heritage, Jaina charges the Mandos as they fire mini-rockets. Tyria chooses to dive for cover, but there is nothing weak in her decision – it’s actually the more pragmatic choice for almost any Jedi, except the very strongest ones. Jaina goes Neo-in-Matrix and dodges a rocket, and the reader loses “sight” of Tyria as Jaina engages five opponents at once. The Sword of the Jedi knocks two temporarily out of the fight before Tyria reappears to take one Mando off her hands.
What happens next is captured in Chris Scalf’s artwork. How about if I let the picture do the talking? (For the fans of female Mandos, that’s Rocket Lady jetting across the corridor.)
A few seconds past this image, after taking one opponent out of the fight, Tyria’s jaw meets a gauntleted fist, rendering her unconscious. Again, though, that doesn’t make her weak. That wasn’t the end of Tyria’s story, just another step in her journey. As a Jedi and a pilot, Tyria is not the best at either, and sometimes that means she ends up a bit out of her league. Let’s not forget, not many beings can defeat even one fully-trained Mandalorian. The important part is that the superheroes of the saga trust Tyria to do her duty, maybe even perform beyond her abilities – to fight just as hard as they do. And that truly is the important component to create a compelling strong supporting female character. If not for Tyria’s contributions – her mechanical skills keeping the Jedi fleet ship-shape, the time she bought by noticing the looping feed, her experience as a Jedi Knight and mother that helped keep Bandy alive and in a position to make a difference, and her skills as a seasoned warrior – who knows how differently the attack on the Jedi Temple might have transpired.
Many thanks to Aaron Allston for taking the time to share his thoughts on Tyria Sarkin Tainer. His latest addition to the X-Wing series, Mercy Kill, drops on August 8th, and he will be joining Star Wars fans at Celebration VI in Orlando later that month. For a look at his full discussion of Tyria and how he viewed her role in the books, click over to FANgirl. (Ready, set, Wookieepedia updates!) Fans can follow Aaron Allston at his blog or on Twitter. As always, the Star Wars Books Facebook page and @DelReyStarWars offer a continuous stream of Star Wars Expanded Universe news.
Tricia Barr writes about Star Wars, storytelling, and fandom at FANgirl Blog. Today’s post is part of an ongoing series that examines and highlights Strong Female Heroines across storytelling, including television, movies, comic books, and novels. Her interview with Aaron Allston in Star Wars Insider # 135 hits shelves in late July.
Tricia is currently finishing her first original novel, Wynde.