The passing of Carrie Fisher this week plucked a somber chord on my heartstrings, a good bit sadder than most of the other icons we’ve lost this year. I saw the original Star Wars seven times the year it came out, and it didn’t take long to figure out that Princess Leia was a major reason why.
Sure, every adolescent boy had a crush on the strong-willed rebel royal. Why wouldn’t we? She was beautiful, fiery, and compassionate. But she was also strong. Incredibly strong. A princess who, if left alone, would eventually have rescued herself. So sure, I had that same boyhood crush on the character Fisher brought to life so well. But I had just dipped my toe into the waters of writing fiction at that age, and Carrie Fisher’s amazing portrayal set a tone in my heart that would affect my writing–and my life–for years to come.
You see, Princess Leia was one of the first widely accepted “strong female characters” out there. She shot a blaster with the best of them, exerted her royal will like a champion arm wrestler exerts their strength. And Fisher–whose personality was much like the character she portrayed–brought that to life like no one else at the time could have. She showed the world that women could not only be as badass as men, but could be more so. And could do it with a grace and beauty that most men could not begin to achieve. And Fisher handled everything in her life that way, from addiction to mental health issues. She faced them all, blaster in hand, and fought her way through.
So Carrie Fisher’s performance sparked in my mind a strong affection for women of strength. From that moment forward, I admired women who could put anyone–myself included–in their place. Women who didn’t need a man to rescue them, and could tussle with the best the male gender had to offer.
This bled over into my life as a military professional. Women were just starting to be more integrated in the military in the 80s, and some guys had trouble working with them, much less for them. Not me. Most of the bosses I remember fondly are women. Anytime they showed a little spark of that Leia strength, anytime one of them showed charisma, grit, or power, it wasn’t foreign to me. It was a trait I’d already learned to admire. In fact, when it came time for me to retire from the military, I chose a female colonel for whom I had a ton of respect to officiate my ceremony.
But Leia’s strong personality fused with my writing, too. When I was fourteen, I started writing my first fantasy novel. (No, you may not see it. Ever. Never ever ever ever. No.) A portal fantasy, it took a male protagonist from our world and dropped him in a medieval fantasy world where he was alone and clueless. The first person he met in that world was a redheaded woman on the run from the king’s justice, a woman who not only defeats four men in armed combat during her opening appearance, but through sheer strength of will, makes the protagonist face and defeat his own inner demons.
And most of my stories since–no matter their genre–have featured strong female characters. Women who don’t really need Luke or Prince Charming or anyone else to rescue them. I don’t think I’ve ever written about a woman held hostage in a tower, or waiting for a man to come rescue her. Why? Well, because that’s not what Leia would do.
So losing Carrie Fisher–and now, as I write this learning her mother Debbie Reynolds has also passed–draws more than a few tears from me. We toss around the word “icon” pretty freely these days, but Carrie truly was an icon. And she left an indelible mark on my writing and my life. She will be missed.