I’ve been thinking a lot about heroines this month.
It started with Inktober, the month-long challenge where artists post a pen and ink drawing every day. Back at the end of September, when the news cycle was especially ugly, I wasn’t sure I was going to have the emotional stamina to see Inktober through this year. I’ve come to love it—it’s made ink one of my favorite mediums besides digital art. But 31 days of illustrations seemed like such a tall order in a world where political and climate disasters are so big and my voice and efforts seem so small. Normally I like to plot out my posts ahead of time, but as September wound down with little to no inspiration for the official prompts, it seemed more and more pointless.
Two things saved me. One was my current re-read of the Queen’s Thief series in preparation for the release of Return of the Thief early next year (this marks the 897th time Megan Whalen Turner’s work has rescued me emotionally). The other was the official prompt for Inktober day 1: “poisonous.” Being deep into the Queen’s Thief automatically made me think of the character of Irene, who poisons the man trying to steal her throne. This led me to wonder what other fictional heroines could fit with the other prompts, and all of a sudden I had a sub-theme. I would draw a different heroine every day, hoping to wrap myself up in women who make things happen, whether that means toppling regimes or loving their families. So began #31DaysofHeroines.
I also had the great experience of being on an awesome Girl Power panel at the ReadUp Book Festival in Greenville, SC. For one hour, Gwenda Bond (Lois Lane: Fallout), Beth Revis (Give the Dark My Love), Hope Larson (All Summer Long), and I talked about our favorite heroines, writing wonderful women, and navigating our current social and political climate. I also got to sit in on other panels with some of my favorite YA authors, like Dhonielle Clayton (The Belles), Nic Stone (Odd One Out), and Becky Albertalli (Leah on the Offbeat) as they talked about identity, gender, and writing honest, powerful characters.
All this has led to a solid month of recalling all my favorite heroines from literature and movies and analyzing what I love about them. If you had asked me on September 30th, I would have wondered if I could see this sub-theme through to the end. Now I wish I had another three months of prompts to fill in. There are so many amazing girl characters that I wasn't able to incorporate. And simply surrounding myself with some of my favorite fictional women, both from my childhood and from recent reads, has revitalized me more than I ever would have expected a month ago.
It’s also highlighted some common threads among this spectrum of characters. Whether it’s a fairy tale a few centuries old or a fresh, progressive story from this year, I found that a handful of the same themes kept jumping out at me. So this month, for writers plotting out their mighty heroines, I’ve put together a list of six ways to elevate your heroines to the next level. Read them all after the jump!
The caveat to all this, of course, is that these are my opinions and observations. They’re not hard and fast rules, and just because a female character doesn’t adhere to these doesn’t mean she’s not well-written or well-rounded. The best heroine is one that’s three-dimensional, genuine, and speaks to an infinite number of truths. It’s a broad brush with endless possibilities. So take these tidbits and make them work for you and the heroine of your heart.
1. Avoid Tokenism
You’ve seen it before: a group of protagonists that consists of a bunch of dudes and one lady. Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, Timeline, Wizard of Oz, Justice League, The Avengers, The Smurfs… it tends to be the most common makeup for groups of three or more main characters. What this does, consciously or not, is put all the onus of representation on the single female character, in many cases relying on her to be the emotional caretaker, love interest, or someone to rescue. (All of this is also relevant to other forms of minority tokenism, especially racial tokenism, where single characters of color are burdened with representing not just their particular race, but in many cases all non-white races).
In last month’s blog post, I talked about one of my many Lord of the Rings fanfictions and how it led to the creation of Woodwalker. I briefly mentioned that this fic was also where I learned the importance of giving a heroine a robust group of female friends. In the first draft, I wrote elf ranger Eirien as something of an outcast, the old “not like other girls” tar pit. But when it came time to exile her from her home, I realized—so what? If she’s such a misfit, with no friends or family, why should she care so much about leaving her home? I scrapped her original backstory and rewrote her with a tight-knit group of female friends and peers. Not only did this make exile suddenly agonizing, but it gave me the chance to write a diverse array of women—hot-tempered ones and cool-headed ones, fashionable ones and casual ones, sweet ones and salty ones. It took the responsibility off Eirien to be the sole female representative. Fast forward to the Creatures of Light trilogy, and the ultimate trio of Mae, Mona, and Gemma helped me accomplish the same thing.
