Anachronistic Girls (and How Not to Write Them)

Today our topic is historical cliches, and I thought I’d address one that I personally find tricky  – writing anachronistic girls.

Now, of course there have been women throughout history who have yearned for something more than their lots in life, who have wanted more for themselves than their families or societies expected. Of course there have been scientists, queens, athletes, inventors, writers, businesswomen, and artists of all kinds. But there have also been many, many women who were content to be wives and mothers (or perhaps they were not content, but went along with it anyway, because few other options were afforded them). Marriage, motherhood, and housekeeping are, after all, was much of what society has expected for women throughout the ages – and considering all that went (and still goes) into keeping a family fed and clothed and housed and healthy, it’s no small task.

We all want our main characters to stand out, to be special. They are the ones telling the story or at the center of it, driving the action. And there’s great conflict in a character who wants to buck the system – or, in YA lit, diverge from her parents’ comfortable lives. That’s part of growing up, right?

However, there’s a certain problematic shorthand to making a heroine “strong” that involves making her Not Like All the Other Girls. And one easy way to do that is to make her disdain things the other girls like or want – whether it’s an interest in fashion, sewing, watercolors, piano, or other ladylike pursuits of the era or the pursuit of marriage and family.

I have to admit, it’s a trap I fell into somewhat with my heroine in the Cahill Witch Chronicles. Cate Cahill grew up climbing trees with the boy next door and loves gardening. She disdains dresses and small talk and being indoors and judges the girls who care about fashion as empty-headed fools. But it was important to me that she learn they aren’t cabbageheads – that several of them are using these expectations to hide how powerful and clever they are in plain sight. They wind up becoming some of her best friends. It was also important to me that even as Cate discovers a vocation of sorts in her healing magic, what she wants more than anything is marriage and a family of her own with the man she loves. I think that’s true to the time and world she grew up in.

Here are a few questions I ask myself to figure this out when I’m building new characters (as I am now for a short story set in 1820s New Orleans):

  • How did my heroine’s society shape her?
  • What do her parents and peers expect from her?
  • How do these expectations fit (or not) with her personality, both her strengths and flaws?
  • If she’s bucking expectations in some way, is it realistic that she would cast them off without any qualms, or does it trouble her sometimes?
  • What are the consequences for wanting to follow her own path?
  • Are there other beliefs she still holds that are more traditional? Is there a tension there? How to do these beliefs come into conflict with each other?

I hope this helps!



8 thoughts on “Anachronistic Girls (and How Not to Write Them)

  1. I really like the “does it trouble her” question. I think that can add a lot to a characer’s depth. This is a great post, because it is such a hard and important issue. Thanks.

  2. courtneymck says:

    One of the challenges for me is always figuring out how to make a character true to her time without making her totally unrelatable (or even really offensive) to readers today. It’s hard to break through modern readers’ conceptions of the past, as well–which may in fact be very different from the truth. I always find primary sources helpful for this sort of thing: getting the word straight from the source also helps me to overcome my own, often incorrect, assumptions about how a woman in a certain time might have felt.

  3. the more I read and write about Gilded Age America the more I’m left with the idea that while people always complain about their lots in life, most of them like social norms. Most women liked being women (even this is almost alien today in a world where being a feminist means acting like a man).

    Yet women had a specific place in society that most people considered important. Women often had to be convinced that feminism was a good thing as the Susan B Anthony’s of the world didn’t appeal to most of them–or their husbands.

    But the women who really wanted to carve out a different sort of life for themselves did–there were plenty of editors in NYC who happened to be women etc.

  4. I really appreciate you bringing this up. I’ve felt frustrated by this.

    Mostly because the female character in fiction I most relate to is Sansa Stark. And there’s not much respect out there for Sansa: a girl who just wanted to live the life she was expected to want. A girly girl who wanted to be a wife and a mother and fulfill her role. Life hasn’t allowed that for her and she’s adapted well, yet the readers (and viewers) just love her feisty tomboy sister so much better.

    I think Sansa is a fantastic example, though, of how you can have a girl who fits into her society yet her desires are still thwarted and her plot is still interesting.

  5. katz says:

    This is one reason I love my time period (early Soviet Russia): All those old institutions, like marriage, the family, and the role of women, were up for debate.

  6. Abbe Hoggan says:

    Scarlett O’Hara is a great example of this. She starts out wanting the traditional things for her society (beaux, pretty dresses, to marry Ashley), but she also chafes against the restrictions (not showing her shoulders in the morning, pretending not to have much appetite, not being able to tell Ashley she loves him). As the war changes her society, some people cling to the old ways, but she adjusts to changing times. She does things other people don’t approve of, gradually, with Rhett’s encouragement, rationalizing that none of the changes matter that much. The conflict between what society expects and what she wants to do is one of the major drivers both of the plot and of her emotional development.

  7. I write about Marblehead, MA which was a part of Salem at the time, 1690 (When Two Women Die) and 1692 (Dreamwater, sequel). Marblehead was so wild: mostly fishermen and pirates, some English officials. Salem had the courts, churches and schools. Marblehead would not have any of these. Because of that, I was able to create strong female characters within the context of living in nature while at the same time dealing with encroaching unreasonable rules. For instance, Rosie, who likes to go about without a corset, has wild red hair, curses and sings to herself, gets arrested for witchcraft because she visits the local seer Old Dimond (true Marblehead legend) as she has been doing, as everyone in Marblehead had done before the witch hysteria. Her friend, Elizabeth, who admires Rosie’s wildness, must take care of Rosie’s children, plus her own. Elizabeth is a strong, natural woman within the traditional context of being a housewife, mother and friend. Marblehead was never Puritan, but it did suffer from the witch hysteria, so it makes a great atmosphere for both books. By the way, thanks for this opportunity to chat with other writers and thanks for this cool historical blog!

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