Writing strong female characters.

I recently read another blog post regarding the writing of real female characters.  It was a really interesting read, and highlighted the issues that writers face when they attempt to avoid misogyny.  I’m a female writer, and when I set out to write my first published story, I deliberately wrote about a strong female character – one whose story was not dependent on the state of her latest romance, or the way her society defined women.

Why did I do that?  There were a number of reasons.  First of all, I was a tomboy as a kid, growing up in the seventies and eighties.  I hoarded my pocket money to purchase Famous Five books and identified heavily with George – the girl who “was as good as a boy” at everything.  (Nowadays as an adult, I can see the irony in that statement.)  I wanted to be a firefighter, an astronaut, an adventurer…careers that girls were often discouraged from pursuing.  I wanted, more than anything, to seek out adventure and excitement.  Later, as a young adult, living in remote Western Australia, I did have the opportunity to “adventure” – I became a volunteer firefighter, an SES volunteer who specialised in vertical rescue and cyclone operations, and had the opportunity to walk with eight camels and a small group of other human beings close to six hundred kilometres.  It was wonderful.  But even then, I was still considered “different” to other women – sometimes people would even take pictures of the lady fireman driving the truck, or donning breathing apparatus.  My vertical rescue was filmed and featured on ads in Western Australia, and they had me step into the escort position – to demonstrate our unit’s intrepidness in having female volunteers in risky positions.  (Hopefully it might have inspired a few girls!)

Secondly, I grew up in an era, when, for the first time, my generation of women assumed that we had the right to a career and a university education if we wanted one.  We believed that we could achieve this through our intelligence, talents, and skills.  I became a physiotherapist and ventured to remote Western Australia to work.

Thirdly, as the parent of young adults, I’ve watched our children grow up in a world where girls and women appear to have come full circle, and now often base their worth on their weight and their face.  An article I read today cited research that stated that one sixth of women place weight loss as their number one priority in life.  More research suggests that insecurity about body image is the number one problem facing teenage girls in Australia.  This really bothers me.

Shanna, (the main protagonist in Frontier Incursion), is a teen girl, growing up in a society that values men and women equally.  She isn’t concerned with her face or her figure, and picks a career for its excellence, not because it’s suitable for women. I deliberately chose to avoid romance, because so much romance in teen novels devalues women.  I tried hard to make sure that the conflicts that arose were not based on gendered jealousy or triviality.  It was very hard.  It would have been easy to write a romance into the story (and I may still do so if I can do it well), but in that first book, it would have been a distraction from the real story.  

I’ve recently watched “Brave” – featuring Disney’s latest “princess” Merida.  I loved the way that Merida flouted the conventions of princesshood, egged on by her father.  And I loved the way that she was portrayed as a confident, active, adventurous young woman, who did not need to be sold off to a prospective suitor.  (I would have loved to have seen her in a pair of trousers, but that would probably be going too far for Disney).  Merida was inducted into the Disney Princess collection on the eleventh of May this year.  Unfortunately Disney made the ridiculous choice to “glam” Merida’s image up.  You can read what the director of Brave thought about that. 

I was horrified, and happily signed the change.org petition to put pressure on Disney to change her back to the non sexualised, rebel princess that her character really is.  Why is it that corporations feel the need to do this kind of thing to female characters?

I’ve recently been writing the sequel to Frontier Incursion, and even more than before, the challenge of writing Shanna as real, but intelligent, physical, and intrepid, but not the sum of her body parts has been foremost in my mind. 

I’d love girls and young women to be inspired to be the best that they can be without the insecurities of conforming to an increasingly narrow body ideal.  To truly believe that a kind heart, intelligence, skill and integrity are more important than the latest fashion, or the number on the scale.  I’d love to see life saving scientists and doctors lauded more than the latest movie star or pop princess, and women of substance held up as role models to girls and young women.  We know that educating women and girls has a profound effect on society.  We need to remind our young women that they can change the world.

If just one girl realises that she is a wonderful, fabulous person, because she is herself, and not a carbon copy of some unattainable, airbrushed falsehood, then I’m a happy author.

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2 thoughts on “Writing strong female characters.

  1. Your reasons for writing a strong female character are similar to mine. I too avoided romance in my first book and still avoided it for my main character in the second though her friends start to take an interest in boys. I also didn’t want my characters defined even partly by if they could keep a boyfriend and was blasted about it from my beta, both male and female. Reading your posts made me glad that I’m not alone in that endeavor.

    Sure I’ll include romance eventually. It happens. But I never want my leading female character to be defined by it. There are certainly more important things.

  2. Thanks for the comment hollydae. It’s really important to write female characters who are more than just defined by their relationship to a male character. There is so much more to women and girls than that 🙂

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