A Different Kind of Heroine

So I got into a discussion the other day with pal Mhairi Simpson, trying to get at what the average reader really gets out of 50 Shades and Twilight.  This was a more general discussion, not looking at the terrifying psychological implications (I’ve done that), but trying to see what it is that women truly like about these (because stalker vampire boyfriend and BDSM isn’t it for the general population).  Because we’d love to figure out what that thing is and see if we can tap into that market.

Mhairi made the observation that

…the majority of women don’t want a role model. They want someone they can relate to NOW, but they also want wish-fulfillment in the form of a heroine who gets a relationship where they don’t have to be strong and Do All The Things but the man still loves them beyond reason and is moved to acts of violence and/or extreme passion on their behalf.

I thought it was marvelously insightful, and not something that I, as a woman who really does not relate to non-kick ass heroines, was not likely to make on my own.

So then I mentioned it to Susan and we started brainstorming trying to think of good examples of heroines who fit this bill.  We couldn’t really think of any.  Susan wasn’t sure if this was because that kind of story isn’t really her thing or because it’s very hard to pull off.  I’m inclined to think it’s the latter.

Because, really, it is INCREDIBLY difficult to write a woman who is–not necessarily passive (because I still think no matter what, passivity is something to avoid in our characters), but one who cannot Do All The Things, not only needs help but accepts it (and dare I say, might even ask for it–I don’t know what that’s like, as I’m awful at it), and does not come across simply as a weak, needy female.

In light of Tricia Sullivan’s remark at Eastercon, about finding herself totally excluded from the literature unless she’s a whore, a victim, or a warrior, I am forced to conclude that this type of heroine is a largely ignored opportunity in the literature.  Or, I should say, this type of heroine DONE WELL.  Perhaps I am wrong, and I absolutely open the floor to comments if you know of any examples.  Please share them, as I’m interested in exploring this topic further.

This is not an area I have ever given any thought because I firmly believe that you can never have too many kick-ass, strong women in fiction.  Those stubborn, strong leaders who don’t wait for a man to get them out of trouble, don’t expect anybody to do anything for them, and come hell or high water will figure out how to Do All The Things and Then Some are who I relate to.  Because, hello, that’s me.  And that is a role that many, many modern women are expected to fill, whether it’s their natural inclination or not.

But it is not all women.  And just because a woman does not fit that mold does not make her weak.  And I am ashamed to admit, that’s a bit of a revelation to me.  Part of that is, I think, because all the books I’ve read and movies I’ve seen where women were anything other than strong, they absolutely came across as weak.  And needy.  And often whiny (:cough: Bella :cough:).  And perhaps they grew out of that over the course of the story, but I never found out because the weak, needy, (whiny) that was presented at the beginning ticked me off so much as a reader that I threw it against the wall and never finished.

I confess, I have a VERY hard time trying to wrap my brain around the concept of a woman being okay NOT being strong, capable, and able to Do All The Things.  For me, personally, that’s a state of affairs one aspires to CHANGE.  Because I am independent to a fault and cannot tolerate the idea that I can’t do something.  Tell me “no” and watch me prove you wrong.  My husband is, I think, by turns amused and proud of my capability and independence (and if some family members call that “bull-headedness” on my part, I’ll take that label as a compliment).  I wouldn’t have the first clue what the hell to do with myself if I had one of these portrayed overbearing, dominant men who did everything for me–well, other than straight up housekeeping stuff that nobody really likes doing).

But I am not all women.

So exactly what does this new kind of heroine look like?  The one who isn’t like Buffy, isn’t vampy and oversexed, and isn’t a victim?  The one who may not be obviously strong but isn’t weak?  The one who can’t do everything herself but isn’t needy?  Help me paint a picture, y’all.

13 thoughts on “A Different Kind of Heroine

  1. Oh! I’m so excited you have this post! I’m writing this kind of heroine in my current project. She could go do everything, but opts not to because it’s not the best option available (until it becomes the only option – a book needs conflict!).

    I think the heroine that can ask for help is a highly intelligent woman who is comfortable enough in her own skin and confident enough with her abilities that she’s able to ask for help to fill in the gaps. She knows what she can do, and what she needs, and has no problem asking someone to do what she can’t because she isn’t caught up in some false ideal or mass brainwashing that asking for help is a weakness. She’s a woman who thinks things through, sees a problem, sees a solution, and makes things work. She’s probably a natural leader, someone who takes charge. For her it may not be an issue of asking for help, she’s simply delegating.

    The woman is someone who doesn’t see Do All The Things as a strength, but as a waste of resources. Why should she do it when she has minions for that?

    … I imagine you could write this character as a very evil, cold heroine. Like if the Snow Queen became the protagonist or something. Or you could write as a very wise and loving character. The self-esteem is the key, I think. A heroine who is comfortable asking for help and not Doing All The Things is one whose self-esteem is rock solid, they don’t need anyone’s approval or applause.

    *Note* I’m not picking on you. I’m the same way about Do All The Things.

    1. Well said, Liana. I completely agree.

      I think that a lot of people see strength as having to DO ALL THE THINGS. Guys are the same way. If I can’t do all the things and be strong and capable, I get labeled as weak. Same goes for women. What’s interesting is that true strength is being able to admit that you can’t do it all. My therapist tells me this all the time, but society tells me different.

      I would love to see a character who isn’t about being obnoxiously in the mode of “I’ll Do All the Things and Get Pissed at you if you help”.

      On the flip side, it would be very hard to pull off because that character is not going to generate a lot of tension.

      So maybe, our heroes need to be broken in order to work correctly.

      I don’t know.

      1. This is a true thing, Andrew! I myself definitely don’t get pissed when people offer to help. It’s the my having to ASK that I object to–largely because precedent has indicated that when I do, whoever I’ve asked is probably going to flake and I’ll have to do it anyway, which ticks me off even more than having to ask in the first place.