Great books that do this: The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy (Mackenzi Lee), The Belles (Dhonielle Clayton), Geekerella (Ashley Poston), The Queen of Blood (Sarah Beth Durst), Lumberjanes (Noelle Stevenson), Shadowshaper (Daniel José Older)
2. Embrace Traditionally “Feminine” Roles
You know me—I love a good rugged heroine. A girl with mud on her knees and scrapes on her elbows. A girl in boots and armor, with practical hair and comfortable clothes.
But you know what I love even more? A girl who can do and be all those things, and still be allowed to like dresses, and jewelry, and masquerade balls. One of the things wash-and-wear ranger Mae misses most in Woodwalker is dancing—putting on her fancy boots and twirly skirt and spending a night dancing with her friends.
The tendency to gravitate toward warrior women came about as a kickback to the coiffed damsels-in-distress so popular in everything from fairy tales to literature to movies to video games. Girls got tired of only being cast as Princess Peach or Rapunzel, locked away and waiting to be saved, that in many cases media made a hard pivot toward only valuing physically strong female fighters, maligning and snubbing any woman who dared to enjoy anything considered “feminine” (of course, these warrior women are still often elegantly styled and scantily clad… but that’s a topic for another day). But while this gave us some great heroines, it didn’t do anything to bring value or respect to traditionally feminine roles and interests.
A recent book that purposefully addresses this trope is Mackenzi Lee’s The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, companion to 2017’s historical romp The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue. In Lady’s Guide, the protagonist, Felicity, prides herself on being practical and progressive, fighting to be accepted to the male-dominated medical field. She berates her friend Johanna for her interest in pretty dresses and jewelry, telling her that men will never take her seriously. Johanna calls her out, saying Felicity is the one who doesn’t take her seriously—rather, Felicity operates under the narrow-minded view that being serious about science is mutually exclusive with enjoying traditionally feminine interests.
One of my favorite ways to overcome this trope is to write a story where a woman achieves success through traditionally feminine outlets. Show me a heroine who is politically valued for her knowledge of society and the art of conversation—oh look, you have Mercedes from Isle of Blood and Stone (Makiia Lucier). Show me a heroine who uses her understanding of beauty and fashion to fight for justice and equality—make way for Camille from The Belles (Dhonielle Clayton). Show me a heroine who doesn’t let the limits of a male-dominated society rule her life or her decisions, instead using every ounce of leverage she has to gain herself agency—high five to Irene from, yes, the Queen’s Thief (Megan Whalen Turner). Show me a heroine who embraces and longs for romantic love, and is still portrayed as someone to be valued and respected—hugs to Molly from The Upside of Unrequited (Becky Albertalli). (Bonus: Lee's Lady's Guide hits all of these targets.)
Listen, I work with a lot of grungy female rangers, and yes, there are one or two who have to be physically pried out of their work boots for a black-tie affair. But the vast majority of them enjoy the chance to put on some makeup and earrings. The vast majority of them enjoy scented candles and wildflowers, eyeliner and nail polish (even if we can’t keep it from chipping for more than a few hours). Let your characters do both. Let them be both. Loft your sweet, stylish girls as heroes in their own right, and allow your rough, rugged warriors to enjoy a gown without burying them in shock, sexism, or snide remarks from their peers. Write women ruling countries and fighting for justice using traditionally feminine outlets—motherhood and emotional fluency and social gatherings and all the pretty trappings. Fight the false dichotomy of masculine = strong and feminine = weak. Bury it. Burn it. It’s a lie.
