For an upcoming Book Fair and book signing in the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, I was asked to be part of a panel discussing how authors write strong female characters in today's world. I will be part of a group of extraordinarily talented authors, Marissa Rives, Michelle Cameron, Virginia Cornue, Lori Goldstein, Trisha Leaver, and Linda Lombri, all women, who, in their own ways, have created strong female protagonists.
Though I loved the adventurous gutsy Nancy Drew books, the very first really strong female characters I came across in my childhood reading were Scarlett O'Hara and Melanie Wilkes; women who showed their strength in different ways. As an eleven year-old girl who saw way too many strong women in my own life unhappily acquiesce to men, the characters of the head-strong Scarlett and the gentle woman of inner strength Melanie, were a breath of much-needed fresh air. Their different forms of strength inspired me. Of course I went on to read many other novels with strong, determined female characters. Strong women characters? Should there be any other kind? Not for me. I turned up my nose at simpering, weak, male-dominated women in any book.
Truthfully, writing a strong female character is no more difficult than writing about any characters who can take care of themselves, have a healthy fear of danger but goes forward nonetheless, are the ones to whom other characters turn in times of crisis, and are able to pretty much solve that crisis.
And though women authors have written strong female protagonists successfully in the past, it became so much easier to write about strong women in the 20th century and undoubtedly easier still to write these characters today. The strictures of society aren't as pressing, or even as important, as they were in the past when women were supposed to be docile, quiet, gentle creatures dependent upon a male for advice and just about anything else in life. If a female in any story exhibited what was thought of as "masculine" qualities she was usually written as a "tomboy" rather than as a women who was simply strong. Strength, physical and emotional, was unfeminine. I mean, seriously, it was the height of femininity to "get the vapors" and faint!
Although the self-actualized female who was in charge of things didn't land quite as solidly as a main character in books immediately because society may have been un-used to her, women's fiction today isn't just about romance, gossipy females, and self-sacrificing mothers, wives, and lovers. These characters have their own lives, a set of morals, (some legal and some not-so-legal), and are not so willing to be sacrificial lambs for other characters. There are plenty of great books featuring strong female main characters in compelling stories. I also think having strong females in books is empowering to girls. That pseudo-feminine attribute of acting helpless needs to be kicked, hard, to the curb. . Katniss Everdeen, in The Hunger Games, is a wonderful example of real feminine strength.
Most women readers enjoy a story with a gutsy, savvy female protagonist who is fairly independent because it resonates with some attribute in their own core. And, judging from my email concerning the private investigation adventures of my own character Cate Harlow, men like this "new" type of women too. My publisher, while doing the layout for Cate Harlow's new adventure Grave Misgivings, told me, "Personally I think I would be terribly attracted to Cate........" Hmmmmm!
Strong female characters don't have to have the first three words of this sentence strung together to exist. Just as we assume that all male characters are strong, we should assume the same about female ones. Cate's ex-husband and sometime lover is a tough NYPD homicide detective, yet Cate doesn't depend on him. He knows the dangers inherent in her being a private investigator yet it doesn't cross his mind that she would have any other job. Both characters are strong and it has less than nothing to do with being male or female and more to do with freedom and being people.
In many ways the creation of strong characters who happen to be women is a definite sign of our times. We authors are representing a new reality in society. Women are exhibiting our own strength and fiction is representing that fact.
As Annie Lennox and Aretha Franklin sang:
"Now there was a time when they used to say
That behind every great man there had to be a great woman
Now in these times of change, you know that it's no longer true
So we're comin' out of the kitchen
'Cause there's somethin' we forgot to say to you
We said, "Sisters are doin' it for themselves"
Standin' on their own two feet
And ringin' on their own bells
We said, "Sisters are doin' it for themselves"
I think that pretty much says it all. Keep writing those "gutsy girls!"
Kristen Houghton is the author of 6 top-selling books including the PI series A Cate Harlow Private Investigation. The first in the series FOR I HAVE SINNED is available where all books are sold.
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