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!