Great books that do this: Isle of Blood and Stone (Makiia Lucier), The Queen’s Thief series (Megan Whalen Turner), The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy (Mackenzi Lee), The Belles (Dhonielle Clayton)
3. Allow Her to Get Hurt
I realized this on day 19 of Inktober, when I was drawing Inej from Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows after she scorches her hands while climbing up the hot furnace shaft. I love seeing girls get hurt. Not because I’m a masochist, but because it challenges the enduring notion that girls are more delicate and less resilient than boys. It’s also a nice counterpoint to the tendency to cast women in roles of healers and caretakers—my characters included. Mae is an herbalist and Gemma is caring by nature. They also both hurt themselves a lot—neither of them come through the Creatures of Light trilogy unscathed.
This doesn’t mean you have to de-feminize your women or make them unrealistically masculine. One thing I love about Laura Dern’s portrayal of Dr. Ellie Sattler in Jurassic Park is how she chokes up or cries under stress. When she’s running from the raptors on a busted ankle and finally reaches safety, she collapses and straight-out sobs. Girl, I would too! Crying is just a form of stress language, like getting angry or anxious. I’m a crier. Gemma’s a crier. That’s a powerful tool we as writers have—to show crying not as a form of weakness, but as some people’s natural response to stress or injury… and then allowing them to continue on.
Dr. Sattler is great because she’s allowed to get hurt, cry, and power through it. Unfortunately, Crichton wrote another fantastic heroine who didn’t get the same respect in her jump from book to screen. In The Lost World, Dr. Sarah Harding is a go-getter, a field biologist who studies African megafauna. When the tyrannosaurs push the trailers over the cliffs, it’s she who rescues Dr. Malcom, climbing painfully down the interior of the dangling RV with him over her back. She’s injured! It hurts! It’s hard! They’re about to die! But she’s allowed that powerful moment of agency and grit. But in the movie, she’s turned into a damsel in distress, lying against the splintering windshield, panicky and helpless, until Malcom rescues her. Why do that? Why make that change? (That’s rhetorical, I know why.) It would have been just as easy and truer to the book to let Sarah keep that heroic element to her character.
Let your heroine get hurt. Let her struggle through pain and come away with scars. If it meets the needs of your story, give her the chance to show her physical merit, as well as her emotional and mental merit.
Great books that do this: Jurassic Park (Michael Crichton), the Anna Pigeon mysteries (Nevada Barr), Six of Crows (Leigh Bardugo), Children of Blood and Bone (Tomi Adeyemi), Invasive (Chuck Wendig), Nimona (Noelle Stevenson), Isle of Blood and Stone (Makiia Lucier), The Lady's Guide to Petticoats and Piracy (Mackenzi Lee)
4. Elevate Her Skills
If you attended ReadUp and came to the Girl Power panel, you heard me say the phrase “girl in a man’s world” at least four times. My context for that comes from a lot of the books I read as a kid—Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet and Protector of the Small, Riding Freedom (Pam Muñoz Ryan)—they all feature girls doing exceptional things… except that those things are only exceptional because they're girls doing them. Learning to be a knight, a mage, a stagecoach driver… while they’re all accomplishments, in each book there are scads of boys doing the same things. The girls are only the protagonists because they’re girls in a man’s world, trying the same things the boys are.
Don’t get me wrong—I love stories like that. The books I just mentioned had huge roles in my childhood, and their influence still creeps into my writing. And the girls they feature generally have to work harder and achieve more to be considered equal to their male counterparts. But now that I’m writing my own books, I crave heroines that have more going for them than just doing what boys do, only as a girl. I want the heroines I write and read to be the protagonists of their stories because their skills and goals meet the needs of the plot… the same way boys are cast as the protagonists of their stories.
Some of my favorite heroines that accomplish this are written in contemporary mysteries and thrillers. The aforementioned Dr. Ellie Sattler is drawn into the adventure because she’s the paleobotanist on Dr. Grant’s dig team. Ranger Anna Pigeon (Nevada Barr’s national park mysteries) is called on in her capacity as a park ranger, using her training in conservation and law enforcement to hone in on clues and details that don’t make sense. Hannah Stander (Chuck Wendig’s Invasive) is brought in as an FBI agent, and ultimately succeeds because she has skills as a survivalist. All of them are drawn into their stories not because they’re women, but because they have a skillset that’s important to the plot.
