I feel privileged to be alive in a time that’s seen such empowerment for women. Though we still have a long way to go toward equality and mutual respect along gender lines, we’ve made great strides in the last decades. And I think the trend in YA fiction toward kick-ass heroines like Katniss (The Hunger Games trilogy) and Tris (Divergent series) is mostly positive in creating role models for a younger readership. But the longer the trend drags on, I wonder if we’re missing the point a bit. Katniss and Tris definitely are awesome and admirable, but it’s not their sheer physical prowess that makes each the heroine of her story, it’s something a bit more nuanced. It’s important that we’re writing characters with intentionality. Writing solely to fit expectations or trends of the market might sell books, but does it give readers characters they can identify with, look up to, and see themselves in?
So, if it’s not pure physical ability that makes Katniss and Tris heroines, what is it? I think the key is that they rise to meet the challenges of their environment. Theirs are stories of survival in a harsh world in which only the physically strong survive. But what else makes a woman strong, noble, and heroic? What other challenges do women and girls face in less brutal fictional worlds?
I’m thinking of Jane Austen’s heroines. Every one of her leading ladies—each in her own way—relies on her intuition, intellect, and personal values to guide her in a world of rigid and often crushing social expectations. In a time when a woman needed to marry well for security and social approval, Austen’s heroines marry for love. And apart from their romantic ambitions, these women are navigating complicated social relationships, sometimes failing before they learn some of the most important lessons of the story, of their lives. Austen’s heroines never face situations that require them to wield a weapon, but the stakes are still high. On this front, Austen’s values about feminine strength, wisdom, and agency still apply today, over two hundred years later!
Rainbow Rowell stands out for me as a contemporary author who’s writing authentic female heroines. Her protagonists are nuanced and unique, and they give a voice to often-underrepresented demographics—plus-size, low-income, and fangirl, just to name a few. Rowell writes complex romantic relationships for her characters, which come with their own challenges. But it’s the way these girls are navigating the other struggles in their lives that I so admire. Eleanor of Eleanor & Park is worried about the bruises on her mom’s face and is so accustomed to her stepdad’s yelling that she’s learned to sleep through it. Eleanor is a social outcast because of her weight, her clothes, and her unlikely interests. Cath of Fangirl struggles with social anxiety, her twin sister pulling away from her during their freshman year in college, the fact that her mother abandoned them years earlier, and the looming threat of her dad’s psychotic break. Their bravery, their sense of self, the inner strength they draw on to survive their trials and move forward in hope inspire readers long past the last line of their stories.
And what about John Green’s Hazel Grace Lancaster of The Fault in Our Stars? Tasha Robinson writes about the film version, but the sentiment applies here too,
“The most promising signpost in recent years is the massive financial success of The Fault in Our Stars … with no supernatural elements, no kung-fu or exotic weaponry or overbearing authoritarian dystopian regime, no paint-by-numbers love triangle, and no vampires. Stars offers up a teenage-girl protagonist dealing with the effects of a long bout of cancer and chemo, and navigating the first delicate steps of a young love that can’t last long enough to become a mature love … [Hazel Grace Lancaster’s] dominance at the box office bodes well for a new wave of screen stories about women who don’t have to physically kick asses to be interesting.”
So, these are only three of many examples of how to write a compelling heroine who doesn’t have to wield a sword. But how can you apply the lesson to your own writing and shake off the pressures of market trends? Well, I’d say go deep. Identify your heroine’s genuine strengths. What is she deeply afraid of and how and when does she face those fears? What are the struggles of her environment (cultural, familial, social, physical, etc.) and how does she overcome them? The point is, it doesn’t have to be fighting a dystopian regime to show strength. It’s the reserves of our inner strength that sometimes demand the most, the best of us. And those literary friends who get us, who show us the way, who offer us solidarity are our true heroes and heroines.
I don’t mean to knock those awesome kick-ass leading ladies—there’s something so feel-good and inspiring about their stories. And it’s important and empowering to see women exert their physical strength. But this isn’t the only way that women and girls are strong in the world or in their own private lives. So, in the case of art mirroring life, few of us actually need to fire a gun, shoot a bow, or take out an assassin on a daily basis. Our battles are those of the heart and the mind and the will; we struggle in the home, the boardroom, the classroom, or—if you’re like me—to get the kids through bedtime! So, yeah, I cheer for the kick-ass female protagonist, but my most beloved heroines are the ones who show me the way of inner strength in the face of trials.
How about you? Which heroines do you most admire and why? How do you navigate the pressure to cater to market trends?