Thoughts on Creating Strong Female Characters in Historical Fiction

Our topic this week is how we approach writing strong female characters when history didn’t always look favorably upon strong women. This left me wondering how we define a “strong” female character, and how that definition might change throughout history.

 

The book that made me want to be a writer was GONE WITH THE WIND. In high school, I modeled all my early characters after Scarlett O’Hara. They raced horses, climbed trees, were tomboys who played with the boys and didn’t much care for other girls. They were vivacious and flirty but they weren’t interested in feminine pursuits like shopping or tea parties or painting watercolors. It was an easy way to make them stand out – “not like the other girls” – to convey a certain independent-mindedness that seemed attractive. It is also, I think, a very modern way to look at female strength. (Not to mention kind of problematic – what is that saying about the other girls?)

 

Look at the other female lead in GONE WITH THE WIND – Melanie Wilkes. Scarlett doesn’t realize how amazing Melanie is until she’s dead. Melanie is physically frail but she saves Scarlett’s life when a soldier breaks into their home. Melanie is incredibly generous and loving and loyal and forgiving. Is she as exciting as Scarlett? Would we want to read the story from her point of view? Maybe not. I don’t know that she’s the one driving the action. But she exemplifies a more traditional female strength, one that doesn’t get explored as often. Melanie is more like the other girls – full of a genteel bravery of her own, but not as brash or as assertive as Scarlett. She isn’t as obvious a heroine – but she is arguably more a product of her time, isn’t she? We tend to create the girl who isn’t like the other girls – who rebels against the mores of her time – because that’s the girl we want to read about, isn’t it? The one who changes things and has mad adventures? Certainly there have been amazing female leaders and scientists and inventors and artists throughout history, but there were (still are!) very strict societal rules about when and how girls were allowed to speak out or advocate for change or deviate from the norm – if they were allowed such freedom at all. Scarlett O’Hara doesn’t exactly end up happy.

 

How do we, as writers, balance it? How do we create girls who feel true to their times but still push the action forward? In BORN WICKED, I’d argue that Cate is a mix of Scarlett and Melanie. She was the tomboy growing up. She’s been taught that she can’t trust anyone besides her sisters, so after about age twelve, she doesn’t look to form friendships, and she judges other girls harshly. She doesn’t care for dresses and teas because she feels she has more important things to do – namely, keeping her witchery a secret and keeping her family safe. But I think a lot of Cate’s strength comes from very traditionally feminine ideals – the way she looks after her sisters and wants to keep them safe. She’s very motherly. The magic she’s best at is healing, because of how much she cares for others and wants to help them. What she wants most in the world is to keep her sisters safe and to be able to marry Finn and have a family.

 

And I think – hope? – that’s the trick of it. As historical writers, we have to keep in mind the societies that has shape our heroines. Those societies’ rules are different from ours. They expects different things of their girls, and strength may be defined in ways that modern girls take for granted, or might even see – like  Scarlett sees Melanie’s – as a weakness. But whether they’re Scarletts or Melanies or something in-between, the world our heroines have grown up in has left indelible imprints on them, and we have to stay true to that.

 


author photo JSJessica Spotswood is the author of the Cahill Witch Chronicles: BORN WICKED (2012), STAR CURSED (2013), and SISTERS’ FATE (August 2014). She grew up in a tiny, one-stoplight town in Pennsylvania, where she could be found swimming, playing clarinet, memorizing lines for the school play, or – most often – with her nose in a book. Now Jess lives in Washington, DC with her playwright husband and a cuddly cat named Monkey. She can be found drinking tea, teaching writing workshops for teens, or – most often – with her nose in a book. Some things never change.

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5 thoughts on “Thoughts on Creating Strong Female Characters in Historical Fiction

  1. So true! Two things in reply: one, I think most agents/editors would reject GWTW from Melanie’s POV as uninteresting and complain that Melanie is “too weak” and not a “good role model” for today’s girls (not understanding that she has a lot to say about working within society’s constraints); and, two, nothing makes me crazier than the need to project backwards and make girls in history proto-feminists – the medieval-set stories of girls who run around with swords and expect love from marriage — arrrrrrrgh!

  2. cahillwitch says:

    I think you make great points, Maryanne! It can be tricky to create girls who drive the action and seem strong / sympathetic to modern readers without making them anachronistic.

  3. Rima says:

    This is a really hard balance to strike. If you make a heroine realistic from a historical standpoint, you have to be careful that she doesn’t come across as unsympathetic to a modern audience. You know? Great post!

  4. Reblogged this on booktourismlover and commented:
    Analiza jedne knjige koja govori o tome kako opisivati ženske karaktere u knjigama , pričama i slično. Akcenat je stavljen na to da ženski karakter trebate prikazati u što realističnijem svetlu, iako želite da to bude jaka ličnost. To ne mora biti nužno HEROINA, sa vanzemaljskim moćima.

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