This doesn’t mean you have to make your heroines superwomen (unless you’re writing superwomen). Some of my favorite stories show women with realistic limitations, whether in their physical capacity or the way that people view and treat them. The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy does both—Felicity and her companions are frequently hindered by their period-accurate clothes, their mild physical fitness, and the attitudes and actions of the men around them… and yet they still manage to succeed in their journey.
Even Ranger Anna Pigeon has anxiety that sometimes cripples her, and is written off by some colleagues as just a middle-aged meddling lady, particularly when she’s not in uniform. My favorite heroines weather these perceptions and simply press on despite them. As someone who’s been called “sweetheart” just after the guy standing next to me, wearing the same badge and uniform, was addressed as “ranger,” I connect with that on a deep level. Being undervalued and infantilized is just part of daily life for most women. If you’re writing a world with a similar patriarchal structure as ours, allow your heroine to have confidence in her skills despite the naysayers.
Great books that do this: Jurassic Park (Michael Crichton), the Anna Pigeon mysteries (Nevada Barr), Six of Crows (Leigh Bardugo), Children of Blood and Bone (Tomi Adeyemi), Invasive (Chuck Wendig), Nimona (Noelle Stevenson)
5. Allow People to Take her Seriously
On that note, allow the characters around your heroine to have confidence in her skills, too. The first four tips here are ways to write women with agency in a world stacked against them, but writing a next-level heroine can be just as much about writing a next-level world and supporting cast. One thing I love seeing is when characters take heroines seriously, respecting their skills and opinions without second-guessing or making sexist remarks. This can be hard to pinpoint in books and movies because it’s much easier to see instances where it’s done poorly than when it’s done well—when it’s done well, it can be nearly unnoticeable.
Disney has done okay with this recently—in Frozen, Elsa is crowned queen without caveat or question. She doesn’t need a husband or regent to be considered a competent ruler, she just needed to come of age. Everyone from the townspeople to her fellow politicians accept that she’s capable to rule, until she freezes everything (which makes her unfitness about her actions, not her gender). It would have been nice to see other women among the diplomats she interacts with, but it’s a good first step. In Moana, things are similar—while all the chiefs mentioned before Moana are men, nobody questions that she is capable enough to be the next chief. Maui does make some derogatory comments toward her, but they’re all about her age (“I’m not going to Te Fiti with some kid!”), not her gender, save for one or two snide princess remarks.
Unfortunately, it’s more common for books and movies to fall short. One of the reasons The Hobbit movies made me so mad was because every female character had to be saved by a man. Go on, watch The Battle of Five Armies again—every speaking-part woman, from Galadriel to Tauriel to Bard’s daughters, had to be rescued by male characters. That’s how their story arcs culminated. That was their endpoint. Being rescued. Galadriel, an ancient and powerful being with the might of Nenya on her finger, barely got started in Dol Guldur before the rest of the White Council had to come save her, whereas Gandalf is allowed to fight a Balrog and level up in The Two Towers with no assistance. Tauriel, who is given all kinds of lip-service about how great a fighter she is, didn’t even get to kill any of her enemies in battle—she had to be saved twice, first by Hot Dwarf Kili and then old Laser-Eyes Legolas. And Bard’s daughters were saved by their younger brother, who gave us no indication that he had any fighting skills whatsoever. To me, that’s frustrating and degrading. I’m tired of writers hyping up their “strong” women, only for them to end up as glorified rescue items. Rescue stories have their place, but if you’re going to write a warrior woman, take her seriously. Let her do what she or other characters say she can do.
Comics I rage-drew in 2014.