        But yeah. And you bring up an interesting point of what kinds of conflicts would arise with this kind of heroine. Definitely something to mull over!

    2. Ok I really love this idea you’ve brought up that maybe she CAN do all the things, but why SHOULD she? Because that kind of gives ME pause like…yeah why AM I Doing All The Things instead of delegating some? Oh right, because most of the things I want to delegate, nobody can do for me. But that’s neither here nor there. The idea of recognizing that asking for help does not automatically mean weakness or that you CAN’T do something is another one of those kinds of revelations for me (I seem to be having a lot of those this week). Great comment!
      P.S. We should put in a batch order at Minions R Us.

  2. I love this post, Kait, and I agree with what your commenters have said. I think, as a society, we’ve been conditioned to think that self-sufficiency = good and asking for help = bad. But asking for help is not always bad. Needing someone else — whether because of their strength, intelligence, or particular skillset — is not a sign of weakness. It’s actually a sign of strength and self-awareness, to recognize that you need help and have the courage to ask for it.

    I’m guilty of not asking for help when I need it, determined that I can figure it out on my own, and if I can’t, then something’s wrong with me. I’ve been conditioned to think that the only way a heroine can be kickass is if she, well, kicks ass, literally. But there are so many different kinds of women in the world, and therefore so many different kinds of strength. And maybe one kind of kicking ass is having the presence of mind to ask for help when you need it, or cooperating with a partner who makes you stronger (and who you also make stronger in return). I think this is a harder kind of heroine to write, as you noted, because she can so easily turn passive. But I think it’s a challenge that maybe more of us need to embrace? Because Mhairi is right — we can look up to these superwomen, these Katnisses and Hermiones and Katsas (I’m using kidlit examples because that’s how I roll), but probably more of us actually are like Bella and her ilk. Maybe we just don’t want to admit it. Or maybe we don’t want to admit that Bella has a certain kind of strength as well — maybe she’s not out there kicking ass, and maybe she is overly dependent on the men in her life, but she knows what she wants and fights for it in other ways, relentlessly.

    I don’t know. I think I might be rambling now. But good, important points raised here, Kait! Great post.

    1. Oh absolutely, I love the idea of hero and heroine making each other stronger by sort of filling in the gaps in each other. And I’m very impressed that you were able to get past Bella’s inherent whinyness to point out that she does have a kind of strength (see, I never got past the annoying to find that–warning to anyone to be careful how you present your characters at the START of their arc, so as not to alienate readers).

  3. I have a novella out next year in which the heroine is disabled. She is strong and independent, more than her disability and not a victim of circumstances. However, events lead her to have to rely on someone else, because she can’t defend herself.

    I didn’t set out to write the story like that, nor did I intend to write a Message, but hopefully Amber is a woman that readers can relate to because she can’t Do All The Things (and couldn’t even if she wasn’t in a wheelchair).

    1. I think that kind of heroine (or hero for that matter) is always a challenge and very interesting to read. Because they AREN’T done often. I’ve got a novella in the pipeline where the hero is ex-military. He was wounded seriously on a mission and is now handicapped to the point that he can’t rely on the skills he used to, so it’s a big thing for him to learn to see himself as capable again. Bravo for trying something different!

  4. Different strokes for different folks, I guess. There are so many readers with different tastes, that it seems it’s GOOD to have many different types of heroines…all over the spectrum. An author we both know loves the damsel in distress type of heroine. She’s exactly opposite of what you usually like. It’s that heroine that’s somewhere in between that’s the hardest to write. Speaking from a personal perspective…I like to be ABLE to do all things. But I’m glad my husband can do all things so I don’t have to. I like to be strong, but I want to be weaker with him. I like to have my guns and my knives, but also wear lace and high heels. I may be saying this badly, but there’s a kind of feminine strength that doesn’t always mean kicking someone’s butt…but it means you can if you HAVE to. I hope that wasn’t too much of a ramble….

  5. This is such a cool thing to talk about! 😀

    There are so many different possibilities for a heroine who doesn’t Do All The Things. Rather than a dichotomy of totally strong and totally weak, it’s a spectrum of infinite possibilities. The angle that I’m pursuing with one character is that she thinks that she can Do All The Things, and there are so many things that she *can* do that, the majority of the time, she has at least some kind of success with her goals. The problem is, though, that she’s actually not able to Do All The Things; she just ignores the setbacks and engages in confirmation bias when looking at her successes.

    I think this angle has so much possibility for conflict (internal and external), and I also think it sets up a realistic character with both strengths and flaws while, at the same time, making for a very interesting situation if done right. Personally, this is the kind of character I like to mess with, stretching their paradigm and poking them with things that Just Don’t Fit. And that’s pretty darn fun to write, so I’m sure that it’s fun to read as well. 🙂

  6. She looks like someone many women in real life can relate to. Most of us can’t take out a vamp with our bare hands, but we have an inner strength.

  7. No one’s mentioned Claire Randall Fraser…
    I think maybe this speaks more to how hard it is to write a fully realised well rounded character, and not necessarily something that inherently reflects real women. After all, not all facets of a life are explored in novels, but only, inevitably, snapshots.

  8. You HAVE TO weigh in on the debate Marcia and I are having then. We just posted our own versions of Fifty Shades of Hot? or Fifty Shades Not? And I’m with you all the way! I was more ok with the twilight version (even thought YES Bella was annoying – in fact my bestie and I rather than be Team Edward or Jacob were aiming for Team Bella Needs To Get A Grip), but at least with vampires, it’s fiction. My worry in 50 Shades is that it’s all supposed to be real, be possible. And I’m just not ok with that. Check it out, share your side!


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