And if you’re not writing a warrior woman, allow the characters around her to respect her regardless. Is your female narrator judgy when she sees a coiffed and manicured woman? Why? Is your male narrator constantly making subjective assessments of the women around him? Why? How do other characters treat your heroine? Do they dismiss her, snark at her, disbelieve her? Why? Does your heroine live up to the hype about her? Why or why not? If all of the above has something to do with her actions or skills, then it can be an avenue for character development. But if it’s only because she’s a woman, consider rewriting the interaction or adding more layers to your protagonists.
Great books that do this: Jurassic Park (Michael Crichton), the Anna Pigeon mysteries (Nevada Barr), Six of Crows (Leigh Bardugo), Nimona (Noelle Stevenson), The Hate U Give (Angie Thomas)
6. Build a Society that Lets Her Thrive
Here’s the thing… we’re writers, right? We can write fiction. We can write fantasy. We can write anything. So what if we did this thing where instead of writing worlds and hierarchies where women are always inferior, we imagine worlds where women can just, like… exist. As equals. With men. Without needing extra qualifiers or protection or skills to be worthy of it.
Some people have a really hard time with this. When I was researching Woodwalker, I came across a forum where people were discussing how to write fantasy where there was no sexism or sexual assault. All the suggestions were variations on magical powers to give women—super strength or lightning bolts or invisibility or flight or presumably the power to transform into inanimate objects least likely to be considered sexual.
Are we serious?
We can imagine fantasy realms with dragons and vampires and talking raccoon pilots with machine guns, but writing a world without sexual assault is too unrealistic?
I hate that. I hate it. I will never not hate it. I don’t have many hills I’m willing to die on (I am very passive about my hills), but this is one of them. No. If I’m creating a new world, you can be damn sure I’m creating a place where I can exist without being considered a sexual object or opportunity.
I understand this isn’t every writer’s cup of tea—many authors I know deal with sexual or physical trauma in their lives by weaving it into their writing, whether it’s creating a character who overcomes what they endured, or highlighting a particular form of abuse or inequality. That’s valid and worthy and I respect it wholeheartedly. But for me, personally, I want it out of my worlds.
I say this having written one of my characters with sexual trauma in her past. That part of Mona’s backstory came about late in the draft of Ashes to Fire. For most of the draft, she was only politically manipulated, not sexually assaulted. Near the end, it didn’t feel like it had enough impact, so I amended it. It’s never sat quite right with me since then. I won’t say I wish I hadn’t written it, because it’s written, and part of me is projected into her struggle. But I can say relatively safely that I’m not going to write something like it again. It doesn’t make sense in the world of Creatures of Light--I was so careful to scrub out other suggestions that women are inherently inferior to men that it stands out, at least to me. And I also think it was lazy—falling back on a reliable standby for a tragic past, the same way I walked into branding Rou and Lyle with the harmful Absent Black Father trope (that one I do wish I could change; I regret that far more than Mona’s backstory).
Some of my favorite books that go about reimagining the power structures in our world are the Queens of Renthia series by Sarah Beth Durst and The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton. Both of these revolve around a magic system that’s controlled and manifested by women. I like reading stories like that, imagining what things would look like if power rested in feminine magic, rather than masculine might. What might we value instead of physical strength and the ability to kill? What would our currency be? Our priorities? The opportunities for worldbuilding are endless.
Ultimately, though, my favorite kind of story is one where there’s simply no imbalance. Where women don’t need magic to be considered untouchable, valued, or respected. My favorite world is a quiet one, an understated one, where equality just is.
Great books that do this: the Queens of Renthia series (Sarah Beth Durst), The Belles (Dhonielle Clayton)
Exciting news--Creatures of Light is a Kindle Monthly Deal! For just a few weeks, you can grab the last book in the Creatures of Light trilogy for 99 cents!
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October Art Roundup
Inktober was the bulk of my work this month, aside from some client work. Below are a few illustrations not featured in the blog above; for all 31 drawings, see my Inktober album on Facebook or my Instagram feed.
Emily B. Martin
Author and Illustrator